Jean, I have need of your assistance.” Grand Master Antoine de Paule, Prince of the Church and decreed Cardinal by Pope Urban VIII, gestured at a stack of missives on the worn and gnarled table. “An investigation of sorts.”

Jean Baptiste Lascaris de Castellar, second in command of the Knights of Malta, had been summoned to Valetta, Malta. He had been attending to his duties as pillar of the Langue of Provence in France.

“I am at your service.” Jean bowed slightly. “As always, but shall I address you as Your Most High Eminence, or something to that effect?”

“You are in the service of the Lord and the church as well,” de Paule said, wagging a finger. “Do not ever forget. And please dispense with such formalities as Eminence, Prince and so forth. I’m only interested in using those titles, and the powers conferred upon me by His Holiness, to secure the church’s assistance for our humble order.”

“Of course. How may I be of assistance?” Jean glanced at the stack, but gleaned nothing and eased onto the wooden chair.

De Paule insisted on a hard chair for those summoned to his private chamber, probably as a means of control or power. Jean employed the method himself back home, but now on the receiving end the imposition seemed a petty gesture.

De Paule crossed the room, white and crimson robes hanging loose. He’d traded his traditional knight’s garb for those of a churchman, as if adopting all the affectations of a cardinal. Or perhaps de Paule’s body succumbed to frailty or softness, and the drapery hid the decline.

Jean, during his time in Provence, dispensed with the frilly collars and puffed shoulders adorning most knights, preferring a simple slashed doublet and plain, high-collared shirt beneath. Baggy breeches eased movement, but his old boots remained—tall, wide, and frayed about the edges, but cradling his feet without peer.

De Paule paused before a selection of wines and sighed.

“Where is your cup bearer?” Jean asked.

“This conversation is between us, and us alone.”

“I understand,” Jean said. “At least we aren’t having this discussion in the council chamber. I find some of the tapestries there rather bland, and—”

“I’m not sure you do understand.” De Paule pulled the stopper from an opaque glass decanter. “We have serious work ahead.”

Jean straightened and shifted, a minor relief, but more importantly, providing the appearance of attentiveness.

De Paule shook his reddening head, lending the wispy white hairs a pinkish hue.

“What is it?”

“One of those letters,” de Paule pointed, “suggests the Knights of Malta’s best days are long past, and all we’ll become is a bawdy and lecherous band of pirates with no credibility or usefulness.”

“Ridiculous.”

De Paule grabbed the decanter and goblet and brought them back to his table, but remained standing. “I’ve read detailed accounts, and studied a list of the grand masters and their contributions.”

“May I ask from whom you received these letters?” Jean asked.

“Cardinal Richelieu.” De Paule shook his head. “Sadly, a few years back and certainly brimming with motives assuredly stale due to his political failures. I should have taken the documents and reports regarding Grantville more seriously—especially when our German commanderies corroborated much of Richelieu ‘s information.”

“So, I deduce from your reaction your contributions to the order are lacking,” Jean said, “or less than you expected.”

“You’re overly blunt, Jean,” de Paule said.

“My apologies, Grand Master.”

“While the list is occasionally impressive, my tenure as grand master resulted in a new residence and some plans for fortifications, but no glory.” De Paule lifted a sheet from the stack. “And your tenure, well—”

“My tenure? Me?” Jean’s eye widened, his forehead wrinkling. De Paule had known of this for some time and was only just now telling him. “A grand master?”

“Yes, and your tenure is less impressive than mine save one dubious distinction.” De Paule raised an eyebrow.

Jean cocked his head.

“The dates of death are also included, and while I’m due to expire sometime in 1636, I am choosing to ignore that piece of the future.” A faint smile touched de Paule’s lips and faded. “You however, will, according to history, succeed me as grand master and live into your late nineties. But my point is that our tenures are unimportant. We contribute no significant actions or decisions to elevate our legacies.”

“Me, a grand master? Late nineties? I feel robust now in my seventies,” Jean straightened and shifted; the movement provided minor relief. “But it’s beyond belief, and a position for which I never aspired. If charged so, I would serve with honor and devotion.”

“I know you would,” De Paule said. “You’re a loyal knight, but you’ll have a long wait.” He smiled with his eyes, though sadly. “I’ve yet to request last rites and refuse to bow to what the up-time histories portend.”

“Of course, Grand Master. I’d never presume, I—”

“That’s enough, Jean,” de Paule said, and stiffened, as had his speech. He turned, decanter gripped tightly. “I’m more concerned about the order’s legacy. Our legacy.” He tilted the container over his cup but hesitated; his nostrils flared and he threw the decanter . . . .

The heavy glass struck the wall, smashing against the stone and splintering. Jean flinched, but more for the fine French wine now trickling in dark trails down the stone.

Jean held his tongue, but concern crept into his heart; he rarely witnessed de Paule lose his temper or shift his emotions so swiftly.

De Paule’s face flushed, but he moved on, not lingering on what he’d done to the poor vintage. “I will not allow the order’s decline to begin with us. The Knights of Malta’s best days are ahead. We have to make certain.” He glanced at the wall, and his shoulders slumped. “We were important once—”

“Pardon, Grand Master, but we are still important. Look at the gift we’ve been given by those Americans,” Jean said, “the foresight and knowledge of what comes next.”

“Ah, ever hopeful, but have you not read any of this drivel?” De Paule crumpled the papers in his hand. “The rubbish recounted in these reports Richelieu sent?” He tossed the paper on the floor.

“There are many who would name those who believe in this future heretics, despite the proof laid before them.”

“Are you among them?” de Paule asked.

“Of course not. I’m a practical knight.” Jean bent over, stretched his back, smoothed his breeches, and grabbed de Paule’s discarded paper. “But shouldn’t our concern rest with conflicts occurring in Christendom as we speak?” He smoothed the crinkles and scrutinized the words. “These events have not even happened, but apparently everything we’ll ever do is compared with the Great Siege.”

“I am concerned with Christendom, and Christians killing Christians: a rotten affair,” de Paule said, “but our mandate is quite clear.”

“Yes, neutrality when Christians war with fellow Christians.”

