short fiction

A Drawbridge into the Meadows

Calogero watched the coruscations of the morning sun on the deep azure sea and thought of his wife’s eyes. The boat plowed through the water beneath his feet, barely rolling in the gentle current, the deep chug of the diesel engine an undertone at the edge of hearing. Calogero, for the moment, was content. Maria and his two girls were behind him; the Capital of the Holy Roman Empire and his work, still well ahead. He felt in his heart that it was safe to put his worries and fears aside for a little while and just feel the warmth of the daystar on his face and smell the briny breeze. A seabird skimmed the waves to his right, the Sicilian coast sliding past beyond. Fittings in the lines slapping the mast above his head rang a ting, ting, ting above the whisper of the waves. A jet’s contrail streaked the sky, silent.

In another life, Calogero thought, he might have been a sailor. He was never happier than when he was on the sea, or in it, or merely in sight of it. The Lord in His wisdom, however, had a different plan for Calogero, or so it seemed. He had been, from an early age, sworn to the service of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. When he had met Maria, when his life had grown roots in the village of Favara, it had gone counter to the road his uncle had laid for him. He spent years, decades of his life making himself his own man, but still, a command was a command. He had asked his cousin Fortunato to take him on his little coastal cargo ship and Fortunato readily agreed, knowing he could always find a cargo in the Capital. And Calogero loved the Emilia.

Soon enough, the coaster rounded the point beneath Monte Gallo and the wind freshened, blowing the curls back from Calogero’s wide brow. He took a deep breath, smelling the salt air, the exhaust of hundreds of ships crisscrossing the Gulf of Palermo, and the oily, smoky tang from the lives of millions in the great city of the Holy Roman Empire. Through the greyish haze that hung over the city, past the cranes of the busy port, Calogero could just see the dome of the great Cathedral, and the Imperial Palace beyond and above it. He knew the great city well after decades in the service of the Order, but he did not love it. Every sin as well as every grace in the fallen world took up residence in its narrow streets and towering buildings.

Fortunato moored the Emilia at the La Cala harbor, and Calogero disembarked into the dockside tumult, almost deafened by the din and the confusion of languages from every corner of Christendom and beyond. Emerging into the midday light of the piazza San Domenico, Calogero mopped at his brow: the sober suit of clothes he wore befitted his business at the Palace, but the dark wool soaked up the midday sun. Merchant’s stalls were set up around the periphery of the square, selling everything from fresh fish caught in the Tyrrhenian to the latest high-tech wonders from the Ottoman Empire. He trudged through the crowded streets, feeling his breath catch in his chest and, at last, entered into the blessed cool of the Palace itself. The marble entrance hall was as hushed and dim as the streets of the city were sun-blasted and clamorous, and after presenting his credentials at the security station Calogero slipped into a public washroom to recompose himself. The washroom attendant smiled as he entered.

“A hot day, Brother, is it not?” the attendant said, in accented but perfectly acceptable Neo-Latin.

Calogero laughed when he caught sight of himself in the washroom mirror. “O, my friend,” he said, “between this woolen suit and my cloak of fat I am well roasted.”

The attendant took Calogero’s jacket and handed him a packet of moist towellettes, with which Calogero began gratefully washing his face and neck. Refreshed, he tipped the attendant a half-ducat and made his way to the bank of elevators that led to the vast intelligence complex beneath the Palace.

The upper levels of the subterranean labyrinth were the demesne of the Order to which Calogero belonged: what the common press referred to as the Knights of Malta, dedicated to the internal security of the Empire. Beneath it, extending into the Earth to a depth that itself was a state secret, was the headquarters of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar. As the Order of Malta was responsible for domestic surveillance, the Templars were the Emperor’s foreign intelligence service. Relations between the two great Orders were strained and formal at best, so it had come as something of a shock that the meeting to which Calogero had been summoned was in the Templar section.

The elevator operator stepped aside as the doors opened on the appointed floor. Even the colors of the walls were oppressive here: as opposed to the offices of Calogero’s own Order, the Templar precincts were dark, heavy with steel and leathern furniture, the halls dark and narrow. A young Templar in military utility dress guided him to a featureless door, pressed a button, and Calogero heard the grind of thick metal bars being slid aside and the door opened just enough to admit a man of less girth than he. At a gesture from the guide, Calogero edged himself awkwardly through the door.

