If the chamber maid at the inn hadn’t possessed such delectable lips, Hugh of Essex would have stayed at the abandoned farm and finished his dissection before midnight.
Instead, he’d returned to the inn and only arose from the stained, sweat-soaked bed a half-hour before sunrise. It had been a glorious night, but the work ahead excited him almost as much.
Glancing down at the snoring Yvonne, Hugh donned his breeches, threadbare shirt, sword belt and boots. The cobbler’s patch on the sole had worn through and Hugh winced at the feel of the cold floor through his sock. A shame the quest for truth doesn’t pay better, isn’t it? But Edgar was right, there is no path as satisfying as the path of learning.
Fortunately, he’d calculated the coordinates of the farmhouse, relative to the inn, when he’d left the body there. Now he closed his eyes, visualizing the relationship between them on an axis running through what some of the Brotherhood called a “fourth dimension.” He took two quick steps along the axis, felt the cold early-morning wind blow over him and opened his eyes. He stood a yard from the doorway of the ramshackle building, with the body waiting for him inside. The way the man died wheezing yesterday, I may be able to learn much from his lungs. Perhaps the breakthrough in the study of death that we’ve been seeking for so long!
Hugh saw someone move inside the doorway, drew his rapier, then the stranger unhooded a lantern and light stabbed into Hugh’s eyes. He raised his forearm to shield them, heard more footsteps on all sides, and swung, half-blind at what looked like the shadow of a man. The man cried out, then something hard smashed down on Hugh’s wrist. His hand released his sword,, then sharp-edged steel pressed against his throat.
“Cartesian heretic!” Out of the darkness, someone slapped him; knowing himself helpless, Hugh made no response. “Defiling an innocent man’s body for your blasphemous rituals—but now you’ll pay for your crimes!”
“I did nothing blasphemous.” The man had spoken in French, so Hugh responded in that tongue. His only hope was to buy time until his head cleared enough to walk the axes again. “I only studied the body’s organs—”
“Dissection is a crime against the state! And against God when practiced in the service of Descartes’ heresies.”
Hugh had regained enough sight to make out the man, now: A Catholic priest, glaring at him from behind spectacles. “Father, I know nothing of blasphemy or Descartes—” Another slap silenced him. It seems talking my way out of this will not be possible. “Since you believe otherwise, why do I live?”
“The church would prefer to see you burn publicly,” the priest replied, “as a warning to your sodomitic brethren. You’ll have a chance to defend yourself before the Inquisition first.”
Hugh knew that was no chance at all. But it meant imprisonment, which meant possibly time for escape. With a melodramatic sigh, he nodded and bowed to the priest.
The blow to his skull took him by surprise. As a rain of fists drove him into unconsciousness, he wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.
Lying aching on the cold floor of his cell, Hugh wished for the hundredth time that he’d had the money to travel on to Vienna or Sweden. But instead I leave England and wind up stranded in France, the most Papist, superstition-riddled country in Europe.
In Vienna, René Descartes’ logical proof of the existence of God had been celebrated as a work of genius. In France, the mere suggestion that Holy Writ and the Church could benefit from the support of logic was blasphemy.
It would be different, Hugh knew, if Descartes had completed his grand vision of applying reason to the human body, of fathoming the defects that kept modern man from living as long as Methuselah. Or if Hugh and the other Cartesian initiates could accomplish the same, putting an end to illness and age. Even the Pope would kneel to us if we could guarantee a few hundred years’ more lifespan!
None of them had Descartes’ genius, however. Initiates could heal their own minor injuries, as Hugh had done with the bruises and cuts from his beating, but only because the Brotherhood trained them rigorously in the logic of the process and the knowledge of the body.
And of course, healing myself doesn’t unlock doors. He could walk out through the fourth dimension, but that would confirm the rumors Cartesians practiced sorcery. It was why the Brotherhood banned the use of the axes in such situations. Edgar went to the pyre rather than forsake his oath, but do I have that courage?
“My lady!” The priest’s voice from the far end of the corridor broke into Hugh’s reverie. “You cannot speak with this heretic!”
“Do you dare to tell me what I can and cannot do?” The proud, hard voice—female, interestingly enough—silenced the man. “Show him to me, Father Moncrief.”
