The Handle of the Cross
Part One: The Tomb
by Frederick Rustam
[Editor: this story follows the continuing adventures of Simon de Montfort, his beautiful niece Lillian, and their obsession in recovering the rare thirasite jewel, the FlameStone, introduced in last issue's story " The Green City's Secrets".]
The New Assassins
"Is your Order in a direct line-of-descent from the Terran Assassins of ancient Persia?"
Lilly guessed his answer to her question, but sought it as a way to begin the process of cultivating this functionary of the Order. She also knew that such organizations sometimes hold the myths of their origins as tightly as they do their worldly possessions.
Simon, who had been staring out the window of the groundcar, turned to observe the black-suited Assassin in the front seat. ("Black for an assassin -- how appropriate,") he observed, silently.
"Our ultimate origin is not known, for certain, Doctor. We believe that the immigrants from Old Earth who settled Laagulaan must have modeled the Order after some Terran organization. Unfortunately, these secretive men did not record their inspiration, and the oral knowledge faded through the years," replied the young man who smiled pleasantly at Lilly, ignoring her uncle. The Assassins were not monks, and the guide was clearly smitten by the attractive archaeologist.
"Since your Order is known to eschew drugtaking, such a practice must have been discarded at some point in your Order's history if it descends from the hashish-users of Earth," said Lilly.
"Most certainly. I understand, also, that the ancient Assassins originated as an offshoot from the prevailing Islam of the twelfth century. Their activities were basically defensive of their faith. By the time the Laagulaan Order was founded, there was no longer a reason for a religious orientation; however..."
("This fellow is crammed full of it,") thought Simon. He turned back to the window. The discussion was becoming tedious. He had researched the Order and was satisfied that it had no organizational connection with the ancient Assassins, who were supposedly eliminated, eons ago, by the Mongols of Genghis Khan's son, Hulagu. Simon also subscribed -- contrary to the prevailing wisdom -- to the premise that the Assassins got their name, not from their smoking practices, but from the name of their founder, Hasan Sabah. Simon was somewhat of a heretic, himself, among the Old Boys of the Association of Amateur Archaeologists.
He didn't care much about the Order's origins, anyway, although he did suspect an alien influence of some kind. The easy tolerance of this seemingly-human group by many nonhuman races made him wonder if some "others" were behind the humanoid face of the Assassins.
He and Lilly had traveled here for one purpose: to find the unique, tangerine-colored thirasite gem known as the FlameStone. It was a gem from a highly-possessive world whose sun had gone nova, leaving the FlameStone the only piece of thirasite remaining in the Elsewhere.
His quest for this fabulous gem had taken him to several worlds and had involved him and Lilly in memorable adventures which had, so far, produced a chain of failures. Hoping against hope, he expected to find the Stone here -- if not held as a organizational treasure, then concealed in the grave of the former Master of Assassins who, he was informed, had purchased it.
He admitted, but only to himself, that he was growing a little tired of pursuing the Stone from collector to collector. Only the competition from other wealthy Old Boys of the Triple-A kept him at it. He knew that he could not endure the indignity of having to congratulate someone else for finding it, now that his obsessive search was becoming known.
Although he admired the Assassins for their organization, and had even purchased their "special" expertise a few times, Simon was just too old and too wise now to be impressed by them.
The headquarters of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Assassins was located in the middle of a vast, grassy plain on the Earthlike planet of Laagulaan. Simon and Lilly had landed their yacht, the Phaselus, at the planet's only spaceport and had transferred to an Order groundcar for the drive to the Templara. The Assassins did not allow aircars bearing visitors to approach the complex of buildings which was the galactic center of their farflung Order.
For some minutes, Simon had watched the waving grass of the plain rush by. The plain was devoid of development for thousands of square kilometers around the Templara and its spaceport. It was said that the Assassins, like old King Yoy of Alawaan, preferred to see their potential enemies arriving slowly.