The room was so dark that Calogero could not see its walls. It was like walking into an infinite space, with a bright hidden light illuminating a conference table in the center. Calogero’s superior, the Knight Commander Portius von Albrecht, waved him in absently as a man in Templar uniform spoke softly in highly technical Neo-Latin that was far above Calogero’s level of comprehension. Two other Templars in similarly nondescript uniforms stood listening impassively, as did a tall man with an Order cross on the breast of his suit jacket.

“My Lords,” von Albrecht said when the man had finished, “I present Brother Calogero DiMatteo, a Magistral Chaplain of our Order. He will assist Sir Nicolás in his efforts.”

Calogero bowed his head formally, and the man with the Order cross stepped forward with a crooked half-smile. “Brother chaplain, it does me honor to have your support,” he said in a warm voice. “I am Nicolás ó Donnabháin.” The liquid syllables of his Celtic name stood out against the Neo-Latin as if a window had been opened in the dark room. The Knight stood half a head taller than Calogero, dark hair a shock against his sallow skin. His face was mild, dignified, compassionate.

Commander von Albrecht drew himself up, his brushy white eyebrows knitted in a frown. “Sir Nicolás comes to us from the Maigh Nuad.” Calogero hoped his surprise didn’t show: the national university of the Irish Confederacy was considered to be a hotbed of freethinkers, hardly the sort of people the Knight Commander would approve of. “As an expert in the analysis of electronic communications, he is consulting with our brethren here.”

Calogero nodded. That the Order would have to bring in a borderline heretic to advise the Templars meant that the matter must be serious indeed.

“You are, I trust, aware of the… unpleasant events in Aquileia?”

Dear God in Heaven, was this what the summons was about? “Certainly, Knight Commander. The assassination… it came as a shock.”

“We have reason to believe that the Ottomans were involved.”

Calogero’s heart began to race and his blood sang in his ears. The suspicion had fallen on heretical insurgents, of course, but the possibility of Musulman intrigue had not even occurred to him.

The senior Templar turned and looked at Calogero with a hawklike focus, as if he had some sort of lie-detector behind his eyes. “Our listening post in Istria detected coded radio signals in a directed pattern centered on the city of Aquileia along with very weak replies. The transmissions began a week before the assassination and ceased the very morning that Patriarch Adolf was shot. The source was almost certainly a ship in the Adriatic and the codes used match known Ottoman ciphers.”

Calogero’s mouth had gone dry. If what the man was saying held truth – and, his wariness about Templars aside, there was no reason to assume it did not – then the Empire itself was in peril. “Have we any idea what the messages said?”

“A good question,” said Sir Nicolás. “The cipher remains unbroken, but we have some general sense of the form and content. At least part of the last message, we believe, consisted of geographic coordinates.”

“Sir Nicolás,” von Albrecht said, “proposes to carry out a radio survey in the city of Aquileia to identify the land-side transmitter. He will require an assistant with knowledge of the area who can understand the local vulgar speech. It is my understanding that you have familiar ties to Friulia?”

“Yes, Knight Commander.” Calogero’s uncle had married a Friulan woman from Monfalcone, not far from Aquileia, and Calogero had grown up hearing her odd, clipped dialect.

“You are therefore commanded to accompany Sir Nicolás to Aquileia and to aid him in all matters,” von Albrecht said.

“Yes, Knight Commander.”

“The transmitter,” the Templar said, “may no longer be in Aquileia, the objective having already been accomplished.”

“Nevertheless,” Sir Nicolás said, “there may yet be evidence to uncover.”

The Templar seemed uneasy, Calogero thought. Certainly, one would think that the presence of an Ottoman spy in Christendom would call for the most urgent response, well beyond an Irish academic and an aging Sicilian chaplain. Yet Calogero would do his duty, as he had always done.

“I am at your service,” Calogero said.

As he was being escorted out of the room, Calogero noted the three Templars in hushed communication, with Sir Nicolás standing aside alone.

#

The inter-city train rattled across the Tuscan countryside. Calogero shifted his bag to the rack overhead and opened a window, admitting a rush of hot air which did nothing to ease his discomfort. He leaned into the opening, the arid wind pushing through his sweaty curls. The tracks wound through sere hills, each with a medieval town on top, each with ruined walls that had been built to keep out the Franks, the Vandals, the Alemanni, the Ostrogoths: tribesmen whose descendants would be the nobles of a new Roman Empire. These mountain villages were as flies in amber, little changed from the Middle Ages.

