An Iconic Mystery

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Limoges Cathedral, France

February, 1636


"Glorious, Master Renoir, simply glorious," François de Lafayette said, trailing a finger down the palm-sized icon. "Their Majesties cannot help but be pleased when I present your gift to them at the christening."

Master Renoir bowed, his face hard as he bowed over his worn, but serviceable, workman's clothes. Renoir was a surprisingly thickset man, given his place as Limoges's premier artist in a craft that required delicate skill. It was also, Bishop de Lafayette thought, caressing his own fashionable costume, surprising that a head of an important guild had come in work clothes instead of the finery both the artist and his wife affected at Mass.

"If the child is born and lives, Monsieur de Lafayette. And is a Dauphin. Her Majesty has been pregnant before without a live child. What matters most to me, my lord Bishop, is how their Majesties will show their pleasure to Limoges," Master Renoir said gruffly.

De Lafayette sighed. If I could count the number of times I have tried, he thought, repressing the urge to run his hands through his thinning grey hair. Sighing, he smoothed his doublet over his belly. He was getting too old for this, de Lafayette told himself. Too old to do much of anything in a world that had turned upside down.

"Master Renoir," de Lafayette said, "I assure you I shall do my utmost for my beloved city . . ."

Master Renoir scowled at the icon, refusing to answer the bishop's obvious platitude, and tugged on his leather apron. That was deliberate, de Lafayette thought sourly. As representative (purely unofficial) of the town's enamel workers, Master Renoir should have presented himself in a doublet and pantaloons, the clothes he wore to Sunday Mass. But his worker's garb (which de Lafayette doubted he actually worked in) felt like a reminder that the Committees of Correspondence, if there were Committees in Limoges (or anywhere in France), were always there to rouse the disaffected.

Sighing, de Lafayette turned to the triptych.

It really was a masterpiece, de Lafayette thought. Not even the Byzantine or Russian masters of the Orthodox Church, or the up-timers of Grantville with their mastery of mechanization, could produce such a work—Saint Anne and Saint Martial on either side of the Virgin and Child, all created by Limoges's greatest enamel artists.

And the cathedral nave was the perfect place to admire such a treasure, de Lafayette thought. The glorious rose window poured light over the altar, bare at the moment of everything but the golden cross and the icon, as if God Himself was blessing the work of human hands.

No candles though, not during the day, even if it left the rows of benches worn smooth by generations of worshippers lit only by the light coming from the high gothic arches. If he could, de Lafayette thought, he'd replace the rood screen and the frescos on the Romanesque crypt with icons like these, maybe even a gilded iconostasis? But no, he decided for the hundredth time, his parishioners might think it too Byzantine.

"It may have been more appropriate," de Lafayette thought out loud, "for Saint Louis instead of Saint Martial."

"Saint Martial is the patron saint of Limoges and the name of our great abbey," Master Renoir said stiffly. "The guild felt . . ."

"Forgive me, Master," de Lafayette interrupted softly. "I agree with the guild's artistic judgment, of course. But perhaps the guild might consider a second commission? A private one, from myself, not as Bishop of Limoges?"

Smiling, de Lafayette put his arm around the master artist's shoulder. "Come, my friend, come. Let's discuss it over some refreshment. I have some excellent Bordeaux . . ."


Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges


"Gabriel-Nicholas de Traslage! Get down from there right now!" Frère Jacques shouted as he limped through the abbey gardens toward the boy, his Benedictine black robe flapping around his spare frame.

Gabriel grinned from a branch in the abbey's oldest apple tree at the edge of the apple grove. "I'm all right, Frère," he called down at the monk, swinging his legs.

"I don't care if you're the healthiest young man in France! I said get down! Not only is that tree older than you, but you're late for your Latin lessons!" Jacques called, waving a fist at the boy.

That tree really should have been cut down years ago, Frère Jacques thought crossly. It was old and twisted and hadn't borne fruit for years. It served no purpose but to give sanctuary to students who should have been in their lessons.

Gabriel groaned from his perch. He hated Latin, almost as much as he hated Mathematics and Fencing. "But Frère . . ."

"Don't 'but' me. Do I have to tell Father Pierre you're due an extra penance?"

Gabriel shuddered and launched himself out of the tree, barely missing the monk as he landed. Father Pierre's 'extra penances' always involved the wood paddle he kept in his office. Gabriel's friend Charles had nicknamed it Dante after the class had read The Divine Comedy.

"What is this?" Jacques said, picking up the tattered bundle of papers Gabriel had dropped when he jumped.