One might imagine that they would locate in a castellar redoubt in the mountains, like the Hasanites had done in medieval Persia. But the Laagulaan founders had preferred to build where they could command the skies. The great plain they had chosen was so immense that from nowhere on their world was there a surface line-of-sight, optical or radio, to their sacred Templara.
("Somehow, all this caution seems inappropriate for an organization which presents itself to the galaxy as a technology-transfer outfit. Of course, corporations with `special' expertise often have enemies.")
Simon returned his attention to the conversation.
"When we reach the Visitor Center, you and Mr. de Montfort may tour our Museum and Exposition Hall before the Master receives you."
"Oh, good. That sounds fascinating -- doesn't it, Simon?" purred Lilly.
"Yes. Fascinating," replied Simon. ("I wonder if they'll hand us datapads with order forms before they start us out, so we can purchase some of their gadgets while we're waiting.")
"You must view the tabletop model of the Templara. It's automated to answer many of the questions you may have about our holy place," chirped the guide.
("All but one question, I think,") Simon mused.
"The Master of Assassins will see you, now."
Simon glanced at his niece with only a trace of expression. It was enough. She read: "It's about time. Much as I enjoy relaxing in Art Deco anterooms..." At the Templara, every building was designed in the Earth-disseminated Art Deco style -- even the cathedral-like Temple, itself -- where the Order "worshiped" its traditions and accomplishments.
He spoke to his niece, sotto voce. Let me do the talking, Lilly. Dealing with these guys requires real finesse.
"Okay. I'll just be the dumb assistant," she replied, with a brief frown of annoyance.
"Now, now, Lilly. I didn't mean it that way." After their successes -- due in no small measure to her abilities -- his niece was quick to resent any implication that they were unequal partners, or that she was undiplomatic. There had been times when her own "diplomacy" had involved real personal sacrifice.
They followed the Secretarius into the spacious office which, despite its size, seemed merely an extension of the anteroom. Simon quickly glanced about him to take in the furnishings and subtle decorations; there were few of either. The room, like the organization it represented, was severely functional. The walls were plaster-white and the carpet light-gray. The leatheroid guest-chairs were black, as was the massive desk they faced.
In fact, the most decorative items in the room were the two silvered torcheres against the far wall which illuminated, between them, the commercial logo of the Order, which was carved into a block of honey maple. The centerpiece of the logo -- the traditional assassin's dagger, inlaid in rare California redwood -- was so stylized that it was almost unrecognizable as a weapon. It was a case of tradition mutating for the sake of commerce. The Order's name was inlaid in dark oak. These exotic woods were yet another concession to the organization's presumed Terran origins.
Behind the desk and beneath the logo, the man in a black "priest's" suit -- complete with clerical collar -- smiled hospitably at the visitors, like a real estate man seeking to close a big sale. He had a pleasant, middle-aged countenance; it was a smooth facial embodiment of the Order of Assassins, one of the galaxy's most reliable and respected corporations.
Simon's eye next found the engraved, golden orb resting at the front of the desk. It was just large enough to symbolize the Order to the Master's visitors, but not large enough to seem ostentatious. It had an equatorial band of finest turquoise and was surmounted, not by a Christian cross, but by the ancient Egyptian symbol which had been adopted by the Order -- the ankh.
The juxtaposition of orb and ankh seemed vaguely humorous to Simon, as did the use of a symbol of life by a company of killers. He suppressed a grin as he raised his eyes to the Master, who was wearing another such cross on a golden chain which fell across his vest like that of a monastery abbot or prior.
The Master of master assassins was ogling his niece.
Simon eyed the golden orb on the desk. ("What I wouldn't give for that; it's solid, I'll bet, and engraved with the names of the past Masters. How I'd like to donate it to the Triple-A museum. It appears the Laagulaan founders sculpted their Order from a pastiche of Terran traditions, a mongrel organization, so to speak.... I wonder...")
His musing was interrupted, as the man behind the desk introduced himself. "I'm Master Semyavanches. Please be seated. How may I help you?" He knew much about these two. Assassin intelligence was very good, especially concerning visitors.
