He wants to go to St. Elmo. The other knights think he’s mad, mostly. He ignores them, and spends his time tagging after St. Priest, one of the messengers from St. Elmo, in hopes that he’ll ask the Grand Master for him. He’s new here, and has no chance of an audience with the preoccupied Grand Master. But St. Priest, who at twenty is two years older than Posa, is the foremost warrior. The others speak of him in reverent tones. His quiet intensity and perfect indifference to his own fate have won them all over.
St. Elmo is to be sacrificed, and St. Priest, though charged by the garrison with asking that the Grand Master permit them to withdraw, does not complain when his mission proves fruitless. He doesn’t join in the intrigues of the other knights, who seem to have forgotten that the Turk, and not the Grand Master, is the enemy.
It’s been a long time since Posa has had anyone to look up to, to learn from. In the Spanish court, he learned to value himself, to scorn the arbitrary hierarchy of rank and favor. The world of the Maltese knights is in strange in so many ways, and perhaps the strangest aspect is that people command admiration for themselves and not for how close they stand to the throne.
Of course, he’s not the only one who wants to spend time with St. Priest. There’s Crequi, a hothead a few years older than them, who’s always stirring up trouble against the Grand Master. Inexplicably, he’s attached himself to St. Priest; even more inexplicably, St. Priest seems to value his opinion. More than once, Posa’s been turned away by St. Priest, who’s in some urgent conference or passionate debate with Crequi.
He doesn’t like Crequi, and he gets the distinct impression that Crequi doesn’t like him either. And Crequi can be nasty to those he dislikes—he’s set about the absurd rumor that the Grand Master refused to listen to St. Priest because he had rejected his unnatural advances.
One day he asks St. Priest what he on earth he sees in Crequi, and is shot down immediately.
“Don’t talk like that of my friend, if you wish to continue talking to me.”
After that, Crequi corners him outside the mess room.
“St. Priest told me what you said.”
Posa reels inside, struck, but stares Crequi in the eye.
“You needn’t…look, I know you don’t like me. I know you think I’m an idiot and a mutineer.”
Posa doesn’t answer. He does think Crequi a fool and worse—the garrison at St. Elmo must be left to hold out as long as possible so that the fleet from Sicily can arrive, the fate of Malta and perhaps Europe hangs on it, and yet all Crequi can do is connive against the decision, throwing in with the rapist Romegas of all people in his war on the Grand Master.
“It’s not that I don’t understand the necessity of it. It’s that…it’s St. Priest. I can’t watch him die.”
He’s suddenly filled with understanding; after all, he couldn’t watch Carlos die, himself. You stood by while he was beaten in your place, a mocking inner voice replies, but he shoves it down. Crequi is sweating, and Posa hastens to reassure him.
“I misjudged you. I’m sorry. I have a friend like that too, in Spain.” Spain, the land of the living, and yet it seems a tomb compared to this island preparing to fight and die.
Crequi’s face relaxes.
“Good…good. Look, you don’t have to ask the Grand Master if you can go to St. Elmo. When the time comes, ask me.”
And on that enigmatic note, Crequi walks away.
The time comes. The Spanish ambassador, Montalto, is discovered to be a traitor, fanning the sedition against the Grand Master for his own purposes. St. Priest, who revealed the brewing rebellion to the Grand Master, is discovered to be the Grand Master’s son.
The Grand Master, whom Crequi had so recently accused of ruining the Order, offers to die with his son, and is only narrowly talked down. (He would have left Romegas in charge. That, Posa cannot understand.)
Chastened, everyone offers to take St. Priest’s place at St. Elmo. Neither St. Priest nor the Grand Master listens.
“The Grand Master is a better man than you thought,” Posa whispers to Crequi as St. Priest bids farewell to his newfound father.
Crequi retorts, “I was wrong about him. But I can’t hate him any less.”
St. Priest beckons to Crequi. Posa’s too far away to hear what they say to each other.