“A much greater threat lurks.” De Paule faced the window, and the gray sea beyond. Peeps and whines of flitting gulls wafted through with the cool winter breeze, a respite from arid summer winds, freshening the room with notes of brine. Jean flared his nostrils and took in the sea-salted air.

De Paule grabbed another decanter . . . “The Ottomans.” . . . and poured another red.

“They are our enemies, not our fellow Christians.”

“Agreed,” Jean said, “but you should have broken that decanter, I think. A much better wine for staining the walls.”

“Enough.” De Paule sipped. He shook his head, lips puckering, and swallowed. “You are correct. I should have broken this one.”

“The world has changed,” Jean said, “and who can say with any certainty what the future holds now that these Americans are here.”

De Paule nodded. “Yes. Not to mention their odd customs and casual blasphemies—” he waved a hand at the letters “—but these documents copied from this so-called Grantville Library are troubling.”

Jean smiled, hoping to lift the old man’s spirits. “Though one thing is certain.”

De Paule raised an eyebrow.

“We were given this island and have protected our charge with honor,” Jean said. “You are the near-equal to cardinals thanks to His Holiness, so why not use your newfound influence?”

“No doubt the purple was conferred upon me as a token gesture by His Holiness, but this is why I’ve summoned you, Jean. You’ve been away from Malta long enough that I believe you will be unbiased in executing your duties. I trusted in others recently and have found that trust misplaced.” De Paule sipped, obviously forgetting the wine’s foul qualities. His face scrunched, and he shoved the wine aside. “We have responsibilities beyond Malta, and stand as a gateway, a stepping-stone to Europe. From Malta the Ottomans could stage, and sweep into Italy. This island rests too near the northern parts of Africa —and I needn’t remind you of all the problems there.” His fist pounded the thick wood. “I have taken action, but need your help.”

“I am here to serve.”

De Paule nodded. “The order was to present a falcon each year on All Souls Day, correct?”

“Yes,” Jean said, “to the Viceroy of Sicily, and onward to the emperor, but during these troubling times I don’t see how that helps our cause.”

“Along with the troubling reports, Cardinal Richelieu sent me a curious manuscript, The Maltese Falcon. He’s quite a collector of manuscripts and his machinations are well known, and that brought to me a line of thinking I’d normally never arrive at on my own.”

“Now I’m very curious,” Jean said.

“I must admit the narrative was somewhat perplexing and nigh unreadable.” De Paule’s smile elevated the tips of his thin, gray mustache. “However, I managed to glean the meaning behind the story.”

Jean sat, and with genuine interest leaned forward.

De Paule lowered himself onto his oversized chair, probably stuffed with thousands of feathers to cradle his old bones. “A Maltese Falcon is the crux of the story—specifically the search for the figurine and the greed of horrible people to acquire the jewels adorning its surface. There are betrayals, romantic interests and so forth, but I found the manuscript a bore.”

“An intriguing notion, reading such a story,” Jean said, “but what purpose did it serve? His Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu is quite fond of our methods and use of naval assets. Do you believe he intended to incite you to some sort of action upon your receipt of his reports a couple years back?”

“I’m never certain of Richelieu ‘s motives, but I also received word His Holiness, Pope Urban VIII, read parts of the up-time future, and is concerned over the direction of the church. The order will assist His Holiness in righting the church, and at the same time, guarantee our continued relevance.”

“How?”

“Patience, brother.” De Paule moved a stack of papers on the table, revealing a book. “I commissioned a Maltese Falcon figurine as a token of the order’s commitment to the church.”

Jean stroked his pointy beard, staring; the possibilities overwhelmed.

“A small gift, yes. However, there has been a complication.” De Paule rested an elbow on the table and rubbed his forehead. “The figurine went missing.”

“Tell me it wasn’t encrusted in jewels.”

De Paule’s eyes met Jean’s.

“Oh, God.” Jean sat back. “You want me to find this figurine, this Maltese Falcon.”

“Yes, and I need the Falcon before I depart for my audience with His Holiness.”

“What of Vice-Chancellor Abela? He’s a full score my junior.” Jean nodded, as if the motion would sway de Paule, but he knew better. “Abela can hunt for the figurine.”

De Paule shook his head. “Normally I’d acquiesce, but I trust you, and after all, we’re both of the Langue of Provence. No, Abela is both priest and student of the law. I fear he won’t do in this affair.”

“Forget I mentioned Abela,” Jean said. “We are forewarned and can change the future, even if it’s supposedly preordained. Surely His Holiness is aware of the danger the Ottomans pose.”

“The Ottomans will soon take Crete.” De Paule gestured at the papers. “It has been recorded, and my greatest fears are coming true—an Ottoman siege is imminent.”

Jean’s nose and ears felt cold, and his hands chilled.

“Ah, now you see.” De Paule nodded. “We sit here, our legacy and reputation built upon a siege that occurred in the last century. Our Christian brothers in Europe hack each other to pieces, and our fight against the Ottomans is forgotten.” De Paule grabbed the shoved-aside wine and downed the rest. “We are forgotten, however, they—” he gestured eastward “—the true enemy, have not forgotten the vicious defeat handed them by our fore-brothers.”

Jean rubbed his hands together, erasing the chill. “But shouldn’t this knowledge be used to change events for the good of not only us, but our enemies as well?”

“Would the Ottomans feel such concern for us?”

“War does not have to visit Malta and expose the innocents here to possible death.” Jean said. “Or worse, slavery.”

“We’d only be shoring up our defenses. When I present the Falcon, His Holiness will be moved to assist his greatest knights against the Ottoman threat that will arrive on our doorstep.”

Jean folded his arms. “We should prepare, but I’m not sure this is our best course.”

“Can’t you see? Knights resplendent in the best armor and weapons man the battlements, while white and crimson banners bearing our eight-pointed cross wave?”

Jean entertained thoughts of rallying knights and peasants manning the walls in defiance of the Ottomans, but shivered at the loss of life a siege would levy.

“You doubt my plan?” de Paule asked.

“Not exactly, Grand Master, but—”

De Paule gestured toward the door. “Find my falcon.”