"I'm Simon de Montfort and this is my niece, Dr. Lillian Melba-Affonick. Lilly constitutes the brains of our family archaeological enterprise." He hoped these words would compensate for his previous gauche remark to his niece about "finesse."
Lilly gave the man her most gracious smile. "I'm honored to meet the Master of Assassins. I've heard so much about your Order."
The Master demonstrated his skill at dealing with outsiders in a surprising manner.... He scowled.
"None of that is true."
Simon and Lilly were taken aback.
Then, he beamed and chuckled. With relief, his visitors responded with nervous laughter.
("My, my: a jesting Assassin... What next?")
"Yes, I've heard of it. But, I assure you, it's not in the possession of the Order. We don't collect gems, except those required by our research laboratories. In fact -- and as you must know, Mr. de Montfort -- we don't collect or deal, at all, in precious metals or art objects. We're a technology-transfer corporation." He continued to smile, even as his voice took on a slight edge of annoyance.
("...In addition to being merchants of death,") opined Lilly. ("And what about that orb? I doubt it's the only objet d'art here?")
"What is so special about this gem you seek?" Semyavanches' question almost negated his previous claim of knowledge about the FlameStone.
"Master Semyavanches -- aside from the fact that it's the only gem of its kind in the known galaxy -- it has the admirable property of fluorescing, lambently, when irradiated by ultraviolet, even in sunlight. Its last owner, Sor Vitrux Lamakeele, built a special tubular skylight in his darkened treasure room so that the filtered rays of his world's sun would set the FlameStone afire at noontime. He and his envious guests would stand around it, marveling at it for just the right amount of time, until the sun moved on and the gem's stimulated internal fire extinguished.
"Later that night, he would move the Stone, in its special security container, to his banquet roundtable, so his guests could continue to view its flaming beauty while they consumed exquisite desserts under safe, ultraviolet-rich lamps." Simon seemed enraptured as he related this to the Master of the Black Order, who was not much of an esthete, withal.
After an appropriate silence, Semyavanches responded.
"Hmmmm... Interesting, but..."
Simon quickly followed up on his anecdote. "Now, I have it -- on good authority -- that the FlameStone was purchased by former Master Cheritoma, personally. I'd like to know how he disposed of the Stone before he died. If he did not, and it's indeed here on Laagulaan, I'm prepared to make a generous offer for it. And, of course, to prepare a cover story about how I acquired it from an obscure dealer on an obscure world -- if you so desire."
The Master scowled at the prospect of such collecting by one of his predecessors. But he knew that, like the lines of ancient priests and monks, some of the Masters had deviated from the ideals of their Order. This "archaeologist" was probably right about the gem, but Semyavanches sought to put a positive spin on Simon's knowledge.
"Cheritoma was a wealthy man before he entered our Order, of course. He must have purchased the gem then. Such a purchase by a sitting Master would have been contrary to our Rule." He contemplated this minor blot on the reputation of his Order. ("Could Cheritoma have concealed it, hereabouts?") He pictured the former Master sitting in this very office, illuminating his fabulous gem with a UV handlamp. It was a ridiculous picture, but Cheritoma had been somewhat of an eccentric.
Simon was quick to assume a sympathetic attitude. "I understand, Master. I'm sure he brought the Stone with him. Given its unique beauty and absolute rarity, I can see how reluctant he must have been to give it up. Perhaps it's interred with his remains?" He hoped, desperately, that Semyavanches would show some sympathy for his quest.
"Are you sure he didn't sell it before he was elevated to office?" asked the Master. "That would have been the customary procedure." He began keying his deskterminal. He never used voice-access when visitors were present.
Simon responded, carefully. "Gems like the FlameStone have a way of making their locations known to the collecting community. I'm afraid it appears that, since Master Cheritoma couldn't show it off, he must have decided to take it with him -- so to speak." He paused, while the Master seemingly ignored him to explore the records of Cheritoma's tenure.