"Something I was reading . . . for Literature . . . Frère," Gabriel reached for the booklet, but the monk turned away too quickly, thumbing through the loosely-tied pages.

"The Hound of the Baskervilles? That doesn't sound like something Frère Michel would assign as class reading," Jacques said sternly.

"It's an up-time book by an Englishman," Gabriel said. "The main character is paid by people to investigate mysteries. This one's about a nobleman's estate that is haunted. Monsieur Holmes . . ."

"Ah," Jacques said, "it is one of their immoral novels." The monk shook his head. What were the young coming to, infected by this godless up-timer fiction? he thought. When Jacques had been a novice . . .

"No, no," Gabriel said, reaching for his booklet, "Monsieur Holmes uses the scientific method of observation to help. He frequently plays the violin to focus his thoughts, Frère Michel said . . ."

"That is not what I meant," Jacques countered, holding the booklet away from Gabriel's grasping hands. "Belief in ghosts and other so-called manifestations are superstition and heresy. It seems, young man, you need correction before you fall into serious error. I think I shall start by burning this piece of trash."

"Frère Jacques! Frère Jacques! You must come quickly!" Turning, Jacques frowned as a novice ran across Jacques's prize herbs, distracting him enough that Gabriel snatched his book from the monk's hand. Reaching out, Jacques caught Gabriel's arm as the novice stopped, panting on the path between the garden beds.

"What's the matter boy?" Jacques growled, scowling at the broom-thin novice's dirt-covered sandals.

"Frère Jacques . . ." The novice heaved as he bent over, placing his hands on his knees.

"Yes," Jacques said, annoyed at both the novice and Gabriel. "What is it?"

"The bishop is here, Frère! Abbot Daurat is calling the chapter!" the novice said, practically jumping up and down in his excitement.

"Yes," Jacques said dryly, "he does that frequently. Suppose you tell me why?"

"Bishop de Lafayette has arrived! There is important news!" the novice said, looking as if he was about to spontaneously explode.

Gabriel looked excited, too, which was bad, Jacques thought. Two seconds after he dismissed young Gabriel, the news that the bishop had arrived and the abbey chapter called would be all over the school, and it would be impossible for anyone to get the students to settle to their studies for the rest of the day.

Jacques sighed. "Gabriel, get to class. No, you may not have your book back, at least not yet. I shall turn this . . ." He waved the booklet. ". . . over to Father Pierre and see what he has to say. Now scoot!"


"It's in the chapel on the altar," Claude d'Aguesseau whispered to Gabriel. "I heard the bishop said an up-timer couldn't have done better."

"Of course not," Henri de Lafayette said indignantly. "The up-timers are good at machines. This is art, and Limoges is the greatest center of French art! Bertrand de Born . . ."

"Shut up!" Gabriel hissed, and not just because Henri tended to go on (and on) about Bertrand de Born as if the medieval troubadour was an up-time rock star. It wasn't as if de Born could compare to Queen anyway. Just because Henri was the bishop's great-nephew . . . Gabriel started as he realized he was tapping the rhythm to “We Will Rock You,” the song that a group of soldiers had shouted out at a recent handball game.

Trying not to make too much noise, Gabriel pushed open the door to the choir loft, and the three boys crept into the chapel and down the tight spiral staircase to the floor.

The chapel was dark, the sconces and candelabra making pools of light along the walls at each end of the aisle, and at the foot of the stairs, but leaving most of the altar in the shadow of the choir monk's stalls. There was some moonlight coming from the stained glass windows on the far side of the chapel, but not enough.

"Just like in one of our Mystery Book Club novels," Claude whispered to Gabriel and Henri. They nodded absently as they crept along the benches to the aisle.

"That's strange," Gabriel whispered to his friends. "Didn't you say Frère Joseph was supposed to be doing penance about now, Henri?"

"Novice David said the Abbot told Frère Joseph he was to pray for forgiveness all night for his blasphemy," Henri said.

"What did he say?" Claude asked with a smirk. He'd had to serve penance for blasphemy a lot lately, ever since their teachers caught on to what OMG meant. Claude claimed he'd heard the expression from a lefferti, but Gabriel suspected it was from one of the pamphlets Claude kept hidden under his mattress.

Henri shrugged. "I don't know. David just told me he'd be here now and I thought this would be a good time to come to see the triptych. You know how deaf Frère Joseph is and how he falls asleep at mass."

Gabriel nodded, and turned toward the altar. He wasn't really interested in the triptych itself, but in the adventure. But the triptych wasn't on the altar. Or rather part of it was. The frame was still there, but the jewels were gone, and only the center icon of the Virgin and Child remained.

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