Hugh clutched the bars of his cell door, pressed his face between them, but couldn’t make out the speakers, though he heard footsteps. He glanced down at his raiment and grimaced. Not the best of first impressions, but if my tongue hasn’t lost its charm--
“You.” The woman strode into the light of the torch burning feebly on the opposite wall. She was pleasingly plump, with intense blue eyes and a strong, sharp chin. She wore a gown of fine blue samite, laced with gold thread, a silver crucifix resting on her breast. “You are the Cartesian?”
“I have need of your services. You can come with me or rot in your cell until they burn you.”
“This man is an enemy of God!” The priest gesticulated angrily, hands waving like a swarm of bees. “A prisoner of the church, you cannot—”
“You know whose envoy I am?” The priest’s arms froze. “Does the Bishop know you’ve captured this man?”
“I was about to send a message—”
“Let the message say that he slipped your grasp.” The woman smiled insincerely and drew a small, bulging bag from her reticule. “I realize that might hurt your standing in the church, but I’m sure if you give a donation to the Bishop—?”
“A—a donation?” The priest tugged the strings on the bag and his eyes bulged at whatever he saw inside. “Yes … for the bishop. Of course.”
“And here.” She slapped three gold coins into his palm. “Your guards will doubtless need to make donations of their own.”
“Captain Mallon.” The priest glanced down the corridor. His face looked positively tormented, but his voice was firm. “Would you please release our prisoner to her ladyship’s custody?”
Hugh realized his willingness to offer his services was taken as a given by all concerned. Well, why not? He admired the woman’s ample curves with a smile. And even if her ladyship is uninterested in me dipping my wick, she’ll have maids ….
Clad in fresh woolen clothes and new boots, Hugh followed the footman down the stairs of the old manor house. He marked the faded paint on the banister, the moth-eaten tapestries and dust on the oak furniture as they passed; it was a house of wealth, but one that saw little use.
He’d thought about leaving. He felt quite certain whatever service the woman required would be inappropriate for a Cartesian scholar. Yet he felt curious too; the long ride to the country house had passed without a word, not even her name or rank. Nobles mention that first of all, to put us common folk in our place. So who is she?
As he took his seat opposite her at the small dining table, her expression grew dark. “Do not assume that because I saved your life, I have any use for your heresies, either as a Cartesian or a Puritan.”
“I’m Protestant but no Puritan, though I was raised as one.” Hugh wondered how she knew. “And Cartesians are no heretics. We only ask that Christian doctrine withstand the light of reason.”
“You require proof of the truth of scripture as if Holy Writ were some mathematical theorem.” She said it with the contempt only a devout Papist could muster.
“If we prove it true, then its authority is all the greater.” A footman set down platters of cold chicken and ham. Hugh’s mouth watered. “Just as Descartes confirmed the existence of the Almighty through reason—“
“And when was that ever in doubt?” She leaned back, studying him, as the man poured wine and set chicken on her plate. “Why does a man who ruts with serving maids join the Cartesian Brotherhood?”
“What has one to do with the other? We’re not a monastic order.”
“Yet you are sodomites, so why—”
“The charges of sodomy are a lie!” Hugh snapped. “So are the charges of witchcraft, Baphomet worship, the black mass—”
“Some would say the power to cross the fourth dimension is witchcraft of the highest order.”
“All witchcraft comes from the devil,” Hugh said quickly, to cover his surprise that she knew of that skill. “The—the theoretical possibility you speak of—” The woman only smiled mockingly. “—would be a matter of applying logic to the dimensions of time and space, nothing more.”
Hunger won out over the urge to prove his position, and he shoveled ham into his mouth, followed by a chunk of bread. “When you finish your gluttony,” the woman said, “I would like an answer. Why does a duelist become a Cartesian?”
“You know much of my history.” She said nothing. “My parents taught me to read that I could understand the truth of the Bible, but to me it seemed nothing but a hodge-podge of impossible stories. I grew up—”
“Dissolute. Godless. Violent. You’ve slain a dozen men or more, have you not?”