Maria had done so much in her youth to help poor on the peninsula such as these. As a missionary from wealthy Sicily, she was contemned by the locals: castigated as a libertine by the men for going about with a knee-length skirt, and viewed with suspicion and hatred by the women. When Calogero first met her, he himself had just returned from fighting heretics in Silesia. Like most men-at-arms in that conflict, he’d never actually had to fire his rifle at anyone, but he still held himself with a bit of a swagger. Maria had dressed him down in no uncertain terms for his pretension, her violet eyes flashing. Thus began a long courtship, as Calogero struggled mightily to overcome his foolishness while enduring the wind and rain of her withering scorn. In the end, he was a better man, but he often wondered if she’d agreed to marry him more out of exhaustion than ardor.

With a wheeze, the exhausted train pulled into a depot at Castiglion Fiorentino, on the border between the Papal States and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The shabby little town passed slowly by the windows: ancient stone buildings plastered with dust and grime, rutted streets, children and animals running everywhere. A handful of motor vehicles shared the curbside in front of the station with piebald horses and mule carts.

“I did not realise,” Nicolás said softly, “that such conditions persisted in Italy.”

Calogero was briefly dumbfounded. “Such… Oh, you mean the draft animals and things of that nature?” He waved a hand. “It is an embarrassment. The people here are simple fools.”

Nicolás made no reaction, his eyes drawn back to the rustic carts in the filthy piazza.

“Are things so different,” Calogero asked, leaning forward, “in your Hibernia?”

The tall Knight paused before replying, as if to choose his words carefully. “We have more modern technology in Éire,” he said, “though much of that still comes from the Ottomans. But the hand of the Empire fell less heavily there than it did here. We must remember that Italy has never truly been given a chance to develop, not in a thousand years.”

Calogero felt a twinge of shame for his disdain of the Italians. As a Sicilian, he knew he tended to look down his nose at them, but as a Christian and a servant of the Emperor he should do better. He glanced at the tall Hibernian with a new respect and humility.

#

The ancient city of Aquileia sat at the mouth of the river Natisse, edged by lagoons on the northern shore of the Adriatic Sea. Long overshadowed by the Most Serene Republic of Venice to its west, Aquileia was a small, poor ecclesiastical state without even an airport to call its own. When Adolf XXI (of blessed memory) had fallen to that assassin’s bullet, the Patriarchate was already struggling with an economic recession, an epidemic of rat-catcher’s fever and a radical uprising. The spectre of Ottoman involvement in the assassination threatened even deeper chaos, and Calogero felt himself on edge as he descended from the train into the uproar of the Aquileia station.

The streets in every direction around the crumbling station were teeming with every sort of commerce: some wooden stalls, but mostly carts heaped with produce, cheap clothing, secondhand goods. The smell of dung and of garbage fires hung heavily in the air. Above them, the sky was an unbroken expanse of grey, as if a bowl of slate-colored glass had been placed over the Friulan plain. Calogero adjusted the woolen jacket which had seemed so stifling in the southern swelter. Nicolás, as always, seemed relaxed and alert, showing no sign that the weather affected him one way or the other.

A constable in the opera-buffa uniform of the Patriarchal Police was waiting at the curb. He beckoned them and conducted them to his headquarters in a small but well-built automobile of foreign manufacture. There they met Chief Inspector Prelate Ludovico Gerolamo, a self-important man with pretenses of nobility. Though every word he spoke was welcoming and grateful, there was a sneer behind his speech and a narrowness in his eyes which bespoke mistrust.

There was a man in a dark suit in the corner of the office. His hair was combed back severely from his narrow face, forming a widow’s peak that contrasted with his pallid flesh. Nicolás caught Calogero’s eye and tilted his head almost imperceptibly towards the thin man. As unobtrusively as he could, Calogero studied the man as Gerolamo continued to speak. A small device on his collar twinkled, and Calogero saw it was a Preceptor’s Cross. He flashed a look at Nicolás, who glanced down and back up quickly as if to say Not now; we will discuss this later. Calogero, at least, hoped this would be so.