“And where do you propose I begin?”

“The sculptor. He was last in possession of the figurine.” De Paule pushed to his feet. “I’ll be touring Malta the next few days. See you have the Falcon when I return.”

****

Discretion was paramount, and Jean, an aging man, was in the awkward position of locating the figurine by himself. As soon as de Paule departed, Jean entered the grand master’s quarters hoping a clue beyond the name and address of the sculptor would present itself.

A peek at the papers littering the table revealed the manuscript, its frayed corners catching his attention. The words Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon ran down the spine, and within he found a rendering of the figurine. He grabbed the manuscript, hoping the sketch would aid his investigation.

Jean would have preferred more men at his side, but given the implied secrecy, he’d suffer with a simple man-at-arms for the visit to the sculptor’s. Since he’d been away from Malta for so long, Jean was at a disadvantage as most of the men-at-arms were unfamiliar. He did, however, recognize a dark-skinned man, Bekir—one of the few Turks indentured to the order. He’d likely prove more useful as a porter than in a scuffle.

Jean and Bekir descended into town from the square, entering the maze of whitewashed and beige buildings with cobblestoned, narrow walkways and grooved paths. The breeze shifted, carrying the heady scent of salt water tinged with pungent human waste like that of a salty soft cheese gone rotten.

The address given Jean was near the waterfront, where the homes and shops rested atop one another and the rot of dead fish filled the air. He swallowed his disgust and pressed a handkerchief to his nose. Bekir, however, seemed to relish the air outside the confines of the citadel.

They turned up the alley where the sculptor’s shop should be. Decaying parched wood exteriors mixed with cracked stone facades were out of place with what Jean was accustomed to, though he’d always known people lived and died in places such as this. He didn’t need reminding that being born with title and privilege was a blessing.

All the signs had caked white with salt and had faded from the ceaseless sun and salt-laden air. He counted up from where he turned, and yes, fourth on the right, a rundown hovel at home with the rest of the interconnected buildings.

Jean rapped on the splintered door with a gloved hand, the wood giving under the light pressure.

Rustling followed by a muffled shout came from within. Jean hammered the door with his fist, cracking the wood. He glanced over his shoulder at Bekir.

The porter shrugged.

A scream like a cat being eviscerated pierced the door. Jean motioned at the door; Bekir took one step forward, kicked the cracked and weathered wood off its hinges, and stepped inside.

“Very effective.” Jean drew a four-edged rondel—a family heirloom from the last century. He carried it for close-in fighting, and admired the threatening cruciform appearance it had when viewed from the point.

He followed the porter into the opening and was met with outlines and vague shapes. Most of the light came from the doorway, casting a rectangle deep into the room. An opening leading to another room at the rear lit a small square poking into the front room. A shadow moved from one side of the square to the other and back, reversed direction, and repeated the journey.

Bekir took position off to one side, impassive but alert. A thick coating of dust, presumably from sculpting, covered the floor and what little furnishings adorned the room. Those furnishings featured broken legs and arms, or filthy upholstery riddled with rips and tears. Lime, chalk and mustiness permeated the room, spiced with wafts of excrement.

The crack of a chair toppling followed by a metallic clank came from the adjoining room. Jean nodded at Bekir who took up position to one side of the rear opening.

Jean took the lead this time, and with his blade ready, edged through the opening. A woman rested there on her knees, hands to her face, sobbing. Beside her lay a wet-tipped stiletto. Motion above the woman caught Jean’s eye.

Bekir entered and stood beside Jean, keeping silent.

A man swung by the neck from an exposed beam. Blood soaked the cloth above the man’s hip and trickled from the dead man’s toes, painting crimson lines in the dusty stone floor as the body gently swayed back and forth in slow, easy circles. Light from a hole in the ceiling that probably once held glass illuminated the dead man as he swung.

“Antonius, I presume?”

The woman jumped, sucking in a quick gasp. “Who are you?”

Jean dropped the rondel in its scabbard, a small piece of leather that did nothing to cover the blade. He grabbed her under the arms and lifted. The solid clunk of a heavy object hitting the floor sounded.

He shoved her aside for a view of the floor. There, lying askew was a black sculpture of a falcon. The hanged man no longer held his interest, not with the flat black bird staring up at him—he’d found the figurine.

It was much larger than expected, roughly the length of a human head, but not quite as wide, and with a sizable square base covered on one side with the falcon’s tail feathers.

“Cut him down?” Bekir’s accent was thick, but in small doses, palatable. He positioned himself between Jean and the woman.

“Not yet.”

Bekir nodded.

An overturned chair lay ten feet from the swinging man and the stiletto lay beneath him. The chair had to have been used to aid the hanging, and the wet tip made the blade’s part obvious. The rest of the room was much like the front room—covered in dust and broken-down furniture. A rickety bench toward the back of the room held an unfinished bust and was littered with chisels and hammers. A large crack in the rear wall opened on a gloomy alleyway.

“Who are you?” The woman’s voice was husky and shared Bekir’s accent: two Turks in one day. How interesting.

Jean turned his attention to the woman. She was young, perhaps in her early twenties. A layer of white powder covered an olive complexion and permeated her black hair. Dark, red-rimmed eyes studied him as a single thick eyebrow arched, looking like a black caterpillar rearing up to sample a leaf.

“I know what he is.” She nodded at Bekir.

“Oh?” Jean asked.

“A slave. Much like I was.”

“You were Antonius’s slave?” Jean asked the woman, and turned to Bekir. “Cut him down.”

Bekir nodded.

“I asked who you were.” She clapped her hands together; white dust puffed in a cloud around them. Jean covered his nose and mouth with a gloved hand.

Bekir paused and turned, facing Jean and the woman.

Jean shook his head. “I’m afraid I’ll be asking the questions. You’re not in a position to demand anything from a knight of the order. I came here to ask Antonius a few questions, and he’s answered one of them.”

“And who was going to ask him these questions Antonius answered from the end of a rope?”

The young woman certainly had an easy way about her, despite addressing a man, a knight, someone clearly of higher station. Foreigners, and, furthermore, Turks on Malta never spoke to knights in this fashion.