“Only eight.” She looked skeptical. “One night, leaving a house of ill fame, I encountered a fellow of scholarly mien. I thought to amuse myself by humiliating him with questions and banter, but he answered my every mocking question as if it had been sober and thoughtful. I began to sense …” That my easy platitudes, my cynical views, were not the be-all of existence. “That there was more to life than I’d imagined. Within the week, I was Edgar’s apprentice in the Brotherhood. It was he who taught me that questioning church, state, even God is not rebellion against the Almighty but the wise use of the mind He gave us.”
“How delightful for you to discover a philosophy that sanctioned your godless ways.” Even as she sneered, the woman snapped her fingers and the footman handed Hugh a snuffbox. “I think tobacco will sharpen your wits. I imagine a wandering scholar cannot afford much.” “I haven’t had a full pipe of tobacco in more than a month.” Hugh put a pinch of snuff on the side of his hand, inhaled, felt the sharp spike in his spirits. “How did you learn of my past, milady? I originally assumed you’d heard of a captured Cartesian, but to know so much—”
“I’ve been searching for you ever since you killed Guillaime the Red in Normandy.” She accepted the snuffbox from the footman and took a pinch herself. “What do you know of calculus?”
“The mathematical theories of Newton and Leibniz?” Hugh shook his head. “I’m excellent with arithmetic, algebra, and of course, geometry, but their genius is beyond me. The study of medicine demands far more of my time.”
“So you have never heard of Leibniz’ theory of a universal calculus?”
“I assume calculus is universal, like all mathematics.” From the tension in her body, Hugh could tell this topic was the crux of the matter. “Two plus two equals four, not sometimes, but every time.”
“Leibniz believed that through calculus, he could capture the principles of the original tongue spoken in Eden, in the days before our ancestors were driven from the Garden. A tongue mankind’s fallen souls are no longer pure enough to speak. So pure a tongue that it can utter only truth; if we were to attempt a lie, or a false piece of reasoning, the words would turn against us and force us to state only truth.”
“Such a tale sounds fabulous to me, milady.” If such a tool for reason existed, would not Descartes have divined it first? “Unless Leibniz could offer logic to prove his theories.”
“He did more than that. He drafted a schemata for recreating the first tongue mathematically, creating a system of logic in which error was impossible. Had he lived a few more years, he might well have completed his work.”
“Now—” Her fingers knotted and unknotted nervously, apparently without her awareness. “Now his theories have fallen into hands wise enough to complete his work—but if he succeeds, it will be a perversion of Leibniz’ dream. A way to present illogic and falsehood as flawless reasoning, so obviously true that his words will be as unquestioned as when the Pope speaks ex cathedra.”
“And whose hands are these?” Hugh forbore pointing out that the Pope’s decrees hardly went unquestioned in much of Europe. “Who is it you wish me to slay for you? One of Europe’s monarchs? Some critic of the pope?”
“One who is both, yet more terrible than either.” The woman’s right hand clutched her crucifix so tightly that it turned white in the candlelight. “One whom I once loved, and now must bid you destroy.
“I want you to slay the Man in the Iron Mask.”
Three nights later, Hugh inhaled a pinch of snuff and stared out of the small cottage window at the stony prison walls of Saint-Marguerite. Home, if his new employer were to be believed, of the iron-masked macchiavel she would have him slay.
“What if you cannot kill him with a sword?” Madame, as he’d taken to calling her, said from behind him. “Since you told me of your research on the body, I have realized that if you could you use your knowledge to cripple him or—“
“Nothing in my studies makes that possible!” He whirled on her in anger. “We do not even study such things—our goal is to enrich human life, not to destroy it!” The fury he heard in his words surprised him. What happened to that cynical youth I once was?
“If you have some fool notion of an honorable duel, remember the power of the calculus. By holding the mathematical expression of his argument within his mind, it will enable him to make any falsehood he speaks seem as purest reason.”
“You seem to have kept your reason intact.”
“I rely on faith. A faith so strong, no lies can chip away at the edifice.”
Hugh felt sure that no inconvenient truth would chip away at it either, but he said nothing.
“As I told you,” Madame went on, “the fortress the Sun King intended for the Iron Mask’s prison is now his domain: All within obey him. He has mastered a hundred black arts, the alchemy of Paracelsus, even the skills of your own order—”
“Impossible! We are sworn to keep them secret unto death!”
“Yet you have seen I know them well.” Hugh nodded. “Five years ago, the Vicomte de Serigny—”
“My master spoke of him. A prominent scholar before his disappearance.”