The trunks of radio-frequency equipment arrived from the train, and Calogero and Nicolás were taken to a hostelry designated by the commissariat for visiting police. It was a humble place, little more than a dormitory, but Nicolás settled himself into it as if it were a second home.

“What did-” Calogero began, but Nicolás hushed him with a brusque gesture and a finger to his lips.

“Let us find a loaf of bread and watered wine,” Nicolás said in a voice grown oddly loud, “and refresh ourselves from the long trip.”

They headed out into a leaden afternoon, walking streets that were covered in a fine gray grit among Aquileians who all seemed as monochrome. “One imagines,” Nicolás said in a tone of dry humor, “that the Lord Chief Inspector Prelate keeps close tabs on his guests. I saw at least two and maybe three listening devices hidden in the hostelry, one in our chamber.”

Calogero felt both outrage and chagrin. “I noticed nothing,” he said.

“Of course not,” Nicolás said. “You have the natural assumption that your brother police would not spy on their own. As it happens, I have a more suspicious nature.”

Calogero scowled. “What sort of place is this?” he said.

“The hinterlands are full of such miniature dictatorships,” he said. “They are little changed from the first kingdoms of the German invaders. Did you notice the difference between the neighborhood of the train station and this one?”

“The area around the station was much ruder, yes.”

“It is a common pattern. Where the colony was first planted, there the conditions are better. Where the original inhabitants live, it is as if time had stopped in the days of the conquerors.”

Calogero looked about him at the shops, the automobiles and the people hustling to and fro. Though much poorer than his own Sicily, this part of the city was indeed a world apart from the noise and stink that had greeted them on their arrival.

“And yet,” Calogero said, “this is part of the Empire.”

“It is.” Nicolás strode on, nodding subtly at a passing police vehicle: a gleaming late-model sedan of Ottoman make. “But in many ways, it never stopped being a colony.”

#

When Calogero awoke the next morning, he found that Nicolás had already gone out. He thought perhaps the man had a habit of walking in the morning, and so thought little of it. When he returned, Nicolás said he had gone to a Bohemian café he had discovered in the city center. It was unsurprising that there were Bohemian emigrés in Aquileia, as the eastern part of the Empire had a lot of refugees from there and from other restive states on the periphery. But for a Professed Knight of the Order to visit such an establishment mildly scandalized Calogero. So too were the rough clothes that Sir Nicolás was wearing: Calogero barely recognized him.

“You look,” Calogero said, “like a workman. It hardly befits your state.”

Nicolás nodded. “Such was entirely my intention. Doubtless the news of investigators from the Capital has already spread in the city, but we needn’t advertise our identities as we go about our work.”

“Ah,” Calogero said. Nicolás had told him to pack working clothes.  “You are about to suggest that I go out in work clothes as well?”

“If you please.”

Calogero obeyed quietly, though he was unable to hide the hint of a scowl. He didn’t much care for being seen as a roughneck, even though – or, perhaps, because – he knew no one in this city. And while he knew that the pride he had in the dignity of his position was sinful, it still stung a little bit when he traded his good woolen suit for a laborer’s cotton duck.

They went out to a tall building near the city center that Nicolás had pointed out the day before. Calogero made some inquiries and found the office of the building’s manager, an officious little man with a waxed mustache behind a desk piled high with papers, coffee-cups filled with butts of cigarettes and oddments of plumbing and electrical fixtures. Calogero spoke haltingly with the manager in the local dialect, presenting himself as a radioman and asking to place an antenna on the roof of the building. The manager demanded an exorbitantly high roof-rent, Calogero haggled aggressively, and settled on a number that was merely absurd.

They climbed flight after flight of stairs, the trunk of radio gear carried between them, up to an attic with a rusty ladder to a hatch in the ceiling. There Calogero unpacked cases of equipment with and uncoiled an extension cord. Nicolás climbed the ladder and Calogero passed the gear up to him, incomprehensible devices clearly of Ottoman manufacture. On the roof wan sunlight illuminated the thicket of television antennas and water tanks. Nicolás extended a telescoping antenna and affixed it to a parapet wall.

The process repeated at another building in the city, and then Nicolás hired a car to take them into the hinterland, to a rough structure of cinderblock with a large aluminum grain bin on its roof. They installed the gear and then sat, sharing a mid-afternoon coffee from a thermos the driver had brought.

“What are we waiting for?” Calogero was none too taken with the drab northern village, and the day had grown chilly with a brisk wind picking up.