Jean sighed. “I’m a knight.”

“Yes?”

Jean’s fist clenched, and he took a deep breath. This woman, this Turk, tested his patience—a virtue of his, one well known throughout the Order.

“This one is a filthy animal, a gypsy,” Bekir said. “Do not trust her.” He spat on the ground at her feet and turned his attentions to Antonius.

She lunged, but Jean stepped in front of her and shoved her to the ground. “That will be enough.”

She rubbed the small of her back and remained on the floor. She fussed with her hair; the nervous action gave rise to another white cloud.

“You screamed earlier,” Jean said, “but now you do not seem so upset over his death. I’ve a mind to arrest you.”

She wiped her cheek, leaving trails amidst the other lines of dust and tears crisscrossing her face. “I was his apprentice, Petek.” She sneered. “But he treated me like a slave.”

“An apprentice, not a slave. Isn’t that unusual? I must say it’s rather odd finding a Turkish gypsy apprenticed to an Italian on Malta.”

“And what are you? Frenchman? Spaniard? This isn’t your country either.”

“French, and on the contrary, His Holiness has granted the order dominion over Malta.” Jean stood over her, and behind he heard a snap and a thump as Antonius hit the floor. “Now, I’m known for my patience,” he said, “and tolerance, both of which you are testing. For a woman, a Turk, and a gypsy, you are taking great pains to insult the order. You’re a guest here, an apprentice learning a trade, and you’d do right by yourself to still your caustic tongue.” Jean raised a hand and waved for Bekir. “Other knights would have been less lenient I’m afraid—”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Anger flashed in her eyes.

Bekir stepped past Jean, leaned over, and backhanded Petek across the face. She crumpled to the ground. A fresh course of sobs followed.

“That will do, I’m sure.” Jean remained calm, but was mildly surprised at the casual violence. “Petek has this day been witness to the unspeakable.”

Bekir moved to stand behind Petek.

Jean scraped a rickety wooden chair, its white paint peeling, over the rough floor. The knight thanked the Lord he’d not worn armor today. He sat on the edge, ready if the wood gave way. “Tell me what happened.”

Her eyes narrowed, drawing her single, long eyebrow into the shape of a black chevron. “He hanged himself and robbed me of an apprenticeship. He was impossible and crude and abusive, and treated me like an animal.” She peered up at Jean from under the thick eyebrow, eyes wet. “He was the only one to recognize my talent and the only one who would agree to take a Turkish gypsy as an apprentice.” She stared at Antonius, reduced to a pile of robes on the floor, and spit. “He was a pig, and I stuck him like one.”

“So you murdered him?” Jean asked.

“No. I stabbed him because he’s dead. He abandoned me. I stabbed him because he treated me like an animal, but I did not murder him. He hanged himself, or maybe someone else snuck in here.”

“I believe you may be a fine actor given your background, but the scream sounded genuine, and your explanation of the stabbing is quite plausible. But tell me,” Jean said, “why would he hang himself?”

She turned her gaze on Jean, “Maybe it has to do with the falcon he sculpted,” and shrugged.

“I will think on that, but the reason for my visit was to make an inquiry regarding a figurine and my quest appears complete.” He flipped open the Hammett book and showed Petek the image of the Maltese Falcon.

“The one over there is a fake.” Petek laughed, albeit with a nervous edge.

“Bekir,” Jean said, “the figurine. Bring it to me.” Despite its size, the Falcon was lighter than expected.

“You don’t understand,” Petek said.

“Then tell me.”

“Can’t we leave this room? That body?” Petek’s gaze shifted from Jean to the pile of robes and back to Jean. “I have superstitions about such things.”

Jean pulled Petek to the other room and sat her on the ripped and torn sofa, but he remained standing, cradling the figurine in his left hand. It bore a remarkable resemblance to the one in de Paule’s book.

“Very interesting.” He turned over the figurine and examined its features. “Now, tell me everything. About this—” He faced the figurine toward her. “—and about Antonius.” He nodded toward the back room.

“I didn’t kill him.”

“That much I do believe. However, you expect me to believe you knew nothing of it? How could you not hear someone being murdered or being hanged? You would have heard someone shuffling about back there, even if you were sculpting in the front room.”

She shook her head. “There is much noise here, certainly you know this much. I didn’t hear you before you spoke.”

“Let’s say for the moment you’re telling the truth,” Jean said. “Why would he hang himself? Or, if he didn’t commit that sin against God, be the victim of another sin against God, murder?” He held the figurine before her.

“For the figurine, the falcon, but not the one you hold.”

“Speak plainly.”

“You’re holding a copy.”

Jean examined the figurine closely: along the left wing ran a thin, deep, incision. A damaged figurine as a gift to the Pope? Not likely. Perhaps this woman spoke the truth.

“There is another figurine,” she said, “but I know little of it, only that unlike the one in your hands, Antonius set many jewels in it.”

“That would explain his murder.”

She nodded, the black hair hanging before her face was matted with dirt and dust, creating a mushy paste of sweat and tears. “We both made a figurine based on the drawing in your book.”

Jean hefted the falcon, “So, this figurine may be a fake. Much depends on whether or not Antonius was murdered. If he was, then the murderer either knew this one for a fake, as you assert, or simply thought it was not worth stealing.”

“But—”

“Yes?”

Petek fumbled for words. “Antonius—he drank a lot, and told everyone he was sculpting an item teeming with jewels, commissioned by the pope.”

“Your explanation lends itself nicely to the theory he was murdered, but you would want me to believe some outsider murdered him, wouldn’t you? I’m not so sure. How would anyone know this one was the fake?”

“I know it is.”

“That’s because you supposedly sculpted this one.” Jean tapped the falcon. “No. I’ll be taking it back to the citadel.” He watched her face for a reaction: any sign of weakness or deception, but was met with only a blank stare.

For a woman, Petek displayed an even temper and recovered quickly from seeing her master swinging, and that concerned Jean. He sensed a deeper plot in motion, and suspected a read of Hammett’s book prudent before taking further action. Answers were needed before de Paule returned, and presenting a fake to the Grand Master would be a failure.