The silence of the room was broken only by the sounds of the data search. After a low-pitched beep, the Master looked up from the viewscreen in his desk. "Nothing here about gemstones. But I do recall we had to dispose of some other personal collectibles after his death -- I'm sorry to say."
"Collected contrary to the Rule?" twitted Simon, with minimal finesse. "How unfortunate. But I do thank you for your honest revelation -- my lips are sealed, of course.... However, I've known great men to be lain to rest with their most precious baubles clutched in their hands, or even held within a tightly-closed mouth." He lifted an eyebrow to emphasize his point. "Why, I even recall one grandee who had the mortician replace one of his eyes with a large star sapphire from his collection. You can imagine the stir that caused at his open-casket funeral."
("This is finesse?") questioned Lilly, silently.
Semyavanches pursed his lips and scowled, again. ("Atah! I'm sure my predecessors had to deal tactfully with men like this damned little collector. And so must I.") Also, he was curious.
"What about the other eye?"
Simon was taken aback, somewhat, by this question. "Uh, it was closed to draw attention to the one with the implanted sapphire -- you see?"
"Yes... well... I'm sorry, but even the location of Cheritoma's remains are in question. We know that he was cremated and his ashes interred somewhere in the old-fashioned dolmen he constructed as a tomb -- but exactly where within -- that is uncertain. It was the way he wanted it. The Rule allows Masters to dispose of their remains by choice, so long as they keep them on Laagulaan."
Simon sighed, internally. ("A dolmen? -- `old fashioned,' indeed. So it's grave robbing, now. A shame to have to resort to that.") At his age, he was more aware of his own mortality, and increasingly contemplated the method of his corporeal disposal and that of his most treasured valuables.
"Master Semyavanches, let us suppose for a moment that the FlameStone is interred with Master Cheritoma. Would you have any objection to recovering it? -- with minimal disturbance to the remains, of course. Given that it may have been possessed against the wisdom of your Order's Rule..." His voice trailed off, meaningfully.
The Master's mind raced. Disturbing the tomb of one of his predecessors was a disconcerting prospect. ("But the Order could certainly use an infusion of capital the sale of such a valuable gem would bring, if it were handled discreetly.")
"How much are you offering for this gem, Mr. de Montfort?"
Simon exulted. ("So much for the great, incorruptible Assassins. That was easy -- too easy.")
"I and my backers are prepared to offer a minimum of one million New Credits. After you've researched the item, we'll be pleased to entertain your counterproposal." Under his chair, Simon crossed his fingers.
Lilly noticed this familiar gesture. ("After their research, they'll laugh at a million,") she thought.
The Master stunned them with the swiftness of his acceptance. He seemed to want to conclude the distasteful business, quickly. "That sounds satisfactory," he replied. He keyed his deskcomm. "Veterator, will you join us in my office, please."
Simon slowly relaxed. Semyavanches' henchman would handle the details. ("And if necessary, Lilly will handle the henchman.")
It was not that Simon had initially planned to leave Laagulaan with the FlameStone concealed, and then to "discover" it later in some other place. But, if the Master's trusted subordinate happened to be ...reachable... well then, so much the better. Simon was sure that if the fellow became intoxicated with his niece, he might take less than a million NCs to hand it over and keep quiet about their finding it. Seduction was a modus operandi Simon had used, successfully, before.
It was a measure of Simon's courage that he would even consider swindling the deadly Assassins out of a valuable possession. However, he rationalized that since Cheritoma had violated their tradition of noncollection, the Order didn't deserve to profit by that Master's misbehavior. Besides, Simon had sought the Stone for so long that he had come to feel it belonged to him.
Lilly guessed what her uncle was planning, though. ("If he expects me to seduce some Assassin so he can get the Stone for a pittance, he's mistaken. He may be near to contemplating his Maker, but I have a lot of time left and I don't want to spend it anticipating the revenge of the Black Order.")
Unfortunately for Simon's scheme, his dilettante's vocabulary of the ancient Latin language did not include the title of Semyavanches' "henchman."