“There is one more meeting I have to take,” Nicolás said enigmatically, sipping at a plastic cup filled with vile instant coffee.

Calogero glanced around them at the unpaved streets littered with debris and hardly a person about. He coughed, feeling the twinge in his chest that had been coming more and more frequently. He thought of Maria, how she worried over him, and how much of a better Christian she was than he, sharp tongue and all. A melancholy grew in his heart, and he swallowed the tepid, vile coffee morosely.

Soon a man arrived on a motor-scooter, helmetless, wearing a weathered canvas jacket over worker’s coveralls. He approached Nicolás and asked something in heavily accented dialect. Nicolás reached into a pocket and pulled out a fresh packet of cigarettes, surprising Calogero, who had been convinced Nicolás neither smoked nor understood the local speech. The man then shifted to a sibilant, Eastern-sounding language and Nicolás answered him in the same tongue.

The man suddenly broke and ran. Two unmarked, drab tan sedans roared up to the grain bin in a cloud of dust and four uniformed police piled out, hands on pistols. Calogero and Nicolás were seized by the men, and Nicolás was oddly passive, taking a seat in the back of one of the cars as if he was merely taking a taxi, despite the manacles on his wrists. The driver looked miserable and protested his innocence in a low, wheedling voice.

“What is the meaning of this?” Calogero cried in Neo-Latin. He received a venomous look and a cuff on the head from the larger of the two men restraining him, who spat nearly-incomprehensible phrases at him in guttural dialect. The most he was able to decode of the tirade was something about “consorting with revolters.”

#

They were taken to the police headquarters, and thence to the palace of the Patriarch, a hoary rockpile opposite the Basilica. There, they were led down a narrow passageway to what could only be described as a dungeon, though clearly in more recent usage a root-cellar. The police left Calogero and Nicolás in a dank cubicle lit by only a bare bulb. They sat opposite each other on thin pallets.

“Well,” Calogero said, “what was that about?”

“It may have had something to do with the Bohemian gentleman I met. Either he was under surveillance by the local constabulary, or we were, or both.”

“Who was that man? And what tongue were you speaking with him? You seemed quite fluent.”

Nicolás regarded Calogero placidly. “Shall I answer the first, or the second?”

“Both, if you would.”

“Very well,” Nicolás said, folding his hands in his lap. “As to the language, I became fluent in the Bohemic tongue while I was stationed in Prague during the heretic mutiny some years back. My mission was to infiltrate a Hussite insurgent group and disrupt their activities. I saw… and did… many horrific things.” He grew silent.

“I understand that it was,” Calogero offered after a few breaths, “an extremely bloody rebellion.”

“It was,” Nicolás said softly. “It was, indeed. And not all of the bloodshed was down to the rebels. I myself – and others of our Order – dynamited churches, took and executed hostages, poisoned grain…” He took a breath, and started again. “It was the end of my career as a field agent. After I returned from Bohemia I tried to submit my resignation, but as you know there is no release from a vow to serve the Sovereign Military Order.” He chuckled, softly, but with such a wrathful tone that Calogero nearly recoiled. “I was allowed to enter academic life, but I am still under command. They know that they cannot return me to such butchers’ work, however.”

Nicolás still wore an impassive expression, but Calogero now noticed the lines on his brow and to the sides of his mouth, deeply cut with old pain. “At least,” Calogero said, “the mutiny eventually came to an end.”

“Yes.” Nicolás breathed a heavy sigh. “Insurgents that were not killed or imprisoned went on the run. Today I met one of those.”

“To what end?” Calogero felt a sense of foreboding. “What would Bohemian rebels have to do with our business here? Are they in league with the Ottomans?”

“Not entirely. The Ottomans supported groups like the Hussites to exploit and widen divisions within the Empire, and to spread… unorthodox ideas. But they seldom arm rebel groups: open warfare within the Empire is not to their advantage. Certainly, to kill an ecclesiastical ruler would be a drastic break with their usual policy. No, I think the goal here was much more subversion than assassination, and the natural vehicle for that would be the Bohemian emigre communities. As, I am sure, our hosts are well-aware.”