“The Inquisition sought him for his heresy, his creditors for his great debts. My former lover took him in, learned all he could teach … and when the Vicomte began to doubt my lover’s plans, had him poisoned.”
“And those plans are?” Hugh studied the prison’s thick walls, wondering if Madame had exaggerated her masked lover’s abilities. He fervently hoped so. “Who is it behind that iron mask? Rumors say the king imprisoned a former minister, or that he had twin sons—”
“I know not who he is nor how he offended against the throne.” Her tone was too deliberately offhand for Hugh to believe her words. “When I met him he was already sealed within the mask; I know only that King Louis was reluctant to slay him until it was … too late. My lover’s influence, through wealth, cunning and arcane knowledge, extends too far to be restrained, as you saw when I freed you.
“His goal is simple—the destruction of God’s holy church. Once the Catholic Church falls, no-one alive will be able to resist the twisted logic of the calculus.”
“Do you think Protestants have no faith? What faith did those Popes display who took concubines, or fled Rome to wallow in sin at Avignon?”
“False popes.” She spat out the words. “Agents of the devil.”
“If one pope can be false, why trust any of them?”
“You might as well say that if one woman is false, why trust any of them?”
“Which is what I do say, Madame.”
She scowled. “If my lover triumphs, your revered Descartes shall bear part of the blame. By elevating reason over faith, he has weakened faith, thereby strengthening the seductive power of the calculus.”
“Faith can as easily drive one to cling to errors—” He shook his head impatiently. “We’ve danced this dance often enough the past three nights.” He’d had little else to do; she gave none of her female servants any chance to lie with him, though clearly not from jealousy. “I shall slay your iron-masked seducer. And in return—”
“You shall have gold, and passage to Vienna. Though why you do not simply walk along the appropriate axis—”
“A vow I made to Edgar.” Girding on the rapier she’d given him, then a pair of needle-sharp daggers and a dark cloak, Hugh sighed. “That I would see as much of the world as possible, rather than treat travel as an inconvenience, as some of our brothers do. In hindsight, my oath was, perhaps, excessively idealistic.”
As he walked out of the room, Hugh wondered, not for the first time, if Madame, who so clearly despised his beliefs, would reward him after he slew the Iron Mask, or simply betray him to the church. But it doesn’t matter. If the calculus has the power she claims, then it would snuff out reason more utterly than a thousand Popes.
So, I shall make you proud Edgar. Tonight I shall fight for the freedom of man’s mind—even if I die for it.
No sooner had Hugh walked an axis into the fortress than he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
Instead of the location on the upper floor that he’d visualized, he stood in darkness. Only once have I put a foot wrong walking the axes since Edgar trained me. And with no clear sense of the point at which he stood, he couldn’t reorient himself to try again.
Unbuckling his scabbard, he started forward, tapping out the floor and walls ahead of him. The room was apparently bare, for he struck no chairs, no tables, no footstools. A prison cell, perhaps? What are the odds of me—no. I do not believe this to be coincidence. The Iron Mask has somehow diverted my path.
Such a trick was impossible, Edgar had said: The axes could no more be moved than the structure of space itself. Yet logically, this had to be his foe’s work. Can he tell that I am here? Or is this meant to hold me until he thinks to investigate? Or will he simply let me die of hunger, then remove my corpse?
A minute more of careful tapping and Hugh reached a door of solid oak. No light came through the keyhole or the thin gap between the bottom of the door and the stone floor. Hugh shoved, but the door did not budge, but he heard the key rattle slightly in the lock. Well, well … perhaps luck has not deserted me yet.
Taking off his cloak he placed it on the floor and slid it, slowly, under the door and out into whatever lay beyond. Drawing one narrow dagger, he thrust it into the lock, jerking and jabbing the point toward the end of the key, doing everything he could to shake it loose. To his joy, he heard the faint sound of it thudding from the lock onto his cloak.
Slowly he slid the cape back, under the door, felt the key almost catch on the wood, but at last it slid through. He snatched it up, smiling. The Iron Mask might control the axes of space, but he cannot control me!
Hugh was about to apply the key to the lock when the hall outside brightened slightly. Faintly in the distance, he heard footsteps.