When Crequi returns, he says, “St. Priest thinks that’s the last we’ll see of each other. But it won’t be. I’m going to St. Elmo, whether the Grand Master likes it or not. Are you still game?”
They set off under cover of night, riding breakneck across the island. Soon they catch up with St. Priest and the other messengers returning to the fortress.
“Who goes…,” St. Priest begins, and then his voice drops to a hiss. “Crequi, what the devil are you doing here?”
“The same as you. Dying,” Crequi says bluntly.
“Who asked you to? Who asked you to bring a stripling fresh from the Continent with you?”
Posa bristles. “I did.”
St. Priest stares.
“Look, you don’t have a choice here,” Crequi says. “We’re coming with or without your permission. So don’t be an ass about it.”
Were the circumstances less serious, Posa would laugh at the idea of Crequi telling someone else not to be an ass about the situation. As it is, he holds his breath. He can’t read St. Priest’s expression in the dark, and when St. Priest turns his horse back around, he thinks it’s all over.
“Well, then,” says St. Priest over his shoulder. “I’m honored.”
St. Elmo. Dawn is still nowhere to be seen. St. Priest, as deputy commander of the garrison, has his own rooms. He tells Crequi to dump his gear there; Posa, meanwhile, acquaints himself with the fortress and its defenders. Soon enough, he’s conscripted into the watch.
Gazing out at the Turkish naval ships, he realizes as if for the first time that he is going to die. There are worse places to lay down one’s life than here, at the hinge, where the smallest weight matters. But he does wonder if he’s a fool, throwing his life away when he could have risen with Carlos, created a paradise on earth through his friend’s power.
If they lose here, sooner or later there will be no Spain to liberate, and if he had ignored the Grand Master’s call, stayed in Alcala with Carlos, he would have been no fit instrument for that liberation. No, he will have to trust his friend to carry through the plans they made together.
He wishes he could live to see it, is all.
Something moves on the water. A wave? Too large and too small at once, a distinct black shape against a blue-black background.
“They’re sending a party ashore!”
The other sentinels begin to fire upon the dinghy sneaking up to the rocky coast, but then another is spotted, and another; one of the guards sends Posa for St. Priest and further orders.
Posa slams through the door into St. Priest’s chambers, tears away the drapery hiding the bed from the rest of the room.
“The Turks have--.” He breaks off.
Crequi is here; that’s not shocking. What is shocking is St. Priest straddling him, naked.
They scramble to their feet when they see him, but make no attempt to hide what they have been doing; it’s a lost cause, anyway.
“The Turks have done what?” St. Priest inquires, as though everything that’s happening is quite ordinary. Posa can’t speak for betrayal. He had admired St. Priest, he had sympathized with Crequi. I have a friend like that too, in Spain. No. Not like that.
“The Turks have done what?” St. Priest repeats, raising his voice every so slightly.
Posa sputters, “They’re sending parties ashore under cover of night. How can you just--?”
St. Priest, having pulled on a doublet and hose, races past Posa out of the room.
Crequi remains. The older man breaks the silence.
“I’d say I’d kill you if you told another soul, but we’re all dead here anyway.”
Posa can’t imagine telling anyone what he saw here. What if the Grand Master knew how his son had fallen? It would destroy him. It’s one thing to sacrifice one’s son to the defense of Christendom, another to execute him for his crimes. Crequi is right; the ruins of this fortress will cover them soon enough. Let it—and their valor—bury their sins as well.
“I have to go back to the guard. You have my word,” he says, and leaves as quickly as his feet will carry him.
He doesn’t see them again until the night the fortress falls.
St. Priest is, as usual, in the thick of the fighting. He slays the treacherous ambassador Montalto, and the fire that lights the sky like a bloody dawn gives him a halo.
Posa would go to his aid, if he could figure out how to get there. He’s painfully aware that this last battle is also his first; he has no idea what he’s doing.
Someone shouts his name. He turns, sword drawn, and more or less by accident kills the Turk who was nearly on top of him.
Crequi has managed to reach St. Priest. Posa watches them, watches the Turks part before them like the Red Sea for Moses—then rush back together, surrounding the two knights. They’re constantly turning as they cover each other, the axis of a nonexistent wheel.
Crequi goes down first. St. Priest fights standing over the body, as though he dares anyone to touch it. The Turks have been beheading the corpses of the slain knights—a phrase from his schooldays comes to mind, Hector breaker of horses dragged behind a chariot.
He feels like he’s been watching Achilles and Patroclus take the field together, as they never did in the Iliad. They would have been perfect pagan warriors.
As heroes of Christendom they’re far from perfect, but they are, Posa realizes, what we have. He is watching from on high and St. Priest is fighting below, fighting like Michael the archangel. Posa thinks, so what if I don’t know what I’m doing? I owe them this much—to die worthy of their company.
He makes his way down from relative safety into chaos. Down here, it’s hard to tell who’s on which side—the knights are distinctive enough, but the footsoldiers could be anyone. He can’t see St. Priest anymore, can’t see what he’s aiming for. The fighting falls into a rhythm—danger perceived, fear clawing at him, desperate hacking, a moment of peace, then the whole cycle beginning again. The fear doesn’t go away, even though he knows he’s going to die and it’s only a question of how many he brings down with him.
Somehow he ends up on the other side of the Turkish troops without crossing St. Priest’s path. He soon realizes how: they’re not bothering with him, they’re hurrying to deal with the larger groups in the fortress. He’s too far out, overextended, and it’s saved him.
For now. A group of nine or so footsoldiers surrounds him before he has time to catch his breath. A few have drawn swords. He draws too, lightheaded.
Then one of them throws his sword into the sea and jumps in. Posa wonders if he thinks death preferable to capture by the Turks. Suicide is a mortal sin, but surely God will have mercy. For himself, he prefers to wait for death to come to him.
The man resurfaces, thrashing, and the others follow him into the sea. Posa watches, transfixed.
“Are you coming?” says the last one.
“Drowning’s a bad way to die,” he replies. So is waiting here till the Turks turn their attention to him. He’s about to head for the fortress when the footsoldier laughs.
“True enough, but staying here is sure death. Fort St. Angelo’s just on the other side of the harbor; we’re going to try to swim there.”
For the first time since he left Spain, he sees a path that doesn’t end in death.
“Go, I’ll follow. I have to find a friend.”
The soldier gives him a dubious look.
“I wish you luck,” he says, and disappears into the waters.
Posa finds St. Priest backed up against the remnants of a shattered wall, fending off a janissary. Posa’s blade is buried in the janissary’s back before St. Priest realizes he’s there.
“Come with me, quickly,” he says, grabbing St. Priest by the arm. “We’ve found a way to get to Fort St. Angelo. St. Elmo has fallen, you can do no more here.”
St. Priest smiles bleakly.
“Thank you, Posa, but I have nothing to live for.”
“Your father,” Posa flails. “Your father would…”
“My father has resigned me to God already. And it’s best for all involved.”
What does St. Priest want? To atone for his sins, to impress his father, to die a hero, to rejoin Crequi?
What does St. Priest want? It’s always been a mystery. They all want something from him, but what he wants, no one knows, and that gives him power.
“I’ll stay with you.”
“Don’t throw your life away. I have faith that you’re meant to do something else, something great.”
You’re saying that because you want me to leave, Posa thinks.
“And you? Aren’t you meant for something else, too?”
“Half of me is gone already,” St. Priest says, looking out over the harbor. “You have a friend in Spain who would be grieved to hear of your death.”
Carlos and I are nothing like you and Crequi, Posa thinks, but doesn’t say. What he says instead is true as well, though.
“I would be grieved to hear of yours.”
“Rodrigo…I….go. Go now.”