He gestured to the ceiling, reminding Calogero that the cell was almost certainly bugged. His mind was full of questions, but the thought of being recorded abashed Calogero. Suddenly, he felt a warning spasm in this throat and sucked in air just as a spate of uncontrollable coughing overtook him. It felt as if he was being punched and kicked to the chest, again and again. His vision began to go gray just as the spasm subsided. He sat, panting shallowly, dimly realizing Nicolás was by his side gently patting his back.

Calogero lowered his hands and was startled to see how much blood was there. He had occasionally been seeing red in his sputum, small drops easily hidden from Maria’s growing concern, but nothing like this. Nicolás turned to face him, a question in his eyes.

“It is cancer,” Calogero said. He smiled wanly and swallowed, tasting old iron. “The doctor warned me that travel might worsen my symptoms.”

“And yet…”

“And yet, I came.” Calogero took a cloth from his bag and wiped his hands and lips. “I choose to live my life as I have always lived it. I’m dying? So what, I am dying. All men are born to die, it’s simply a more immediate matter for me.”

Nicolás held his gaze on Calogero’s face, and nodded. “How long?”

“What do they know?” Calogero said, shrugging expansively.  A year, a month, next week. I will be alive until I am dead.”

Nicolás shook his head. “There are doctors, specialists in…”

Calogero held up a hand. “Please, Sir Nicolás, no. I watched my brother spend the last nine wretched months of his life imprisoned in a hospital, skewered with needles and demented with morphia. I will go with some grace to the end of my days.”

Nicolás passed a hand over his eyes. “How old are you, brother chaplain?”

“Five and fifty.”

He muttered something under his breath, something in his native tongue that sounded to Calogero like an oath, as a knock came upon the door of their cell. A carabineer told them to follow, and brought them upstairs to an office the size of a city apartment, decorated tastefully in a modern style. It felt to Calogero like he had moved through time from the medieval dungeon to this sleek chamber. Seated at the desk was a whip-thin man in a silk suit, his pale hair razor-cut, his eyes clear and avid.

“My lords Knights.” The man spoke in an imperious tone, his Neo-Latin polished and perfect. “I must ask your forgiveness for your rough treatment at the hands of the police. My name is Meino Beringer, and I am the Patriarch’s administrator.”

And the ruler of Aquileia, thought Calogero, at least until Adolf’s son came of age. “I beg your pardon, Excellency: I am Brother Calogero DiMatteo, a mere Magistral Chaplain. I am here only to assist this Professed Knight of our Order, Sir Nicolás ó Donnabháin.” Nicolás nodded his head in a short bow, and Calogero hoped he had not made a hash of the pronunciation.

“Sir Nicolás.” Beringer rose and shook his hand, then Calogero’s. He was equal in height to Nicolás, but loomed over Calogero as he spoke. “One hopes we can dispense with our business quickly. While we welcome the assistance of the Order of Malta, we are in the midst of an uprising that has claimed the life of our beloved Patriarch and several concurrent investigations are underway. And,” he added, his tone darkening, “I remind you that we do rule this territory with immediate comital rights from the hand of the Emperor Himself. We revoke your permit and command you to return at once to the Capital.”

“Excellency,” Nicolás said placatingly, “we apologize for overstepping our remit. I am a curious man by nature, you see. When clues appear, my habit is to follow them.”

“When clues appeared,” Beringer said, “you ought to have reported them to the Chief Instructor Prelate.”

“Of course, Excellency.”

“The Order must recognize that it is subject to the laws of the State in which it operates. It is not above them.”

“I assure you that we do so recognize, Excellency.”

“Then return to your accommodation.” The man swept back behind his desk, clearly indicating the end of the interview. “Leave the investigation to the legally-constituted authority.”

“Yes, Excellency.”

They were shown out by the same carabineer who had brought them from the dungeon. In the office’s anteroom was another carabineer in formal uniform and the same thin man who had lurked silently in the police headquarters on their arrival.

#

Sir Nicolás, unsurprisingly, had little interest in following commands.

Calogero barely stirred from sleep as Nicolás woke an hour before the first light of dawn and dressed quickly. As Nicolás slipped quietly out the door, Calogero opened his eyes, catching sight only of the backs of his heels passing the threshold.

A moment’s irritation kept him in the bed. Calogero had not asked to be sent to such a backwater. And he had not sought, with his death a much less distant certainty, to be the minder of a reckless Celt. He tossed restlessly, bitter in a way he hadn’t been in years. His position, his years of upright probity, had earned him no more respect within the Order than to be treated as an errand-boy. This was time he should be spending with the woman who held his heart in thrall, the woman of whose love he had finally felt himself worthy. What would she have made of the Professed Knights behavior?