“I’m ordering you to the citadel two mornings hence. I’ll leave word at the main entrance in the square for you to be allowed entry,” Jean said. He’d also send word to prohibit her departure from Malta in case she decided to run.

Petek’s expression, though shielded with hair and covered with a dusty pallor, projected uncertainty and fear.

“You weren’t planning on leaving Malta any time soon were you?” Jean asked.

“I’ve nowhere else to go. But may I have your name?”

“Jean de Castellar. The guardsmen will certainly know it.”

“I’ll just ask for the patient and tolerant knight.” She smiled, splitting her bottom lip. A red slit shot across her dusty white lips.

“You could try that, though dour is becoming more and more appropriate.”

Jean, with Bekir trailing, departed the hovel with more questions than he’d brought. At least he retrieved a figurine, if not the Maltese Falcon de Paule coveted.

****

The sun brushed the edge of the sea, casting the alleyway in darkness. Having much to think on, the dimly lit pathways and long walk were welcome so long as Jean and Bekir could find their way back to the citadel.

Jean examined the figurine for a few minutes of the trek before handing the responsibility over to Bekir.

Petek claimed more than one figurine had been crafted, but the fact one rested before her while Antonius swung above puzzled Jean. It wasn’t plausible that she grabbed the figurine and then found Antonius swinging. No, more than likely the figurine was already at the dead man’s feet, but what did that mean?

Jean and Bekir reached an incline and climbed for the citadel’s gates.

A man lunged from a doorway. Jean’s hand flew to his rondel, but the lunge was not meant for him. Bekir gasped, and the figurine slid from his hands, and clunked against the cobblestoned walkway. The Turk went limp and toppled; his head bounced off a cobblestone, but that mattered little as blood sheeted down and off his side, gathering between the stones before trickling down the hill like red rainwater.

With his rondel readied, Jean circled away keeping Bekir’s body between him and the attacker. Jean’s only other weapon, Bekir’s blade, now rested beneath the dying man.

If the attacker was a common cutpurse, confronting so obvious a knight and his man-at-arms would mean death, but this man had dispatched Bekir with ease. No, the attack was about the figurine.

“Where is the figurine, the falcon?” the attacker asked. He wore all black from head to toe, with no hint of a white-collared shirt beneath. The attacker’s eyes sparked a hint of recognition, but the droopy mustache and long bead-strewn hair lent him a silly countenance Jean couldn’t place.

“You’ve mortally wounded a man in my service,” Jean said.

“A Turk, nothing more.” The attacker shrugged. He carried a long slender blade not unlike Jean’s rondel, but the man used his precisely—he’d downed Bekir with a single thrust. Jean was no novice with a blade, but in a fight with a far younger man and so obviously skilled, well, he understood his limitations in age and skill.

“There’s no need for further bloodshed,” Jean said, rondel readied.

A torch from above flickered in the attacker’s eyes, and as if in agreement, he pulled out a cloth and wiped the blade of Bekir’s blood. “I know who you are, knight, and I also know you’re a better swordsman than you’re letting on.”

“But I’m old, and I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” Jean said, one hand palm up and placating, the other grasping the rondel.

“I did, but no longer. I did not expect you to have Bekir with you,” the man said.

“I thought you a pirate, but you’re a man-at-arms?” Jean asked. The attacker’s familiarity with people from the citadel was at odds with his pirate-like appearance.

The man stiffened. “I’ve sinned, and yes, stooped to piracy, but I’m no man-at-arms.” He sniffed. “Enough, now where is it?”

Jean nodded at the falcon lying on the cobblestones.

“Not that one.” The man chuckled. “No. One that is more, let’s say, valuable.”

“So, you’re the one responsible for Antonius?”

“Another death of no consequence,” the one-time pirate said. “Now where is the figurine?”

“Why did you leave this one?”

The attacker huffed. “It’s quite clearly a fake.”

“And you thought Antonius knew where the so-called real one was? Tell me, what makes this figurine the fake, and why would you believe I have any idea where the jeweled one is?” Jean asked.

“Antonius crafted one as well as that Turk, Petek. Hers was not adorned with jewels, but Antonius’ was.” The man squinted and stepped back toward the doorway. “The fate of not only Malta, but Christendom is contained under the jewels and within the figurine Antonius crafted. It’s obvious to me now you know nothing of this and retrieved the wrong figurine. Thank you.”

Jean leaped over Bekir’s body toward the doorway, rondel ready. “You’ll need to come with me to the citadel.”

The attacker’s eyes widened at Jean’s sudden charge. The attacker stepped inside the doorway and shoved the thick wooden door closed as Jean hit the threshold with his right side. The knight cried out, thinking perhaps a rib or three had cracked, now regretting his lack of armor. His numbed fingers opened, releasing the rondel, which clanked against the stone entryway.

“Damn.” Time away from Malta apparently dulled his judgment. The weight on the door eased—the attacker must have fled. Jean drove his shoulder against the wood. Something hard smacked him on the head and he fell.

****

Jean awoke to watered wine splashing his face. Relief followed the shock when he recognized the pourer as a knight of the order. He sat up and briefly explained what had happened to his brother knight, who was clearly surprised over finding Jean, the seneschal of the order.

Jean caressed the tender spot left by the head blow, wishing he’d stopped the familiar attacker and one-time pirate. He’d fully intended on taking the man with him to exact judgment for Bekir’s murder. But now, with the man besting him and slipping away, and with night quickly coming, he decided the best course was returning to the citadel to study the figurine and read The Maltese Falcon.

The knight, assuring Jean that Bekir would be seen to, escorted Jean and the Falcon to the citadel.

****

Jean found Hammett’s story compelling, despite odd word choices and quite a few he either misunderstood or had little or no context to interpret properly. He discovered a few curious links to present circumstances, and a few ideas regarding his next course of action.

He snuffed out the lamp and stared at the darker shadow of the figurine, its outline a convincing representation of the bird of prey. As he lay in bed, he muttered a quick prayer for Bekir, but doubted his appeal would do the Turk any good upon meeting Saint Peter.

From there, the falcon dominated his thoughts. Based on his reading of The Maltese Falcon, he became certain the falcon in his possession was not a copy, but the only figurine, as in the outcome of the book. Now, Jean only needed to determine the parts each person played: the Turkish gypsy Petek, the mysterious pirate-like attacker, and de Paule’s ultimate goal.

He broke his fast the next morning in his chambers with the figurine for company. The falcon in Hammett’s book had been a fake, but people schemed, offered currency, killed, and even pretended love for a chance to uncover the treasure hidden beneath its veneer. In the book there had been no treasure, and knowing de Paule had read the manuscript, that was probably true with this figurine.

He’d taken his morning meal rather late, and the sun now pierced the window above, directly lighting the black bird. The incision running along the wing he’d noted the day before had both widened and deepened from hitting the cobblestones when Bekir dropped it. Jean peered more closely at the crack. Tucked within was a thinly folded paper.

“What the—”

Jean sat back, working his thin, short beard to a point. He snapped his fingers.

A toothpick.

Using the slender gold implement in this manner pained him, but proved effective. He poked the tip deep within the figurine, pierced the paper, and pulled it free.

“Oh, Lord.” Jean sat back, stomach roiling.

He held in his hands folded vellum with a red wax seal depicting a bas-relief of a man in a boat with a net—the Ring of the Fisherman. The man in the boat was Saint Peter. Urban VIII Pont Max arced across the seal’s upper rim.

The room’s heat intensified and Jean’s hands shook. His chest tightened as he traced the seal with his finger, studying the impression’s features, searching for any hint of forgery. He breathed deeply and using the toothpick lifted the seal carefully to keep the wax mostly unharmed.

He unfolded the vellum and there was no doubt he held in his hands a papal brief—it was far too small and plain to be a papal bull.

The inscribed Latin commanded the Knights of Malta to spearhead a naval offensive against the Ottomans. Jean studied everything from the seal to the language as well as dates and the quality of the vellum searching for evidence of forgery, but found nothing.

He sat back and rubbed his eyes. He absently stroked his beard and realized most of the day had passed during his hours of study.

The attacker from last night was mostly correct in his assessment: the fate of Malta and Christendom was indeed contained within a figurine. The belief that Christendom’s fate rested within a jeweled figurine was the attacker’s only mistake. Jean was in possession of the important figurine after all.

****

De Paule returned late on the day Jean discovered the papal brief and requested his presence the next morning in the Council Chamber for a full recounting.

Jean left word at the gate for the woman, Petek, to be brought up to the council chamber just before noon. He had arrived thirty minutes prior, and exchanged pleasantries with a dozen of his brother knights, all adorned in their council dress while Jean wore plain, but comfortable breeches and a doublet, long blade and rondel at his hip.

Why take the report before a group of high-ranking knights? De Paule must believe he knew the outcome and wanted witnesses. The Grand Master would have been better off meeting Jean privately if the discussion veered embarrassingly.

Petek arrived as expected, but the presence of her companion—the same man who murdered Bekir and confronted Jean in the alley two evenings prior, surprised him. Two guards in full armor accompanied them. He noted, with some satisfaction, both Petek and the man were bound.

“This is a surprise.” Jean looked at Petek and tilted his head toward the man. “He has a name?”

“I do,” the man said, “but I brought her here, caught her on the docks, leaving, and now I’m treated like a criminal along with her. Wait ”˜til the grand master—”

“You murdered my man-at-arms.”

“A filthy Turk,” the man snapped. “Our true enemies.”

A common sentiment throughout Christendom—and generally true. Individual Turks, however, were another matter—Bekir had competently and quietly served the order; his death unnecessary.

“I expected her today.” Jean glanced at Petek; she’d cleaned up and wore a loose, black covering knotted at one shoulder and a baggy white shirt underneath. Jean turned his stare on the man. “But not you. How friendly of you to turn yourself in.”

The man scowled.

“So, your name?” Jean leaned close to the man, and saw past the droopy black mustache and the beads tied in his hair. “Wait. Now I remember, you’re the exile, formerly Sir Rodrik. A brother. In the failing light the other evening I’d only a hint.”

The young man’s face reddened.

“Now this is extremely interesting,” Jean said.

The chamber doors swung open and the chatter within fell to whispers. Jean studied Petek and Rodrik, but spoke to the guards. “Bring them in upon my summons only.”

Jean paused beside an ornate table positioned before the chamber door and grabbed the cloth-draped figurine he’d placed there.

The council chamber was a long, narrow rectangle with rows of semi-cushioned chairs fronting a few rows of hard benches in the rear. A modest dais held the grand master’s seat at the head of the room. High walls led to a gold painted ceiling with rows of exposed beams across its width. Thin ornamental slats of wood fitted between the beams completed the coffered appearance. The air within was still and reeked of sweaty men and unlaundered clothing.

De Paule, seated upon a thick red-cushioned miniature throne, nodded at Jean.

“Your Most High Eminence,” Jean said, and de Paule nodded in assent. “I have news of the investigation you so cleverly charged me with, and I must say, I am most disappointed in its outcome.”

De Paule’s face was grave, but he displayed no outward signs of disappointment. “I see. You had no luck in retrieving the figurine. But what is beneath the cloth?”

“What lies beneath the cloth is the possible destruction of Christendom.” Jean rested his hand atop the covering.

De Paule’s hands gripped the arms of his chair, and he pulled himself forward on the cushion. “Explain yourself, knight. What sort of evil have you brought before us? I do not understand.”

“You will,” Jean said, “once I explain.”

De Paule rose to his feet. “Guards, reveal to us what our brother knight refuses to.”

Two grim-faced guards approached the table, ornamental armor clanking and rattling.

“I beg of you, Grand Master.”

De Paule sighed. “Tread lightly.”

“Your Most High Eminence, please indulge me a moment.” Jean gripped the figurine.

De Paule waved off the guards. “Hurry to your point.”

“I found a figurine, but this one,” Jean patted its top, “is a fake.”

The Grand Master sat back in his chair and puffed. He looked old; the lines on his face running deep with fatigue. “I thought for a moment you’d brought an artifact of evil before us.” De Paule brought a hand to the ornate crucifix dangling at his chest.

Jean nodded. “Nothing quite so spectacular as that, you have my assurances.”

“Then you did not locate the original?” de Paule asked. “But what am I to bear as a token of our order’s devotion to His Holiness, Urban VIII?”

“I’d think a gift secondary, considering the evil plot I’ve thwarted,” Jean said.

“Oh? You apprehended a thief, but recovering the falcon and its jewels was beyond you?”

“I caught a woman, Petek, a Turkish gypsy. I found her kneeling at the feet of the man you sent me to question, Antonius. He’d been hanged, but also perforated by a narrow, pointed blade.”

“Excellent work, brother.” De Paule smiled. “We cannot allow murderers to propagate on Malta, they are but another step toward the piracy in our future I so despise.”

“My heart is lightened to hear your view on murder. But there is more.”

“Yes?”

“I have in custody an exiled knight, Rodrik,” Jean said. “He is responsible for the murder of my man-at-arms, Bekir. He’s also admitted to acts of piracy.”

De Paule shifted in his chair, knuckles white from choking the throne’s arms. “And where are these criminals?”

“One moment, Grand Master,” Jean said, “I said earlier I found a figurine—”

“Yes, and apparently it’s under the cloth.” De Paule pointed at the covered object beside Jean.

Jean took a deep breath and prayed, hoping his next ruse of a second figurine would draw a reaction. “No, this one is the fake.” He patted the figurine. “The jeweled figurine is under the protection of my personal guard and on a ship to His Holiness. The jewels, however, must be hidden beneath a black veneer. I dared not disturb the veneer for fear of delivering a damaged figurine to His Holiness. But you have nothing to fear; His Holiness will receive your message, and your intentions will be quite clear.” Jean nodded toward the door at the rear and returned his gaze to de Paule.

“Clear the chamber,” de Paule said, surging from the throne. “Guards, clear everyone, save Jean.”

Jean’s ruse had indeed drawn a reaction.

Whispers blossomed as the door at the rear opened. Those whispers became mutters of discontent as perplexed knights exited the four side doors, boots scuffing the floor as guards ushered them out.

Jean’s eyes fixed on de Paule’s as the shuffling and clanking of the prisoners approached from behind.

The grand master’s face turned white, then sallow and sickly; he dropped into his chair. “What in the Lord’s name is happening? Rodrik? And the gypsy you mentioned?” De Paule studied them, but finally rested on Jean. “You overstepped your mandate.”

“Pardon me, Your Most High Eminence, of what are you speaking?” Jean asked. “I followed your directive, and now His Holiness will understand your devotion—the order’s devotion, will he not?”

“You—” de Paule pointed at Rodrik “—how did you let this happen?” De Paule turned his attention back to Jean. “Yes, I originally entrusted Rodrik with arranging the falcon’s creation and with the hiring of a suitable craftsman as atonement for his sins, but he obviously failed.”

“You entrusted an exile turned pirate with such a delicate matter?” Jean asked.

“He begged me for reinstatement,” de Paule said, “and I would acquiesce under the condition he complete a task for me. I never condoned murder.”

Rodrik’s face flushed. He lifted a hand as if to protest, chains clanking, but his bonds prevented the action.

Petek remained silent.

“Your Most High Eminence,” Jean said. “Grand Master, are you saying Rodrik is in your employ, and then ensnared you in some plot?” Jean prayed the grand master had been coerced or compelled, or that one of the prisoners would stumble, but so far, only de Paule showed signs of deception.

De Paule cupped his head in his hands. “Jean, you have erred. The falcon you sent back to His Holiness contained a private message. It was meant to—”

“—embroil us in war,” Jean said, finishing de Paule’s statement. He lifted the cloth from the figurine.

De Paule’s head snapped up. “You recovered the falcon? The message is not sent?”

Jean nodded, knowing he was taking a chance and that de Paule could still deny accusations. With hope that the grand master was still an honorable man with the good of the order guiding him.

Jean withdrew the paper poking from the wing and held the letter aloft. “This letter was meant to antagonize the Ottomans.”

“His Holiness has seen fit to engage the Ottomans,” de Paule said. “You’ve defiled a private message from His Holiness, Pope Urban VIII, meant solely for me.”

“No. I don’t believe so,” Jean said.

“Do not question me, knight,” de Paule said. “You forget your place, your station.”

“I’m afraid the forger made a grievous error,” Jean said. “The letter is not authentic, however, I’m certain the Ottomans would have overlooked that part.” Jean looked at the ceiling, praying he was right about the forgery. Another thought entered his mind— Richelieu. Perhaps de Paule and Richelieu conspired—a dangerous contemplation, and even though Richelieu ‘s power was thoroughly diminished, perhaps he conspired to reclaim his former prominence.

De Paule’s face was flat and without passion, as if resigned, but still Jean saw no clear evidence of de Paule’s wrongdoing.

Jean poked a little further. “You were using His Holiness as the instigator, and then, once the Ottomans attacked, the pope would be forced to send assistance.”

De Paule sat in silence, revealing nothing.

Jean pushed on. “And is it chance His Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu, sent you the manuscript and the reports foretelling the order’s bleak future?”

“I’ve not the energy for Cardinal Richelieu’s failed schemes,” de Paule said.

“But this one is a fake,” Petek said, ruining Jean’s momentum, “I swear there were two. Antonius and I both sculpted one. His had jewels.”

Rodrik, the exiled knight turned pirate laughed, as if he finally understood, and glanced at Petek. “You’re a fool, but I’m much more of one. The jeweled falcon never existed, only the imperfect scarred figurine Jean found in Antonius’s residence.”

“So, I was correct in my assessment,” Jean said, “there was only one figurine all along.”

Rodrik nodded. “Antonius lied, he merely told everyone, including Petek, he had crafted a jeweled figurine.”

Petek bit her lip. “My master was a lazy man of little ambition. I often performed his work. I’m not sure why I believed him this time, only that he spoke constantly of the falcon and its worth.”

Jean paced, hands clasped behind his back. “Did your master perform any work on the figurine?”

Chains clanked as Petek pointed. “The only bit of work he performed was to teach me the veneering. The cut along the wing I took as a sloppy finish for my sloppy work.”

Jean nodded. There was merit to Petek’s explanation. “Perhaps Antonius was murdered after all, especially if he espoused to all who would listen about the value of his non-existent figurine.” Jean ceased pacing, and faced de Paule. “Though I’m of the belief he hanged himself.”

“But you mentioned Antonius had been stabbed,” de Paule said.

“Yes,” Jean said, “but based on Petek’s story, she stabbed Antonius after the hanging. Once we’re through here we should release Petek and find her a new master.”

De Paule nodded. “I concur. Luckily the murderer is here.” His gaze shifted once more upon Rodrik.

Rodrik huffed. “Believing the falcon you have there to be a fake, I left it beneath Antonius’s swinging body. Had I known, this falcon and its message would be on its way to Murad and the Ottomans.” He sneered. “De Paule’s intention was to—”

“Be silent!” de Paule’s hands shook.

“You never intended me to find the falcon.” Jean crinkled the brief. “You used me to distract from your true purpose. My unsuccessful investigation would have allowed you to prove to His Holiness you intended the stolen figurine to be a gift if you were ever questioned.”

“Of what are you speaking? The idea is preposterous. I’ve not the imagination of Richelieu or cunning of Gaston,” de Paule said.

“Was I to be the scapegoat for the forgery as well?” Jean asked.

De Paule’s eyes twitched. “No, I never . . . ” And he wiped his face with trembling hands.

“The grand master’s intention was to incite the enemy.” Rodrik’s voice rose; one of the guards pushed him to his knees. “I am not alone in this,” Rodrik said, “I was acting under orders and I am not responsible for Antonius’ death.”

De Paule shot from the throne again and pointed at Rodrik. “No, but you are a murderer, and will be judged, even if the victim was a Turk. I decree on this day, the twenty-fifth of—”

“Wait!” Jean studied the papal brief once more. The date was the mistake, specifically the twenty-fifth.

“I will not be interrupted,” de Paule said. “On this day—”

“Silence.” Jean commanded, and blinked when no one spoke or moved. “This letter is a forgery and you have borne false witness, Grand Master.”

“How dare you? I am a cardinal, a prince of the church, and your grand master. You will be silent.”

“No. My apologies, Grand Master, but you lied. This brief is not from His Holiness,” Jean said. “The date on this brief uses the year of the incarnation, counted from March twenty-fifth and is used exclusively on papal bulls. A papal brief uses either the year of the Nativity, beginning the twenty-fifth of December, or—”

“—standard years beginning the first of January.” de Paule fell back on his throne. His crimson visage faded to a deathly white.

De Paule motioned the guardsmen to escort the prisoners from the chamber.

“Jean,” de Paule said. “Be reasonable. The good of the order depends on decisions we make right now. My time is limited. Richelieu made sure I knew my death was imminent by sending me the letters and manuscripts.”

“No,” Jean said, “not all of what you read will come to pass. I think he meant to incite you to action, even if that was before his fall.”

“I’m tired. Plots and machinations are for younger, healthier men. I desire to finish as grand master. Die as grand master.” De Paule shifted on the throne.

Jean stepped forward and placed a foot on the edge of the dais. “Tell me you were forced into this course of action.”

De Paule sagged. “Yes, Rodrik came to me with messages from Cardinal Richelieu, prodding me to action. Richelieu offered recompense and support for the order.”

Jean sighed in relief. “We must inform His Holiness at once. We cannot allow Richelieu to use the order for such purposes. I can deliver the message myself.”

“Very good,” de Paule said, but his eyes flitted back and forth and a fresh sheen of sweat coated his face.

“Grand Master?” Jean asked. “All is well, you’ve been coerced have you not?”

De Paule rocked to his feet, forcing the withdrawal of Jean’s foot from the dais.

“I cannot let you deliver any messages to His Holiness,” de Paule said. “I’ve been summoned for other matters and will inform him myself.”

“Thank you, Grand Master. I prayed for such an outcome, and must admit I believed the worst for a few moments,” Jean said. “I believe the order will thrive and under your leadership will flourish.”

De Paule stumbled backward landing on the throne. “I cannot do this any longer. Perhaps in my youth I’d have gone along with this. But Rodrik followed my commands and I should have known the plan would go awry.”

Oh, God. He is guilty after all. But Jean still hoped some coercion existed.

“I was only trying to ensure our legacy,” de Paule said.

“You mean your legacy.” Jean fought to tamp down his anger. “You were willing to forfeit the lives of others.” Jean turned his back on de Paule and wanted nothing more than to leave the council chamber, but paused and took a deep breath. “Remember this: For the wisdom of the world is folly to God. He traps the crafty in the snare of their own cunning.”

“An epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.” De Paule’s shoulders drooped. “I will resign. Like I said before, I’ve not the energy for machinations, or cleverness. Perhaps my time has come to an end and your tenure as grand master is upon us, unless the up-time histories are in error. But you’ll lead with honor, of that I’m positive.”

“No,” Jean said, “we should seek the guidance of His Holiness before proceeding. However, you’ll be confined until then.”

****

The sovereign council reconvened and sat for hours, and assured Jean he’d be named grand master once de Paule faced the Papacy’s judgment.

Afterward, Jean sat in silence, thinking. One fact was clear: investigations were a younger man’s game and not for someone of Jean’s age and station. No, he required an adjutant. Perhaps young Rodrik deserved redemption and another chance to serve the order, but first he’d suffer penance as a jailer at Chateau d’If . . . six months would suffice. Surely Jean could secure such arrangements.

Jean’s gaze fell once more upon the table. Only the simple black cloth remained atop its surface.

The Maltese falcon had been stolen. “So Hammett’s story now has some truth behind it after all. The figurine is lost.”

Jean often re-read not only Hammett’s story, but de Paule’s forged papal brief that had nearly brought ruin upon the Knights of Malta. Jean, the order’s new grand master took to heart the threat the Ottomans posed, but would prepare for a siege, not instigate one.

****