New Camster Round
("So much for that idea.")
Simon mentally kicked himself, again, for underestimating the Assassins. He ignored Master Semyavanches' subordinate to stare out the window of the circling flyer at the structure on the grassy swale, below. ("Amazing. It's a perfect copy of, uh, that passage grave in old Scotland.")
Veterator Helmesoviu was holding forth to Lilly in a pleasant manner about Cheritoma's tomb. He was not intoxicated with her, though. The Veterator was so old and wrinkled that Simon had joked to Lilly that he must be one of the fabled founders of the Laagulaan Order.
"That suits me just fine, Uncle," she had replied. Lilly only called Simon "Uncle" when she was making a strong counter-point, or was seriously annoyed with him.
"But Lilly," he had replied, puckishly. "Don't you miss the challenge of using your wiles?"
"`Wiles'? Your choice of term is so delicate, Simon. In a word: no. I don't care to use my `wiles' on an Assassin."
Despite his age, Helmesoviu impressed the archaeologists with his bonhomie and sprightly energy. During the obligatory Templara tour and on their flight to the mountains, he regaled Simon and Lilly with interesting anecdotes about the Order and its history. At times, his delivery approached the irreverent. To Simon, this seemed a bit like touring the Sistine Chapel with a Monsignor guide who refers to the Michelangelo ceiling as "Somewhat gaudy -- don't you think?".
"Cheritoma was a rather undistinguished Master, actually, and many assume he used his wealth to gain his position," offered the old man.
Simon gave a silent snort. ("Many such as you, I suspect. If I could proclaim you Master of the Order, you'd probably give me the Stone -- gratis.")
On this point, Simon erred. Helmesoviu did not want, or need to be, Master of Assassins. He was the Chairman of the Advisory Council and, in some ways, was more powerful than the Master. He continued...
"You've, no doubt, noticed that the least-big men of history often build the grandest monuments to themselves. This one is less spectacular than some, hereabouts. But Cheritoma did import the rocks from Old Earth, spending much of his wealth in the process -- and thus denying it to the Order," he added.
Lilly stared at the dolmen below and replied, noncommittally, "It's lovely, in a crude sort of way -- as a modern tomb, I mean." She glanced at Helmesoviu, who was leaning close to her to look out the window. "It seems to be modeled after the Camster Round Grey Cairn in old Scotland."
"I imagine it is. I've never even seen vidimages of the original. Cheritoma was an amateur archaeologist, like yourself, Doctor. I'm not surprised that he preferred to be buried in a neolithic pile like that."
("He was a collector, you mean -- even against your Rule,") Lilly thought. She decided to test the Veterator's attitude toward Simon's quest.
"Well, let's hope he took the FlameStone with him into his rocky sepulchre," she said, brightly.
The old man leaned back into his seat. "Yes. The Order can use the money."
Cold, Gray Tomb
Simon, Lilly, Helmesoviu, and an Assassin assistant stared at the sight of it.... The assistant was young, handsome, and brawny. Simon wondered if he'd been chosen to attract Lilly. ("What are they planning for us?")
Before them, a passageway opened beneath the arms of a huge ankh, which had been carved from a monolith. The cross's vertical member was centered in the entrance, allowing one person to pass around each side. In the loop of the cross above was an inverted, teardrop-shaped hole. It was much smaller than the solid-rock loop in which it was carved. If the sun had been shining then, it would have thrown a narrow shaft of light through the hole and down the passageway.
"It's beautiful," said Lilly. "Most unusual," added Simon, as a thought occurred to him. It was the kind of thought that struggles for release. It was the kind of thought he should have kept to himself. He turned to Helmesoviu with a twisted little smile.
("Uh, oh. He's going to cast for a bite,") thought Lilly. She had seen Simon yield to his puckish urges, before. Since his early schooldays in Upper Alpland, he had been a minor-league iconoclast.
"It's certainly an imaginative use of the crux ansata, wouldn't you say, Veterator?"