Thinking quickly, he placed the key in the lock, felt it turn, and waited, sword drawn, as the light grew and a voice, muttering in a Bordeaux accent, became audible. “Of course there’s nobody down here, Gaston. His grace just gets these fancies, but I’m not fool enough to argue with him, are you?” A grunted reply. “We’ll just—now that’s queer, where’s the key?”
Hugh smashed the door open, into the men, then leapt into the corridor. He found himself facing two big, bearded ruffians, both staggering from the impact. Before the nearer man could move, he went down with Hugh’s dagger in his throat. The other guard had half drawn his sword by the time Hugh’s rapier went between his ribs.
Reclaiming his dagger, Hugh glanced up the corridor they’d come from—and his jaw dropped. The corridor appeared to extend for a mile, longer than the width of Saint Marguerite. Did Madame know he could do this? To distort space thusly—I do not believe even Descartes himself comprehended such a possibility!
The importance of this discovery to the Brotherhood’s studies made him consider leaving to seek out Heinrich or Nicodemus, whose knowledge dwarfed his own. That’s assuming I can walk the axes out of here … and that I don’t find fresh traps when I return. He shook his head reluctantly and tried visualizing an axis extending to the end of the corridor. He failed.
Frowning uneasily, he began to walk.
At the end of a hundred yards, Hugh noticed the hallway decorations had begun to repeat themselves, exactly. At the second hundred yards, the same, even down to a chip in the stone. Do even the senior brethren realize this can be done? Surely not, they’ve long said there are no secret, esoteric teachings in the Order, that the knowledge they have is available to all. He began to wonder if there would be any end, or if the corridor would extend infinitely—yet the third iteration seemed several yards shorter.
Five iterations later, he reached a doorway he had not seen before. Biting back a cry of relief, he opened it and strode in without even checking for danger.
He found himself in the most impressive dissecting room he’d ever seen. Bodies of men, women, children lay scattered upon the many wooden tables, various organs laid out beside them, muscles exposed, skin pulled back.
Then he noticed that some of them still breathed. No. That’s—that cannot be possible. But as he walked among the tables, the eyes of the dissectees turned to him. A few gasped or tried to croak out some words.
Hugh doubled over and vomited up the fine trout he’d had for dinner.
“You do not approve, monsieur?”
Hugh looked up from the floor. A slender man in a brocaded cape, fine wool shirt and breeches stood on the far side of the room. The metal mask that covered his head—except for the raven hair flowing down his back—muffled and distorted his voice as he continued speaking. “Have you not sworn yourself to the quest for truth, as I have?”
“What truth can be worth this?” Fighting the dry heaves, Hugh jabbed his rapier at one of the vivisections. “What can you possibly learn that—”
“Corpses are dead, Cartesian.”
“What makes you think I’m a—“
“I felt your entry into my fortress, of course.” The Iron Mask picked up a knife and tapped on one man’s exposed lungs. “To truly understand the workings of the body, we must study it in life. I believe that is where Descartes failed; by studying what these bodies experience I can learn secrets he only glimpsed.”
“I grant you, your research must have gone far further than his.” Hugh nodded reluctantly as the Iron Mask approached. “But to torment women—children!”
“If I master these secrets, each mortal life will last as long as those days before the flood. If one man dies so that a thousand can live, is that not just? Is that not—”
“I suppose—” A whimper from a limbless child stopped his words, then Hugh shook his head. “The calculus. You use it upon me!”
“Did Joan tell you I would use it to deceive you?” Iron Mask sighed. He’d come within arm’s reach. “That is impossible. She fears it precisely because it can only spread truth. And of all things, truth is what the corrupt church must fear most.”
“That is—true.” Or was it true? Hugh felt unsure, as if even the simplest logic could no longer be trusted. “She said you subvert the church for your own aims—”
“I subvert faith to exalt reason! Let all faith be tested, not just in the Pope, but in Luther and Calvin, in monarchy and in law! The true Enlightenment has not yet begun; in the light of reason, I shall burn away all dross until only the gold of truth remains!” Iron Mask held out his hand. “You say you serve reason, Cartesian; will you join me in truth’s holy cause?”
It made perfect sense. So much sense. Hugh almost offered his hand.
Yet the smell of his vomit suddenly drew his gaze down to the stinking pool at his feet. Then he looked up at the whimpering child, his flesh pulled back to show a still-beating heart.
Something rose up in him that defied reason, logic, everything. With a wordless scream, Hugh swung up his arm and brought the sword’s edge down on his enemy’s iron mask.
It landed on a corpse instead, and Hugh saw that he stood facing away from his foe. Sensing instantly what would come, he dove along the floor without hesitating, rolled and came up as Iron Mask’s blade sliced through the air where Hugh had stood.
“You cannot defeat me here.” Iron Mask cried, thrusting. Suddenly he stood within arm’s reach again, and Hugh barely parried the stroke. “Your Brotherhood has no idea of what a master of the fourth dimension can truly accomplish!”
“Damn you!” Hugh riposted, found himself stabbing empty air and ducked as another blow came from nowhere. His guards will arrive at any second. I have to finish him first. He hurled a choice curse along with his next thrust, but the Iron Mask only laughed mockingly. Then he was on Hugh’s right, cutting through Hugh’s shirt and into his arm.
“There is no way you can win, Cartesian. None.”
“I—” The calculus. Hugh narrowly parried the next attack as it occurred to him. If it can convince me to accept this chamber of horrors, it can weaken me with claims of his invincibility. He backed away, trying to clear his head. Iron Mask only shifted his sword for another blow.
As blood soaked his sleeve, Hugh staggered into the gap between two dissecting tables, hoping he could feign weakness as well as he did in his brawling days. As Iron Mask vanished, Hugh thrust into the narrow gap; Iron Mask appeared, laughing, and Hugh’s sword slashed his arm. Hugh yanked it free and attacked again; Iron Mask parried, but the axes did not change.
“Not so easy to work wonders when you’re bleeding, eh?” Hugh said, hurling a metal tray on one of the tables at the man’s mask; as metal rang on metal, he struck, cutting his foe’s torso. “And now I have your measure.” Iron Mask made a desperate overhand swing; Hugh parried easily. “Sword against sword, it is you who have no chance.”
“You must not do this!” Iron Mask parried furiously but Hugh drove him back, blow by blow. “I will liberate the world, can you not see it?”
“By compelling all to think as you?”
“I have perfected the calculus, all my reasoning must be true!”
“Under other circumstances, I would suggest checking your figures for errors.” Hugh parried Iron Mask’s next swing deftly, but it had been a feint; the blade stabbed Hugh’s side and he cursed himself for overconfidence. “The cruelty I see here cannot be the product of true reason!”
“Cruelty is the soft heart’s word for logic free of false pity.” As Iron Mask spoke, Hugh slid his rapier along the man’s blade, twisted it from his hand, then shoved him against the wall. “My logic is irrefutable.”
“So is my blade monsieur.” Hugh drew back for the final thrust.
“Not monsieur. Milady.” The non sequitur froze Hugh for just a second, long enough for the Iron Mask to grasp his helm and, to his surprise, remove it. The proof of her words lay in his—her—fine-boned face. “You see before you the Sun King’s firstborn. Swapped with a guardsman’s son to provide a male heir to the throne of France, then condemned to hide her face forever.” She dropped the mask to the floor. “I learned to remove it long ago—but men resent obeying a woman, so it proved a useful tool.
“Can you kill a woman, Cartesian?” Her smile was confident, despite the blood dripping from her wounds. “Have you so little honor?”
“You’re a murderer. A butcher.” He glanced around at the maimed bodies, yet … even in his most dissolute days, he’d never struck one of the weaker sex. “I will—I must—”
“You can’t.” It was Madame’s voice, followed by a gunshot. Iron Mask stumbled against Hugh,, then fell to the floor, blood gushing from her side. Hugh turned to see Madame, two pistols in hand and a buck tucked under her arm, wearing clothes and cloak to match those of the Iron Mask.
“You saved—” The significance struck Hugh, even as Madame aimed her second pistol at his heart. “You’re her lover?”
“Joan.” Iron Mask stared up at her, groaning. “You—”
“I adored you, Matilde.” Looking at Madame’s expression, Hugh could not doubt it, bizarre though it seemed. “But I adore God so much more.” Keeping the pistol pointed at Hugh, she gestured for him to step back, which he did. She set down the book on one of the half-flayed women and picked up the mask.
“I don’t understand.” Hugh didn’t have the strength to risk attacking; leaning on one of the tables, he tried to heal himself. “When her guards come—“
“They will find their master has slain two intruders.” Joan set the mask on the book, her pistol never wavering. “Concealed in cloak and Matilde’s mask, I can fool them long enough to ride from here and place the calculus at the service of the Pope.” She tapped a finger sharply on the book. “Together we will end heresy and Protestantism, and crush those monarchs who defy the church!
“And you can be a part of that glorious future.” She glanced down at Iron Mask—Matilde—who stared up at her from a widening pool of blood. “I never dared risk confronting her powers myself. I never imagined you could succeed, only that you would distract her long enough for me to steal the book. Had she been a man, you would have slain her. Your skills are great; if you swear to serve me faithfully, I will see them put to a higher calling than heresy.” Her finger tightened on the trigger. “Or you can die for Descartes’ lies.”
Hugh knew he had no hope of reaching her before the bullet felled him.
Nonetheless, he raised his blade and thrust.
He heard the blast of the gunshot, saw it flash, but there was no pain, and the next second, his sword was in Madame’s chest. For the first time, she lost her look of cold arrogance, stumbling backward, her body jerking Hugh’s sword from his hand as she fell, knocking the mask and book to the floor.
As Hugh tried to make sense of it, he heard guards in the hall outside and knew he was finished. A dozen men swarmed in; lacking the concentration to walk the axes, Hugh prepared himself to meet God.
“Stop you fools!” Matilde rose from the floor, her mask once again concealing her face, her blood-soaked cloak enveloping her.
“Your grace,” the lead man said, “I know your mistress directed us to wait for your call but—”
“Then you should have done so! Do you think these dogs I have captured were the only assassins to enter Saint Marguerite tonight?” A look of alarm passed over their faces. “Find them! Now! Hunt into every corner and bring them to me here!”
The guards ran out, barking directions to each other. As soon as they disappeared, Matilde slumped against one of the tables with a low moan.
“You saved me, didn’t you?” Hugh said. He tried to support her, but it was difficult with his own wounds. “You shifted the axes to let me reach Madame—Joan—” She nodded. “But you don’t have the skill to heal yourself?”
“Enough to give the illusion of vitality, but no, I cannot—think clearly …” He could feel warm blood still soaking into her cloak. “If you would help me—”
“Is that why you saved me?” Hugh glanced at the bodies around the room and shook his head. “I—cannot—will not repay you thus.”
“Not for—that alone.” She bent and picked up the blood-stained book as if it took her last ounce of strength. “The small door on the far side of the room. Use it to flee before—the guards return—”
“Isn’t it … obvious?” The Iron Mask—Matilde—thrust the book under his arm. “Because we would both die … for truth.”
She sagged against him, a sudden dead weight Hugh could not support. As she struck the floor, he started for the passage that she’d indicated.
He stopped, closed his eyes and did his best to heal himself, at least a little. Still weak from the blood loss, he drew his dagger and before he left, dispatched every last living soul on the vivisection tables to a more merciful world.
A week later, Hugh snapped out of a nightmare, almost tumbling out of the haystack in which he’d made his bed.
Dear God, can you not blot out the memories? The killings in Matilde’s chamber, needful though they’d been, haunted his sleep. How could reason lead her so far astray? Did she truly believe the calculus rendered her infallible?
He’d burned the book of the calculus, though it had wracked him bitterly to do so. But the power corrupted Matilde. It would have given Madame dominion over the minds of Europe. If it could be perfected, become a guide to pure reason … but the risks are too great.
He wished Matilde had given him her research on the fourth dimension instead. But in time, knowing that such things could be done, the Brotherhood would rediscover them. He’d cross the French border soon, and then it would be on to Vienna, where he would consult with Nicodemus.
Leaning back in the haystack, he wondered if Matilde had lied when she claimed to love reason. Yet why else would she have let him escape?
Misguided and monstrous though she was, I believe she sought truth. And valued it enough to die for it. He smiled suddenly. And so, it seems, do I.
All things considered, I could do worse for an epitaph.
© December, 2013 Fraser Sherman
Fraser Sherman has previously sold stories to Drabblecast, Allegory and the More Scary Kisses anthology.