He smiled wryly to himself when he realized how she would have delighted incurring the wrath of the local monocrat. How pure would have been her outrage, how her violet eyes would flash at this man who seemed more interested in protecting his own perquisites than in catching the killer of his predecessor!

Calogero sat up. Beringer had Templar support. The Templars were the ones alleging Ottoman culpability in the assassination. And they were trying to dissuade Sir Nicolás from pursuing any other lead.

Cursing his slow wits, Calogero summed two and two in his head to arrive at four. Beringer and the Templars weren’t searching for the killer because they already knew who it was.

Calogero imagined Nicolás had received a signal and decided to go there. If so, he would need some help: even, Calogero thought, what small assistance he himself could render. He padded in his night-clothes over to the table where Nicolás had set up the monitoring equipment. The controls were all labeled in swirling Ottoman, of which Calogero could make neither heads nor tails. He tried to remember what Nicolás had shown him and managed at length to find the power switch.

The device came to life with a low hum. On the dark green glass of the display a compass rose had been painted in white. A phosphorus line began to glow on the display, pointing north, and glowing numbers – all zeroes – appeared to one side.

So there was still no signal. Nicolás had sat staring at the screen for hours as Calogero grew more and more tired; he had volunteered a morning shift before succumbing to sleep, and the last thing he saw was the tall Knight hunched over the display in the dim light of a table lamp.

The device suddenly came to life, the line shifting around the compass rose and the Arabic numbers along the side rapidly increasing. It settled with the line to the north-northeast and the numbers around 2300. Nicolás had explained that the device gave the direction and distance, in Ottoman feet, to the transmitter. Calogero searched through their gear for the street map of the city of Aquileia. He started to measure 2300 feet by the scale on the map’s legend, before remembering that the Ottoman foot was somewhat larger… was it one and a quarter times that of the Imperial foot? It would have to do. He hurriedly did computations on a slip of paper and measured along the heading indicated by the device, and noted a small mark in pen drawn on the Via Patriarca Wolfgang III.

Calogero raised his head, realizing fully for the first time what he was preparing to do: defying a lawful order, putting his safety and his reputation in the hands of a near-stranger. What seemed the most surprising to Calogero was how little it discomfited him. His duty – his higher duty – seemed clear.

#

He crept along the dark street as the sky turned pale. The warehouse closest to the pen-mark on the map was dark and barred from the inside. Calogero walked slowly around the front and found an alleyway along one side. Behind a fence was a door that looked worn and grey with slivers of blue paint still visible. he slipped around the fence, and pushed on the door. It moved a little on the bottom but remained stuck at the top: unlocked, merely swollen shut. He leaned harder with a shoulder against the wood and it opened onto a dark hallway. He heard voices within.

Moving slowly, as he had no talent for stealth, Calogero approached the voices. One of them was almost certainly that of Nicolás but the other was soft, higher in pitch. Perhaps a woman? Calogero paused at a corner where the hallway joined another and listened for a bit. He heard no other voices and no sounds from elsewhere in the building, so he stepped forward, heart in his throat.

The voices came from an office on the left. Calogero turned into the doorway and saw Nicolás with a woman of about medium height, who drew a pistol from her waist with remarkable alacrity and trained it upon him. Calogero raised his hands, palms open, staring directly down the barrel of the sleek weapon. It was an Ottoman pistol, if Calogero didn’t miss his guess. She uttered a sharp phrase in what he assumed was the Bohemic tongue, and Nicolás spoke softly to her, placatingly. She relaxed fractionally but did not lower the weapon.

“What are you doing here?” she asked in passable Neo-Latin.

“I…” Calogero felt more than a bit the fool. “I thought my colleague would need my help.”

“It was rude of me to leave,” Nicolás said. “How did you find this place?”

“The device…” Calogero stammered. “It.. it gave a reading…”

Nicolás and the woman shared a look. “You did not,” Nicolás said.

“Yes, I used the radio!” she cried. “I did not know that you could be trusted! And now…”

“You can trust this man as much as you can trust me.” Nicolás turned to Calogero. “He is no defender of this regime.”

“I am not,” Calogero said. “Now may I put my arms down? They grow weary.”

She shrugged and lowered the weapon.

“Thank you. Nicolás, what is happening here.”

He sighed and leaned back against a well-worn desk. “Things… things are not as they seem in Aquileia.”

“That, I gathered.”

“Katka, I present brother Calogero DiMatteo of the Order of Malta. Brother chaplain, this is Miss Kateřina Moravec, late of Prague, and currently of the Friulan League.”

“Nico!” she cried.

“It is all right.”

“Is it?” Calogero folded his arms. “The tyrant in the Palace wishes us gone because of the investigations which have led us here. There is obviously something he does not want found, and we have found it. Mistress, you are in danger.”

Nicolás – ‘Nico!’ – smiled crookedly. “Do you see?” He caressed her flank in an intimate way, and Calogero felt the beginnings of a blush on his cheeks as Nicolás turned to him. “Katka and I became… acquainted during my time in Bohemia.”

The woman looked at Calogero. “My organization had nothing to do with the assassination. You must believe that.”

Calogero’s face softened. “I do,” he said. “Surprisingly, I suppose – even to myself – I do. But, then, who did it? The tyrant Beringer?”

“It is more likely than not,” Nicolás said. “He is, after all, the one who most benefits.”

Kateřina slumped into a chair. She looked as one to whom sleep had long been a stranger. “Adolf was weak and malleable,” she said, “and the son is even more biddable. His aim was mainly to turn the people against us. We have long been working in secret, providing medical care, food aid, and education.”

“Provided by the Ottomans.” Calogero’s tone was mild, but direct.

“Yes, to some extent,” Kateřina said, “but we are not agents of the Sultan, chaplain. We are trying to bring the light of civilization into Christendom. Do you realize that there is no malaria in the Ottoman lands? That there are electronic computers and ships in orbit around the Earth? That women in the Ottoman states are doctors, own companies, that they sit in the Grand Assembly?”

Calogero realized that he, in fact, didn’t know any these things. It was the open secret of the Empire that it ran on Ottoman high technology, but it had never occurred to him to think about how the lives of the people outside of Christendom might be entirely different. And it made him feel an odd sort of shame mixed with anger. “I didn’t,” he said.

“Very few people do.” Kateřina reached over to the desk and brought out a small book. “We had these books printed by a press in Cairo. Radio waves can be jammed, but a book can be easily hidden and can be carried from place to place.  The ship came in on the day of the assassination.”

Calogero took the book in his hands. Its durable cover was blank, made of some kind of heavy, flexible plastic. On the first page were printed the Neo-Latin words A Better World Is Possible. The chapter headings spoke of science, technology, free speech and human rights. It was small enough to fit in a pocket. Calogero held it, lightly, as if it was a sort of bomb that could explode not once but again and again as it passed from hand to hand.

“How-” he began, just as a loud crash came from the front of the warehouse. Men began shouting and Calogero heard the sound of many booted feet. Before he could even gather his thoughts to run, the police and carabineers were upon them. The shot rang out so close to Calogero’s head that he was immediately deafened. After Kateřina fell, he slowly realized that the horror on the wall behind her had been the inside of her skull. He grew faint, but before he could slide from his feet, he felt his arms grasped roughly from behind.

#

The interrogation was long, but neither Calogero nor Nicolás spoke a word to the tyrant’s men. When the Knight Commander arrived from Palermo, it came almost as a relief to see his enraged face. The subsequent interview, held in the privacy of their room at the hostelry, was less harsh but little more pleasant. Nicolás omitted most of the detail about Kateřina, and Calogero followed his lead. Ultimately, he was commanded to return under guard on the next day’s train in order to face discipline at the Capital, and Nicolás was to be repatriated to Hibernia. But they were released at the end of the day.

Beringer’s men, along with a significant Templar detachment, were said to be frantically searching for a large stockpile of something, about which nothing more was known. Nicolás, for his part, knew exactly where it could be found, and described its location in some detail to Calogero before being transported to the airport.

After the Knight Commander, the police, the carabineers and the Templars were all gone, Calogero stepped out into the cool evening. He strolled several blocks, until he found a public telephone in working order, and dialed a number from memory.

Of course, Fortunato said, he could have the Emilia sail up to Aquileia and collect a consignment. His cousin asked no questions.

Calogero replaced the receiver on the hook and smiled.


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