The old man took the bait. "Crux ansata? I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with that term," he admitted.
Simon's smile broadened. "It's what the ancient Romans called the Egyptian Cross of Life. The Romans were a practical people, you see. They were more concerned more with empire than about belief. They must have scoffed at the elaborate Egyptian religion because, when they first encountered the ankh, they called it crux ansata -- the cross with a handle."
Veterator Helmesoviu's face became a mask of self-control, Lilly saw. But he managed to respond with a weak, diplomatic smile at Simon's lack of respect for the Order's sacred symbol.
"How interesting. Shall we enter?" He strode ahead under the cross.
Simon winked at Lilly. "Finesse?" she muttered, in reply.
"Of a kind," he replied.
("I hope Simon doesn't carry his "scholarship" too far. Humor doesn't seem to be a predominant Assassin trait.") She motioned for Simon to follow their guide. He gave her a little salute and moved forward, smirking.
The collector gave a sigh of discovery as he stepped into the narrow passageway in Cheritoma's tomb. A striplite at the side was lighted to illuminate those near the door -- and Helmesoviu, who was well ahead of them. Between the two, the light had extinguished.
"Fascinating. A delightful fusion of ancient architecture and modern technology," Simon proclaimed. As they moved ahead, the illumination accompanied them and extinguished behind them. The light was warm and appropriate for the gray-brown, piled-slab stone walls.
The artificial lighting was not entirely necessary, however. Above the heads of the explorers, diffuse outside light from the teardrop hole in the "handle" of the cross feebly competed with the striplite as a source of illumination.
A mortarless, large-stone wall formed the straight rear-end of the semicircular chamber which was at the end of the passage. Centered on the wall, but above their heads, was a golden decoration which seemed brightly out-of-place.
"It's a genuine Zoroastrian sunburst." Helmesoviu glanced quickly at Simon. "I know the Persian Assassins date from long after the Zoroastrian ascension, but Cheritoma was apparently unable to resist this touch of Persiana." Simon's flippant remark about the ankh had put him on the defensive.
"Oh, it seems quite appropriate, Veterator," replied Simon, in a placative manner. "I like it," added Lilly.
They looked around the semicircular chamber for a sign of where Cheritoma's ashes might rest. The flat stones forming most of the chamber wall rose to form a corbeled-arch half-dome. There were no signs of interment -- only some opportunistic fungus.
"Could they be behind the sunburst?..." speculated Simon to nobody in particular. "...Cheritoma's cremains, I mean."
"It seems likely," said Helmesoviu.
"I'll check it with the sonic probe," said Lilly. She turned to their young Assassin assistant, who retrieved it from the bag of tools he was carrying. He smiled boldly at Lilly as he handed her the probe. ("Now, this is more like it,") she thought. But she returned his smile in a cautious, demure manner.
After wielding the probe about the sunburst, she shook her head. "Negative. It's solid for at least a meter."
"Do the whole wall, Lilly." Simon's voice carried a certain impatience. He could be near the end of his quest. No stone must remain unturned.
Lilly swept the wall from top-to-bottom and side-to-side, as high as she could reach.
"Still negative. Of course, the goods could be behind one of the higher stones, beyond my reach." The Veterator winced, slightly, at her choice of words for the remains of Master Cheritoma.
"But which one?" queried Simon, his disappointment unconcealed. "Which one?"
They all stood back and scanned the wall. Even using a portable spotlight, they could see no significant difference between the individual stones, and no clear indication that any were removable.
"Apparently, he didn't want his `goods' to be disturbed," remarked the Veterator, dryly.
Then, outside the sepulchre of Master Cheritoma -- to the good fortune of the party of discoverers -- the morning sun emerged from the clouds.
"Oh!" Simon could not contain himself. He and Lilly looked at each other. "Newgrange!" they yelled, in unison.
On the wall a bright, upside-down teardrop splash of sunlight pointed sharply to one of the stones at the bottom.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO