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The Guide of Time: Book I and II

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The Guide of Time

Book I: The Journey

Book II: The Discovery

By: Cinzia De Santis

The Guide of Time.

Book I and II

ISBN-13: 978-9956282-5-0

Copyright @ 2017 Cinzia De Santis

All rights reserved

Shakespir Editions

License Notes

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

Most of the characters and events

in this novel are fictitious.

Some of them are not,

and readers will know which is which.

Book I: The Journey

Prologue: How it all began

London, present day

The elderly editor, beard now grey, was staring at the document in his hands. For the first time in his publishing career, he was lost for words. In the chair opposite him, an old woman was smiling at him, almost as though she was enjoying his discomfort. He raised his eyes and frowned at her. Her name was Ariane Claret. The thought crossed his mind that she must have been a beautiful woman when she was young.

—Is all this true? I mean, did it really happen?

—Yes, it’s true —she said calmly.

—How can you prove it? How can I make sure what you have given me is real? We don’t publish fiction, you know. We publish science books, proper science.

—Some of the book is about historical events. You can check the facts on them yourself.

—Yes, I’m not worried about the verifiable events, but what about the rest?

The woman shrugged her shoulders.

—The rest is true as well. Publishing the book would announce what is starting to happen. It’s the right time.

—Are you one … one of them?

The woman chuckled, and the editor couldn’t help but think that whatever the truth, she was a most intriguing woman.

—No, I am not one of them —her face was suddenly serious—. But I know them well.

—Aren’t you afraid this story might make you look ridiculous?

—At my age, I have nothing to lose, and besides, the events to come will prove me right. But let me tell you how it all started. Even if I can’t convince you, let me at least try to entice you.

***

Siberia, Ice Age

It was winter, an unusually cold winter, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that Huuks and his tribe finally reached the cave. The older people had slowed down their progress, and two women had given birth during the journey. Huuks knew they were still being followed, but at least he had now found some temporary safety. They were running away from the Nuwooks, a fierce tribe that was rapidly expanding across the steppes where Huuks used to live. The Nuwooks were faster and stronger, and they had more powerful weapons; worst of all, they were cannibals. They massacred all the males in the tribes they conquered and took the women. Huuks knew his tribe was in mortal danger.

Although it was the coldest time of the year and they had little food for the journey, in the middle of the night they had left their settlement and headed for the mountains where they could hide.

Huuks had recently become the leader of his tribe when his father was killed by a mammoth. He was ready to take over: he was the most skilful hunter and the best fighter. But Huuks was more than that, much more. He could find his way through forests and across open plains just by listening to the sounds of the Earth; he knew how to soothe physical pain by using his hands; he could smell a plant and tell whether it was poisonous or edible. Often he woke up in the middle of the night with visions of things that went on to happen. He could anticipate when his tribe was at risk from enemies or when a place wasn’t going to provide enough food. Thanks to Huuks, his tribe had survived while several others had perished.

Huuks was also intensely curious. He studied his surroundings, and while his followers took most things in nature for granted, he wanted to know more. He was mesmerised by the bright points above his head in the otherwise blackness of the night, the water falling on his face when the sky thundered, the swish of the air when it crossed the forest, the beauty of a flower, the harmony of a bird’s song. Sometimes the world scared him, but mostly he was in awe.

He had discovered the cave by chance some time ago after leaving his tribe temporarily to follow a strange deer with only one horn. It was a beautiful animal with thick white fur. Huuks had never seen anything like it before, and the white deer seemed to want to be followed.

Huuks chased it across the steppes and into a forest, where he headed for some thick vegetation and pushed it aside to reveal the entrance to a cave. Cautiously, Huuks peered inside, but it was too dark to see anything. Just as he was about to turn away, he saw two bright eyes staring at him from the darkness.

Huuks was startled; those didn’t look like deer eyes. A moment later, they disappeared, and he was left puzzled and even more curious. But Huuks had to get back to his tribe. As he turned to leave, he failed to notice a big rock at his feet; he tripped, fell to the ground and lost consciousness.

When Huuks woke up, he was outside the cave, his head aching. He had to return to his tribe, but he would remember the way to the cave. When the time came to run away from the Nuwooks, he chose to lead his tribe to it.

Now they were there, hungry and cold, but at least they were safe. It was pitch black when they arrived. The tribe shared some raw meat and roots, and soon the women, the old men and the children were asleep. Huuks and the other young men in the tribe stayed near to the entrance of the cave, ready to protect them. Huuks himself slept outside the cave. Not even the Nuwooks could take away from him the joy of looking at the bright spots of the night.

***

Many miles underground, in a bright room with monitors covering the walls, and dominated by a control centre, Huuks and his tribe were being watched. A dozen people dressed in bright metallic clothes were staring at the screens, noting every movement in and around the cave. Their features were similar to those of the people they were watching, though their eyes were brighter and their frames slimmer; after all, they had a common ancestor. But mentally and emotionally, they couldn’t have been more different. The Seers’ society had evolved through knowledge and collaboration, based on harmony and mutual support, unlike other species of humans. They were a peaceful nation, free of crime, where greed and desire to dominate were unknown. The Seers could foresee events that would harm them, and that was a reason why their lives were much, much longer.

—They have arrived —said Ammuri, in a calm voice. He was operating the monitors and shifting the focus of the cameras to different parts of the cave, paying particular attention to Huuks.

—It’s time —said Hospere, an elder woman with deep blue eyes and obviously in charge—. Are you ready, Ammuri?

—Yes, I am.

—Are we sure this is the right decision? —intervened Ristiori, his challenging tone filling the room. His opinion mattered, not least because he directed all the surface expeditions and had himself been “up to the outside” on several occasions, but this time it would be different. Ammuri would face new risks he might not be ready to deal with.

—We made the decision a long time ago, Ristiori —replied Hospere, her voice quiet but firm.

Ristiori looked at her, wanting to insist on his point, but he sensed her determination and the mood of the others in the room and bowed his head in agreement. He knew that the decision had been taken and he felt deep respect for Hospere. Still, he was worried about the consequences of getting in touch with such a primitive species. The Seers didn’t use any form of violence against themselves or others, and they abhorred the killing of living creatures. It was against their laws, and it was against their nature. But humans on the surface usually reacted violently to other species, which they considered a potential threat.

—They need us —continued Hospere.

—It’s hard to believe they are still so backwards —murmured a young woman sitting by Ammuri’s side, hypnotised by what she saw on the screen in front of her.

—We were able to develop a more advanced society —said Hospere—. Other species of humans couldn’t. It is time for us to intervene in their evolution and help them choose the right path. We need to make sure the planet is safe both for them on the surface and for us underground.

A hum of excitement spread across the room. After thousands of years, this would be the first time that one of them was leaving the world they had created underground to make contact with the humans on the surface, and the prospect was both thrilling and scary.

After a moment of shared exhilaration, Ammuri returned to his more pragmatic concerns. For the umpteenth time, he ran through his mental checklist of the expedition he was about to embark on. Although he had gone through rigorous training to prepare for this mission, he had spent nearly all his life in a world of shadows.

The sunlight at the surface could have devastating effects not only on his eyes and skin but also his vital organs. But the top danger would be oxygen concentration, which he knew could easily damage his lungs. He would have to give himself plenty of time to adapt, and he would have to rely on specialised equipment. He knew that the next few months – years? – wouldn’t be easy, but he was thrilled that he would be the first of his kind to make contact with humans.

Ammuri —said Ristiori, interrupting his thoughts—, we will be following you closely. Make sure you are always in touch with us, even when you are asleep. If at any point you feel you aren’t safe, you will come back. Likewise, if I ever feel you are not safe, I will order you to return.

—I understand, and I will do as you say —replied Ammuri, as he turned around and looked again on the monitor at the place where he had to venture.

—It’s time for us to share the news with the Council of Elders and the rest of our community —said Hospere as she walked out of the room with others. She looked at Ammuri and smiled. She knew what he was thinking, and she was pleased.

A light vehicle was waiting outside the room to take Hospere to the Council of Elders, the seat of the Seers’ Government, a few hundred miles away. After a quick journey through the well-lit tunnels, she entered a six-storey building where the Elders —the ruling body of the Seers, chosen from the wisest among them— were waiting for her. They greeted her enthusiastically; they had been waiting for the news for a long time.

—This is a crucial moment in our history and in the history of humans —Hospere began—. One day, when we are able to reveal ourselves, this will be remembered as the beginning of a new era for the Earth. We have identified the individual we want to contact. He is the leader of a small tribe that lives in the steppes, and Ammuri will soon to go to him.

A murmur ran through the room. Hospere continued:

—As you know, we agreed this was the right decision. It’s in our nature to share knowledge and to seek improvements in our lives until we are called to the Higher Light. Also, we are inhabitants of the same planet as the people on the surface. We have always made sure that what we do does not threaten life on the surface, and in the same way, we don’t want their life to threaten ours. Our mission is to guide other species of humans to their bright destiny and steer them away from the darker path. They need our influence, our help.

The Elders rapidly blinked their eyes to show their excitement.

—This news fills our hearts, Hospere —said one member of the audience—. What will be the first step we will take? What will Ammuri teach them?

Hospere’s reply was brief.

—How to produce fire.

***

After several days in the cave, Huuks felt that for the time being, they were safe from attack. But they were starving and, above all, terribly cold. Some children and elderly people had already died. At night, he and a handful of other men stole out of the cave to go hunting, but they hadn’t killed enough to feed everybody or to get enough furs to warm them up. One night, after another unsuccessful hunt, Huuks was lying outside the cave staring at the bright spots in the sky when he saw a light approaching in the forest. He grabbed some stones and threw them towards the light, but nothing happened, and it kept getting closer. The glow was yellow and intense. When it was just a few metres away from the entrance to the cave, the light stopped. Huuks was scared but intrigued. He had seen something similar before, but never that close. He walked cautiously towards the light. As he got closer, he realised it was coming from a small bunch of sticks and leaves. He reached out to touch it and felt a searing pain in his hand. His first impulse was to run away, but despite his throbbing fingers, his curiosity got the better of him. He walked towards the light again, and this time he came closer without touching it. It felt nice; his body was feeling more comfortable. As long as he didn’t get too close, the light made him happy.

All of a sudden, he was overcome by tiredness and lay down on the ground. He was used to sleeping only lightly, always alert in case of a predator or an enemy. But this time he had one of his vivid dreams: he saw a strange figure looking at him, holding two sticks of wood that he started rubbing together. In Huuks’s dream the sticks began to produce the same light he had seen in the forest. The strange figure put the light on a small bunch of dry leaves, and it flared up, so big that it seemed to reach the sky. The figure put his hand towards the fire, and he smiled.

Huuks woke up immediately, and there was the light, still in front of him. In the darkness, he looked for pieces of wood like the ones he had seen in the dream. Then he started rubbing one against another. For what seemed like age, nothing. Just when Huuks was thinking of giving up, there suddenly was the light! His triumphant howl reverberated through the forest. Many miles underground, watching the monitors in their meeting room, Hospere and the Elders were excited too. The first step to guiding mankind had been successful. The dynasty of the Guides of Time was born.

***

When she finished telling the story, Ariane looked at the editor and asked with a smile:

—So, have I convinced you? Have you decided what to do?

The old man gazed at her. He noticed the brightness of her eyes, glowing like green stars even in the afternoon twilight.

—I am going to read the manuscript again, and then I will give you an answer.

—Okay —she said, standing up—. I’ll wait for your call.

With as much eagerness as he’d ever felt before, the editor turned over the first sheet of the document and began to read.

Chapter 1

Bormia (Malta), present day

The first memory I have of my childhood is the smell of detergent. In the orphanage where I grew up, the nuns who ran it were as strict about hygiene as they were about their religious duties. Cleanliness was the eleventh commandment. Perhaps they thought it would banish all the smut and sin from the minds of the young girls who lived there.

The orphanage was a two-storey building in a wood on a hill, next to the convent where the nuns lived. The closest village, Bormia, with its white houses and cobbled streets was half an hour away, near a sandy beach where, on special occasions, the nuns would take us to spend the afternoon.

The sisters told me I was born in September, but they didn’t know the exact date. My mother had given me away soon after I was born and then disappeared. The nuns called me Ariane and registered my last name as Claret, the name of the saint protector of the order they belonged to. There were usually about 20 girls in the orphanage, and all of us longed to find a family who would adopt us. Sunday was the day that might happen —the parade, we called it— and our hopes rose as the end of each week drew near. I must have been about three when I first went on the parade —or at least this was the first time I can remember. A nun came to collect me from the dormitory and, in silence, I walked along the long corridor to the visiting room, holding her hand tightly.

It wasn’t long before those visits became a real torment. Nobody wanted to adopt me. Once I heard a nun saying it was because I was too different. I looked in the mirror: with my red curls, pale skin and dull green eyes, why would anyone want me? In a country full of light and colour, of people with brown skin and coal-dark eyes, I was just too odd.

Once I thought I had got lucky. I spent a few days with prospective parents. But then they took me back to the orphanage, and shortly afterwards chose another girl. For nights on end, I cried myself to sleep. Then, as I was getting over that sadness, Alma came running into the dormitory and threw her arms around me:

—I am leaving, I’m leaving! —She cried with excitement.

Alma had grown up with me in the orphanage. She was my only friend.

—When? —I asked, my heart sinking. I had seen too many times other girls in the same mood, their happiness matching my own gloom.

—Soon, I’m going to another country, with snow and lots of toys —Alma said, jumping up and down. Then she stopped and looked serious for a moment:

—Can you come with me?

—I don’t think so —I replied, holding back tears.

—I’ll come back for you —Alma said, a big smile on her face—. You will come and live with me.

The day Alma left, I stayed up late looking out the dormitory window, waiting for her. I waited for months, but she never came back.

It was during that period, though, that I made a new friend. I had just fallen asleep, troubled and unhappy when I was suddenly aware of somebody standing by my bed. I saw a slight figure, with plaits in her hair and a finger to her lips smiling at me.

—Sshh —she whispered—. You must be Ariane. My name is Eliza.

I wondered if I was dreaming. She was a complete stranger but seemed to understand my surprise.

—Don’t be scared —she said—, I know you have never seen me before, but I sleep during the day, and the nuns don’t know I’m here.

—Are you also waiting to be adopted? —I asked.

—No, I am here just to be your friend —she replied—. Look, I have a lizard in my pocket.

Eliza produced it, bright green in the moonlight, and put it on the floor. She gave it some food and said:

—His name is Lucky.

—Can I touch it? —I asked, fascinated.

—I have one for you —she said, putting her hand in her pocket again—, yours is blue.

The second lizard looked at me, almost as though it wanted to say something.

—What’s his name? —I whispered. —Theodore —she said—, but you can call him Theo. Then she rushed away from my bed. I thought I must have been dreaming, but Theo was definitely there. I put him carefully in a box, and the next morning I brought him a grasshopper I had caught outside. I spent the rest of the day longing for the night when Eliza might visit me again. I could hardly wait to see what would happen. And sure enough, Eliza suddenly appeared by my bed, just as she had done the previous night. This time I was wide awake. She had a frog for me, she said, and over the next week, it was followed by mice, worms and even a little bird. And in a way that I couldn’t understand, they all seemed to do whatever she asked: the frog jumped high, the mice ran round in circles, the worms coiled up.

Eliza told me the story of her fascinating life. During the day, she went to the village and stayed with a very old lady —hundreds of years old, she said— who taught her how to speak to animals. Also, the woman taught Eliza how to read minds. In fact, one of our favourite games was for Eliza to guess what I was thinking.

—A chocolate cake! —she said the first time we played. She was right. I had once eaten some delicious chocolate cake on a brief outing with a family that might have adopted me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I decided to mention Eliza to Sister Ines, the only nun I trusted, but she looked at me as if I were crazy. After that, I didn’t tell her about the little zoo under my bed, and for some strange reason, the nuns never found out.

One Christmas, women from the village, came to give us used toys. I wasn’t impressed by the dolls or the small saucepan, but then I saw a little piano on the floor. The other girls fiddled with it for a while, before turning their attention to the dolls.

I touched one of the keys, and then another, and the sound that came out of it seemed like magic. I started spending every minute I could with the little piano, and it didn’t take me long to start playing the notes of the hymns we sang in church. Sister Ines —before becoming a nun, she had dreamt of being an opera singer— was in charge of the convent’s choir and encouraged me to keep practising. I was fond of Sister Ines, despite her appearance. Her skin was grey, she wore thick glasses sitting on a huge nose, and her teeth stuck out so much that she couldn’t actually close her mouth, but she had a gentle soul. We all thought she looked like a mouse, and some of the naughtiest girls used to creep up behind her and lift her dress to see if she had a tail. Sister Ines of the Order of the Rat, they called her, but to me she was special. She got permission from the Mother Superior to let me practise on the piano in the chapel and began teaching me the little she knew about musical theory. In the library, I found an old book of music, which I studied every night.

Thus it was, in a world of grey habits, a pervading smell of detergent, and the joy of musical scores, that I spent the early years of my life.

Chapter 2

Delos (Greece), 4th century BC

Pyros was walking on the dirt track that led to the top of the hill, not suspecting for a moment how his life would change that day. He was going to give a lecture on astronomy to a group of scholars and was hoping for a lively debate, nothing more. He stopped to savour the view. He had walked this path for years, but the turquoise sea splashing gently onto the white sand still mesmerised him.

***

Pyros was born in 312 BC in Lefkada, an island in the Aegean Sea. His father was a famous mathematician and his mother an Egyptian slave who, having cured her master after a poisonous snake bite that should have killed him, won his gratitude and then his love.

Pyros grew up among quadrants and medicinal herbs, surrounded by the beauty of the island, learning from his father the harmonious arrangement of the universe and from his mother the mysteries of nature.

Lefkada was on the route of the spice trade between Asia and the West. The two cultures mixed easily in the island, and Pyros grew up nourished by both. As a child, he was eager to learn and showed a particular interest in science.

When his father could teach him nothing more, Pyros set off on a journey to acquire knowledge, travelling to Babylon, Egypt, India, Central Asia and beyond. Everywhere he went, his remarkable mind soaked up facts and ideas. He learned that the most advanced societies had knowledge and wisdom at their core.

His passion for science grew stronger, and in his discussions with mathematicians, astronomers and students of nature, Pyros found the answers to many of his questions.

After many years, he returned to Lefkada where he devoted himself to spreading the knowledge he had acquired. A captivating speaker with a rigorous mind, it didn’t take him long to find disciples. He endorsed scepticism, but on one point he was adamant: knowledge should be accessible to all, rich and poor, slaves and freemen. Mankind couldn’t progress if education were reserved for a few.

Following the example of the Egyptians, Pyros established the first public library in Greece. The Houses of Books, as he called them, soon started spreading throughout the Mediterranean. One of their main activities was to transcribe and copy every parchment so that whenever a new idea was generated, it was quickly shared amongst the Houses. Pyros became one of the best-known scholars of his time, and his prestige attracted others from across the ancient world.

That day in Delos, when he got to the House, his audience was already waiting for him. Shortly after he started his lecture, while he was talking about planetary rotation, a stranger joined the group. He had a weather-beaten face and grey hair and was dressed in a sleeveless white tunic that revealed his muscled arms. In his right hand, he held a cane with an ivory top. Pyros was explaining how the Sun rotated around the Earth when the old man interrupted him in a clear and loud voice:

—It is the Earth that rotates around the Sun.

The audience turned around to look at him disapprovingly. Who dared to contradict the great Pyros? For his part, Pyros wasn’t bothered at all. He asked the stranger to elaborate.

—The simple explanations are the closest to the truth —the old man said, his voice firm and confident—. If the Sun did rotate around the Earth, the other planets’ orbits would be epicycles, quadratics and other very complicated curves. Even the seasons’ changes can be better explained if we assume that the Earth rotates around the Sun.

—What are you talking about? —Someone in the audience interrupted—. It is obvious that the Sun rises in the East and disappears in the West. Only if the Sun rotates around the Earth, we can explain the movement that we see every day.

—Then, why does the Sun come up and go down at different points on the horizon, depending on the time of the year? —asked the foreigner calmly—. And why do the planets appear in different positions in the sky?

—How do you explain that we can’t observe any movement of one star relative to the other? —asked Pyros, genuinely curious and well aware that the calculations made by astronomers were often contradictory—. If the Earth rotated, we would see a different sky every night.

—Because the stars are much farther away than we can imagine and their relative movements can be perceived only with unique instruments —replied the foreigner, with a smile that suggested he enjoyed being controversial.

There were murmurs of disapproval from the audience, but the stranger continued.

—You, Pyros, say that we need to be open to new ideas.

—Yes, as far as there are facts to support them —replied Pyros—. What you are saying is a hypothesis that cannot be proven empirically.

The man picked up a bag he had been carrying and brought out a tube with lenses of different sizes. He held it up to show to the audience.

—This instrument allows one to see what the human eye can’t reach —he said, passing the tube to Pyros—. Look from the smaller end.

Pyros was surprised how clearly he could see the details of Athene’s Temple, more than 20 kilometres away: the shape of the columns; the stairs; he could even see the different types of flowers in the garden. With the scornful muttering continuing in the hall, Pyros looked in amazement through the tube.

—At night you will be able to see better, and you will understand what I am talking about —said the stranger.

—You haven’t told me your name and where you come from —said Pyros.

—My name is Elom and I come from a country you have never heard of.

Then, walking towards the door, he turned back, looked at Pyros and said:

—Tonight you can verify what I am saying. I will see you at sunset.

He left the room and the audience buzzed with conversations: who was that lunatic? Where did he actually come from? What was in the tube? But Pyros himself wasn’t paying attention. He was intrigued by this mysterious tube that somehow shortened distances. After finishing his lecture, he spent the rest of the afternoon trying to understand how it worked.

When the sun started to fade over the horizon, Elom arrived, as he had promised.

—Here you are, Pyros, your curiosity is stronger than your students’ prejudices —he said, laying out on the floor several drawings of the Sun, the Earth, the planets and other stars that Pyros didn’t recognise.

Elom explained how he had arrived at his theory of the Earth’s rotation, the calculations he had made, as well as the new planets and stars he had discovered. Pyros stared at the drawings. If, as Elom said, the stars were so far away, then the universe was much bigger than anybody had ever imagined.

They spent the whole night in deep conversation, using Elom’s tube to scan the sky. It was almost dawn, and while Pyros was trying to capture the last gleam of a star, Elom said:

—It is not only about astronomy that I came to talk to you.

Pyros kept his eyes on the sky and replied:

—What do you want to talk about, Elom?

—I have known of you for a long time.

—Am I really known in your land? —asked Pyros, curious.

—Yes, my people do know you. We have been following your progress.

Pyros put down the tube and looked at Elom, startled.

—How do they know me if you tell me that you come from a country that I haven’t heard of?

—Listen carefully, Pyros, because what I am about to say will be hard for you to accept, but it will set the whole course of your life —Elom paused—. You are not the same as the rest of the people; your bloodline is different. You are one of us, your destiny is extraordinary, and you have a great mission ahead of you.

—I still don’t understand you, Elom. I was born from a man and a woman, just like everybody else. I am not different, I can’t be different. Besides, I don’t believe any mission is more important than the Houses of Books. Don’t you agree? —Pyros picked up the tube again, hoping to end this awkward conversation.

—You have seen extraordinary things on your travels —replied Elom calmly—, powerful civilisations that have made progress thanks to knowledge.

—That’s exactly what I am trying to achieve with the Houses of Books —Pyros was starting to sound annoyed.

—There is something else you can do.

—What?

—The reality is richer and more extraordinary than you can imagine —said Elom—. The laws that govern the universe are infinitely complex and harmonious.

—I still don’t understand what you are saying.

Elom paused for a moment and then continued:

—Your mission is to guide mankind to its enlightened future. Human beings are capable of great ideas and achievements, but they need to be guided, they need to be inspired. Their destiny is to pierce the veil that separates the visible from the invisible, and thus to know the truth about life. You and I, our race of Guides, we facilitate that process. Our work takes many forms, but we work underground, and everything we do is anonymous. We are here to inspire generations of men and women to make the necessary changes for mankind to progress. Sometimes our enemies delay us, but they can’t stop human progress.

—I think you are starting to talk nonsense.

Elom took some stones from his robe, threw them to the ground and immediately water started to seep up through the earth.

For a few seconds, Pyros was speechless, suspecting a trick.

—Check it yourself —said Elom—. It is water, pure water, and it will turn into a spring and then into a river and people will come looking for relief for their ailments.

Suspiciously, Pyros scooped up a handful of the water that had sprung from the earth and took a sip. It was water, undoubtedly, but there had never been a spring here before. Elom continued:

—Also, Pyros, you have certain peculiarities. You may already have noticed that you don’t age like other people. Some of your younger followers look much older than you do.

Now Pyros was actually startled. It was true, he was ageing differently. As he had never paid much attention to it himself, he had put it down to frugal living. But anyway, how could Elom know?

—Even if I wanted to believe what you are saying —Pyros said, visibly angry—, you didn’t answer my question. What do you mean when you say I am different? Who are these Guides you talk about, anyway?

—Your bloodline belongs to another race, but it was dormant in your ancestors. There are others like you —other Guides— and in time you will meet them.

—So who are you then?

—I am the Guide of Time —said Elom, his voice quiet and severe—, and your destiny is to become the Guide of your time. That means your mission goes beyond the Houses of Books. The day will come when I will have to leave, and you will be my successor, and you will find your successor too.

—I really don’t understand what you are saying, and I don’t know what you want from me. I have met many charlatans in my life. Why should you be different?

—This is for real —replied Elom—, just as the water at your feet is real. Your passion for learning and teaching comes from your true essence, what is inside you. It is the inspiration that has guided your steps since you were born. If you weren’t so passionate about your beliefs, if your intentions weren’t pure, I wouldn’t be talking to you.

Pyros was silent for a while. He wasn’t sure if he was talking to a skilful lunatic or somebody quite exceptional.

—If I accept what you have said, what should I do about it?

—When you are ready, you will follow me, and I will teach you. But I’m not in a hurry, I want you to take your time. For now, you will see life in a different way. Many things will start happening, and you will find new answers to your questions.

—It doesn’t sound very convincing.

Elom roared with laughter.

—I know, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less from you. Doubt is the main weapon of those who are seeking the truth. Certainty is the enemy of science. As I said: there is no rush, I can wait a few more decades for you. Continue with your life, and over time things will become apparent. I will leave the tube with you and remember it’s not only to see the stars. Use it from time to time. You will hear from me soon.

Pyros watched Elom as he walked away through the garden. His silhouette looked as if it was shining with the early light of dawn, and for a moment Pyros thought he was floating. Then he was gone.

Pyros picked up the tube. A blue light was coming from the larger mirror. He hadn’t used that end, but when he looked through it, he was shocked. He saw scenes from his past, when he was a child, during his travels, and then other images that seemed to be from his future. He saw himself crossing unknown lands, dressed in strange clothes, in the middle of big cities with unfamiliar buildings. The vision was so intense that he had to look away to stop himself getting dizzy.

Weeks went by without anything special happening, but there wasn’t a day when Pyros didn’t think of Elom. Three months after their meeting, Pyros had a vivid dream: Elom entered his room, produced a map and pointed at a city on the coast beyond the Aegean Sea. It was called Syracuse, and Pyros had to go there to meet a great mathematician.

Pyros woke up remembering the dream clearly, but he didn’t pay much attention to it. During the next two weeks, he kept dreaming of Elom every night, and Syracuse and the mathematician. Then one day, in the wax tablet that he used for taking notes, the map he had been dreaming of appeared. There and then he decided to go to Syracuse.

The journey by boat took several weeks, and Pyros began to feel it was all nonsense. How could he have been fooled into such an adventure? Letting a dream guide him wasn’t the way he usually behaved. Then, one morning at dawn, Pyros saw on the horizon the silhouette of a city. It was Syracuse, like a jewel set in an emerald-green bay. With its marble temples and its dense vegetation, it was astonishingly beautiful. He disembarked and walked towards the city, not knowing what to do. As he entered the city wall, he saw Elom.

Pyros hurried over to him and demanded:

—How did you know I would be here?

Elom gave a hearty laugh.

—I sent you here, don’t you remember the dream?

—But…

—Your education has started, Pyros. It’s inevitable. The sooner you accept it, the better.

Chapter 3

Bormia (Malta), present day

Seeing my progress with the piano, Sister Ines talked to the Mother Superior. An old piano teacher lived in the nearby village, and the nun had persuaded her to give me some free lessons, but, before she could begin, she needed approval. The Mother Superior was initially reluctant, but after Sister Ines had claimed it would be good for my soul, she agreed. In return, I had to play piano in the chapel every Sunday. I also had to help Sister Astencia, who was getting too old to wash the convent’s dishes by herself.

Professor Olga —that was what she wanted to be called— was older than Sister Ines, and had a white lock of hair in the middle of her dark black curls. She always wore a long black dress, and her face was invariably solemn. The day I met her, she gently pressed my hand without saying a word, then put a piece of paper in front of me. It was covered with lines and squiggles, and I couldn’t understand it at all. She stared at me, and I felt quite terrified. Professor Olga smiled sarcastically, took my index finger and put it on the keyboard. “This is G major”, she said in the croaky voice of a heavy smoker.

After such an imposing start, things could only get better. Professor Olga came every week for an hour, and always left me with homework that I had to present at the next lesson. She talked very little, but her eyes said everything. If she raised a brow, I knew I had done something wrong. On those occasions, she used to take control of the keyboard and say: “This way”, and nothing else. Sometimes she looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and over time I came to realise that meant she was happy with me. Despite her intimidating silence, Professor Olga quickly became the most important person in my life, the only one who helped me to see beyond the oppressive grey habits of the nuns, the harsh walls of the orphanage and the aching loneliness that was my constant companion.

One night, as though to celebrate this new turn in my fortunes, Eliza showed up by my bed. She was enthusiastic about my progress with the piano.

—How do you know how I play if you are asleep during the day? —I asked her.

—I can hear you in my sleep —she said with a wicked smile.

Apart from Eliza and the music, life in the convent followed a crushing routine. We woke up at half past four, for Mass at five, prayers at six, breakfast at seven, then lessons until one. Each grade had only one teacher, a nun who taught everything from maths to sewing. The convent was renowned in the area for its delicately embroidered linen, and we devoted the first part of each afternoon to embroidery.

At three o’clock we were allowed out of the classroom, and it was then that life really started for me. Rush to the chapel, sit on the bench, open the piano: it was like returning to a treasure chest, an intimate and magical ritual. The piano became my confidant, the exercises were the prayers that allowed me to escape to a world of harmony, and the musical notes were the loving words I craved.

When I turned 12, Eliza came to say goodbye.

—I can go now —she said—, you don’t need me any more.

—I do need you!

—Not anymore —Eliza said—. Now you have other things to do, and I have to take care of other girls who are lonely. You do understand, don’t you?

I looked at her, tears filling my eyes. I hugged her tightly.

—Please, don’t go.

—Let’s do something —she said—: I will leave, but I promise you that every time you feel lonely, I will come back.

—How will you know when I’m lonely? —I asked, not at all convinced.

—Take this —she said, giving me a polished black rock—. Whenever you want me to visit you, hold it tightly in your hand and think of me. That same night I will come back to the orphanage.

During all the time I was in the orphanage, Eliza came when I called her. I still wasn’t sure who she was, but that didn’t matter. Perhaps I was imagining her, perhaps she was real. Only many years later did I really understand how unusual that friendship was, although strange things kept happening to me as I grew older. I didn’t know at the time, of course, but they were the first signs of a life that would be marked by extraordinary events.

Until I was 13, I had little contact with the world outside the convent. Apart from occasional outings to the beach, I used to go on Wednesday afternoons to the village to help Sister Ines with the groceries. Sometimes, when women from the village came to the convent to buy bed linen or table cloths, I assisted the nuns. The customers were usually young women who came with their mothers to buy fine pieces for their trousseau. I looked at their beautiful dresses and high-heeled shoes, their smiling faces, enthusiastically discussing their plans, and I felt empty. I realised I was living in the margins of life, and if I didn’t get out of the orphanage soon, nothing would change.

It was then that I started to write a diary. Professor Olga used to lend me books, and once she gave me a copy of “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank”. The tragic story of the Jewish girl, hiding from the Nazis in her Amsterdam attic, inspired me to write down the emotions that burst inside me, leaving me sleepless as I tried to unravel the confused web of thoughts and anxieties lurking in my teenage mind. But a few months after I started my diary, something quite peculiar happened.

My diary was divided into sections separated by maps of European countries. One day a beautiful blue feather, split at the end into two points, showed up on the page for the United Kingdom, and I used it as a bookmark for my diary. Next day, when I opened the book, the feather was back on the United Kingdom map; and so on for the next few days, even though I put the feather on different pages. I came to the conclusion that one of the nuns was reading my diary. From then on, I limited my entries in the journal to minor events: no more emotions, no more comments about the orphanage or the nuns.

When I turned fifteen, Sister Ines asked the Mother Superior to let me go on my own to the village one Sunday afternoon. To our astonishment, the Mother Superior agreed. I still remember the moment Sister Ines told me the news. I didn’t know what to say; I was overwhelmed by a mix of happiness and fear. I had never been away from the orphanage on my own, and I didn’t know what I would do, but the thought of having a few hours of freedom was exhilarating.

When the big day came, after lunch I went running upstairs to put on a dress that I had made myself and the blue shoes that Sister Ines had lent me; the ones she was wearing when she arrived at the convent more than 20 years earlier. She said goodbye to me at the door of the convent, offering all sorts of advice. I assured her she didn’t have to worry and off I went, taking care to turn around and wave to her as I went down the lane. When she couldn’t see me any more, I took my shoes off and ran to the village. The air seemed purer outside the walls of the convent and, surrounded by the dark green of the trees and the distant blue of the Mediterranean, I realised I was happy.

That Sunday, a bright sun was warming the air, and the only sign that it was the middle of October was a fresh breeze. I came to the outskirts of the village, took a deep breath and started walking down the cobbled streets which ran between the white houses, their balconies full of geraniums in a huge variety of colours. I had walked down those streets before when I went to the market, but this time, they seemed to come alive under my feet. I got to the village square and, with one of the coins that Sister Ines had given me, I bought an ice-cream and sat on a bench.

The scene in front of me was charming. Children were playing, dogs were sniffing around, young couples were idling along, holding hands, women were chatting with their friends. Nobody paid any attention to me, but that didn’t bother me at all. If I could be invisible, it meant that I wasn’t that different after all, that the reasons why nobody had wanted to adopt me when I was a child had disappeared, and that I was just like everybody else. Without realising it, I spent hours savouring that borrowed happiness.

Eventually, I realised I was feeling a bit cold. I looked at the clock in the square: it was almost five, and the light was starting to fade. I jumped from the bench and started running towards the convent. I didn’t want to be late back on the very first day of my new freedom. At that time of the year, dusk didn’t last long, and I soon found myself in near darkness, alone on the deserted road to the convent, hearing only the rhythmic buzz of the nocturnal insects. I was quite close to the convent when I thought I heard steps coming up behind me. My heart started beating faster. Surely I was imagining it: nobody would be on that road at that time of the night.

I stopped briefly, I could definitely hear the steps getting closer and caught a whiff of something that smelled a bit like the wine we used at Mass. I started running again, but the steps still came closer. My blood froze in my veins, and then I heard a man’s voice whispering strange, coarse words, and I felt his hand on my shoulder. Just when I feared the worst was about to happen, I heard a commotion behind me. I didn’t dare to turn around and ran as fast as I could to the door of the convent. To my great relief, Sister Ines was waiting there, anxiously looking out for me. When she saw me pale and out of breath, she asked me what had happened. Only then did I turn around, in time to glimpse a light that quickly disappeared into the darkness.

Next Wednesday, when I went to the market with Sister Ines, she told me that a criminal had been caught on Sunday evening. He was running through the village, crying for help and screaming that a ghost was following him. The man was wanted by the police for robbery and rape. He didn’t put up any resistance when two policemen took him away.

***

One day Professor Olga said she wanted to talk to me and Sister Ines. I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe she was tired of me and didn’t want to give me lessons anymore. At that time, I was practising six hours a day, but I was never sure if I was doing well or not: my teacher didn’t give me many clues.

Professor Olga was waiting for us in the visiting room.

—I think Ariane should apply for this —she said, arching one eyebrow while showing us a newspaper—. The Academy where I studied in London has a programme called Talents in the World. It offers scholarships for foreign students.

I looked at Sister Ines, astonished. She was blushing furiously:

—It is a great opportunity! Thank you so much, Professor Olga.

Then, looking at me, Sister Ines said:

—This is what you were looking for, Ariane, you must take part! I don’t swear because it is a sin, but if I could, I would swear that our little girl is the perfect candidate for a scholarship. She plays like an angel, isn’t that right, Professor Olga? What do we have to do?

Sister Ines and Professor Olga started a complicated conversation that mostly went over my head, but one thing I did understand: Professor Olga thought I was good enough to apply for a scholarship, and that was the greatest compliment.

The two women decided to fill in the form and post it off straightaway. After that there was silence, and I began to lose heart. I shouldn’t have been so impatient because a month later, Professor Olga showed me a letter.

—Read it —she said. Unusually, the white lock in her hair was out of place, as if she had been rushing.

I cried out:

—I have been accepted for an audition!

Sister Ines squealed with delight, and her teeth stuck out even more than usual. She started pouring with sweat and stuttering:

—Aaa…riane, my sweet girl, ththth… is your opportunity. God is opening the doors for a future beyond these walls. You will win a scholarship, I am sure!

—I don’t want to disappoint you but now comes the tough part —Professor Olga said—. You have to practise a lot, I mean a lot, Ariane, and I mean a lot. You have to play until your fingers bleed. Do you know how many students will apply all around the world? Hundreds, perhaps thousands! I will give you lessons twice a week from now on, but you will have to work harder.

—When do we start? —I asked.

Professor Olga quickly became more tyrannical than usual. She laid out a programme of practice that challenged the strict rules of the chapel’s schedule ―and at times, my health as well. The wooden rule she used to keep the rhythm seemed to fall closer and closer to my fingers. During our marathon lessons, she wouldn’t let me stand up to stretch, not even for a few minutes.

—If you want to win the scholarship, you have to work harder —she said arching her eyebrow.

Sometimes, during the long hours of practice, Sister Ines brought me tea and biscuits and stayed with me, her expression one of delight, bordering on ecstasy. At night, while the others were asleep, she would take me to the chapel so that I could carry on practising. If we were caught, she told me, she would claim it was her fault. Running from one octave to the next, I repeated arpeggios, quadruplets and trilling notes. The rickety old metronome didn’t stop: tic, tac, tic, tac.

—Play in your head, my sweet girl. Imagine the music in your mind, and even when you are not practising, play an imaginary piano.

The pace of work was overwhelming, and of course, I also had to carry on with my duties in the convent. One day while I was cleaning the kitchen floor, I mistakenly put oil instead of chlorine in the water. The Mother Superior was furious, but she calmed down after Sister Ines’s explanation:

—The girl is a little bit blind —she said, and then she crossed herself in apology for her pity lie.

Professor Olga suggested that we didn’t mention anything to the Mother Superior about the scholarship.

—I know the Mother Superior —she said—. It is better that she doesn’t find out. If she does, for every minute you spend at the piano she will demand something from you in return.

Looking back now, I realise I never thanked Professor Olga enough for all her support during those long months. Two weeks before my audition, Sister Ines and Professor Olga started planning the details of our trip. They briefly discussed who should come with me on the journey and, because they couldn’t agree, they asked me whom I would prefer. I looked at Sister Ines and her sweet mouse-like face, and said in a low voice “Sister Ines”. I thought Professor Olga would be very upset at me but, to my surprise, she patted my head tenderly and said:

—I would have chosen her too.

As the days went by, Sister Ines became more and more nervous. One night I woke up with a start, hearing her heavy breathing by my bed. The moon was shining through the dormitory window, and I could see tears in her eyes as she whispered:

—Oh, Ariane, my sweet girl. I will miss you so much!

She was just as lonely as I was, but at least I was 16 and could dream of a world outside the convent. She was going to be there, alone, for the rest of her life.

I read as much as I could about the United Kingdom and what I found out was fascinating. At the same time, Sister Ines doubled her prayer time with her favourite rosary. It was a sin to call it a good-luck charm, she told me, but every time she used it, her wishes seemed to come true.

—Ora et Labora —she said in Latin—. Pray and work.

At last, the great day arrived. It was a Monday, and Sister Ines and I hadn’t slept at all. The bus to Valletta ―where the audition would take place― took about two hours along a rough road. To make sure we wouldn’t miss my audition at 10, we would catch the first bus, at six in the morning. It was still dark when we left the convent, and I had never seen such a starry sky; even the vibrant smell of the dew seemed full of promise.

We were the first to get to the bus stop, but we were soon joined by a few people from the village who commuted every day to the capital. A recent storm had caused landslides along the road, so the journey of two hours actually turned into three hours. The bus had to find its way around puddles, piles of mud and broken-down cars until at last, we arrived in Valletta. We were still in time, but only just.

I had never been to Valletta before, and I was astonished by the traffic and the noise. Even so, it seemed like the sky was brighter and the sea bluer. I felt a new sense of excitement, but at the same time what lay ahead made me increasingly nervous. What would the examiners be like? Would other students be there for the audition?

After getting lost several times, we arrived at the address we had been given. When I saw the place, I felt my heart shrinking: it was a luxury hotel, several storeys high and with a lobby of polished granite. Outside, a porter in an elegant blue coat smiled at us and asked if we wanted to go in. Sister Ines stuttered a few words, saying we were there for an audition. The man looked surprised, but he opened the door. We were overwhelmed by the whirlwind of smartly-dressed men and women, smiling staff and suitcases so big that all the dresses in the convent would have fitted into just a couple of them.

Another man in uniform noticed our confusion and asked us if we needed help. Sister Ines, trying to recover her composure, managed to produce the letter inviting me to the audition. What the man said left us stunned: we were in the wrong place! No auditions were held in the hotel. Sister Ines’s stutter got worse:

—Ititit’s not popossible.

I started to feel faint, but at that moment something unusual happened. A man with grey hair and a kind smile was just walking past and spotted the letter with the Academy logo that Sister Ines was holding. He asked us if we were going to the audition. Sister Ines and I looked at him, but we were still so shocked that neither of us could answer. The man in uniform intervened and said yes, we were looking for the audition, but we were in the wrong place. After a brief exchange between the two, the man told us:

—It is your lucky day. My name is Christopher Grace, and I am the director of the Academy programme. I sent that invitation, and that’s my signature. I am on my way to the auditions now; if you want, you can come with me.

From that day onwards, Mr Grace became my guardian angel; the flesh and blood version, anyway.

Chapter 4

Syracuse, 3rd century BC

For weeks now Archimedes had barely slept. He hadn’t even had a bath. His faithful slave, Demetrius, had never seen him so withdrawn and distant. He knew that when his master had a problem to solve, he isolated himself in his world of pulleys, cylinders and spheres, but this time was different. He seemed obsessed. He made designs on the scrolls piled up on his work desk, on the ashes in the fireplace or even on his lap as he sat, head bowed and silent.

Demetrius was the son of a slave of Phidias, the famous astronomer and Archimedes’s father. As children, he and Archimedes had been inseparable, but before long, their interests grew apart. Young Archimedes was always submerged in complicated calculations, and at night he often spent hours staring at the sky with his father. He looked so vulnerable that Demetrius felt that he would need to do more than look after him. He would protect him, and never leave him alone.

So Demetrius went with Archimedes on all his trips. He stayed with him when he went to study in Alexandria with the greatest mathematicians of the time. He admired Archimedes unconditionally. In his eyes, he was much better, much cleverer than all the other scientists. Conon and Eratosthenes, both friends of Archimedes, didn’t have his intelligence and originality; but they were happy to benefit from his brain. Demetrius used to get very upset when he found out that others had taken credit for ideas that Archimedes innocently shared with them, something that happened several times.

Back in Syracuse, Archimedes’s reputation flourished, not only because of his knowledge of mathematics but, above all, for his inventions. Syracuse’s tyrannical ruler, King Hiero, was a distant relative of Archimedes and when he became aware of his distant cousin’s genius, he commissioned him to take on all sort of projects —not only for his military campaigns but also for his personal whim. To Archimedes, engineering as a discipline was inferior to mathematics; but, partly to please the temperamental king and partly because he found the challenge entertaining, he worked on any assignment Hiero gave him.

So Archimedes built a boat that could be used for different purposes: for luxury trips, to deliver supplies or as a war ship.

When the Siracusia set sail for the first time, it had on board six hundred people, a garden, a gym and a temple to the goddess Aphrodite. It was the biggest boat that had ever sailed in the Mediterranean up to that moment. Archimedes supervised its construction down to the tiniest detail.

To be able to pump the water up from the bilge, he put a propeller-shaped metal sheet inside an inclined cylinder. The movement of the propeller would lift the water from the bilge to the deck. The device was so successful that later it was used to carry water from distant rivers to irrigate the thirsty fields that fed the people of Syracuse.

Hiero ordered his creative cousin to invent devices to repel the continuous assaults of the Roman forces. The first one was the Claw, a large wooden arm from which hung an enormous metal hook. When the hook was dropped on an enemy boat, its weight sank the foredeck so that water could get into the ship. And when the hook was quickly lifted, the ship was already listing, and soon it sank.

Archimedes’s reputation spread around the Mediterranean. To his fellow citizens, he was a genius and a saviour, and he was feared and respected by his enemies. For those who didn’t know him well, it was hard to believe that the man who walked through the streets of Syracuse, his hair uncombed and his clothes torn and dirty, was a brilliant mathematician and an expert in the art of war. Demetrius knew better, and he also knew how to interpret what was occupying his master’s mind. He made sure that no mundane worries bothered Archimedes so he could concentrate only on surprising the world with his inventions.

One of Archimedes’s most famous moments came when Hiero ―perhaps wanting to ridicule his relative who was becoming too popular amongst the citizens of Syracuse― asked him to demonstrate his theory about the infinite possibilities of the lever.

—Give me the place to stand —Archimedes used to say—, and I shall move the Earth. Challenging Archimedes to prove that claim, Hiero asked him to move a massive object.

Archimedes chose a boat that was in dry-dock and also asked it to be loaded with people and supplies for a long trip. The ship was so big that a dozen people couldn’t move it even when it was empty, but Archimedes, with a system of interconnected pulleys that worked as a lever, pulled a rope and slowly moved the ship and its heavy load out of the dock and down into the sea. Hiero had to admit that his cousin had a superior mind. In the eyes of the people of Syracuse, Archimedes had become a demi-God.

One day, the king asked him to solve a problem that seemed simple but which puzzled Archimedes for months. Hiero gave a well-known goldsmith a large bar of gold to make into a crown worthy of a king. The goldsmith did a good job and created a fine piece of art: “Worthy of a great monarch”, he said to Hiero. But the King wasn’t convinced that the crown was made of pure gold. He suspected the goldsmith had mixed in another metal when casting the crown, so he asked Archimedes to find out the truth.

The first idea that Archimedes had was to melt the crown, the quickest way to find out what it was made of. Hiero refused to do this, as he didn’t want to lose his beautiful treasure. So Archimedes tried to solve the problem mathematically. He tried measuring its sections, approximating each to a solid shape whose volume could be estimated; but the cumulative errors made the estimate too imprecise. To test if the crown was made of pure gold, he needed to know its density; if the goldsmith had used silver or nickel, its density would be lower. But the formula to estimate density required two values: volume and weight. The weight was easy, but how could he measure the volume of such an irregular object as a crown? Week after week, the solution eluded him.

One morning, Demetrius woke his master up with some news that he thought might lift his spirits.

—Why are you waking me up so early? —asked Archimedes, half asleep.

—Master, it’s almost midday, and two foreigners coming from Alexandria are here to give you news of Conon and Eratosthenes.

Archimedes sat up, excited at the thought of hearing from his friends. Demetrius helped him out of bed, dressed him and went with him downstairs where the visitors were waiting.

Archimedes looked at them. The younger one had a familiar face, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen him before. Maybe during one of his trips to Egypt. He would ask Demetrius later, surely he remembered him.

—Welcome to my home. My servant says you have news from Alexandria.

—That’s right, Archimedes, we come from Egypt where we spoke to your teachers and your friends. You left a powerful legacy at the school there, and your reputation as a great inventor has spread throughout the Mediterranean.

—Really? —asked Archimedes, distracted—. Do you have news of Eratosthenes and Conon?

—Your friends are doing well —said the eldest with a smile—. Eratosthenes is now in charge of the library in Alexandria and is still busy with his many interests. He is a respected astronomer and has expanded on Dicearco’s calculations for measuring the Earth’s dimensions. He keeps writing poetry too.

—Wonderful! What can you tell me about Conon?

—He continues with his studies about the eclipses and is writing the fourth volume of De astrologia. Both send their regards and want to know when you will visit them. They have sent you some papers that they thought might interest you.

—Let me see —said Archimedes, taking the papyrus the foreigner produced—. You have made me realise how much I miss Alexandria. Once I finish the king’s assignment, I will go and visit them.

Then, turning to Demetrius, he said:

—Prepare a room for our guests.

—We are grateful for your hospitality, Archimedes. We will stay only a couple of nights —said the eldest, handing his few bits of luggage to Demetrius—. If you will allow me, can I ask what the king’s assignment is?

—Are you interested in finding out the volume of objects with irregular shape? —asked Archimedes.

—It interests me a lot.

They talked for a while about the calculus of density, inevitably without reaching a conclusion.

Then Demetrius entered the room:

—Will you forgive me, noble foreigners, the master has a commitment in the city.

—It’s true. I forgot. I have to go —said Archimedes briskly, turning his back on his guests. As much as he enjoyed the conversation, he wanted to be alone to think about the issue at hand. The trip to the bath would give him that opportunity.

Archimedes left his house thinking about density, volumes and irregular shapes. Suddenly he remembered he hadn’t asked the foreigners their names, but then his mind turned back to the puzzle of the crown. Archimedes was making his way to the public baths because Demetrius had, at last, persuaded him to have a proper bath, which would also help him to relax. When he got to the bath-house, the slaves undressed him and took him to a private section where there was a big marble bath. Demetrius always reserved it for Archimedes so nobody could bother him. It was the only way his master would stay long enough in the water to make up for the infrequency of his visits.

Archimedes lowered himself into the steamy and perfumed water that covered him up to his neck, and a slave massaged him with jasmine oil. He closed his eyes feeling his body sliding into a comfortable torpor. His mind relaxed, and Archimedes was almost sure he could hear a gentle music in the background. He saw an image of the man who had just visited him and sunk his head under the water. As he did so, he heard water sloshing out of the bath and onto the floor.

It came to him in a flash: he had found the solution! He jumped out of the bath and forgetting to put his clothes on he ran out into the streets of Syracuse yelling: ”Eureka, I found it!”.

When he got home, naked and wet, Demetrius thought that this time his master had actually gone crazy.

—The water —shouted Archimedes—, it was so easy…the volume… it’s the same as the water that’s spilt!

—Master, what’s happening? You need to calm down, let me put a robe around you.

Archimedes ran from one corner of the house to the other, waving his arms in the air, looking frantically for his papyrus and talking to himself. Demetrius managed to wrap a towel around him and dried him as best he could while his master was sketching mathematical diagrams in the air.

—Maybe you need to sleep, why don’t you try? —Demetrius said, seriously worried.

—Are you insane? At last, I have solved the problem. The volume of an object submerged in the water is the same as the volume of displaced water! It was so easy! Now I can find what the king is looking for. Bring me a large bowl of water and send a message to Hiero. By the time he receives it, I will know the truth about the crown.

—I will, master, but what will happen if you need me? I don’t want to leave you while you are in this state.

—I feel better than ever. I won’t need you, the other slaves can serve me. Besides, the foreigners are here too.

—No, they left.

Archimedes looked disappointed.

—But they said they would stay a couple of days.

—Yes, but they’re gone —said Demetrius

—Did they say anything?

—Yes, actually. When they left, they stated that they had already achieved what they came to do.

Perplexed by the foreigners’ words, Archimedes said:

—I don’t even know their names.

—Pyros and Elom, master.

Chapter 5

Twenty miles underground, present day

Alexander came out of his deep meditation and opened his eyes. He was celebrating his birthday surrounded by his closest friends, in one of his favourite places. Even the Seers were there. They were all sitting in silence, celebrating the occasion. Every year at this time, he received guidance from his masters, which helped him to see clearly the path ahead of him, what to expect. But, this time was different. Instead of the sense of peace that he usually felt, he was anxious. His visions told him that difficult times lay ahead.

The images the Seers had shared with him flashed across his mind, so vivid he could almost touch them. Again, the conclusion was clear: there would be wars, tensions and continuing ignorance in many parts of the human world. A new threat was growing. It looked like the most challenging he had ever known. As the Seers showed him the images of the future, one face, in particular, was quite distinctive. Although the Seers didn’t let him see what role this character would play, Alexander recognised the face. It had featured in his dreams throughout his life. Now, he realised, he would soon be meeting its owner.

Alexander shivered. All the Guides had a mystery to solve at some stage in their existence, and success meant they could move to higher planes of learning and guiding. Alexander’s mystery was obvious: he had to figure out that face.

***

On the same day, on the surface in Siberia, Zardoff was leaning against a snow-sprinkled tree deep in the forest. He was finishing his meal: the heart of a bear he had killed with his own hands. It was his favourite dish, and part of the enjoyment was the fierce struggle he always had with the animal. But on this occasion, Zardoff wasn’t enjoying himself as much as usual. He was struggling with a familiar feeling. However much he wanted to break all his ties with the Guides, he could still perceive that something was going on in the Caves, something that would have a significant impact on him, that would put him in danger.

Many times he thought he had defeated the Guides for ever, that he had eliminated their power and influence. But, much like weeds, they always seemed to grow back.

In one sense only, Alexander and Zardoff shared a view of the future. Both knew that there were difficult times ahead. Their destinies were tied in a way Zardoff didn’t understand, but he was aware that a new and powerful threat was looming. This would be the most important battle of his life, and he could sense that Alexander felt the same way.

Once Zardoff had finished eating, he started his journey back. The dogs that pulled his sledge obeyed his orders instantly. They were terrified of him. That was Zardoff’s way, to dominate and control, to inspire fear. He smiled grimly to himself, knowing that terror had been successful over many centuries. It would be again, he was sure of that.

Chapter 6

Bormia (Malta), present day

The journey in the taxi was short, and nobody said a word. Sister Ines was sweating under her old habit, and I could barely control my nerves. Only Mr Grace seemed calm, and from time to time he looked at me and smiled. When we arrived at the place where the auditions would take place, the Malta Academy of Music, we followed him to a room in the basement, and he asked us to wait. There were other girls and boys in the room, and when Sister Ines and I came in, they all turned to look at us; some of the kids didn’t even try to hide a mocking smile. We sat in a corner, terrified.

After a short while, a young woman came in to tell us the auditions would take place in two different rooms, one for theory and the other for the recital. Each session would last an hour. I didn’t have to wait long, as my surname was one of the first on the list. Sister Ines and I went into a room where we were greeted by Mr Grace, who introduced us to a woman with short hair, small glasses and bright eyes. Her name was Carol Hobbs.

—Welcome Ariane —she said in a soft voice—. Christopher told me he found you in the wrong place.

—That’s right, Miss Hobbs —I managed to mumble.

—Call me Carol, please. We were lucky he found you —she smiled—. Sister Ines, you are Ariane’s guardian, is that right?

—Yeeeesss —she answered, her face red.

—Fine, if you wish to stay, please have a seat in one of the chairs by the wall.

—Ththtththanks.

Then, turning to me, Carol said:

—I see you have been studying with Professor Olga Del Monte, a distinguished graduate of the Academy —Carol said.

I moved my head slightly.

—We saw her last night. She is a good friend of mine —intervened Mr Grace—, and we were students together at the Academy. Please sit at the piano. You chose three pieces. Could you please start with For Elise by Beethoven?

I sat at the piano, and my hands started sweating. For a moment I had an irrelevant thought: what if Sister Ines’s sweat was contagious? I rubbed my hands on my skirt, took a deep breath and put my fingers on the keys. They were smoother and whiter than the ones on the convent piano, the white and black of the keys in sharper contrast, and they made a much more refined sound. After a brief stumble at the beginning, I took another deep breath and soon I felt I was flying away, to a place where the notes seemed to dance in the air and time stood still.

When I finished, I looked up and saw Carol’s smiling face and Mr Grace’s shining eyes.

—Well done, Ariane! —she said—. The beginning was a bit shaky, but then you started to transmit your feeling very well.

I didn’t know what to say, but I felt myself blushing.

—Please, continue with the first movement of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor —said Mr Grace.

Calmer now, I started playing, and at the end, their applause was reassuring. Mr Grace then asked me to play Concert No. 3 in D minor by Rachmaninov. When I finished, I looked at Sister Ines and cringed when I saw she was dribbling, as she often did when I was practising. Carol and Mr Grace talked quietly to each other for a moment and then, with a big smile, he said:

—Well done, Ariane. Wait outside, please. We will be making a decision today.

Out of the room, Sister Ines gave me a big hug:

—Today you have played better than ever, my sweet girl. The scholarship is yours, I promise you.

We went back to the waiting room and sat down. I could see Sister Ines moving her hand in the pocket where she kept her miraculous rosary. It was the first time I had had that type of test, and the experience had left me quite confused. On the one hand, I felt great satisfaction; on the other, terrible uncertainty. Then the time came for the theory test, with a Mr Siegren and a Mrs Horton as the examiners. They asked questions that I didn’t know how to answer, which made me tense. At the end, they didn’t say anything, and I knew they were not impressed.

After a few hours, during which we were offered sandwiches, juices and tea, only one other girl and I were left in the room. Sister Ines had drowsed off when Carol and Mr Grace finally came in.

—Ariane, please, return to the recital room —Carol said—. We would like you to repeat the Rachmaninov piece you have chosen in front of our colleagues.

Mr Siegren and Mrs Horton were waiting inside. When I finished playing, I looked up, and all four of them seemed hypnotised.

—Fantastic, Ariane! —exclaimed Mrs Horton.

They turned their back to me and started whispering, and occasionally Mr Grace looked around with a reassuring smile.

After what seemed like an age, it was Mr Grace who spoke:

—You have done very well, Ariane. Congratulations. You have impressed us with your skills and the emotion of your performance. Olga taught you well. You have some gaps in theory, but nothing serious, so we have all decided you will have the scholarship.

I gasped, not believing what I had heard, and Sister Ines’s mousy face started to turn purple while she waved her arms in the air. For a moment it seemed she was choking, so I patted her firmly on the back. When she managed to recover her breath, yelled:

—You made it! Yes, you did, my sweet girl! —And she hugged me so tightly that I ended up with bruises on my arms.

It was true. I had won the scholarship! Something inside me spun around and made me lightheaded as if my body knew that my whole life had changed in that single moment.

Carol, much amused, interrupted us:

—You have to be in London by mid-September at the latest, and in our experience, it’s never too early to start sorting out the papers. Ariane, do you have a passport?

Sister Ines’s expression answered the question. Carol said:

—You must have a passport to get into Britain, so Sister Ines will have to make this a priority. The scholarship will also cover the trip to London and all living expenses. It is not a huge amount of money, but it will be enough to live. If you could send her some extra money, Sister Ines, that would be ideal.

Sister Ines, face still purple, said:

—This poor girl doesn’t have anybody in this world except us, the nuns, and we have made a vow to be poor, and the convent doesn’t have any money to spare. We barely survive. It will be tough to send her money.

—Don’t worry, we will find other ways to top up the scholarship. For now, we need to make sure the paperwork gets done. Do you know where to start?

—No… but don’t worry, we will manage. Ariane will be in London on time for the beginning of the course.

As we were about to leave, Mr Grace congratulated me and with a big smile said:

—You will do really well in England. I can promise you that.

Getting the passport and sorting out other documents proved more daunting than I expected. Being an orphan was hard emotionally, of course, but I soon discovered that even the simplest bureaucratic procedures were doubly complicated for me. Because I was a minor, I needed permission from my parents or guardians to travel, but the nuns had never formalised their role as my guardians. In bureaucratic terms, I didn’t exist in my country; I was an unknown citizen. Sister Ines and I spent entire days running from one place to the other, filling in forms, taking them to the local government offices, but each time the officials kept asking for different things.

Carol called us every fortnight to ask how things were progressing, and it was thanks to those conversations that I began to understand what “English phlegm” meant. While Sister Ines seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Carol remained calm and insisted we shouldn’t worry. Other candidates had gone through the same process; in the end, they always got the documents they needed.

On one occasion, when it seemed that a magistrate was about to prevent my departure, Carol intervened and told us she would talk to the Maltese Embassy in London. We never knew what she did, but in less than three weeks I had my passport, a permit to travel, a birth certificate, a good conduct recommendation and a Single Status Certificate, just in case.

The night before I was due to leave, Sister Ines became very emotional. She kept taking off her glasses and drying her tears, and she was breathing heavily through her swollen nose.

—I am going to miss you so much, my sweet girl —she said, hugging me hard till I could hardly breathe.

—And I will miss you too, Sister.

—You are going to be a great pianist, and you will make all of us in the convent very proud. And maybe one day you will take the decision …

—I will think about it, Sister Ines —I interrupted her—, but for the time being, I just want to go to London to study music.

—Yes, Ariane, I know. I am not the one who is pushing this, I was just told to remind you.

I knew perfectly well what Sister Ines was talking about. Since I was a child, when it became apparent that nobody would adopt me, the Mother Superior had often told me how wonderful it was to devote one’s life to the Lord. Being Jesus’s wife was the highest aspiration of any woman and would make me immensely happy. If I decided to become a nun and stay in the convent, I would be doing God’s will, she said.

The Mother Superior, Sister Ignacia, wasn’t the most inspiring person herself. For a start, her looks were against her: she had thick black eyebrows, a menacing expression and her upper lip was unmistakably hairy. Sister Ines once mischievously told me she was sure the Mother Superior shaved. Yet what really bothered me was her breath: onions were part of our daily diet, but she ate them like fruit. They affected not only her breath but her clothes too, and forever after I associated religion with the smell of onions. Besides, I had no intention of becoming a nun, trapped in the physical and emotional chains of religion. The further I could get from the convent, the better it would be for me.

Chapter 7

Luoyang (China), 2nd century AD

—The Divine Consort will receive you briefly —said a servant, bowing before putting a golden tray with a cup of tea on a lacquered table in the middle of the room.

Cai Lun was waiting impatiently for Deng Sui, the consort of the late Emperor He in the antechamber of the audience room. Cai Lun had been there several times before and knew it well: the armchair covered with silk and the beautiful wall tapestry depicting the story of the Han dynasty. Cai Lun smiled to himself, remembering the first time he had been in this room when he was one of the eunuchs in the court, and the Emperor had called for him asking for advice on a dispute between concubines.

He had come a long way since then. Thanks to his wisdom and his skill in navigating through the many palace intrigues, Cai Lun became one of the Emperor’s trusted advisers. In due course, the Emperor put him in charge of developing new weapons, a crucial role in the court.

When Emperor He died, his favourite concubine, Deng Sui, took charge of the throne while his son, the official successor, was still growing up. Deng Sui was a wise woman, intelligent and with principles —more than the Emperor had, thought Cai Lun—, but her position in the court had been continually undermined.

Yin, the Emperor’s first wife and holder of the title of Empress, had always been jealous of Deng Sui. She made no secret of her goal: once the Emperor died, she would get rid of the concubine and her family. The ambitious Deng Sui decided to set a trap to discredit her. Thanks to Cai Lun’s political cunning —he had helped Emperor He’s mother in similar circumstances— it didn’t take long to spread a rumour that the Empress and her brothers were practising witchcraft against the Emperor and his concubines. Emperor He, always very superstitious, believed the rumours and banished Empress Yin and her family in disgrace. Devastated, the Empress had to leave the palace immediately, and a few days later she committed suicide. Her brothers and sons were sent into exile, leaving Deng Sui free to take control.

When the Emperor died, Deng Sui replaced him on the throne, and Cai Lun became her closest ally and Imperial Adviser. Even though the intrigues in the palace continued and Yin’s sons didn’t stop plotting from their exile, Deng Sui was an intelligent and skilful ruler, and Cai Lun was happy to help her.

On that particular day, though, Cai Lun didn’t want to be waiting on Deng Sui. He had more important issues on his mind. In his role designing new weapons, he was in charge of several workshops for experimenting and innovation, but the project that was dearest to him actually had nothing to do with war. To consolidate her power, Deng Sui had asked Cai Lun to find a new way to reproduce official documents. Silk was too expensive and bamboo too heavy; Deng Sui wanted her orders to reach every corner of China in less time and at a lower cost. If an alternative could be found, it would allow all the silk in China to be used for commercial purposes, and that would generate more income for the imperial funds. Cai Lun’s workshops had been trying different materials and techniques for copying, but they still hadn’t found the right mixture. Then something Cai Lun saw that morning had given him new hope.

He was a devout Buddhist and, just as he did every morning, he woke up early and went to the temple. At the entrance, he saw a man writing on a thin, rough sheet that Cai Lun had never seen before. It was neither silk nor bamboo, but it looked light, and the letters could be clearly seen. From the colour of his skin and the shape of his eyes, the man looked as if he were from the Far West, thought Cai Lun. He came closer and stretched out his hand to touch the sheet. With a mischievous smile, the man said he could have it if he wanted it.

Cai Lun was amazed to hear the foreigner speak his language, but he was more interested in the sheet. Where did he get it? The man told him that he had bought several sheets from nomads in the Hindu Valley, who used it to store food. Cai Lun thanked him for the gift and asked the man to stay at his home for a couple of days so they could talk more about this discovery.

While they were on their way back to Cai Lun’s house, a messenger stopped them to say that the Empress needed to see Cai Lun urgently. Irritated by the interruption, Cai Lun decided to go home first with the foreigner to make sure he didn’t lose him.

—I don’t know your name —said Cai Lun—, nor where you come from. How did you learn our language?

—My name is Pyros, noble Cai Lun. I come from the lands beyond the great mountains, beyond the great deserts. I learned your language during my travels through your beautiful country.

—What is your occupation? —asked Cai Lun, intrigued.

—I am a philosopher and an educator. I travel to learn and spread knowledge.

Now Cai Lun felt even more frustrated to have to interrupt this conversation with such an interesting visitor because of Deng Sui’s whims.

A few minutes later they reached Cai Lun’s home, an elegant wooden building with a pyramid-shaped roof. Two servants were waiting with bowls of water, silk kimonos and slippers.

—Welcome to my home, Pyros. Come in, please.

Beyond the entrance wall, there was a large room, with a round panelled ceiling supported by golden columns at each corner of a squared drawing on the floor. The structure had a religious meaning: the rounded roof was Heaven, and the square was the Earth. A bright-green dragon, with rubies in its eyes and a large white pearl in its mouth, hung from the centre of the ceiling. Below the dragon was a round table and on it, a delicate porcelain vase full of flowers. In the reception room, there were several large sofas and beautifully carved tables, and the floor was covered with carpets. The effect was majestic, worthy of an Imperial Adviser.

From the room they went to Cai Lun’s study, its walls lined with books. In the middle was a desk made of mulberry wood and an armchair of red silk. In contrast with the reception room, the study was rather sober.

—You must be tired. Can I offer you a cup of tea? —said Cai Lun, while inviting him to sit down.

—I would appreciate it.

Cai Lun ordered a slave to take care of his guest while he was away at the palace, and, whispering in his ear, he told him that on no account was he to let the visitor leave.

Cai Lun walked out of his house and into a sedan chair. He ordered the four carriers to take him first to the workshop where he showed the master craftsman the mysterious sheet. They discussed what it might be made of and decided to tear off a small piece for a thorough inspection. Cai Lun then went on to the palace.

After waiting in the anteroom for half an hour, he was relieved when the consort came into the chamber. Cai Lun bowed and, after a gesture from her, they sat down. Cai Lun kept his eyes down, as imperial protocol required, looking at her feet until she snapped her fingers signalling he could look at her.

Deng Sui went straight to the point:

—The tribes of Qiang region are arming themselves for war, and Yin’s brothers are behind it. We must hurry to spread our messages across the empire. How is the project going? Why it is taking so long to find a new material?

—We are spending many hours on it —he said—. But you are right, Divine Consort, it has taken time to find the right material, though now I think we are on the right track.

—I am glad to hear that. We need to be vigilant. Our enemies will never leave us in peace, so we need to make sure all our subjects receive our orders.

—Yes, Sublime Deng Sui. I hope I will be able to give you good news very soon.

—Before coming to this meeting —said the consort— I was told you met a foreigner this morning who had a sheet of a material nobody had seen before.

Cai Lun wasn’t surprised. Even though he was one of her closest allies, Deng Sui never really trusted anybody, and he had always suspected she was spying on him. That comment just confirmed it.

—That’s right, Chosen One. I was intrigued by the material the man was writing on; I took it to the workshop to identify what it is made of.

—I shall be informed every day on this matter. We want our orders to get out to the provinces as quickly as possible.

—I am at your command; I will keep you informed personally.

—I know I can trust you. Tomorrow we will be waiting for news —she said smiling at him before she left the room.

The Empress was getting impatient, concluded Cai Lun. He had to work faster.

He asked the carriers to run to his house. When he went inside, he looked for Pyros.

—I am sorry I left in such a hurry this morning —said Cai Lun—. The Empress already knows about the sheets you brought, and she is very interested. But it is almost lunch time, so please join me, and we can continue talking.

While lunch was being served, Cai Lun kept up a stream of questions:

—What do you know about the nomads who sold you the sheet? What do they live off? What type of trees and flowers grow in that area?

Pyros talked about his trip to the Hindu Valley and described the area in detail. “The foreigner is an unusual character” —thought Cai Lun—. “Not only does he speak our language, but he seems to know a lot about many different subjects.”

After lunch, Cai Lun went to his rooms for his afternoon rest, telling Pyros that they would go later to the workshop. A slave helped him undress and put on his afternoon silk robe. Cai Lun lay on the soft mattress of goose feathers and put his head on a perfumed pillow. He closed his eyes, hearing soft music that lulled him into a deep sleep. In his dreams, he saw exotic forests and strange animals and, besides a river, a young man with straight black hair and dark skin holding a wooden bowl. He was mixing water with scraps of cloths, bark, fishing net and hemp leaves. Behind the young man, hanging from a branch of a large tree, there were several sheets similar to the one his guest had given him in the morning. The young man stood up, took one of the sheets and with an inky finger he wrote the words: Cai Lun.

Startled, Cai Lun woke up, soaked in sweat. He called out to his servant and dressed quickly. He needed to talk to Pyros, but he wasn’t in his bedroom. They searched the house but couldn’t find him. Perhaps he had gone out for a walk, Cai Lun thought, so he decided to go to the workshop on his own. He ordered the craftsmen to start preparing the mixture he had seen in his dream. He stayed there throughout the night waiting for the results, and just before dawn, one of the sheets looked remarkably like the one Pyros had given him. Cai Lun asked for a pen and black ink and wrote his name. The ink dried, and the words didn’t smudge. Cai Lun had found what he was looking for.

Thanks to this discovery, Cai Lun became a very wealthy man and got an aristocratic title. Paper became widely used in China, allowing the consort to centralise her power, but it also helped to spread literacy and the development of Chinese literature. By the seventh century, China’s papermaking method had reached Korea, Vietnam and Japan. In the 9th century, some Chinese paper makers were captured by Arabs and paper spread to the Middle East. It was not until the 12th century that paper was introduced to Europe. It revolutionised written communications and provided a platform from which human civilisation would change for ever.

Chapter 8

Bormia (Malta), present day

There were only a few days left before my departure, and I sat in the dormitory that had been my home for as long as I could remember, looking out of the window. The sun seemed to be stretching itself across the distant sea so as not to let it go. Before I had the chance of going to England, I used to imagine what was beyond the blue line of the horizon: fantasy places, luminous cities, people I might one day meet. But it had never been more than a dream. Now, as it was actually starting to come true, I felt dizzy, my nerves chewing away my stomach.

It wasn’t only the uncertainty of what was waiting on the other side, new people, a new country; the embarrassing truth was that I was terrified by the thought of flying. I couldn’t understand how such a heavy object could leave the ground, let alone fly. Sister Ines knew about my anxieties, and she tried to calm me down:

—Don’t be afraid, my sweet girl. People who know about it say that flying is not dangerous. Apparently, we are more likely to die slipping in a bath than on a plane.

—Yes, I’ve heard that, but how do they fly? —I insisted.

—That I don’t know, but there are a lot of bright people who are quite happy flying. Professor Olga’s husband used to fly all the time, and she went with him often.

That was what she said to me, but once I overheard her talking to another nun:

—My poor sweet girl. It must be awful to be locked in a metal cage at 10,000 metres. How can such a heavy thing stay up?

The day before my departure, the nuns organised a farewell supper and invited some people from the village too. I sat next to Sister Ines and Professor Olga, and before the blessing of the food, I took their hands to thank them for what they had done for me. Mother Superior said a few words about how proud the community was of my achievement. Then she sank her teeth into a turkey leg, which kept her busy for the rest of the evening.

Next day I woke up early. We had to leave for the airport at 10, but I wanted one last chance to see the places where I had lived all my life. I went to the chapel and knelt down automatically. Suddenly I realised I would never be forced to attend Mass again: what a pleasant thought! I caressed the piano, opened it and played a few notes. I was going to miss my old friend. I breathed in the chapel’s familiar air, charged with humidity, incense and candles, and I said goodbye.

I walked through the corridors, remembering how many times I had longed for somebody to take me away from there. If I had been adopted, would I have had the opportunity to go to London? Maybe not. Maybe all my lonely years at the convent would one day prove to have been the better way.

At nine o’clock I was ready. Sister Ines had given me her old suitcase, and I had packed two pairs of trousers, a couple of shirts, sweaters and a coat that Professor Olga had bought me in a second-hand shop. Sister Ines had arranged a taxi to take us to the airport, and she held my hand throughout the journey.

—Promise me you will take care of yourself and eat properly —she said tearfully—. You need to take medicines and buy some warm clothes. English weather can make you ill.

—Don’t worry, Sister Ines. I will be careful with the weather —I stroked her hand.

—And the food. It’s awful; they eat only fish and chips. You have to eat lots of fruit and vegetables. Otherwise you will get ill. They don’t have the sunshine we have here, and that’s why English people are sad all the time.

I smiled. Subconsciously, Sister Ines, who had done so much to get me out of the convent, was trying to discourage me from leaving.

Our farewell was sorrowful. My dear Sister Ines was convulsed in sobs as if a fountain of tears repressed for years had finally found a way out. I felt guilty about leaving her alone.

— Oh, my dear Ariane. I will miss you so much. My only consolation is that I know this is what you want, this is your chance to be free and happy.

—I will miss you too, Sister Ines, I will write every week and call you as often as I can, I promise.

Then, taking my hands, she said:

—I will tell you something you don’t know. The day you arrived at the orphanage, you were the prettiest thing I had seen in my life, but Mother Superior didn’t want you to stay because we didn’t have enough space. I prayed very hard with my miraculous rosary, asking our Lord to let you stay. A few days later, a couple came to the convent and adopted three girls at once. That had never happened before, and it meant that Mother Superior didn’t have any more excuses to get rid of you. You are the answer to my prayers, Ariane, the way God winked at me, telling me that He listens to me. And the truth is, my sweet girl, I don’t know what I would have done without you.

I hugged her tight until the final call for my flight. I turned around to wave one last goodbye; then, seized by both fear and excitement, I walked away from the only life I had known.

The next few minutes passed in a blur. I found my seat by the window, thinking that everyone else was much calmer. My hands started sweating, and I didn’t know what to do with the straps on my seat. At that point, a young man sat down beside me. He had warm brown eyes, and he smiled, asking me if I wanted some help. He fastened my belt and introduced himself as John. He told me he was actually a pilot himself.

Before long the plane started shaking and making a thunderous noise. I grabbed the seat arms, and John smiled again and said quite calmly:

—Don’t be afraid. Air travel is very safe.

—But the noise …

—That’s normal, the engines will be running at full speed while we take off. When we stop climbing, you will hear just a purr, nothing more.

Instinctively I closed my eyes, still terrified, but John talked quietly about the training that pilots received, how planes were built, how they are maintained, how the plane we were travelling in was one of the safest. His voice calmed me down. An hour into our flight, we were given some food. More food, in fact, than in my three daily meals at the orphanage. John asked me the reason for my trip. He seemed very impressed that I was a pianist and was going to study at the London Academy of Music. He congratulated me, saying I had to be very talented to get in there. I turned my attention to a delicious chocolate pudding and started watching a movie, on a small screen in front of me. Half way through the story, and by then completely relaxed, I fell asleep.

When I woke up, John passed me an orange juice and some sweet bread.

—You looked so peaceful that the flight attendant didn’t want to wake you up —he smiled—, but I did keep your afternoon snack.

I was surprised that I was already hungry again. It must have been the altitude. Soon I realised that the plane was pointing down, we had gone through the clouds, and I could see green fields and houses down below.

—We are about to land —John said—. Is anybody going to meet you?

—Yes, a lady from the Academy will be waiting for me.

As we left the plane, John said he was going to hurry ahead. He shook my hand and gave me a small card.

—If ever you are in trouble, give me a call.

The card told me that his full name was John Andrews and he lived somewhere called Winchester. To my surprise, in one corner of the card there was a drawing of a two-pointed blue feather with the spot in the middle, very much like the one I had found in my diary. I looked around to say goodbye, but he had already gone.

Chapter 9

Ujjain (India), 7th century AD

As he did every afternoon, before spending long hours staring at the vastness of the sky, Brahmagupta went to the temple at the Ujjain astronomic observatory to light some incense and pray. The temple was small and on the altar was an image of the God Shiva, fresh yellow flowers and a painting of Ganesha, the elephant-God. The smell of incense filled the room, and the scientist thanked Shiva for his good karma, his family and his successful career.

Winters in Ujjain were cold, especially at night, and they bothered Brahmagupta more every year. His joints were painful, distracting him from his prayers. He covered his shoulders with the Kashmir wool shawl that his wife had knitted for him, and continued with his prayers.

When he had finished, he went to his study. It was cluttered with maps, books and leather folders, leaving only enough room for a small prayer mat. The roof was a stone-made vault, open to the stars. The observatory had been built more than a thousand years ago, and in many ancient maps, it was shown as the first meridian. Many famous astronomers, mathematicians and even poets had studied there, and Brahmagupta was immensely proud to have been chosen to run it.

The astronomer wasn’t always easy to deal with. He didn’t hesitate to criticise those scientists whose ideas he thought were undignified or who contradicted the sacred Hindu texts. To Brahmagupta, the perfect order of the universe was more evidence of Brahma’s infinite power, and that rigid attitude had won him many enemies. Brahmagupta had written a book, About the Right and Established Doctrine of Brahma, where he explained in detail his astronomical discoveries and how these confirmed the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest script. In it, he criticised fiercely those who disagreed with his theories.

As was the norm amongst astronomers at the time, he wrote in verse, giving an elegant touch to descriptions of planets, equations, geometric figures and even his enemies.

Brahmagupta had a remarkable record of predicting solar eclipses and planet movements, and that day, in particular, was an important one for him; he would know if his estimate of the time when Saturn would appear on the horizon was right. He waited calmly, looking at the sky, and Saturn appeared precisely when he thought it would.

Elated by his success, Brahmagupta let his mind wander to another topic, one that had intrigued and perplexed him for years: the use of zero. Most scientists saw zero as a mere placeholder, a symbol that didn’t have any role in mathematics. To Brahmagupta, though, that didn’t make any sense. What he was searching for was a set of rules that would define zero in a way that was consistent with the widely-agreed calculus.

He was scribbling some verses about his thoughts when a servant came in with a cup of tea and ghee and told him that an emissary from King Khosrow II of Persia wanted to see him.

Brahmagupta was surprised; he wasn’t expecting anybody, least of all at that time of the night. But he was pleased by the news. He had close relations with Persian scientists, and he often got together with them to exchange their latest findings. He asked the servant to show the visitor in, and a few minutes later he was greeting a man with fair skin and grey hair. The stranger was around 50, and though he had a westerner’s features, he was dressed as a Persian, with an amamah on his head, a thick tunic and leather sandals.

—Great Brahmagupta, I hope that my unexpected visit doesn’t bother you.

—Persian scholars are always welcome.

Brahmagupta invited him to sit down, as the man carefully put his sack full of maps and books in a corner. The servant brought him a cup of tea.

—Thank you for receiving me —the stranger said— especially at this time of the night. I have a very important message, and I must return immediately to the king’s palace.

—Tell me your name, and what I can do for you —said Brahmagupta.

—My name is Pyros, wise master. I am King Khosrow II’s scientific adviser. The situation in Persia is getting more critical every day. The king is facing rebellions in his own ranks, and Constantinople is a constant threat. He doesn’t know how long he will be able to resist, which is why he sent me to give you some manuscripts produced by the court’s mathematicians.

—I am very sorry to hear about the king’s troubles —replied Brahmagupta sadly—. I knew the country was going through difficult times, but I didn’t imagine they were so serious. Even more reason to welcome you. The king has done a lot to strengthen the ties with India and the exchange of knowledge between our countries.

Pyros kept talking while he laid out some of the manuscripts he had brought with him. To Brahmagupta’s surprise, one of them showed an image identical to the symbol he was using for his own calculations: a circle surrounded by elliptical orbits.

—Our scientists have been trying to develop the rules for zero —Pyros spoke quietly, his words carrying great authority—. It’s a well-known concept of course, but only you have approached it in the right way. Unlike other mathematicians, you don’t look at numbers as simple tools to count and measure. Your approach is the same as our scientists’. They treat numbers as abstract entities, with precise rules that allow scientists to work out solutions to mathematical problems.

—That’s exactly what I think! —Brahmagupta couldn’t keep the excitement from his voice.

Pyros continued:

—For the zero to have a reason to exist, it needs to be used as a number and not merely as a symbol without any value. In the opinion of the Persian mathematicians, many calculations don’t make sense unless they take account of the series before the zero.

—Negative numbers, as debts —interrupted Brahmagupta, hardly daring to believe how similar their thoughts had been.

—Yes, negative numbers, as debts —answered Pyros with a smile—. The King was right; you are the best person to spread the wisdom of our scientists.

—I am honoured by the king’s faith in me. Please stay in the observatory for as long as you need, and we must talk some more. I will give instructions for you to have a room and you can use the library whenever you want.

—Thank you, Brahmagupta, but I really have to go back to Persia to support the king.

—Then it is time to say goodbye, Pyros. Please send my regards to the king, with my sincere wishes that his troubles will be over soon.

Pyros bowed briefly and was gone. Brahmagupta decided it was time to go home. The conversation had left him worried about the king’s problems, but also astonished at the similarities between his and the Persian thinking on zero.

The night air cleared his head, and Brahmagupta looked up: he had never seen such a starry sky, and he thanked God for its beauty. He walked slowly towards his home, seeing his wife’s silhouette in the doorway. She was holding an oil lamp to guide his path. That sight comforted him every night: there was Prama, there was home.

It had been a good idea to marry her. She was seven years younger than Brahmagupta, faithful, a devoted wife and they had had four children together. Prama was a quiet woman, and he sometimes wondered what she was thinking behind that sweet and melancholic smile. Maybe she missed her land at the foot of the great mountains. When their parents arranged their marriage, Brahmagupta was so busy with his studies that he didn’t meet Prama until their wedding. She was just fourteen, barely more than a child, with dark and scared eyes. It took them a long time to consummate their marriage; they didn’t know what to do, and anyway Brahmagupta was working day and night. Right from the start, Prama had taken to waiting for him with an oil lamp, a cup of tea and a blanket to warm him up after his long nights watching the sky.

Before reaching his house, Brahmagupta looked up once more. To his delight, a shower of shooting stars was crossing the sky at precisely that moment. What a sight! Shooting stars meant good fortune; to Brahmagupta, they were Divinity expressing itself in all its glory. Prama watched him, wondering what was still grabbing his attention after so many hours looking at the sky in the observatory. But she didn’t ask; she was used to his spending more time with his eyes on the sky than on Earth. When the star showers ended, Brahmagupta went inside, drank tea, wrapped the blanket around him and went to his bedroom. Prama helped him undress and put on his nightgown; he blew out the lamp and quickly fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of stars.

The next day, Brahmagupta woke up earlier than usual and decided to pray to the domestic gods. He walked out of the room quietly to avoid disturbing Prama, lit some incense and started his meditation. Usually, he found it easy to empty his mind and connect with his spirit, but this time he struggled. Numbers, planets and stars danced in his imagination and then a zero with elliptic orbits, just like the one Pyros had shown him a few hours ago. All of a sudden, as if in a flash of light, some strange verses came to his mind:

The sum of two positive numbers is positive;

of two negative numbers, negative.

The sum of a positive number and a negative number is their difference.

If they are equal in value, the sum is zero.

The sum of a negative number and zero is a negative number.

The sum of a positive number and zero is a positive number.

Zero plus zero equals zero.

A negative minus zero is negative, a positive minus zero is positive;

Zero minus zero, equals zero.

As though in a trance, Brahmagupta went to his study to write the verses down. By mid-morning, he had defined the rules for the use of zero, opening a new era for mathematics and science.

Later in his life, Brahmagupta found a solution to the general linear equation and made significant contributions to algebra, trigonometry and geometry. His work was so widely acclaimed that his contemporaries called him the “Jewel of Mathematics”.

Chapter 10

London, present day

All the luggage on the conveyor belt at London airport seemed modern and shiny, and I immediately recognised Sister Ines’s battered old case. As I paced nervously towards the exit, I could see smiling faces, names on boards, flowers and even some balloons. And I could see Carol. What a relief: she hadn’t abandoned me. She waved and gave me a warm smile.

—Welcome to England —she said, getting a sweater out of her bag—. Put this on, we don’t want you catching a cold the first day you are here.

The journey into London was surreal: the traffic seemed like a metal river moving slowly through the rain.

—London’s traffic can be quite slow —said Carol apologetically— especially when it’s raining.

—Sister Ines says that the rain means good luck —I replied.

—Then you will be very lucky in England —Carol laughed.

During the journey, she told me when I was going to start the lessons, where I was going to live and all about my landlady.

Elspeth Bowman was the widow of a British diplomat and had lived in many exotic countries. She spoke several languages, so when her husband died, she decided to rent rooms in her home to foreign students. I would stay with her for the first few months, and then, if I wanted, I could move.

—But Elspeth is charming, you won’t want to leave —Carol said—. At the beginning, you will have to work harder than the other students because you need to catch up with the theory. But don’t worry, it will be easy for you.

Carol’s enthusiasm and confidence encouraged me.

—I can’t wait to get going —I replied.

—Next Monday, first thing in the morning, you will start your lessons. In this folder, you’ll find all the information you need to get to the Academy. I will meet you and introduce you to the teachers.

By the time we reached the centre of London, the sky had cleared, and timid rays of sun were setting over the city. Carol decided to take a detour to show me Parliament Square and the House of Commons, the seat of the British Parliament. The neo-gothic building on the border of the river, its towers stretched towards the sky, was breathtakingly beautiful. A Union Jack waved majestically from the top of the building, and I felt strangely happy; the flag seemed to be welcoming me to the country.

Of course, I immediately recognised Big Ben, the most common picture in the books I had read about England. We drove past Westminster Abbey, where royal weddings were celebrated and which housed the tombs of some of the most illustrious names in history. Artists, politicians, scientists —buried there to keep alive the pride of a country in its fascinating past. I was mesmerised: how magnificent everything was compared with the squalid place I had lived in.

A few minutes later, Carol stopped the car in a quiet street and rang the bell at number 29. A small, slim woman with piercing blue eyes opened the door. She was Mrs Bowman. Looking at me with a kind smile, she said:

—Welcome to my home, Ariane, I hope your stay will be comfortable. Come in, please, and take your shoes off. At my age, it is not so easy to keep the floor clean.

—Maybe I should go now Mrs Bowman —said Carol—, it’s getting late and I don’t want to trouble you.

—That’s fine, Carol, thank you for bringing Ariane here.

Before leaving, Carol shook my hand, and with her warmest smile said:

—Goodbye then, I will see you on Monday, Ariane. I am sure you will settle in quickly.

—Thank you for everything, Carol. I can’t wait for Monday. I’m so excited!

—Now, you do need to eat something —said Mrs Bowman when Carol left—. It is a bit late for tea, but we can’t waste some treats I’ve prepared. Come to the kitchen, please.

I looked around at my new home. Every room was crammed with furniture, ornaments, paintings and carpets, and it seemed to welcome me. The kitchen too was full of pots and pans. In one corner was a table with a teapot and some cakes that looked and smelled delicious.

—Do you know about scones? They are typically British, the best companion for a cup of tea, especially if you add jam and cream.

—Thank you, Mrs Bowman, you shouldn’t have bothered.

—I don’t think you eat enough —she said, looking me up and down.

—Maybe —I replied, busy trying a scone.

—Carol told me you come from Malta, but you seem more North European to me. I have had students from many parts of the world, and I’ve learned how to guess from their looks and accents where they come from. You’re a tricky one, I can’t quite place you.

While she was talking, a second scone was melting in my mouth, along with the cream and jam.

—This is quite delicious, Mrs Bowman.

We talked for a while in the kitchen and then I washed up our cups and plates, despite Mrs Bowman’s protests.

—Let me show you your room, dear. It’s in the attic, but you have the best view. The stairs are narrow and steep, and the carpet is quite tired, so be careful.

We climbed two floors to my room at the top of the house. It was small and warm as the rest of the house, and compared with my dorm in the convent, it was pure luxury. The bed was made of light wood, and covered with a white duvet with pale blue and yellow flowers; there was a bedside table with a lamp, a wardrobe, a desk, and a vase of flowers with a note: ‘Welcome to England’. Off the bedroom was a tiny lavatory and a basin; to have a shower or a bath, I had to go to the bathroom downstairs. My room was cluttered with pictures and small ornaments, and the carpet was faded. I didn’t care: to have a room of my own was thrilling.

—Your window looks down on the garden where I plant vegetables; you never know when there might be a famine —Mrs Bowman said —. From here you can also see Hyde Park. I must take you there one day.

—What a view! And the room is so welcoming and warm —I said—. Thank you, Mrs Bowman!

—Since my husband died, I have rented it to foreign students. It was his study, where he read his books and listened to his music. Now, Ariane, listen carefully. There are two rules in this house: smoking and talking about politics are both forbidden. Fifty-three years living with a smoking diplomat was quite enough for my lungs and ears.

—Fine, Mrs Bowman —I replied, laughing.

—If you want a bath or just to rest for a while, dinner will be ready in an hour. I will see you in the kitchen.

—Thank you so much, Mrs Bowman.

I unpacked my clothes and went to the bathroom. I was used to having a cold and quick shower in the orphanage ―the nuns gave us only a few minutes to wash. But in Mrs Bowman’s bathroom, there was no sign of a shower. In the middle of the tiny room, there was a big bath. I didn’t like the thought of submerging myself in cold water, so with great relief, I realised that one of the taps was for hot water. I filled the bath and climbed in, sinking slowly up to my neck. It was as if every cell in my body was relaxing, and I nearly fell asleep. When I got out, I felt that the water had washed away a thin film of dust from the orphanage and, with it, my former life.

When I got down to the kitchen, dinner was ready. While we ate, Mrs Bowman told me that before getting married she had been a teacher in one of the most famous private schools in England, and had even taught one of the princesses. After describing the girl’s none-too-regal behaviour, she started talking about the weather: a favourite topic of conversation among the British, she told me, laughing.

After dinner, she showed me round the house, picking up photo-frames and pointing to her daughter Emily and her husband Harry with the granddaughter, Helena. She showed me a photo of her late husband, Lawrence, a handsome man with an infectious smile. At the end of the tour, she took me down to the basement, where to my surprise she had a large store of food, bottled water, torches, candles and medicines.

—You never know when something terrible might happen —she said, mysteriously.

At nine thirty I was ready to go to bed and her ‘Goodnight, my love’ sounded like a caress. I went to my room, put on my old pyjamas and snuggled under my warm duvet. I had always suffered from insomnia in the orphanage, and I had hoped that it would change when I left, but the past twenty-four hours had already transformed my life, and I was too excited to sleep. Carol, Mrs Bowman, London. The images went round and round in my head.

I heard some steps outside my room, and I realised that the lights were on; maybe it was Mrs Bowman. I opened the door, but nobody was there, and to my astonishment, I found on the floor a beautiful blue two-pointed feather with a silver dot. What was a feather doing outside of my door? Maybe the same birds that visited the orphanage also lived in Mrs Bowman’s roof. I was puzzled, but when I went back to bed, I fell asleep immediately.

Chapter 11

Gall, (Switzerland) 9th century AD

Sebastian’s parents didn’t oppose his wish to become a monk; in fact, the Count and Countess of Villeneuve were quite pleased. Except for the first son, young men in aristocratic families had only two options: the Church or the army, and Sebastian had never shown any interest in war. He learned how to read when he was a little boy, and he always had a book in his hands. Quiet and withdrawn, a monastery would be the perfect home for him. Sebastian joined Saint Gall’s Abbey in the year 850 AD.

The Abbey was founded in 747 AD by Charles Martel, Baron of the Franks, next to the grave of Saint Gall, a hermit monk. Twenty years later, Pepin the Short, son of Martel, set up a library as a centre for study and research. Art, science and philosophy flourished. The monks’ task was to copy books and manuscripts from all over the world. The Abbey became one of the most important centres of knowledge in Europe.

Sebastian adapted quickly to the monastic life. Thanks to a generous donation from his father, he was given the role of the library’s curator, his ideal job. None of the monks knew he was an atheist —he wouldn’t have been admitted if they had— and he dutifully attended all the religious services. Actually, his mind was busy reviewing what he had learned in the library. Whenever he had even a minute of free time, he spent it reading.

As curator, the young monk met the leading philosophers and scientists of his time. His distant manner seemed to mellow when he was with visitors, and it was hard for him to break off these conversations to fulfil his religious duties. His favourite books were on science ―geometry, mathematics, medicine and botany. He studied them, transcribed them, and treated them with a reverence he didn’t feel towards the cup from which he drank wine every morning at Mass.

One day he was summoned to see the Abbott, an elderly man who reminded Sebastian of a little bird. He found him talking to a foreigner. Sebastian bowed to show his respect.

—May God bless you, son —said the Abbott.

—Amen —replied Sebastian.

—You are the library curator, son? —asked the Abbott kindly.

—Yes, Father.

—Our visitor, the philosopher Pyros, has been a friend of the Abbey for a long time. Thanks to him, we have got several invaluable manuscripts. Now he is asking for help from us, and we want to return the favour. You are the right person to support him.

—What can I do for you? —asked Sebastian.

—I would like to investigate some of the plants in this region.

—We have several books on the subject. Do you have any particular manuscript in mind?

—I am looking for a treatise on medicinal plants. I am trying to compile a record of all herbs with healing powers.

—I don’t remember seeing that document, but of course, I will help you look for it.

—We can start now if that’s possible for you —said Pyros.

—Yes… I suppose so —answered Sebastian.

Taking leave of the Abbott, they went to the library. At that time of the day, there were a couple of monks reading in silence. Pyros inhaled deeply:

—There is nothing like the smell of books —he said to his young companion.

Sebastian didn’t reply, but he thought the same. To him, there was nothing like going every morning to the library and embracing the smell of paper, leather and ink that came off its shelves.

—I will start looking for the document you need —said Sebastian.

—I know where it is —said Pyros.

—I don’t think you will, we have just reorganised the sections and changed the positions of most of the documents.

—I know, but if you look for a scroll written by Pedanius Dioscorides on the fourth shelf of this section —said Pyros, pointing at one of the shelves—, you will find it.

Sebastian looked at him with scepticism but went to the shelf. It didn’t take him long to find a manuscript bound in sheep leather called De materia medica whose author was, indeed, Pedanius Dioscorides. The text had a series of drawings of flowers and plants with detailed explanations of their use.

A small smile played on Pyros’s face as he carefully put the book on a table.

—You can stay as long as you want —said Sebastian.

—Thank you.

Pyros asked for two more titles, and Sebastian left him, obviously at home amongst books and scrolls. Sebastian was still puzzled —how did the foreigner know where Dioscorides’s book was? But it was already midday, and he had his religious duties to attend to: the Angelus, and —after a light lunch— afternoon prayers.

When Sebastian returned to the library, Pyros was still there, deep in his books.

At five pm, Sebastian told him:

—We have to leave, I’m afraid. The library isn’t open during the evening.

—That’s fine, I have taken enough notes for one day.

—Do you have a place to stay?

—Yes, don’t worry —said Pyros—. The Abbot told me where to go. See you tomorrow and thank you for everything, Sebastian.

Pyros came back to the library every day for a month. Sebastian didn’t know where he spent the night or where he ate, but his energy seemed unlimited. He arrived in the morning with a bunch of herbs that he had collected earlier, spent all day reading and taking notes, and left only when the library was about to close.

One afternoon, while he was copying an Assyrian scroll, Sebastian thought he smelled burning. He looked up in horror to see an oil lamp overturned and a pile of paper on fire. Sebastian didn’t have time to react before Pyros put his hands on the flames and snuffed them out completely. For a moment, the young monk thought he was hallucinating, but no, there was a small mound of ashes and Pyros standing over them.

Calmly, Pyros said:

—I had to put the fire out quickly. We don’t want to lose any of these extraordinary books.

—How did you do that? —Sebastian asked in astonishment.

—One day I will explain, but for now, I want you to know that you can do the same.

—What do you mean?

Pyros didn’t answer and continued classifying herbs.

—Can you please explain what just happened? —insisted Sebastian.

—Don’t be impatient, Sebastian. This is not the right time —answered Pyros, with a calm smile.

Several weeks went by, but Sebastian couldn’t get the fire incident out of his mind. One evening, as the library was closing, Pyros asked him to meet in the morning to collect some herbs. Sebastian made sure he was outside the library in plenty of time, and Pyros arrived promptly at 6 am. They headed for the forest near the Abbey, in thick early-morning mist. Pyros seemed to know where he wanted to go, and an hour later they arrived in the woods.

They sat down on the damp grass and Pyros took a scroll from his coat. It looked familiar to Sebastian.

—Is this yours? —asked Pyros.

—It’s not mine. I don’t know what you are talking about —Sebastian felt very uncomfortable.

—You wrote it. Go on, please, open it.

Sebastian unrolled the scroll, getting paler as he did so.

—How come…?

—How come I have your scroll?

—Yes… no…

—You are afraid that the Abbott will find out.

—I…

—Don’t be, your ideas are not crazy, Sebastian. They are irreverent —heretical, our dear Abbot would say—, but not crazy. In fact, I agree with most of what you say.

—I don’t know what you are talking about —replied Sebastian, trying to regain control of himself.

—You don’t need to deny it, I know it’s yours —said Pyros, amused—. I have been following you for some time. Do you remember when I said you could put the fire out? That’s true, Sebastian. You can do that and much more.

—I don’t understand what are you talking about; maybe we should go back.

—You know there is something inside of you, something that distinguishes you from other people. If you want to, you can become a sage, a man who would guide others.

Sebastian looked at Pyros as if he were a lunatic, but he was very intrigued: first the fire, and now Pyros had his scroll. How did he get it? Sebastian had hidden it in a box in the library that nobody else had access to.

—You are wondering how I got your scroll? In the same way that I put the fire out. Have you ever asked yourself, Sebastian, why you have premonitory dreams, or why sometimes you know what other people are thinking?

Sebastian was silent for a while, still worried that Pyros could denounce him to the Abbott. Eventually, he looked up at Pyros, shrugged his shoulders and said:

—What do I have to do?

—Just give me a few hours every day, and then you can decide what you want to do.

Sebastian, still uncomfortable and suspicious, shrugged again:

—All right, I will do as you say.

***

The next few months were the best of his life. He learned from Pyros a new science, fascinating and mysterious, and, to Pyros, Sebastian was the perfect disciple: obedient and inquisitive, intelligent and persistent. The more he learned, the more he was excited by the possibilities he could imagine ahead.

A year later, Sebastian decided to leave the Abbey, never to return. He travelled with Pyros in different countries, and eventually, they went to Kievan Rus’ (1) where they met Alexander.

Chapter 12

London, present day

Mrs Bowman knocked at my door and came in with a cup of tea.

—I hope you don’t mind me waking you up, but I forgot to mention last night that I have to go to the market. I thought you might want to join me so you can start getting to know London.

I was surprised how much I had slept. In the convent, I used to wake up at five every day. Not even on Sundays were we allowed to stay in bed so late. I dressed quickly, but as I rushed out of the room, I tripped and fell down the stairs. When I sat up, a little face with blonde hair and blue eyes was peering at me through thick glasses. I recognised her from the photos and smiles, but she looked scared and ran away. When Mrs Bowman saw me on the floor, she bent down to help me to sit down on the sofa. She then produced a first aid kit that she kept down the stairs in case of accidents. I was amazed to see all the instruments and medicines she kept in there. She told me that, apart from being a teacher, she was a trained nurse. Once she seemed to be reassured, she let me stand up.

In the meantime, the little girl had been looking at the scene. She introduced her: she was indeed Helena, her granddaughter, and was going to spend the rest of the day with us. Emily, Helena’s mother, left her once a week with Mrs Bowman and the visit to the market was a ritual. After a quick breakfast, Mrs Bowman, Helena and I went out.

The cold slipped under my clothes, and I soon started shivering. Mrs Bowman, by contrast, thought the day was ‘beautiful’. When we got to the market, I was amazed: meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, clothes and books ―the stalls went on and on, and Mrs Bowman knew them all. Helena was obviously delighted as well, especially when her grandmother let her choose some food for lunch. In the middle of the crowd, I noticed a man who seemed to be staring at me. He was tall and heavily built, his face by turns grave and cruel. I was going to say something to Mrs Bowman, but when I turned round again, he had disappeared.

When we returned home, Helena asked lots of questions about lunch. She liked cooking and wanted to help her granny with the food. I had had only a cup of tea and some fruit for breakfast, so I was pleased to see that Mrs Bowman had already prepared a Shepherd’s pie that she put in the oven and in few minutes a mouth-watering smell was filling the kitchen.

We sat down at the table, and by now Helena had got over her shyness. She asked me many things fixing me with the same quizzical expression she had when she saw me trip on the stairs. While we were eating, a black cat with white paws came into the room meowing, rubbed against my legs and jumped on my lap.

—Pepe! —Mrs Bowman cried.

In the orphanage, I always had longed for a pet, so I was sorry when Mrs Bowman picked the cat up and shut it in the utility room. She told me she had found Pepe ill and malnourished in the streets in a village in Spain and had saved him from some little boys who were throwing stones. To bring it back to England, she had to arrange for Pepe to get vaccinations and a passport. I said I had been through a similar process, and Helena laughed at the idea.

We finished lunch with a slice of juicy blueberry tart and a cup of tea. I still remember every moment of that lunch with Mrs Bowman and Helena. It was the first time I had had an idea of what a home would feel like, even if it was a borrowed one. Then I remembered Sister Ines, and I wished she were there with me, I felt guilty that I was enjoying all this warmth without her. I helped Mrs Bowman to wash the dishes and went back to my room to read the folder that Carol had lent to me, and then at around four, I heard a light knock on the door. It was Helena coming to say goodbye, as her mother had arrived to pick her up.

I went down to the kitchen and found Mrs Bowman reading a book. She offered me another slice of pie, saying she was determined I put on some weight. She suggested we go for a walk, and before I had time to protest, she handed me a warm coat.

We left the house and walked towards the Academy. Twenty minutes later I saw a beautiful building like a temple illuminated with lights from the ground. I could hardly believe it: this is where I would spend the next two years of my life. I was astonished by it; everything about it was inspiring, and I, a little girl from an orphanage, would be there. When we got home, a man was waiting for us at the front door. It was Christopher Grace.

—Good evening, Elspeth. Ariane, I can see you are already dressed for the English weather.

—Good evening, and come in, Christopher —said Mrs Bowman, opening the door―. We have just been to see the Academy.

—I was in the neighbourhood and stopped by to see how Ariane is settling in. I will stay only a few minutes, I don’t want to disturb you.

—I am fine, Mr Grace —I replied—. Mrs Bowman has made me feel very welcome.

I was touched by his kindness. Now I had two people whom I barely knew taking a real interest in me.

—Are you going to stand outside, Christopher? Do come in and have a cup of tea —said Mrs Bowman.

—I don’t want to bother you, Elspeth.

—Oh, you don’t bother me at all! Sit down and talk to Ariane while I make some tea.

Mr Grace wanted to know about my journey and my first impressions of London. When I said that the only thing I didn’t like was the cold. He laughed and assured me he would solve the problem that same week. Next Saturday, somebody from the Academy would take me out to buy some warm clothes. Mr Grace drank his tea, exchanged a few words with Mrs Bowman and said it was time to go. At the door, he added:

—I am really pleased you have come to England, Ariane. Your talent is very rare. Let’s make the most of it.

I was surprised and flattered by his words. When I went back to the kitchen, Mrs Bowman was obviously excited. Even as a young woman she had known of Mr Grace. He had gone on to become one of the most famous conductors in England, and he was still busy supporting various music organisations and charities.

—He is still attractive—she said, with a shine in her eyes.

I was starting to feel hungry. I was amazed by my appetite since I’d left the convent. Mrs Bowman explained that all the students who came from warmer countries got very hungry when they arrived in England. That was why the body accumulated fat, to protect itself from the cold. Because I was so skinny, she thought, my body would be getting even hungrier. She warmed up some potatoes, cauliflowers and mince, and we sat down.

During dinner, she kept talking about Mr Grace and also gave me some advice on how to be safe in London. It was a big city, and anything could happen, she said. After doing the washing-up, I went upstairs. I was so tired that I fell asleep immediately.

Like the night before, the noise of footsteps on the landing outside my room woke me up. I looked at my watch: it was only 4 am. The steps stopped by my door, and then I saw a bright light shining through the keyhole. I rubbed my eyes, thinking I must be dreaming, and when I opened them again, the light was gone. I went back to sleep, puzzled and a little troubled. At 7 am, the alarm woke me up.

Chapter 13

Corfu, 12th century AD

In a corner of the room, in a leather armchair too big for his fragile, old body, Pyros was sleeping in front of the fire. His modest house was cluttered with books, papyrus and magnifying glasses, and nothing else. The only real ornament was a beautiful water pipe, crafted from silver and lapis-lazuli which was Pyros’s favourite stone. Timo, his faithful servant, came in from time to time to bank up the fire and make sure his master was warm.

They had met in Paestum, a Greek city in the south of Italy, around 60 BC ―it was so many years ago that Timo didn’t remember the exact date. He was a shy little boy with big sad eyes and lived in Apollo’s temple. The priest allowed him to stay there as long as he kept the temple clean and the oil lamps lit day and night. After his duties, Timo went every morning to the House of Books where he sat for hours behind the bookcases listening to the wise men who went there to teach. One day he learned that the founder of the Houses of Books was going to Paestum to give some lessons in astronomy, and he managed to get into the lecture room. While Pyros, the great Greek master, was talking, a papyrus fell off the table and rolled towards Timo. The little boy picked it up carefully and cleaned it with his tunic. He handed it to the master with shaky hands, and Pyros asked him his name. He didn’t answer: Timo was mute.

Pyros took him on as his helper, and Timo started a long and fascinating journey in his service. Together they visited foreign countries, crossed oceans to discover unknown civilisations, and met people who changed history. They witnessed the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the birth of new religions, the wars between them, and much more.

Undoubtedly their happiest times were during the rule of the Abbasids in Persia in the 8th and 9th centuries. Science, culture and religion flourished harmoniously, and the words of wise men were valued as highly as the blood of war heroes. The Abbasid caliph expanded the Persian Empire and trade prospered. Islam flourished like never before.

With the support of the local rulers, wherever Pyros and Timo went they founded new libraries and centres of study. Young people, both men and women, were taught by the great sage. Timo came to know all his master’s disciples, notably Alexander, who later became Pyros’s successor. He was devastated by the loss of Sebastian and was by Pyros’s side throughout his struggles with Zardoff. But this particular night in Corfu, where they had moved for Pyros to spend the last years of his life when Timo saw his master sleeping by the fire so frail and peaceful, he had to accept that Pyros’s time was up. He had to get everything ready for his master’s final journey.

The imminent arrival of the Arcane was announced by the usual signs: birds flying away, a mild earthquake and the penetrating smell of an electric storm.

When the Arcane eventually appeared, he found Pyros resting in his bed:

—At last! You have arrived! —Pyros greeted him.

The Arcane answered him with his indecipherable smile:

—I am sorry for the delay. You were needed here a bit longer, but now the time has come. Are you ready?

—I have been ready for many years. Alexander is well prepared to be my successor.

—Yes —replied the Arcane, his tone laconic.

—He has been the best of my students.

—Zardoff was good too.

—I know —said Pyros with a sigh—, he was, and he has now completely blinded Sebastian.

—He is very dangerous. Zardoff never came to terms with the fact that you didn’t choose him. He will do anything to destroy Alexander.

—What do you think is going to happen?

The Arcane’s eyes turned transparent, and he said:

—You can’t know.

Both were silent for a while, and then Pyros asked:

—Can I assume my special request has been granted?

—Yes, Timo can leave with you.

—Thank you —said Pyros.

—I will see you soon —said the Arcane, with a hint of a smile. At the door, he turned around and said—: You have been a great Guide of Time, Pyros.

—Thank you —replied Pyros, his eyes shining.

A few seconds after the Arcane left, Timo hurried in.

He looked at his master; it was painful to see him so frail.

—Did you hear what he said? —asked Pyros.

Timo nodded.

—Are you ready? —probed Pyros looking at him in the eyes. He already knew the answer.

For Timo, there was no reason to live without his master. To be at his side had been his only aspiration in life. He had learned so much, done so much; now it was time to go.

The next morning, they were spirited away to the place where the ceremony was to be held, on a barren beach by the Baltic Sea. In local legend, since the beginning of time sages had come out of the numerous caves in the region to perform strange ceremonies by the seashore. When Pyros, Timo and the other Guides arrived, the villagers looked at them in awe, keeping their distance in respectful silence.

Timo prepared his master for the farewell ritual. He had practised a thousand times what he would do, and yet, at that moment, he felt his hands moving clumsily as if they were tied with knots. He undressed Pyros carefully; he bathed him and dressed him in a white embroidered robe, with a necklace made of lapis-lazuli. All the time he was reciting in his mind the story of his master, as he had written it for that moment. Pyros had always taught him to control his emotions, but now that the end was near, Timo could no longer hold back the tears.

For Pyros, the only pain he was carrying on his final journey was Sebastian’s treason. Zardoff had been a great disappointment, but what really hurt him was Sebastian’s betrayal. Since Pyros first met him, a young and shy monk thirsting for knowledge, Sebastian had had a special place in his heart. He watched him becoming a brilliant scholar, capable of dominating several disciplines, mastering every new thing he learned. Pyros had never known such a passionate student. Timo knew that Pyros would leave on his final journey with that pain and he, faithful as ever, felt it too.

The ceremony was modest. The small procession of thirty men and women, led by Alexander, left the caves at ten at night and congregated on the beach. They recited verses in Pyros’s praise, then their voices united in a peaceful and harmonious song in the language of the Guides. That night, shooting stars filled the sky for hours. In the water, dolphins kept jumping close to the beach, and they were joined by a group of whales making sounds so haunting and powerful that they could be heard many miles away.

It was almost dawn when they saw a sailing boat approaching, with the Arcane standing erect at the bow. Behind him were two giants, the Carriers, who by tradition took the Guides to their final destination. Timo and Alexander lifted Pyros onto the boat; he was asleep now and would never wake up. A breeze started to pick up and with it a suggestion of music, like the sound of pipes. On the boat, Timo sat by Pyros’s side while the two Carriers prepared the boat to return to sea. Timo scanned the shore one final time, hoping that Sebastian might still come to say farewell to his master, but he never did.

It was almost dawn when they left. The aurora rewarded them with a calm sea and the first warmth of the morning sun. Timo took one last look around him. After so many centuries, his life was about to end, but he didn’t feel sad or anxious. He had had a full life. He could go in peace to his new dwelling. The boat entered a thick mist, and Timo felt very sleepy. He lay down by his dear master’s side and closed his eyes.

At that precise moment, in a ruined room in the middle of a forest in Belorussia, a fresh breeze played across Sebastian’s burning face.

Chapter 14

London, present day

—Today is a big day, Ariane —said Mrs Bowman, smiling as I came into the kitchen. With a flourish, she put on the table a plate of scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, toast and a steaming cup of tea.

—Oh, Mrs Bowman, this is too much for me —I stammered—, I am not used to eating so much in the morning.

—I’m not surprised, you skinny little thing. But it will do you a lot of good. Eat what you can, and Pepe will take care of the leftovers.

To my surprise, once I started eating, it was so delicious that I finished everything, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it was to feel full. I said goodbye to Mrs Bowman and set off for the Academy. My great adventure was starting!

Out in the street, London and its people were painted in grey colours, but there was something magical about it. I reached the Academy, my heart pounding, and walked tentatively through the imposing columns, almost apologising to the marble floor for stepping on it. A moment later, I was thrilled to see a crowd of young people talking, laughing and greeting each other.

Following Carol’s directions, I went to the classroom where my name was listed: Ariane Claret. Until then, I had never felt part of anything; my name had never been included on any list. Almost trembling with fear and excitement, I opened the door and went in. The room smelled like a pleasant mix of wood, paper and dust; the smell of a place that gets old with dignity.

I sat down in the back row, close to the door, and waited. A few minutes later, a girl of roughly my age came in.

—What are you doing here? This is my seat! —she said with a smile that showed her perfect teeth.

—I’m so sorry —I replied, embarrassed.

—I am joking! That’s not my seat —she said, giggling—. You look so scared that I couldn’t resist teasing. My name is Anita Caracci. What’s yours?

—Ariane Claret —I said.

—Lovely name, are you French? I am Italian, Neapolitan to be more precise. The truth is that I wanted to stay in Naples. I miss the weather and the food. But my parents think I need some English phlegm in my blood so, they sent me here to finish my studies. Where are your parents from?

—I…

—Let me see: with those green eyes and that red curly hair, you could be Irish or maybe Scottish.

—Well, I …

—No, I’m sure you are Irish. Yes, that must be the case. I had a friend who came from Dublin who looked like you even though she was rounder. I bet you don’t eat too much. Do people tell you that? My family torments me about food: I am too skinny, they say. I look like an aunt who died when she started to lose weight. Well, of course, she died, she weighed ninety kilos, and by the time she decided to lose weight, it was already too late! But you didn’t answer my question: where are you from?

—I am from Malta —I managed to mumble—, I think… I grew up in an orphanage.

—Ah…—she said, briefly silenced—. I’m sorry, my mother tells me I have a big mouth, and she is right. Tell me about you.

I quickly described my life to her, and Anita listened carefully.

—You don’t have any family, and I have too much: I have three brothers, seven aunts and uncles and twenty-two cousins. I can share them with you. During our first holidays in two months’ time, you will come with me to Naples.

That was how I met Hurricane Nita, as she was called at the Academy.

During the first morning break, she introduced me to her friends —more or less the whole Academy, I found out later. Amidst the turmoil of handshakes, smiles and incomprehensible names, I saw Carol.

—I see you have made some new friends.

—Yes, Anita introduced them to me.

—She is the most popular student, and she will not leave you alone. Actually —she whispered in my ear—, you will be happy to be left alone occasionally.

She was right. I spent the first week in the Academy under Anita’s wing, and by the end, my head was spinning. She introduced me to all the professors and lots of the students and insisted I had lunch with her and her group every day. She waltzed through the corridors of the old building as though she had been born there. With her gipsy eyes, her open laugh and her curves, nobody could resist her.

On Saturday, she picked me up from Mrs Bowman’s home to take me shopping. She didn’t want to see me shivering any more, she said, so she took me to the places where for a few pounds I could get sweaters, shirts and scarves. Then we went to bars where young people without money like me could get together and have a good time.

My first few weeks passed in a whirl of lessons, practices and fun. Besides feeding me with the richest food, Mrs Bowman took me to the fascinating museums spread all over London. We started with the British Museum. I couldn’t believe that some of the objects were more than two thousand years old, and I spent hours admiring the remains of fascinating civilisations I had never heard of before.

One day Anita told me mysteriously:

—Mrs Bowman’s husband was in the Secret Service.

—How do you know? —I asked, laughing at Anita’s expression.

—My father told me. He once met Mr Bowman at a party at the British Embassy in Rome. They all knew he was a spy.

I started to realise that could easily be true. Mrs Bowman had some strange habits. Her front door had three locks on it, in an area of London where people hardly bothered to lock their cars. She didn’t answer the phone unless it rang with certain pre-established codes (her daughter’s was one ring first, then another call with two rings, and finally the third one with three rings).

She was also obsessed about domestic accidents. Whenever she went out, she would unplug every electrical appliance, and there was a fire extinguisher in every room. Once every three months, she insisted we had an evacuation drill, just in case there was a real emergency. Stopwatch in hand, Mrs Bowman would measure how long it took us to get to the meeting point in the carpark of an Indian restaurant nearby. On those evenings we had curry at the restaurant, discussing how we could reduce our evacuation time.

—But what do you think might happen? —I asked her the first time we had the drill.

—Anything, Ariane. Here in London, there are all sorts of dangers: terrorist attacks, riots, earthquakes, gangs, flooding, not to mention fires which happen every day. But don’t worry, we are well prepared, and nothing bad will happen to us —she said with the confident smile of an expert.

For Mrs Bowman, part of being well prepared was to fill her basement with tins of food, bottled water, matches, candles, torches and a two-way radio with batteries. Years later, I would find out that Mrs Bowman even had a gun hidden in her basement. The only time she ever used it was to protect me.

Chapter 15

Baghdad, 13th century AD

A pale sun on the yellowish horizon: the beginning of the day in Baghdad, and the only sound was the muezzin’s reverential call to prayer.

Abdul al-Naren was about to point his small rug towards Mecca when he heard several knocks on the door. Strange: in all his years working in the Baghdad Library, no visitor had ever shown up so early. He always got to the library very early to clean and tidy the place before the scholars and scientists arrived. Abdul opened the heavy door and saw Tarek al-Kalani, the master’s assistant, standing there, looking very agitated.

—In the name of Allah, let me in —his voice was cracking.

—Why so early? I was about to start my prayers…

—We don’t have time, we don’t have time —said Tarek, closing the door quietly behind him—. We have to leave Baghdad now.

—What’s happening? Why do we have to leave?

—You don’t understand, Abdul, it’s over. Haven’t you heard that the Mongols are at Baghdad’s gates? There is no way to stop them, and soon there will be nothing left, not even the Library.

The word Mongols was itself enough to start Abdul shaking. He had often heard the stories of how they treated their enemies; their cruelty seemed to have no limits. Wherever they went, they left destruction and death.

Tarek continued:

—The master has given us precise instructions: fetch your family, pack your most precious belongings and come back to the Library. We will all meet here.

—But…

—Abdul, this is not the moment to hesitate. You and your family are in grave danger.

Abdul had a profound respect for his master and would never dare to disobey him. But he had never abandoned the Library during the day. It was his duty to be there, receive visitors and translate the texts that the master wanted. He paused for a few seconds and then decided to do as Tarek told him.

He had first come to the Library as a small boy in the streets of Baghdad. His parents had sold him as a slave to a tax collector, who forced him to work long hours in his horse stable, eating scraps and sleeping in the loft. The man soon started to hit Abdul, unmoved by his cries. One day, after a terrible beating, Abdul ran away.

He wandered through the dusty streets, eating what he could steal in the markets and sleeping wherever seemed safe. One morning, he saw a goose waddling down the street. Abdul followed the bird, hoping to catch it, but the goose moved quickly through the narrow streets of the city as if it knew where it was going.

The goose stopped in front of a building of shiny white stone. Abdul had never been there before but was immediately impressed. It was the tallest building in the city; its doors were made of wood, engraved with gorgeous designs and inscriptions that the boy couldn’t understand. The goose turned around and looked at him; then it ran towards a side wall and disappeared through a hole. Abdul followed it.

He had to drag himself through the dirt, bruising his arms and legs, but eventually, he reached the other side. He found himself in an exquisite garden, full of flowers and with a fountain in the middle, but he couldn’t see the goose anywhere. Instead, a man came out of the building smiling at him. Abdul wanted to run away, but the man stopped him:

—Don’t be afraid. I am not going to hurt you.

His voice reassured Abdul. The man had dark eyes, dark hair and a kind expression. He was dressed in a white tunic with a golden cord around his waist.

—First, I will give you something to eat.

Abdul was still scared, but he hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, and the mere thought of food made him forget his fears. He followed the man into a kitchen, and the boy thought he was dreaming: on a large table there were plates of fresh fruit, dates, bread, meat and honey.

—Eat as much as you want —said the man smiling, but Abdul wasn’t listening. He was already cramming his mouth with the food. When he couldn’t eat any more, he couldn’t stop himself falling asleep on the floor. Some hours later, he was woken up.

—Now it’s time for a good bath —said the man, showing him into a room with a tub full of steaming water.

Abdul had never had a bath before, and he was embarrassed to undress in front of a stranger. Reluctantly, he got into the tub with his clothes on. Then the man left the room, telling him to stay as long as he liked, and soon Abdul got distracted with some wooden toys floating in the water.

He started to enjoy the feel of the hot water on his skin, and he lay back in the bath not believing his good luck. Evidently, the stranger wanted something from him, but what could he offer? Maybe he wanted him to be his slave. With a master like this, his life would be much better than wandering on the streets. He finished his bath, put on a clean tunic and sandals that the man had left for him, and went out.

The stranger was waiting for him outside:

—Now you look much better —the man said with a smile—. Come, let’s talk. Do you know where you are?

Abdul shook his head.

—We are in the Baghdad Library —he said—. It is also called the House of Wisdom, and I am the Rector. Great scientists come here from all over the world to study and teach.

He told the boy the story of the place. The House of Wisdom was founded in the 9th century by the Caliph Harun al–Rashid, as a centre of excellence for Islamic studies. It became even more than that: leading scholars from Persia, India and Greece went there to teach mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and philosophy. Wise men who were persecuted in the Byzantine Empire or by the ever more intransigent Christian Church were welcomed inside its walls.

Since its foundation, the Baghdad Library had contributed more to science than any other institution, including similar centres in Asia and Europe. It wasn’t the first library in the Islamic Empire, but it was the biggest and best known, and it had flourished thanks to the generous donations of caliphs, merchants and army officers. In a society that considered knowledge the greatest wealth, being a benefactor to the Library was a real honour.

—Would you like to stay here? —asked the Rector.

Abdul nodded and even dared to smile.

—That’s what I thought. Come now, it’s time to eat again. You haven’t told me your name.

—Abdul —he replied and, happy at the thought of more food, followed the Rector into his new life.

As Abdul grew older, he found he had a remarkable talent for learning languages. The Master put him in charge of translating into Arabic many texts written in Greek, Hindu and Latin. When Abdul wasn’t busy with his duties, he listened to the scholars who taught in the library, especially his master. Abdul admired his capacity to debate on different topics with as much ease as the specialists in the subject.

One day the Rector said:

—Today I will show you a part of the library that only a few people know about, and one day it may save your life.

They took some narrow stairs down to a basement. At the bottom was a lake that, at first sight, seemed very deep: but when they crossed it, the water came up only to their ankles. When they walked to the other side, Abdul saw five small doors. The Rector chose one and opened it into a tunnel. Holding an oil lamp above his head, the master led Abdul into the darkness of the corridors. They had apparently been excavated for a purpose. As they walked on, they found provisions stored in neat piles, and oil lamps that the Rector lit to continue their journey. Every few hours they stopped to rest, and soon Abdul had lost all sense of time. After what seemed to him like several days underground, eventually, they saw a light.

—We are at the end of our journey —said the Rector—. This tunnel ends in the sacred city of Karbala. Other branches take you to other cities further away; over time you will know them all. Now it’s time for us to return to Baghdad.

The master later told Abdul that it had taken them more than a month to complete their journey. Throughout those long days, the Rector barely ate or slept. He was always busy taking rock samples, trying new corridors, explaining to Abdul how to find his way through the tunnels. That trip left Abdul in no doubt: his master was an extraordinary being.

Abdul resumed his life as a translator and Special Guard of the Library. Every few years, he would go back to the tunnels until he became familiar with its twists and bends and could make the journey on his own. Abdul got married and had children, but his loyalty to his master was absolute. His life, he felt, was perfect, which was why the news that Tarek brought him that morning was so devastating.

From the narrow streets outside, he could hear screams and desperate cries. Panic was spreading throughout the city. When Abdul asked a man what was happening, he was told that the soldiers the Caliph had sent to defend the city had all been killed, and the Mongols had already destroyed the city walls. Anyone who tried to escape was being massacred, including women and children. Everywhere, people were gathering their families, looting food stalls, taking whatever they could.

When Abdul finally managed to get home, he found his wife and children cowering in a corner crying with fear. He told them they had to leave, took as much food as he could from the cupboard and then, just as they were about to exit the house, the master arrived.

—You have to go immediately to the Library —he said firmly—. Don’t talk to anybody, don’t stop, and once you are back in the Library lock the door and don’t open it for any reason. I will be there soon and will take you somewhere safe outside the city. Do you remember when I told you that the tunnel might one day save your life? That day has arrived.

—Yes, master, I understand —replied Abdul.— Are we lost?

—The city is lost, Abdul, but we aren’t —answered Alexander with a sad smile (2).

Chapter 16

London, present day

My first few months at the Academy passed very quickly. After adapting to the long hours of practice, I felt as if I belonged to London and the Academy. I called Sister Ines every week, and she was happy just to hear I was happy. The end of the term was getting close, and Anita, as she had promised, invited me to stay at her home in Naples.

Her parents insisted on buying the air ticket for me, and I would offend them if I didn’t accept. Or so Anita told me, anyway. When we arrived at Capodichino airport, they were waiting for us. Unlike my friend, her parents were kind without being effusive. Anita introduced me.

—Ariane, we meet you at last —said Anita’s mother, Donna Giulia, offering me her hand—. Anita has talked such a lot about you.

—Thank you so much for your generosity —I replied—. Anita has been so kind to me.

—Not at all, Ariane —interrupted the father, Don Mario—. Anita cares about you, and she admires you. For us, it’s a pleasure to have you here.

After a terrifying drive through the streets of Naples, we arrived at the Caraccis’ home. They lived in an old building in Posillipo, a few metres from the beach. I could see the broad curve of the Naples Bay, with Vesuvius in the background and the islands of Capri and Ischia beautifully painted on the horizon. My room, with its high ceilings, purple velvet curtains and huge bed with a canopy, was a luxury I had never known before. A large window looked out over the Bay and the breeze brought with it a strong smell of the sea. I was stunned by the beauty and the splendour.

I didn’t have much time to admire the view, though. Donna Giulia had organised a welcome lunch, and the guests were waiting for us downstairs. The dining room had known better times, but it was full of beautiful pieces, like the chandelier made of Capodimonte China, which Anita told me was famous throughout the world. The walls were hung with paintings of Don Mario’s ancestors, and the floor was covered with a fine Persian carpet that he told me belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Don Mario was from an aristocratic Neapolitan family linked to the Bourbons. They had once reigned in the south of Italy, and most of their fortune had been squandered by Don Mario’s ancestors. All that remained was this mansion. Anita’s family lived comfortably, though, thanks to Don Mario’s work as an art dealer and Donna Giulia’s salary as a professor at the university.

Anita’s brothers were already in the dining room, and like their parents, they were not as bubbly as Anita herself. I began to wonder whether she was really as she appeared. Lunch was delicious: homemade pasta, lamb cooked in herbs from the garden, home-grown roasted vegetables and then a Neapolitan Baba, a spongy pudding soaked in enough alcohol to make me dizzy. Don Mario was generous with the wine too. Anita’s high spirits helped everyone to relax, and I was soon enjoying their funny stories about Neapolitan idiosyncrasies. I learned that San Gennaro, the patron saint of the city, produced a miracle twice a year: his blood —kept in a small bottle in the cathedral— liquefied. If it didn’t happen, it was a bad omen for the city. If it took a little longer than expected, the old ladies who spent the day praying to the saint to produce the miracle would start abusing him with the most vulgar expression of the Neapolitan dialect until he liquefied the blood. Don Mario also told me of the peculiar Neapolitan habit of “adopting” a skull. In the centre of Naples, during excavations work, the contractors discovered several unmarked tombs. The neighbours, feeling sorry for the unknown dead, decided to adopt them, moved them to a nearby church and gave them names, cleaned them and even dressed them. I was starting to see how Neapolitan culture was not only enriched by numerous influences, but it was also deeply rooted in the idea of death.

After lunch, Anita took me on a tour of Naples. She told me its history, starting more than five thousand years ago with the first inhabitants who lived in caves. Later came the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans and the Spanish, until eventually Naples was reunited with the rest of Italy. It had known periods of glory when it was the biggest port in Europe and one of the world’s richest cities, but it had also been cursed by earthquakes and terrible epidemics. Today, it was a town plagued by corruption and traffic. Even so, I found Naples fascinating.

And beautiful too: Anita pointed out the magnificent fortress of Maschio Angioino and the San Carlo Theatre, the oldest in Europe. Beneath the city was a labyrinth of catacombs, where the first Neapolitans had buried their dead.

I loved all the history, and even more so a few days later when we went to Pompeii with Don Mario. Until it was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, it had been one of the most prosperous and refined cities in the world. Don Mario described the grandeur and pragmatism of its Roman administration, its vibrant commerce and sophisticated artists, and he entertained us with stories of its uninhibited social life. It was as if the volcano, envious of so much vitality, had decided to show its destructive power.

That same day we also visited the church of the Virgin of the Rosary of Pompeii. Donna Giulia was a fervent Catholic and very interested in my life at the convent. When she asked if I had found a good church in London, I didn’t give her an honest answer. I didn’t want to tell her that, since I had left Malta, I hadn’t been anywhere near a church.

Outside the church was a gipsy woman who offered to read our palms. Donna Giulia gave her some coins, but the woman refused them.

—I don’t want the money —she said looking at me with a strange look—, I want to read the palm of the girl with red hair.

Anita smiled at me and said:

—Why not, Ariane? It will be fun.

Without waiting for my answer, the gipsy woman took my hand. Then she looked at me with her eyes wide open.

—You are one of them! —she exclaimed.

I thought she was referring to the Caracci’s.

—I am a friend of the family.

—I don’t mean that —said the woman closing my hand tightly into hers. Her fingers looked like claws, and I felt uncomfortable. —You have to be very careful, my dear. They are following you.

—What nonsense —said Anita quickly—, you are scaring my friend. Let’s go, Ariane.

The gipsy let me go but kept looking at me as we hurried away. On the way home, Anita told me that the gipsies had become a real nuisance in Naples and were clever pickpockets. When I pointed out that she had actually refused the money, Anita shrugged her shoulders. All rules have their exceptions, she said, even the gipsies of Naples.

***

All too soon, the happiness of my week in Naples came to an end. I had realised how much Anita’s friendship meant to me, but also how little I really knew her. She was the first person I could call a friend, but like Naples itself, she had many layers to be discovered.

Soon Christmas was looming up, and both Mrs Bowman and Anita invited me to join their family gatherings. I really wanted to visit Sister Ines, but she said I should stay in England. I decided to go with Mrs Bowman to her daughter’s house in the Cotswolds, a region famous for its farmed hills and golden-brown buildings.

On Christmas Eve, Mrs Bowman and I took the early train from Paddington. We managed to find a compartment that wasn’t full of people, and during the journey, she told me more about her life. Little did I imagine that during that Christmas holiday, I would have a scary and extraordinary experience.

Chapter 17

Strasbourg, 15th century

—The numbers don’t add up, sir —said the accountant, mortified— we can’t continue with the project.

—I know, Victor —said Gutenberg, apparently worried—. But isn’t there some way to convince the investors to wait a year, until things get back to normal in Aachen?

—The problem is that they don’t believe the exhibition will happen, not even when the city recovers. They are asking for their money back.

It was not the first time Victor had seen Gutenberg in this predicament, with an extraordinary idea but hamstrung by debts. At various stages, Johannes Gutenberg had been ironmonger, jeweller and printer, but he had never been successful. On this occasion, though, it wasn’t his fault.

When Gutenberg had moved to Strasbourg, thanks to his aristocratic standing and his cultivated manners, he was welcomed into its social circles. It didn’t take him long to find backers for his ideas. But money doesn’t follow failure, and Gutenberg was too chaotic and unstable for the rich men of Strasbourg. Soon they were demanding stringent safeguards for their money.

The Aachen project seemed a safe one. To commemorate Emperor Charlemagne, the municipal authorities had asked Gutenberg to produce mirrors of polished metal which, as was the belief at the time, could absorb divine light from religious relics. Some investors got excited by the project and put up a lot of money for Gutenberg to produce the mirrors, which the city council guaranteed to buy.

Once again, luck was not on Gutenberg’s side. Aachen was battered by heavy rain and flooding, and the local authorities had to divert all the money they had promised for the mirrors. Gutenberg had already bought the materials, paid money on account to the craftsmen and for transport, but without the municipal funds, he didn’t have the money to complete the project or to store the raw materials. Worse, he would soon have to tell the investors that he couldn’t return their money. His position was desperate, and he knew it. His only consolation was to continue with his secret project, the one that really fascinated him.

When the young Gutenberg had learned how to read, his father had given him a book about Roman history. At that moment, his life had changed. He touched the pages with reverence, tracing with his fingers the beautiful hand-written letters, trying to imagine the man who had devoted so many hours to writing down the story of the Roman Empire. His passion for books grew and, after working every morning in his father’s workshop as a blacksmith, he would go to his room to read until late at night.

His family belonged to the prosperous merchant class in Mainz, but they lost everything during civil unrest, and rioters burnt their house. The Gutenberg’s and many other families were forced to leave Mainz. The only thing the young Johannes took with him was a copy of Homer’s Iliad. The experience changed his life again. He kept asking himself what the reason for inequality, which had caused so much resentment and social violence, was. There was only one answer: ignorance.

In Gutenberg’s time, printing a book was an expensive and laborious process. To carve from a piece of wood each letter of a text, to make sure the letters were aligned, to clean the borders to make sure the ink didn’t spill ―all this could take months. Worse, wood wore out very quickly, so producing more copies involved the same process all over again. Books for the masses were simply unavailable, which meant that mass education was impossible. Gutenberg wanted to find a way to make knowledge accessible for everybody, rich and poor, and that was his secret project.

He rented an old farm house outside Strasbourg, where he installed some experimental equipment. During the day he worked on his official projects. At night he spent hours at the farm house, surviving on very little sleep.

That day, after the depressing conversation with the accountant, Gutenberg went to the farm house. There, all his worries disappeared, and he could dream. He lit a candle, laid a fire with dry logs, opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of wine, a piece of bread and some cheese, and sat down to eat.

On the table where he worked were some copper prototypes he was testing. Gutenberg was convinced that metal letters wouldn’t wear out as wood did, and thanks to his experience as a blacksmith, it was easy for him to produce the alphabet and the typographic symbols in copper. Being a perfectionist, for his tests, Gutenberg only used paper and ink that he had produced. He knew they were the right material for his metal prototypes.

He was finishing his glass of wine when he heard a knock at the door. It startled him; nobody knew about the farm house, and for a second he thought it must be a debt-collector. Gutenberg looked cautiously through the window and was surprised to see a well-dressed man smiling at him through the glass. He wasn’t sure whether to open the door, but his curiosity was stronger than his prudence.

—I apologise for knocking at your door so late at night —said the stranger—. I saw a light, and I thought you must still be awake. Let me introduce myself: my name is Alexander Von Rossen, and I am travelling east. My horse is tired, I have been on the road for many days, and yours is the only light I have seen for many miles.

—It is not safe to travel at night —said Gutenberg, still feeling uncomfortable.

—That’s what I have been told, Sir, but in this case, it was worth taking a risk. It is a pleasure to meet the great Gutenberg.

—How do you know my name?

—If you let me in, I will tell you. It is after eleven, and it is cold outside. I just need to warm up and let my horse rest. I will leave very early in the morning.

Cautiously checking that nobody else was hiding outside, Gutenberg let the stranger in.

—Thank you very much —said Alexander, taking his cloak off.

—You still haven’t told me how you know my name ─insisted Gutenberg.

―Maybe you will be surprised to hear that amongst my people you are considered a genius. I recognised your face immediately.

—How could you recognise me? Nobody has done my portrait. Who are your people? Where do you come from?

Gutenberg looked at him suspiciously. The stranger’s clothes and manners marked him out as a gentleman, but the fact that he had arrived at that time of the night and knew Gutenberg’s name made him think that he was a debt collector, or, even worse, someone who would try to copy his ideas. That had happened several times in the past. Reluctantly, but unwilling to stifle his curiosity, Gutenberg invited his visitor to sit down and offered him some wine.

—I come from the lands in the north —said Alexander—, beyond the Urals, where scientists and philosophers are more respected than rulers and warriors.

—It must be a very civilised place —said Gutenberg sarcastically—. I didn’t know that a country like that existed. Nowadays only money and power matter. Respect for knowledge disappeared with the ancient civilisations.

—Our people are not well known, we prefer to live isolated from the rest of the world, but we love philosophy and science, and whenever possible we have to learn from other people, like you. To you, Gutenberg ―said Alexander, raising his goblet. He continued—: Our ambition is the same as yours: we want to educate the masses, especially the poorest. We know you have been trying different ways of producing books. I was very lucky to find you.

Gutenberg stared at the stranger trying to work out his real intentions. How did he know about his experiments? Yes, most likely he was a spy. By now Gutenberg’s suspicions were struggling against tiredness; he had had a long day. Little by little, while the stranger was talking, he felt his eyelids closing, thought he could hear soft music and drifted into a deep sleep.

It was almost six in the morning when Johannes woke up. He looked around for his visitor, but the room was empty. For a moment, Gutenberg panicked: maybe the man had stolen something. Quickly, he checked his cluttered desk; nothing was missing, but anyway, his idea might have been copied. He had to continue his work immediately.

The cold of the night had numbed his body; he threw more wood on the fire and boiled some water. He looked at the window: the sky was pale blue, and the sun was just coming over the horizon when, all of a sudden, a ray of light struck him, and a loud noise shook the house. Gutenberg fell to the floor. Next, half-conscious, he got to his feet, feeling as if he were floating.

In front of him, there was a wine press; on one side it had several letters bunched together and glistening with ink. A sheet of paper fell softly onto the letters, and the other side of the press slowly descended. Then, just as slowly, it rose again, and on the sheet, Gutenberg saw two beautifully printed words.

In principio

The copper letters moved, rearranging themselves, and again the press descended onto the paper. This time he read:

Creavit Deus

Gutenberg understood. He ran outside to the barn, where he had once stored an old grape press, and found it under piles of straw. He dragged it into the house and spent the rest of the day and night working. By then he had set up a metal frame on which the letters could slide. He chose some of the ones he had been using in his previous tests. He brushed them with ink, put the paper on the press and then he lowered the other side and gradually lifted it. On the paper, in bright red, firm and clear, were printed the first lines of Genesis:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram.

Terra autem erat inanis et vacua,

Et tenebrae super faciem abyssi,

Et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas

Gutenberg rushed to change the letters, repeated the procedure, and the next words were just as familiar, just as perfect:

Dixitque Deus: “Fiat lux”. Et facta est lux.

Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona

Et divisit Deus lucem ac tenebras

Gutenberg had invented a way to print books in large numbers, accessible to the masses. That one night opened the door to the wonders of knowledge, transforming human destiny from then on.

Chapter 18

Cotswolds, present day

During the train journey to Oxfordshire, Mrs Bowman talked about her husband. She had had a very exciting life by his side —in every sense, she remarked with a wink. Behind his formal role as cultural attaché, he had actually been a spy. Mr Bowman rose to become the head of Britain’s counter-Soviet espionage during the Cold War. He had sometimes been away from home for weeks, and all she knew was that her husband was on a special mission. Although she never knew the details, she talked about him with such admiration, as if he had single-handedly been responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

My landlady’s revelations entertained me throughout the journey until we arrived at a small village called Kingham, where Emily and Harry were waiting for us with a very excited Helena. The young couple had converted an old barn into a two-storey house, surrounded by a tidy garden that had some colour even at that time of the year. Inside, the house had high ceilings, an open-plan kitchen and a dining area with a big chimney. Upstairs the rooms were cosy, and each also had a chimney. Helena insisted on showing me her room, with light wallpaper and illustrations from “Alice in Wonderland”. The house’s atmosphere contrasted with the grey sky and the barren fields, but the weather didn’t dampen our spirits, especially when Emily announced she was pregnant.

I helped the family decorate the house and put up a tall pine tree in a corner of the sitting room. Helena’s excitement was infectious, and I couldn’t help thinking of all the sad and dull Christmases I had spent in the orphanage. Still, I realised how much I missed Sister Ines, and I wished she were here with me.

On Christmas Eve we went to Church for midnight mass. It was the first time I had attended an Anglican Mass, and it left me perplexed. The priest was a smiley and kind woman who, rather than performing a solemn ritual, spent a lot of time chatting to the worshippers. When the time came for the congregation to receive the bread and wine, Mrs Bowman stood up and asked me, surprised:

—Aren’t you coming?

—I am Catholic, it would be heresy —I whispered.

She, shrugging her shoulders, replied:

—Not here it isn’t. Come with me.

I hesitated but then, just to please her, I walked up to the altar. As usual, the Communion didn’t move me, but this time I didn’t feel guilty.

I woke up early on Christmas day and decided to walk around the fields close to the house. It had snowed a bit during the night, and the soft hills of the Cotswolds were sprinkled with white; there was something magical in the air. Sheathed in a warm coat and thick snow boots, I left the house. There was an hour before breakfast, and I decided to go to an old mill I had noticed the day before. The snow crunched under my feet, and the wind was soon making me shiver, but the crystal-clear blue sky and the pure air were enchanting.

After walking for ten minutes across the fields, I saw a man coming in my direction. In the emptiness of the countryside and so early on Christmas day, it seemed strange to cross paths with somebody else. As we got closer, I could see he was tall and olive-skinned. He smiled at me with his green eyes and said:

—Good morning and Happy Christmas. It’s quite cold today, isn’t it?

He didn’t look British, and his accent was unfamiliar.

—Good morning and Happy Christmas to you too —I wanted to keep walking, but he kept talking.

—Do you live around here?

—No, I am staying with friends —I said—, and you?

—I’m a stranger too. I am spending the holidays with my brother and his family.

That was enough conversation for me, but he kept going:

—What do you do?

—I’m studying music.

—How lovely! It must be re…

Before he could go any further, a loud sound rang out, and I felt something brush the back of my coat. The man grabbed my arm and pulled me to the ground.

—That was a bullet!—he exclaimed—. Are you OK?

—Yes, I suppose so —I replied, shocked.

—Be careful! —he shouted towards the copse at the edge of the field—. People are walking here.

We heard some scuffling from the road and then absolute silence.

—Crazy —the man said, his face worried— what did he think he was doing?

—Th…thanks —I was shaking so much I could barely mumble.

—Don’t worry, this kind of things is very rare in England. Anyway, let me take you home.

I couldn’t stop shaking as we walked back to the barn, and was greatly relieved to get to the front door.

—I am very sorry you got scared —said the man—, especially on Christmas day. I can only imagine that was a novice who didn’t realise the dangers of a loaded gun.

—I don’t know how to thank you —I replied, still stunned— you saved my life.

—Don’t worry …by the way, what’s your name?

—Ariane.

—That’s a sweet name —he managed a smile—. My name is Zaher Dawy by the way.

—Do you want to come in for a cup of tea? —I asked.

—No thanks, I have to get back. My brother will be worried. But I will leave you my card, just in case we meet again and you still want to offer me that cup of tea.

Professor Zaher Dawy, from the University of Beirut, said the card and, to my astonishment, in one corner was the familiar image: a blue two-pointed feather with a coloured spot in the middle. I looked at him confused, and he smiled.

—I hope your studies go well and perhaps our paths will cross again —he said, shaking my hand and then turning quickly away.

Quietly I went inside, but Mrs Bowman was up, and she noticed I was shaking. When I told her about the rifle shot, she was very upset. That kind of thing didn’t happen in the Cotswolds, and anyway shooting with a rifle was tightly controlled. I showed Emily the card the professor had given me, but she didn’t know anyone in the village called Dawy.

—Poor Ariane —Mrs Bowman said—. Let me get you some chamomile tea.

—Thank you, Mrs Bowman, that’s just what I need.

She replied firmly:

—This is why we need to keep our eyes open, we aren’t safe anywhere!

Little Helena was listening in silence, her face pale. Emily quickly changed the subject, her voice artificially cheerful:

—All well now! Let’s get on with Christmas. Ariane, would you like some breakfast?

Chapter 19

Cambridge, 17th century

The afternoon light was fading, and some faint stars were starting to spot the sky. A fresh breeze crossed the well-kept gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge, ruffling the last wallflowers that announced the end of autumn. Isaac Newton was looking down from one of the college’s windows, indifferent to the change of season, submerged in the peace of his favourite time of the day, his commitments over.

Already considered one of the most remarkable scientists of his time, for Newton there wasn’t a bigger pleasure than the solitude of his lab. He never got married, had very few friends, wasn’t interested in social life and more than once had public and explosive rows with his colleagues. His isolation was not only because of his disagreements with the academic establishment but mainly because of his rejection of the Anglican hierarchy which had caused controversy in the University.

***

Isaac Newton was born in 1643, a premature baby, weak and small, in Woolsthorpe, a village in the north of England. As a child, he never played with his contemporaries and was no more than mediocre in the classroom. As he grew up, his only interest was in building windmills and water clocks.

After failing as a farmer, the occupation his mother had wished for him, Newton managed to get a place at Trinity College. In 1665, because of the bubonic plague, the university had to close, and Isaac went back home for two years until the epidemic passed. During those years, he studied science and philosophy, and between 1665 and 1667 —the period he later called Anni mirabiles— he worked out the solution for binomial power, which laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus. He built the first reflecting telescope and developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of Newtonian Fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician, Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves. In his notebook he wrote the motto that defined his career:

Amicus Plato,

Amicus Aristoteles

Magis amica veritas

“Plato is my friend. Aristotle is my friend. But my best friend is truth.”

After the plague was over, Newton went back to Cambridge in 1668. The university authorities were so impressed by what he had been doing that he was appointed professor emeritus. Newton never considered himself a genius, and he attributed his success to the fact that he spent more time on his studies than others did. Nobody though knew about Newton’s obsession with the occult.

He spent entire nights studying ancient texts, including the Bible, from which he concluded that Jesus Christ was born not in December but in April. From that, he deduced that the world would end not in 1757, as the Anglican Church said, but in 2060, the result of a comet colliding with the Earth.

Newton had England’s largest collection of books on Alchemy and translated several ancient books on the subject. Although he didn’t formally belong to any sect, he had frequent contact with the followers of Socinianism and Arianism, two spiritual movements that rejected the fundamental principles of the Anglican faith. He kept his exchanges with these groups completely secret.

Newton never openly admitted his beliefs, as he didn’t want to attract even more controversy. He was already clashing with fellow academics, and his public disputes with Gottfried Leibniz were so fierce that they became the talk of the Academic establishment. He took on the prestigious role of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University, obtaining government exemption from the usual requirement that the post is held by an ordained Church of England priest. It was this that prompted the widespread rumour that he was a heretic.

And Newton was a heretic. Although a convinced monotheist, he didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity nor in the divine nature of Jesus Christ, whom he saw as merely a mediator between God and mankind. Newton didn’t believe that the Saints and the Virgin Mary should be glorified; in his view, men could adore only the unique and true God.

Newton thought that science provided the tools to understand God’s principles. The organised dynamism of the universe had been created by a God, and it was the duty of every scientist to discover the true nature of the universe through reason. He was convinced that many centuries earlier, wise men knew the truth about God; science was only rediscovering what was already known. Alchemy and the Hermetic texts contained the secret codes of the natural order and the future of mankind.

With such radical ideas, it wasn’t difficult to understand why Newton preferred to isolate himself from his colleagues and take refuge in his laboratory. There, in a labyrinth of test tubes, burners, gold, lead and other metals, he could search for the alchemist’s dream: the Philosopher’s Stone, the process that would transform an element into gold.

He was thinking about that when a college servant brought him a letter from the Duke of Olborough. The Duke was the most prominent aristocrat in Cambridge and a great benefactor of the university. Inside the envelope was an invitation to a speech about the latest archaeological excavations in Egypt and the possible discovery of the original Emerald Tablet, the mysterious code of the Hermetic.

It was a topic that enthralled Newton. The oldest transcript known of the Emerald tablet at the time had been written in Arabic and was found in Egypt, but it was not the original text It contained the secrets of the Hermetic sect, the first known sect in ancient history. Even though it was highly unlikely that the original tablet had been found, he immediately sent back his answer with the servant, accepting the invitation. If the speech happened to be a bore, he wouldn’t have any problem in standing up and leaving, as he had done many times before. Courtesy was not one of Newton’s virtues.

On the night of the conference it was snowing lightly, and Newton was wrapping himself in his coat when somebody knocked at the door. It was Halley, England’s most renowned astronomer and one of Newton’s few friends.

—I thought you would be going to the speech as well. Let’s walk together, I have several things to discuss with you.

While walking across the court of Trinity, Halley sounded excited:

—Have you had a chance to review the estimates that Hooke and I have made about the force of attraction between planets?

—Hooke, that annoying man! —Newton said—. Meddling in all sorts of things without getting anywhere. And then, when somebody gets any result in any of the subjects Hooke has superficially touched, he accuses them of plagiarism. I can’t stand him!

Newton had had several disagreements with Hooke in the recently established Royal Society. Halley continued talking as if he hadn’t heard Newton’s outburst.

—Based on our estimates, the planets’ orbits are elliptical, but we don’t understand why.

Newton didn’t say a word, but he was genuinely surprised. He had been asking himself the same question, and he had a hypothesis, but the empirical evidence didn’t corroborate it, and he still couldn’t establish a satisfactory theory.

At the Duke’s manor, a butler received the guests and directed them to the library. The house was as extravagant as its owner, filled with gigantic turtle shells, dinosaur skeletons, huge rocks and precious paintings. When Newton entered the library, people fell silent; it was very unusual to see him at a social event, particularly at night.

—Do you see that table? —Halley said, admiring the furniture—. Apparently, it belonged to Copernicus when he was studying medicine in Padua. Anyway, that’s what the Duke says.

But Newton was more interested in the artefacts on the table: papyrus, sculptures in stone and clay representing Hermetic symbols, and a rectangular wooden box adorned with a delicate carving of a feather with two points. A few minutes later the Duke came in with the speaker, a man with a pleasant smile, elegantly dressed and with unusually dark eyes. The Duke was wearing his dressing gown and slippers and ―living up to his eccentric image― he had a monkey on his shoulder. He introduced his guest as Baron Alexander Von Rossen, one of the most experienced archaeologists on the continent. He then left the room, undoubtedly to go to sleep.

The speaker started:

—First of all, thank you for coming here this evening. I am honoured to have in the audience so many remarkable scientists. As my kind host said, I am an archaeologist and my main area of interest is Egypt. My team and I have spent almost three decades excavating sites in the Upper Nile and the Western Desert.

Newton started to pay more attention. Von Rossen continued:

—The majority of the tombs and buildings that we excavated had been looted. Only a few interesting artefacts remained, but during our last expedition my team dug out a fort close to a village called El Ashmunein that, perhaps because of its isolation, was intact. We found a necropolis and a temple apparently dedicated to the god Thoth, known by the Greeks as Hermes. The construction style indicates that the fort was built around two thousand years before Christ, which would make it the oldest in the region.

He paused and looked at the audience.

—The pieces on the table were in the temple, but the most interesting one is in this box.

Von Rossen carefully opened the wooden box and turned it towards the audience so they could see. Several people gasped, and even Newton was stunned.

—As you can see —continued Von Rossen— this is an emerald tablet carved with hieroglyphic script. It is intact, which means that, at the time, it must have been the biggest emerald ever found. Our preliminary researches lead us to believe that this could be the original Emerald Tablet of the Hermetic. The meaning of the hieroglyphs on the stone is similar to what is written in the Arabic version we all know about, which dates back to about 500 AD. This emerald is much older and has much more information about the Hermetic. We suppose that this original tablet was copied and translated later, intentionally excluding some valuable information.

A murmur rippled around the room. Newton, uninterested in the comments of the audience, recognised the symbols. They were indeed the same as those on the Emerald Tablet he knew so well. They set out a list of rules, a code of conduct for achieving the highest levels of spirituality. But the Baron was right. In the tablet the man held in his hands, there was much more: magical rituals and secret practices reserved only for those initiated into the cult.

—The style of the hieroglyphs is the same as other inscriptions we found in the fort —Von Rossen said—, which makes them around three thousand years old. This discovery will help us to understand better the philosophy of the Hermetic sect.

At that point, Halley stood up and said in a loud voice:

—The greatest expert on this matter is here tonight: Isaac Newton.

The audience looked around Newton, who upset by the unwelcome attention, said:

—I only translated a few of the Hermetic texts. The Emerald Tablet was one of them, and it was a long time ago —and all the while he was asking himself: how could Halley know about his Hermetic studies?

—We have read your work carefully, Professor Newton —Von Rossen said—. We used it as a guide for our expedition.

Newton felt even more uncomfortable. Halley might have seen him working on the Hermetic studies on the many occasions he had visited Newton, but how could a perfect stranger have read it? He had never published it! Fortunately, the audience was now busy asking the Baron questions, and he answered each one of them patiently.

At the end of the meeting, several people from the audience approached Von Rossen to continue talking. Newton would have done so as well, but he was tired and in a bad mood. His house was close by and, still upset with Halley, he decided to leave on his own.

Just as he was nearing his own front door, he heard a voice behind him:

—Professor Newton.

He turned around and was surprised to see Von Rossen.

—I hope I am not bothering you. I wanted to talk to you after the conference, but the other guests didn’t allow me to —he said with a smile.

—Oh, yes, I also wanted to talk to you —answered Newton.

—Do you mind if I join you?

—Not at all.

—I thought you might like to see the tablet again and even tell me more about your studies on the topic.

Newton, wary again, wondered how Von Rossen knew about his research.

—Unless it’s not what you want —said the Baron.

—I would like to know how you found out about my research on Hermetic studies.

—We move in the same circles, Professor —replied Von Rossen—. Like you, we have an open mind, and we ask ourselves questions about the truth of the religious consensus. Some of what we say is not accepted by scientists, religious leaders and even governments, which is why we keep our activities quite secret.

Newton glanced at the Baron, suspecting he knew much more about him than he was saying. Von Rossen continued:

—In every society, the established order doesn’t tolerate doubt, because it is uncomfortable. Religious leaders are afraid because it would make them lose control over the worshippers. In the academic world, to have doubts is taken as a sign of intellectual weakness; the greatest scientists are quick to scorn any idea that doesn’t have a solid mathematical or factual base. But the world is not only what we can see and touch. Only individuals who are brave enough to live in constant doubt, who have the urge to keep inquiring, can make significant contributions to the progress of mankind. You are one of those, Professor Newton.

Newton understood what Von Rossen’s words meant. He reckoned the Baron probably belonged to one of those sects that flourished outside Christianity, the sort that Newton criticised in public but approached privately. Even so, he didn’t know enough about him to trust him. Newton changed the subject:

—Do you really think you have found the Hermetic “Emerald Tablet”?

—The content is the same as the Arabic texts, but on this tablet, we also found new codes. They apparently refer to the Hermetic philosophy and rituals. In the fort, there were other artefacts that were probably used in ceremonies.

—Up to now, I never thought it was a real object: it seemed more like a symbol.

—It is real —the Baron replied.

—Then show it to me —said Newton.

Moving a pile of papers, the Baron carefully put the box on the table and opened it. For the second time that evening, Newton was astonished. Close up, the emerald was even more impressive. He picked up a magnifying glass and scrutinised the hieroglyphs; he touched the stone and felt as if a current was rushing through his body. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at.

For a while, the two men discussed the possible origins of the tablet. Then, to Newton’s delight, the Baron suggested that he might like to keep it for some time, to decipher the text. Barely trying to conceal his eagerness, Newton said he would do so.

—Good —said Von Rossen—. Now it’s time for me to go. You look tired, and I have to leave early tomorrow —and he walked to the door.

Newton was too tired to undress, falling asleep with his clothes on. A few hours later, his servant peeped into the room, put out the fire and took Newton’s shoes off; but his master was so fast asleep that he didn’t stir.

A week later, Newton had to go back to Woolsthorpe, where his siblings still lived; they needed help to sort out their parents’ inheritance. He got there in time for lunch, and afterwards, he decided to go for a walk. During the past few days, he had been preoccupied with the “Emerald Tablet”, but, subconsciously, he kept recalling Halley’s question about the planets’ orbits. He went into the garden and sat down on a bench, deep in his thoughts. A few steps away was an apple tree, and Newton was surprised to see that although it had only a few leaves left, apples were still hanging from its branches.

He closed his eyes and let his mind wander from one thought to another. When he opened them again, he took another look at the tree, and he saw an apple falling slowly, very slowly, to the ground. Suddenly, Newton jumped from the bench. Of course! The answer to Halley’s question had been staring him in the face all the time. The same reason the apple fell was also why all celestial bodies are related to each other: any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The same force would explain the shape of the planets’ orbits. Getting more and more excited, he made some quick mental calculations and hurried back home. A few weeks later, Isaac Newton established the basis of the theory of universal gravitation.

Newton was called “The Last Magician”(3). His passion for the occult was even more compelling than his interest in science, but his contributions to calculus, astronomy and optics were extraordinary.

Nature and Nature’s Law lay hid in Night:

God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light

Epitaph on Isaac Newton

by Alexander Pope

Chapter 20

London, present day

—This weather is not for humans —said Anita, soaking wet and grumbling—. I don’t know why my parents sent me to this country. I can’t stand the cold. Why didn’t they choose Africa or Australia?

—Then we wouldn’t have met ―I replied, and Anita grinned. It didn’t take much to get her to smile.

Maybe because of her sunny character, Anita didn’t fit into the grey and melancholic colours of the British winter. I was fine; I even felt protected by the low clouds, the fine rain and the fog.

Anita was an accomplished violinist, the best in her class. During theory lessons, she used to sit with me in case I needed help. It all changed when an attractive American violinist joined the Academy in the new year, and she went back to her group. I really didn’t need her any more. I had caught up with the theory, and it even became one of my favourite subjects.

I had finished my first year with good grades, and both Christopher and Carol congratulated me when they gave me the Academic Excellence Award. My scholarship depended on my performance, so I had a big incentive to do well, though I didn’t need one. I loved studying and practising, and I loved my life at the Academy. Every day reminded me of what I had missed growing up in the orphanage, and how lucky I was to escape.

On the last day of the summer term, I was walking to the bus stop from the Academy when I heard somebody calling me. When I turned around, I didn’t immediately recognise the young woman smiling at me.

—Have you forgotten me? I am Eliza, from the orphanage. Don’t you remember?

—Eliza, of course! I am sorry, I just didn’t expect to see you in London. What are you doing here?

—I am in town for a couple of days, and I came to see you. I knew you were studying at the Academy.

—What a surprise!

—You look really well, Ariane. Leaving the orphanage was a good thing —she said with a big smile—. Let’s have a cup of tea.

Eliza and I walked through Piccadilly and found somewhere we could order tea and scones. She told me she had left Malta because she was bored of living on an island, and now was travelling through Europe. She hadn’t changed at all and had the same relaxed and carefree attitude that made her so charming.

I decided to tell her how, when we first met at the orphanage, I wasn’t quite sure whether my midnight visitor was real or just a product of my imagination. I felt slightly embarrassed as I told her my story, but she laughed in delight.

―What a thought ―she said―. And you know what? Perhaps you were closer to the truth than you realised.

With this remark hanging in the air, I changed the subject.

—What about the pets? —I asked.

—I left them in Malta with a good friend who would take care of them, but I brought you this.

From her bag, she produced a beautiful two-pointed feather with a silver dot on a hair clip.

—What a strange coincidence! —I couldn’t get over my surprise.

—What coincidence? —Eliza asked.

—I have seen this feather before.

—Yes, I know. In your diary.

—How do you know it was in my diary?

—You told me.

—No, I didn’t. I never told anyone— I was even more perplexed.

—Of course you did! Anyway, let’s not argue about it. Do you like it?

—Yes, of course, it’s beautiful. Thank you —I said, but I was still baffled. I was sure I had never mentioned the two-pointed feather to Eliza.

She then started talking about her travels, and soon we were happily chatting again. At around five she had to leave.

—I am so happy to see you in such good form, Ariane.

—I am glad to see you too, Eliza.

—Well, I guess this is it. I have to leave tonight and will be travelling for quite some time. But I do hope we will see each other again.

—I hope so too, Eliza. Now that you know how to find me, please let me know when you are back to London.

—I will.

She gave me a hug, and I had a strong feeling I would see her again.

***

During the summer I had been giving private tuition, which meant I could save some money. I found out that in London, I could do a lot with very little. Busy every day, and most evenings too, I soon got out of the habit of writing to Sister Ines, and I didn’t call her. One day the phone rang. It was Sister Francesca:

—Ariane, what happened, my darling girl, that you haven’t called? Poor Sister Ines was taken ill and had to go to the hospital. We thought it was a heart attack, but thank God and the Holy Virgin Mary, she has a heart stronger than a horse. She had had a nervous breakdown because she was so worried about you.

—I am very sorry, Sister Francesca! —I replied, feeling like a monster —. I am fine, I have just been very busy.

—Here is Sister Ines, she didn’t want to call because she was afraid she would get bad news. Here she is.

—Ariane —Sister Ines’s cracked voice broke my heart—. Are you alright? Are they treating you well? You can come back whenever you want, you know that the doors to this house are always open.

—Sister Ines, I’m so, so sorry I haven’t called you! I am fine, I promise you. And I also promise you that from now on you will hear from me every week.

And that was what I did until the day Sister Ines died a few months later. She didn’t have a horse’s heart after all. When Sister Francesca called to give me the news, she told me that when Sister Ines died, she was holding her rosary and a picture of me as a little child. To lose Sister Ines was very painful; she had been the closest thing to a true mother I had had, and I realised how much I had learned from her. She had asked the other nuns to send me her few possessions: a prayer book, pictures mostly of me, her good luck rosary and some linen handkerchiefs that she had embroidered for me for my eighteenth birthday. That was the last contact I had with the nuns who had raised me.

Instead, my friendship with Mrs Bowman grew stronger every day. In my second year, she decided not to charge me for the room anymore. I only had to contribute to the food, “so that I could have a little bit more pocket money”, she said. We often went to the cinema or the theatre together. Mrs Bowman loved musicals, and London was the place to enjoy them. Emily visited her every week, and Helena came on Wednesdays, although I only saw her from time to time. I loved that simple domestic routine and felt I was part of it for the first time in my life.

Occasionally, I needed to be on my own, to read a book or take a long walk. I still couldn’t shake off a feeling of nostalgia that, buried in a corner of my mind, sometimes told me something important was missing.

It was during that year that I had my first relationship. Andy Hopps was a timid, awkward English boy with deep blue eyes, who blushed every time he spoke to me. Anita teased me about him, and I am sure she was the one who gave him my phone number.

—It’s for you —called Mrs Bowman from the corridor when I was washing my hair.

I put my head in a towel, came out from the bathroom and noticed her mischievous smile.

—Hello, who is it, please?

—Ariane? It is… Andy, Andy Hopps, from the Academy.

I felt my face burning under Mrs Bowman’s scrutiny.

—Oh, yes, Andy. What a surprise!

—Yes… well…Would you like to come to a movie on Sunday and then maybe have a pizza? I mean… if you want …

—Yes, of course. What time?

—I can pick you up at six.

—Perfect, see you on Sunday then.

—So? —Mrs Bowman’s smile was almost childishly naughty.

—Nothing, he’s just a classmate.

—He has a lovely voice. Does he sing?

—No, he plays the trombone.

—Ah.

She seemed slightly disappointed about the trombone, but on Sunday afternoon she helped me to find the right dress and combed my hair —more out of control than ever— into a tidy bun. Andy arrived punctually at six, and we went to the movies. We had a great time, although my hairdo collapsed with the first drops of rain.

With the blessing of Anita and Mrs Bowman, Andy and I developed a juvenile love that fuelled my zest for life. I embraced the belated awakening of my femininity, navigating happily through the next few years until the day I met Will.

***

I graduated from the Academy with top marks. Unusually ―I was told the last time it had happened was twenty-five years ago― I had been offered the chance to continue my studies while also performing with the Academy’s orchestra. I was eighteen years old and had the world at my feet. I didn’t want to leave Mrs Bowman —Elspeth as she asked me to call her— but with my new life came more opportunities to travel. I took them all as if I wanted to discover everything at once.

One autumn evening I gave a performance at the Wigmore Hall. I played For Elise, the same piece I had been set in Valletta when I was being tested for the Academy two years earlier. Just two years! It seemed like a lifetime, and Beethoven’s piano concert proved to be just as much of a life-changer that evening as it was in Valletta.

As I came out of the Wigmore Hall, a young man walked up to me. To my surprise, he handed me a white rose, slightly squashed.

—I tried to throw it onto the stage but I missed, so I collected it again to give to you in person. It was the least I could do.

—Oh, thank you. You shouldn’t have bothered.

—I have never heard Beethoven played with such feeling.

I took a second look at the young man in front of me, tousled, tall and lanky, who smiled at me with his bright brown eyes. From that moment on, we were together.

Will was a journalist, his mind quick and bright, and he was enthusiastic about almost everything. He loved classical music, so he came to my performances and rehearsals whenever he could; and when his job allowed, he even came on tour with me. We went together to Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna and Milan, and three years after we met, he asked me to marry him. I felt too young for such a commitment, but Will was ten years older than me. He was keen to settle down and have a family.

Neither Elspeth nor Anita liked the idea of my getting married. I was just twenty-two, and when I asked Carol’s opinion, she said I would be spending a lot of time on tour both in Britain and the rest of Europe. It would be difficult to have a family life at that stage in my career. Those objections didn’t bother Will. He was convinced we were meant to be together, it was inevitable, so why waste time? I didn’t resist his arguments, partly because he was himself irresistibly keen, but also because I longed for stability and family life. The scars from the orphanage had not disappeared.

We got married one morning in May in a civil ceremony in the beautiful gardens of Battersea Park, beside the Thames. The sky was crystalline blue, and the sun warmed the spring air. His family and our best friends were there, and as a surprise, a few of my orchestra colleagues played some of our favourite music. I looked at Will, and in his eyes, I saw the promise of the life I had always wanted. The lonely sadness of the orphanage was completely behind me.

We went on our honeymoon to the West of Scotland, Will’s favourite place. We rode our bicycles along the coast and visited remote islands. The magic of the scenery enchanted me, and we daydreamed about building a house on one of the islands and even moving to Scotland when we had children. My most vivid memory was looking down from a cliff at the foam embroidery on the beach. He took me in his arms silently, but I could feel his heart crying with happiness.

When we returned to London, we rented a tiny flat close to the Academy. During the day we went our separate ways, but whenever we could, we would spend our evenings at home talking, listening to music and making plans for the future. My life was perfect.

Chapter 21

Ternate (Malay Archipelago), 19th century

Alfred Wallace had been travelling for several years around the western Pacific, visiting islands and countries that were quite different from his native England —and also from South America, where he had spent four exciting years. His job was to collect exotic species that he sold to European collectors. As a keen naturalist, he was doubly delighted to discover that his passion paid so handsomely.

In search of new treasures for his clients, in 1858 Wallace went to the Malay Archipelago, an area that reportedly contained 25,000 islands. It was between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and largely unexplored by European naturalists. Eventually, he reached a dense cluster of small islands of volcanic origin. After considering various options, he decided to stay in Ternate, at the northern end of the Archipelago.

The capital, also called Ternate, lay on a sandy coast at the foot of an active volcano. The most recent eruption had been 20 years earlier, and the town still hadn’t fully recovered from it. Houses were single-storey with white stucco walls made of sago palm leaves, their roofs supported by sturdy wooden beams. The largest building was the Sultan’s palace. He was the ruler of Ternate, and also of Tidore and Gilolo, two nearby islands that Wallace thought particularly promising for his collection.

Wallace found out about Ternate from reading the memoirs of Sir Francis Drake. He had been there in 1579 and described how the Sultan had met him under a canopy, accompanied by twelve lancers who said nothing but looked ferocious. He wore a crown of gold, and the fabric of his tunic was also threaded with gold. He had rings on all his fingers: rubies, emeralds and turquoises in his right hand, diamonds on his left.

The source of the Sultan’s wealth was spices, and mainly cloves. For centuries, Ternate cloves were considered the best in the world, and Europeans longed for more of them. The largest plantations were on the main island, which was blessed with a deep-water port ―ideal for the merchant ships that took the Spice Route to and from Europe. In time, though, other islands learned how to improve their cloves and other spices, and the splendour of the Sultans started to fade. When Alfred arrived in Ternate, it was still an important port, but its glory days had passed.

Wallace had rented a house that he quickly made habitable, even comfortable. It had four rooms, two of which he filled with his specimens and taxidermy tools. On the patio, there was fresh water —a cold well, a luxury in that climate— and fruit trees. A few minutes away there was a market where he could find milk, eggs, fish and a great variety of vegetables. When he wanted to take a break from his work, he walked around the island. With the beauty of its landscape, he was happy.

He had been living for several months in Ternate and was busy preparing some specimens to send to London when his servant announced a visitor:

—Mr Duivenboden is here.

—Let him in.

Wallace washed away the feathers and meat from the bird he was stuffing and went out to meet his guest.

Alfred knew a little about Mr Duivenboden. He was originally from Holland, had been educated in England and over the years had come to own half the crops in the island, a fleet of fishing boats and more than 100 slaves. Because of his vast wealth, he was nicknamed “The King of Ternate”. Mr Duivenboden had exquisite manners, and he loved literature and science; he seemed to have good relationships with everyone on the island, from the Sultan through to the humblest labourer. What brought him here today, Wallace wondered, as he greeted him.

—Good morning, Wallace —Mr Duivenboden bowed his head briefly—. I hope I am not disturbing you.

—Of course not. What can I do for you?

—Tonight I am giving a dinner at my house, and I would like you to come. My sons are here and are keen to meet you.

—It will be a pleasure. Thank you for the invitation, I will be there.

Wallace arrived punctually at Mr Duivenboden’s mansion. Following local tradition, the building was made of stucco with leaves and timber from the sago palm, but the architecture was incongruously Georgian, reminding Wallace of an English country house. The windows were open, and a fresh breeze ran through the house. Everything from the curtains to the furniture came from Europe, yet somehow managed to fit into this tropical setting.

—The Pacific hasn’t changed your good English habits —said Mrs Duivenboden, glancing at her watch. She was slim and fair-skinned, with languid blue eyes, and she seemed quite at ease in these unusual surroundings.

—Thank you for inviting me —replied Alfred, following her into the drawing room.

Wallace felt comfortable with the Duivenbodens. Like him, they didn’t come from the European aristocracy. Their success was due to their intelligence and long hours of hard work. Wallace knew only too well that many of the dinner invitations he received in England were motivated mainly by an aristocratic affectation for an exotic guest.

—My dear Wallace —said Mr Duivenboden, coming into the room with his two sons—. Thank you for coming.

—It is a real pleasure.

—I would like to introduce you to Henry and Rupert. They have just arrived from England and are keen to meet you.

—Again, it’s my pleasure —Wallace smiled at the two lanky young men—. Are you naturalists?

—No, Mr Wallace —replied Rupert, the eldest— my brother is a historian, and I am a lawyer.

—Rupert is going to work with me —said Mr Duivenboden— and one day he will be in charge of the family business.

—You are famous in England, Mr Wallace —said Henry, his eyes sparkling—. Your work is highly respected; it is quite extraordinary how many new species you’ve found.

—You are flattering me. I’m not sure everybody would agree with you —replied Wallace.

Henry’s comment reminded Alfred of the unpleasant discussions he had with his colleagues about his unorthodox belief in spiritualism. Because of that, the scientific establishment considered Wallace an eccentric naturalist who didn’t deserve too much credit. His reputation had suffered because of his defiance of the status quo and his controversial opinions.

Alfred was fascinated by the paranormal. He believed in the power of hypnosis, crystal-ball reading, clairvoyance and the existence of ghosts. In common with many well-educated people from the Victorian age, Wallace was disappointed by the teaching of the Church of England. But neither did he accept the materialist view of the creation that some 19th-century scientists favoured: Wallace wanted to find a scientific explanation for all phenomena, both material and spiritual. His was a scientific quest, which included studying spiritualism from a logical and experimental point of view. In certain circles, though, these ideas had clouded his reputation as a scientist.

The arrival of the other guests brought Wallace back from his musings. Soon everybody was sitting down at the table, Alfred between the two sons, who swamped him with questions.

—Have you been to Gilolo Island? ―asked Rupert.― It is one of the most interesting, but not well-known; we have been there several times, and it has completely different fauna from Ternate.

—Let Mr Wallace eat! —Mrs Duivenboden implored them.

—If you want to go, Mr Wallace —offered Duivenboden, undaunted—, you can use one of my boats. The captain is a young Chinese and has a crew of 12 slaves.

—What a handsome offer!—said Wallace, visibly excited by the idea—. When can we go?

—In a couple of days, which will give me time to prepare the boat.

Delighted with this plan, Wallace and the Duivenboden sons spent the rest of the evening discussing the expedition.

When the day came, they were supposed to leave at three in the morning, but the slaves didn’t show up until five. When they all eventually arrived, the captain complained about their lack of punctuality, but it sounded as though he was joking about it; soon they were all laughing and talking as if nothing had happened. Wallace wasn’t surprised; he now knew about the relaxed rhythm of life in the Malay islands, though it still bothered him.

When they arrived in Gilolo, again the indiscipline of the crew threatened to spoil the expedition. One of the strongest slaves refused to go inland with them. The captain had to beg him, and it took promises of lots of food and drink —and less work— to convince him. Trying to control his impatience, Wallace had started to unpack and find a place for the base camp. He chose the nearest hut, which was in a sorry state; but they would be staying for only five days so he could put up with the filth and the bugs.

Every day Alfred headed into the jungle with Rupert and Henry; as the boys had promised, he was stunned by the diversity of species. The young Duivenbodens were good hunters, and between the three of them, they collected more than 100 species of insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals. They went out early in the morning to hunt, and in the afternoon organised and classified the specimens. Their activity fascinated the islanders, including an elderly imam, who followed them everywhere and even offered to help.

By the end of the trip, Wallace had collected more than 80 species of beetles, of which 43 were new to science. His biggest prize, though, was an unknown variety of the Paradise Bird. It had a metallic violet crest and an olive-green back with four white feathers attached to small bumps. With an emerald-green chest and yellow legs, it was the most beautiful bird Wallace had ever seen.

The expedition was more successful than Alfred could have hoped for. On the last day, he decided to go at dawn to a part of the forest where he thought he had spotted a cat-like creature he hadn’t seen before. After a long walk, mostly uphill, he heard the sound of running water and eventually came across a large waterfall tumbling down into a small pool.

He was puzzling over why he hadn’t found the place before when he turned and saw a man sitting on a rock by the lake. He had never felt threatened throughout his time in the Malay Archipelago, but instinctively he put his hand on his pistol and walked slowly towards him. The man sat there smiling, and then spoke:

—Don’t be alarmed, Mr Wallace. I am exploring the area as well. I sat down to rest for a while —his voice was friendly.

—I didn’t expect to see anybody in this part of the island ―replied Alfred, surprised that the stranger knew his name.

The man was dressed for an expedition but showed no signs of sweat or dirt on his clothes and his boots were polished. His English was impeccable, but his accent and features were not British. Wallace noticed his eyes, dark and bright like onyx.

—Do you mind if I walk with you? I would hate to miss the chance to spend time with the famous Alfred Russell Wallace.

—How do you know me?

—I have read all your articles. Your book on the Amazonian monkeys was fascinating. Besides, Mr Duivenboden is full of praise for you; he told me you would be in Gilolo.

—Do you know him?

—Yes, this is not the first time I have been to the archipelago. Don’t you think it’s extraordinary to find around here a man as interested in science as Mr Duivenboden?

―Yes, but he didn’t mention anything about you —replied Alfred―. By the way, you haven’t told me your name.

―Alexander Von Rossen. It is a pleasure to meet you. I have been following your career for a long time, so, if you don’t mind, it would be a real honour for me to spend time with you in the forest.

—I don’t see why not.

The two men started up the steep slope of the island’s volcano, talking about the species they had seen on their trips.

—Are you a collector? ―asked Wallace.

―No, I am not. My family has clove plantations in Tidore, so I regularly come to take care of the business. But my real interest in these islands is scientific. On that subject, one of your theories particularly intrigues me; you wrote that each species shows up in the same place as similar and pre-existing species.

Wallace was flattered. He hadn’t realised his theories were known beyond a small group of friends and professors in England. He explained in detail how he had come to that conclusion.

—Tell me, Wallace, how many samples of a particular species do you collect?—asked Alexander.

—My clients want as much variety as possible, especially if something is exotic and beautiful. Other naturalists send one or two individuals; I often send as many as twelve. It is the best way to understand the characteristics of the same species.

—Don’t you think it’s peculiar?

—What do you mean?

—The variety within a species. Why aren’t all individuals the same?

—I have asked myself the same question for years —replied Wallace, pleased that his companion seemed to understand so much—. The truth is that I ask myself several questions. Why and how species change over time, how do they adapt, how do they survive? Even more, why did some become extinct, as the fossil records show?

—I think you are asking the right questions —replied Alexander—. Have you ever read Malthus?

Alfred was surprised. He had read Thomas Malthus, but what had he to do with what they were talking about?

At that point, they heard a voice calling for Wallace.

—They must be looking for me, it’s time for me to go.

—It has been a real pleasure to meet you, Mr Wallace.

—For me too. I would like to continue our conversation whenever you come back to Ternate.

—I would be delighted —replied Von Rossen, and, after shaking Alfred’s hand, he disappeared into the jungle.

Wallace was deep in thought throughout the journey back to Ternate. As soon as they reached the island, he would ask Mr Duivenboden about Von Rossen. He had felt at ease with him, almost as much as he did with Bates, his companion during several expeditions down the Amazon.

While the boat was navigating through the dangerous channel between Gilolo and Ternate, Wallace kept thinking about Malthus. In his book An Essay on the Principle of Population, the famous 18th-century economist and demographer had argued that the size of a human population would always be limited by what he considered natural phenomena ―wars, disease and famines. Could plants and animals be governed by similar constraints? Might that also explain why individuals of the same species varied?

When they eventually docked in the harbour at Ternate, Wallace bid farewell to his companions and went back to his house with his precious load. He felt exhausted and was starting to shiver; it seemed like, once again, he was going to get the fever. Even though the temperature was well above 30 degrees, Wallace felt cold.

He made some tea and went to bed under a thick blanket. Strange thoughts circled erratically in his feverish mind, and images of Gilolo, birds, insects, butterflies, danced in front of his eyes. In one of his lucid moments, he remembered his conversation with Alexander: Malthus, population controls… maybe not all the newborns could survive …what was that giant beetle doing in the bedroom? And perhaps that explained why there were variations within the same species … The Paradise Bird revived and flew out of the window! … And those variations separated permanently from their original relatives because only the best adapted survived.

As if in a flash, he fitted together all his observations and speculations from his long years of study. The divergent lines separated from a primary species, but they were selected by natural controls and therefore changed over time; that was the reason why there were different fossils. Species were not fixed forms created by God, as the prevailing view suggested; they changed and kept changing and gradually became new species. Animal mimicry, allied species, instincts, feeding habits, sexual behaviour —all could be explained with this new theory. Despite his fever, Wallace could now grasp the ideas quite clearly.

He jumped out of bed; he had to write everything down before he forgot it. He spent two days and two nights at his desk; the high fever, instead of exhausting him, seemed to give him the energy to continue. In the end, he had condensed all his thoughts into nine pages. He put them in an envelope and called for his servant to send it with the first boat to England. It would take months to get there, but the recipient, Charles Darwin, would understand what he was talking about.

When Darwin received Wallace’s letter, he realised they had both reached the same conclusions on natural selection and evolution. Darwin and Wallace co-wrote a paper which was presented by Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker at the Linnean Society in July 1858. Nowadays it is widely regarded as the most significant paper in the history of biology.

A year later, in November 1859, Darwin published the book he had been writing for 30 years: On the Origin of Species. It was Wallace’s letter to Darwin that prompted the beginning of a revolution that changed for ever man’s place in nature.

Chapter 22

London, present day

My life with Will was a joy. We loved each other, we understood each other, and we had fun together. We both enjoyed travelling on the Continent, and I look back on a whirl of amazing trips together. In many ways, I still thought of myself as a girl from an orphanage in Malta, yet there I was in Prague, Paris, Rome, Munich and many more wonderful cities.

My reputation as a pianist was growing, and even though the Academy continued to be my main base, I started to play with other orchestras too. One day Carol came into the studio where we were recording. She had a letter in her hand, and her eyes were sparkling.

—I have excellent news for you, Ariane.

Her tone of voice surprised me. She was usually calm, but that day she was unable to hide her excitement.

—You have been chosen as Young Performer of the Year by the magazine Classics!

I knew Classics very well. It was a monthly magazine, the bible for musicians in Britain, and I couldn’t take in what she was saying.

—That means you have won a promotional tour in Europe and £10,000 in cash!

My colleagues crowded around, congratulating me as I took the letter from Carol.

“Dear Ms Claret:

It is a pleasure for us to write to you to let you know you have won the Amadeus Prize awarded every year by our magazine to a highly promising young artist. Congratulations!

Previous winners include Clara Tasquil and Martha Argerich, so you are in distinguished company.

The prize includes:

- The Amadeus Medal and Diploma

- A promotional tour in France, Germany, Italy and Austria, with all expenses paid

- A cash prize of £10,000

The chairman of Classics, Sir Les Thomas, will be in touch with you shortly to invite you to our offices.

With my best wishes and I do look forward to meeting you.

Olivia Hilton

Public Affairs Director

Classics Magazine”

I looked up at Carol, and she hugged me tightly.

—You have a great future, Ariane —she whispered in my ear.

I immediately called Will, and he hurried round to the Academy to celebrate with me.

—You are amazing, Ariane! I am so proud of you. I always told you, you play like an angel, and I’m not the only one who thinks that.

That night we went to our favourite Italian restaurant and laughed and hugged the whole evening. The waiters immediately sensed our mood, or perhaps Will had tipped them off about my prize. They brought a bunch of roses to my table, and one of them delighted the whole restaurant with an Italian aria. He had a beautiful voice, and everybody clapped vigorously at his improvisation. Will and I sang all the way back home.

In the weeks after the prize was announced, I started to receive invitations from newspapers, TV and radio programmes. They all wanted to talk to me, a little girl from an orphanage in Malta. I took that sense of excited disbelief on my summer tour through Europe, and Will came with me. Neither of us could ever have guessed that, just a few months later, we would receive terrible news.

Chapter 23

Paris, 19th century

—What did you eat today? —Casimir’s tone was serious. Marie said she didn’t remember: ―Something here and there.

He insisted:

—What did you eat?

The young woman looked at him, pale and fearless, but eventually, she confessed: cherries and radishes. Casimir was furious with her, and with himself for allowing his sister-in-law to get into such a state. She had fainted in the middle of a physics lesson, but only that day she had told him she had fainted several times in her dingy flat in Rue Flatters. Casimir looked around. Marie’s place had one small table that had to double as a writing and dining table, as well as a place where she kept her books, letters from her family, and some manuscripts. The bed was too small even for Marie’s tiny frame. The chimney never warmed up, and the roof was leaking. How could she live in these conditions? No wonder she got ill.

Marie had decided to live on her own, distancing herself from the loving but sometimes suffocating care of her sister Bronya and husband Casimir. Partly because she was always short of money and partly because she forgot, she ate very little, and her health had suffered. Desperately pale, with dark rings around her eyes, she was showing all the signs of advanced anaemia: but what really worried Casimir was her dry cough. It could be yet another bout of tuberculosis.

Marie looked at Casimir without saying a word, her grey eyes defiant and an obstinate expression on her face. The young doctor sighed. He had no doubt Marie would continue to neglect her health. He had to do something drastic.

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867 to a family of Polish intellectuals. Her father was a Physics professor and her mother the head of a prestigious girls’ school. Both were passionate patriots and instilled in their four children a love for their country. At that time, Poland was run by the Russian Tsar, and for the Skłodowski family, there was nothing more humiliating than having to accept his detested regime. Along with other intellectuals, they set up an underground resistance movement dedicated to preserving Poland’s national identity. The Tsar’s regime banned the teaching of Polish in schools, and all the textbooks were re-written to eliminate any reference to the past, but the Skłodowskis did everything they could to keep that pride alive.

It wasn’t only patriotism that animated their family life. The parents, warm and loving, encouraged their children to revere knowledge. Dinner was a forum for scientific discussions, and the children grew up knowing that science was a force for progress and a way to liberate people from oppression.

Schools were also part of the national struggle. In the one that Marie and her sisters attended, teachers gave their lessons in Polish and taught the history and literature of their country. Whenever a Russian inspector showed up, the school caretaker alerted all the teachers with an agreed signal. The girls knew what they had to do: they quickly replaced their Polish textbooks with knitting baskets and switched the maps on the walls to the official ones. By the time the inspector came into the classroom, the girls were knitting, and the teacher was reading a Krylov fairy tale in Russian.

Those visits were a double ordeal for Marie. Not only did she have to endure the presence of a hated symbol of the Russian oppression; as she was the cleverest girl in the class, the teacher always chose her to speak in front of the arrogant inspector.

—First the Prayer —he used to say, clearly bored. He couldn’t care less about a bunch of annoying Polish girls.

Marie, in impeccable Russian, recited the Lord’s Prayer.

—Name the members of the imperial family.

Marie, hiding her fury, listed their names.

—Who is our Emperor?

Pale and hesitating for a second, she replied:

—His Majesty Alexander II, Tsar of Russia.

Satisfied with this show of loyalty and the humiliation he knew he was imposing on them, the inspector left the room; he had other classes to torment. Each time this happened, the teacher took Marie in her arms to comfort her, while most of the other girls started crying.

When Marie finished school, she was not allowed to go to the men-only Warsaw University. Along with Bronya, her eldest sister, she registered at the “Flying University”, a clandestine institute of higher education that accepted women students. After a while, frustrated by the difficulties of studying in secret, they both set their hearts on going to the Sorbonne in Paris. But how would they live there? Their father had lost all his savings in a speculative venture with his brother, and the meagre salary he received was barely enough to keep the family in Warsaw. Marie took a decision: Bronya would go to Paris to study Medicine, and she would stay behind in Poland working as a governess to support Bronya. With her knowledge of Polish, Russian, German and French, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a job.

The years that Marie spent teaching at private homes left a wound in her soul. Not merely did her mother die, but she met people from her own country who were as mean as the Russian oppressor. After three years, saving all she could for Bronya, Marie had given up hope of getting to Paris herself. But her father never gave up. He wouldn’t allow his daughter to waste her extraordinary brain, and he and Bronya persuaded Marie to travel to Paris and register at the Sorbonne. Bronya had already graduated and had recently married, and she and her husband would take care of her.

Initially, Marie had protested. She didn’t want to leave Poland and abandon her father. But she consoled herself with the thought that she would eventually come back and look after him, and she kept that in the front of her mind as she boarded the third–class compartment on the train to Paris.

As the train trundled through the French countryside, Marie shook off the tiredness that came from sitting for three days in the foldable chair she had brought with her. She started to feel the exhilaration of freedom. Marie was met at the station by Bronya, newly pregnant with her first child, and her husband Casimir, and they took her to their home on the outskirts of Paris. Marie spent the first few months in a whirl of excitement; all her dreams were coming true. Although Bronya’s house was small, she knew how to create a cosy atmosphere, and Casimir was always charming and enthusiastic. They often held musical events and political meetings with other Polish exiles. Surrounded by young people who, like her, were passionate about life, Marie was in her element.

On Marie’s first visit to the Sorbonne, the white letters on the front door seemed like a charm to get her into a magic place:

École des Sciences, La Sorbonne

She had barely enough money for her first year’s fees, and only one dress to wear, but Marie felt she was the luckiest person on Earth. She was the only woman studying physics, and her male colleagues were intrigued by this new arrival with the impossible surname. She arrived in the lecture room before everyone else and always sat in the front row. If anybody wanted to talk to her, she politely declined. Nobody could imagine that, behind that sad and severe face, with her thin and ashy hair, there was an extraordinary determination and an absolute conviction that science was the noblest calling.

Marie’s routine was punishing. Even after many hours of work, Bronya and Casimir had to force her out of her room to get some fresh air. They wanted her to join in the gatherings they had at home, but Marie soon decided she hadn’t come all the way from Poland for that. Before long, and partly to save the cost of travelling every day from her sister’s home to the Sorbonne, she moved to a small room in the attic of a house in the Latin Quarter. There, Marie devoted herself to her studies. And there, inevitably, she got ill.

Bronya and Casimir realised the mistake they had made in letting Marie move out. This time, though, after she had a blackout during a lecture, they insisted she returned to their flat at Rue d’Allemagne. Proper food, more sleep and some loving care were the cure that Marie needed, and even her dry cough disappeared.

Marie finished her year top of the class and, with the help of her family, she could continue her studies. She became the first woman in the history of the Sorbonne to graduate in physics. Although she knew it was time to go back to her homeland and her beloved father, the spell that knowledge had cast on her overcame her sense of duty. She wanted to stay another year at the Sorbonne to complete a course in Mathematics. When she discussed the idea with the family, they supported her. After all, she was postponing her return by only one year.

Her financial problems, though, hadn’t disappeared. To teach at the Sorbonne was impossible for a woman, even though she was more competent than her male colleagues. One day, unexpectedly, she was asked to give Physics lessons in a girls’ school in Paris. At last, she had enough money to live on, and it wasn’t long before her life changed again.

It was at the home of one of her professors that Marie met Pierre Curie. The young man’s shabby elegance, his manners and even his scientific reputation didn’t impress her. She was interested only in finding a new laboratory to work on some experiments that a group of Polish industrialists had asked her to perform. Pierre, by contrast, was immediately attracted to Marie. He was in his thirties and hadn’t yet found a woman who interested him. None had Marie’s unusual mix: a passion for science, an extraordinary mind, an absolute determination and a graceful appearance.

It took him a long time to persuade her to marry him. Marie studied with the devotion of an ascetic; love, she had decided, was not for her. But Pierre was persistent, and she felt at ease with him; at times she even conceded that his soul was similar to hers. Eventually, she accepted, and they married at the end of July. For their honeymoon, they took a long cycling trip through the French countryside.

Now Marie was torn between her duty to her father and country and her respect for Pierre’s needs. He was prepared to follow her wherever she wanted to go, but she couldn’t ask him to make that sacrifice. In France, he was a renowned scientist, with his own laboratory and a brilliant career ahead of him. In Poland he would have to start from scratch, not least learning both Polish and Russian. Marie accepted that it was better to stay in Paris, at least for the time being.

Marie’s decision was also influenced by her desire to complete a doctorate. A French physicist called Henri Becquerel had recently discovered a rock with traces of uranium. It produced rays that could go through anything except lead, and leave an impression on a photographic plate. Becquerel called the phenomenon X-rays. Marie was fascinated by this discovery. She wanted to explore its origins, but to do that she needed a proper laboratory.

—We can ask Professor Lippmann, he might offer you a bigger space —suggested Pierre.

—Do you really think so?

Professor Lippmann had already let her use part of his laboratory for the tests she was doing for the Polish industrialists, but she doubted he would give away more of his precious space for a doctoral study.

In the event, Professor Lippmann didn’t have much to offer. His own lab was too small for him, he said, but there was an old shed in the back that he could lend her. When Pierre and Marie saw it, their hearts sunk. It was a cluttered warehouse, with a dirt floor and a leaking roof. How could they work with X-rays in that sort of place?

That was not enough to stop Marie. Her initial disappointment soon turned into determination, and a few weeks later both husband and wife were working full time on the project. They cleared out the shed, and when they moved in, they made sure the most sensitive equipment was well away from the holes in the roof. They didn’t have enough money to fix everything or to buy a stove to heat the room. No matter: they were ready to study the mysterious rays.

When winter came, and conditions in the shed became almost unbearable, Pierre, who had put aside his own research to concentrate on Marie’s, was about to give up. She, though, was determined to continue.

While Pierre stayed at home to recover from a violent cough, Marie kept going to the laboratory. She was worried about her husband, but nothing would stop her going ahead with her experiments. One morning, a visitor came to the lab looking for Pierre.

—Madame Curie, I hope I am not bothering you —said the visitor—. I am passing through Paris, and I hope to have the chance to meet Doctor Curie.

—He is not here. Is there anything I can help you with? —Her response was polite but distant. She didn’t like to be interrupted while she was at work.

—We are doing some experiments with piezoelectric materials, and we know your husband is an expert in that field.

—It is better if you talk to him, but he will not be back here for a few days —she said.

—Oh, what a shame! —the stranger said—. If it is not an inconvenience, I would like to leave the results of our experiments.

—Leave them here, and I will make sure he sees them —she said, distracted.

Marie glanced at the papers and was immediately struck by the patterns of piezoelectricity. Her eyes lit up, and some colour came back to her cheeks.

—Which elements is this material made of? —she asked, intrigued.

—We don’t know. This is why we would like to ask Doctor Curie. It is very reactive, much more than quartz.

—Undoubtedly Pierre will be interested.

—That’s what I thought.

They exchanged a few more remarks, and the stranger agreed he would come back later in the week.

As he was leaving, he said:

—If you allow me, Madame Curie, you are the most admirable scientist in the world. Mankind is waiting for you.

Surprised by his remark and not a little flattered, Marie said goodbye. She saw him leaving the lab. With his aristocratic looks and perfect manners, the visitor didn’t look like a typical researcher, she thought. Then she went back to her work and didn’t think about him again.

When Alexander was asked how had it gone with Madame Curie, he answered with a smile:

—Fine, actually. She doesn’t need us. She is on the right track, and nothing will distract her. She is quite remarkable.

Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, in physics. Later, she won another Nobel, this time for chemistry. She remains the only person to have won twice in different sciences. Her remarkable life was not limited to science. During the First World War, she developed mobile X-ray units to support field hospitals, and she drove them around the battlefields of France. But years of exposure to the lethal rays took a toll on Marie’s health, and she died of leukaemia at 66.

Of all celebrated beings,

Marie Curie is the one

whom fame has not corrupted.”

Albert Einstein

Chapter 24

London, present day

The first time Will noticed the lump in his neck, he was in his office. He had leant down to pick up a piece of paper and felt a sudden pain. He touched his neck and felt a small, hard ball. At first, he didn’t pay any attention to it. He was always healthy and athletic, and he was only 32. But the lump grew, to the point that he was having difficulty buttoning up his shirt and eventually I forced him to go to the doctor.

The day he got the biopsy results, he showed up at the Academy. I was in rehearsal, and I was happy and surprised to see him behind the window talking to Anita. When I finished, I went out, and both looked at me. She was in tears.

—What happened? —I asked, alarmed— Problems with your family, Anita?

—No, Ariane —Will sounded quite calm— it is not about Anita’s family. It is me, I have cancer.

I dropped the music books I had in my hands, and my head started spinning. By the time the doctors saw Will, the disease was very advanced, and they told him he didn’t have more than a year to live. Will wanted to enjoy the time left to him —to us— and so we arranged three magical days in Venice. We also spent two weeks in Scotland, visiting the places we had been to on our honeymoon.

To see him disintegrating in front of my eyes, becoming a bag of pain, was almost unbearable. Whenever I couldn’t stand it any longer, I went to Elspeth’s house to cry on her lap. She didn’t say a word, she didn’t ask any questions, she just stroked my head. Anita was also a great support, both for Will and me. She came every afternoon to visit; sometimes she stayed with him so that I could do other things; often, when he had chemotherapy sessions, she came with us to the hospital. Anita understood the agony of waiting for him to get out of the treatment room and she held my hands tightly.

Will’s beautiful blond and curly hair became thinner, and then he lost it completely; his bright blue eyes lay tired in his skull. But he never really lost his spirit, and his only concern was for me.

—Don’t stay on your own, Ariane —he said over and over again—, you are too young.

I could never reply. It was an enormous effort not to burst into tears.

—I only regret I didn’t have a child with you —he said one day, looking out of the window from his hospital bed.

—When you get better … —I replied insincerely.

He tried to smile.

—Come here, Ariane.

I lay down by his side, we hugged each other, and a short while later he stopped breathing.

The absurdity of his death was too cruel. He was supposed to live; we were supposed to have a home, a family; we were going to spend many years together. But I had come to think of him as just an interlude in my life, a life destined for desolation. Try as I might to keep going, I was overcome by bitterness and self-pity. Not even the piano consoled me.

I asked for leave from the Academy and spent the next two weeks wandering the streets of London, often until well past midnight. Back in the flat, I spent hours on the sofa staring at the ceiling. I didn’t want to see anybody, not even Anita. Elspeth called me every day, and I couldn’t bear to talk to her.

—How are you today?

—OK.

—I know it is very painful, but the worst thing you can do is isolate yourself. You are so young, you have so much to live for.

—Yes, thanks for the advice, goodbye—and I would put the phone down.

When I went back to the Academy, everybody was very kind to me, but I couldn’t stand the sympathy from my colleagues and especially Anita’s suffocating love. How could life continue when my world had been shattered?

Depression started to knit a thick and dark net around me, and the more time went by, the more pointless life came to seem. It is hard to get up in the morning and even harder to go to work. I was fed up with rehearsals; I couldn’t cope with the orchestra. As soon as I could, I hurried back to the flat, turned off the lights, shut the curtains and lay in bed for hours. I started to miss rehearsals, and eventually, I stopped going to the Academy at all. Sleeping seemed the only reasonable thing to do, to sleep until I died.

Each time I woke up, I wanted a way to go back to sleep. I started with flu pills, then discovered that anti-histamines were more efficient, especially mixed with vodka. One day there was a knock at my door. It was Carol and Mr Grace. Before I could stop them, they had pushed themselves inside.

—Ariane, we are very worried about you —Carol said, looking at me concerned—. The director told us that you are not going to the Academy. Please, let us help you.

—I am fine, thank you. I just had a cold, but it is almost gone now. I will go back on Monday —I noticed they were looking at the bottles and the empty pill bottles.

—Maybe you need to talk to somebody, a counsellor, a psychologist —Mr Grace said.

—I don’t think so. I don’t need anybody —I replied, turning my back on them. But in doing so, I bumped into the table, tripped and fell over.

When I saw myself lying on the floor and the horrified look on the face of Mr Grace and Carol, I burst into tears. I had reached my limit, hit bottom and the options I had now were die or get out. I decided to get out.

Chapter 25

Siberia, present day

Zardoff stared out of the window at the frozen landscape, so familiar and so comforting. His fortress in the middle of the Siberian steppes had been a summer house of the imperial family before being expropriated by the Bolsheviks. Zardoff had played his part in the Revolution, helping the leaders of the uprising in Siberia. Years later, they had given the house to Zardoff, commenting that no one in their right mind would ever want to go there. It was exactly what Zardoff was looking for. From the day he had set eyes on the house, he had spent most of his time there, with only his servants and bodyguards as company. This was where he felt safe.

He didn’t change a thing in the mansion. The French furniture, the silk carpets, the velvet curtains, the Meissen china, —even though the Tsar had rarely used the place, it was in its way a gem. Zardoff added a few exquisite paintings from his own collection, most of which he had stolen. For the rest, he loved things as they were.

There was no modern heating, and most of the chimneys were never used. Zardoff preferred to be cold; his mind and body worked better that way. His paranoia —he had lots of enemies, he was sure of that— meant he could hardly bear to be with human beings. The solution was to keep as far away from so-called civilisation as possible, and this fortified house was exactly what he needed.

The mansion was not the only asset he owned. In fact, Zardoff was incredibly wealthy, with properties all over the world. A stranger would just have marked him down as an eccentric billionaire, but that was only a small part of what made Zardoff different.

***

He had been born in late 700 AD to a wealthy family in Moravia. From an early age, he had shown an extraordinary capacity to learn and understand complicated concepts. As he grew up, he also became a skilled fighter. He never got on with his father, so Zardoff was happy to leave home when Pyros chose him to be one of his students.

He would have been the ideal successor to Pyros, except for a fatal flaw: he despised every form of life, and particularly human beings. When he found out from Pyros about his special bloodline and his latent skills, Zardoff’s contempt for ordinary humans grew. Although he could see that human beings had some level of consciousness, they were territorial, primitive and violent. It was a waste of time to try to help them, Zardoff had concluded. It was better to annihilate them or, at most, use them as slaves.

Zardoff’s final break with Pyros came when the older man chose Alexander as his successor. Zardoff was furious. He and a few other dissidents created their own fraternity —the Superiors— whose objective was to destroy the Guides’ work. Where the Guides inspired knowledge, Zardoff disseminated intolerance and blindness; where the Guides advanced ideas of social progress, Zardoff promoted hatred and fanaticism.

It wasn’t difficult for Zardoff to convince corrupt rulers that an alliance with him would be beneficial. He promised them wealth and power, and few could resist his arguments. He was also known to be ruthless with his enemies; nothing gave him more pleasure than to torture and kill.

His best allies were those religious and political leaders who manipulated their followers in the name of a homeland or a god when in reality they were just feeding their own hunger for wealth and power. Through them, and over many centuries, Zardoff had inspired wars, religious persecutions, intolerance and ethnic cleansings, all with the sole purpose of mankind’s self-destruction.

For him, the greatest prize was to convert a Guide to his cause, and Sebastian had been his most important convert. It had not been easy to win him over from Pyros’s side, but eventually, he had turned him into a lackey. Sebastian had served him well for many years.

But now, with the end so close, he was failing —to the point that Zardoff had started to suspect that Sebastian was sabotaging his plans. He guessed Sebastian had regrets about leaving Pyros, but every time Zardoff had scrutinised his thoughts he perceived only a terrible fear. With that fear as his instrument, Zardoff could control Sebastian and get him to do exactly as he wished.

Chapter 26

London, present day

They weren’t my real family, of course, but during those ghastly months, Elspeth and Anita showed me what it meant to have a mother and a sister. They took it in turns to make sure I was never alone, and Elspeth fiercely insisted that I ate properly. Carol was also a great support. She changed my engagements with the Academy, reducing the hours of practice and finding replacements for me on several tours. She often came to see how I was doing, and I knew she cared for my welfare in every way she could.

Once a week I went to see a therapist, a clear-eyed woman with a gift for asking simple questions. With her, I unravelled, layer by layer, all the pain accumulated during my childhood and through the agony of losing Will. It was a heart-breaking process, and I was thankful that she didn’t allow me to wallow in my grief. Horrible things happened to people, and it was nobody’s fault. The sooner I accepted that reality, the easier it would be to move on. Through long hours of talking, I came to realise that, after all, I wasn’t as helpless as I thought.

Gradually, my sadness —and my resentment of life—subsided. A year after Will died, I could face a new reality: even if I missed him every second of the day, I couldn’t do anything to bring him back; I could only move on.

Throughout that year, I hadn’t touched anything in the flat. The flowers he gave me were still in the vase, shrivelled and brown; the books we read together were lying on the coffee table; his clothes were hanging in the cupboard; even the spider webs that grew around his desk went unchallenged. Then, one spring morning, I started to clean up and decided to give away what I didn’t need. Eventually, the only sign of Will was his photo in our bedroom. Although his shadow followed me everywhere, it was a comfort; it encouraged me to keep going.

I went back to life at the Academy, practising and playing in concerts. To keep busy in my spare time, I started giving private lessons to children. My first student was Helena, Elspeth’s granddaughter. At that time she was ten, much changed from the little girl I met when I arrived in London. I went to her house every Tuesday after the Academy, and sometimes I stayed for dinner. It was a chance to get to know Emily who, like her mother, felt she was entitled to protect me and feed me.

I became Helena’s confidant. She was a precocious child, her head full of romantic dreams, and every month she was in love with someone new. Sometimes she had a crush on a schoolmate, but mostly she preferred to love from a distance. Her particular passion was the young English boy bands. She knew all their songs and wanted to learn to play them on the piano. She showed me the newspaper cuttings of such and such a singer, on which she painted hearts, stars, flowers and even verses. I had to keep her on track so as not to waste time during the piano lesson. I couldn’t help comparing how dull and arid my life had been at ten; it was fun to go back in time and live a borrowed childhood. Helena and I became real friends and, sometimes, when her parents went to their Cotswolds house for the weekend she stayed with me at my flat.

Helena never knew how much she helped me to recover.

***

When I heard there was an opening at the Vienna Music Academy, I asked Carol and Mr Grace for their advice. Both thought I should apply: this would be an excellent opportunity and not only for my career. After several auditions and interviews, I left London at the beginning of September. It was exactly six years since I had arrived in England. I would be taking Will in my heart; I no longer needed to be in his country to feel close to him.

I rented a flat with a small balcony and views onto the Prater. I met new people, and I learned a lot from the orchestra conductor, Andrés Montero. He was a talented Venezuelan, and I soon became friends with him and his wife, Susana. They often invited me to their house, and I had a lot of fun with their two children, both musical prodigies. I enjoyed the warmth of a Latin American home; it was helping me to get over Will’s loss.

After two years, when my contract expired, Andrés offered me a permanent post, but I realised I was starting to miss England. Anita had been out to stay with me, always insisting the Academy wasn’t the same since I left. She was tempted to go back to Naples, hoping to find a place in the San Carlo, the opera house. I also knew that Carol, Elspeth and Mr Grace were hoping I would return.

I decided to go back to London, and at the beginning of the summer, I was back in my flat. The tenants I had had for two years, a young Swiss couple, left the house in immaculate condition. They had painted the walls in light colours and changed the curtains and the lampshades. They asked me if I wanted the flat restored to its original state, and I was relieved to hear myself immediately saying no. I wanted to keep their changes. I was ready to start a new life.

Chapter 27

Shanghai, present day

In her house in the French Quarter of Shanghai, Fiammetta picked up the envelope that had just arrived in the post. She knew immediately that it was from Alexander. His handwriting was from another century, precise and elaborate. She put the envelope on the lacquered cabinet. She didn’t need to open it; she knew it would be an invitation to go to Roshven. It made her realise how much she had missed her friend, the man who had guided her so cleverly, who had believed in her when others thought she was a traitor. He was a legendary Guide of Time, the best of all.

She looked out of the window at the garden. A fine rain was falling on the pond, which was covered with water lilies and surrounded by rocks and bamboos. Her favourite place was the small pavilion in the middle of the pond, reached by a wooden bridge.

How many years had she lived in China? A few decades, anyway. When Mao died, she moved there to help recover what was left of the country’s ancient history after the havoc of the Cultural Revolution. The old dictator and his followers had destroyed almost everything of beauty; they had imprisoned many artists and intimidated most of the rest.

Even now, the government still controlled so much that it tried to stifle any art it didn’t like. As Fiammetta had done so often before, she managed to help many artists, shielding them from the authorities, smuggling their work out of the country, giving them encouragement and often money as well.

That had been her mission throughout the centuries: to be the muse of painters and sculptors, sometimes as a model, often as their protector and patron. She had travelled widely, playing a significant part in the flourishing of the arts. Now her time in China was nearly over. After moving to Shanghai, Fiammetta had hired a young woman, Mei Yanping, to be her personal assistant. Or at least that was what she had told her. Mei had turned out to be what Fiammetta hoped for, and she would soon become her successor. The girl was talented and intelligent and, most important of all, she understood artists. Her father was a painter executed by the Maoists for his “counter-revolution bourgeois art”; her mother disappeared shortly afterwards. Little Mei was raised by her aunt, who had helped her to develop her talent.

Fiammetta knew a lot about the young woman. When she was looking for her successor, Mei was the one with the strongest bloodline. Fiammetta had met her at the Shanghai Art School. When she traced her bloodline, she realised that Mei had the potential to become a Guide, and maybe, one day, her successor.

A light knock at the door roused Fiammetta from her thoughts.

—Come in —she said.

Mei had a portfolio under her arm, and she leant forward to greet Fiammetta.

—I would like to show you what I have done at the school.

Mei studied traditional Chinese painting, and she specialised in the Xieyi technique, one of the few traditions that had survived the cultural holocaust. Its purpose was to show the union between man and the Cosmos. In the Xieyi tradition, it was more important to represent feelings than images; Mei’s paintings, with their subtle and delicate lines, expressed her profound reverence for Nature.

—This is wonderful! —Fiammetta said—.You should have an exhibition.

—Yes, I have discussed some ideas with my professor —replied Mei—, and some of my work will be in an exhibition in the Xi Yapong gallery. He has invited several art critics.

Fiammetta smiled. Her pupil wasn’t only talented, she knew how to move in artistic circles. One day, she felt sure, Mei would become a famous painter.

—Today is the day —said Mei, changing the subject suddenly—, this time there’s no excuse.

Fiammetta sighed.

—Yes, I know. We shouldn’t keep postponing it. Besides, Mei, soon we’ll need to talk about my trip.

—I suppose so —replied Mei, though she didn’t want to accept it. She was devoted to Fiammetta, and the thought that she might be leaving tormented her. But she knew it was inevitable. Her Guide had to continue with her journey.

—Let’s not talk about it —said Fiammetta. Then, changing her tone—: I know you are very curious to see the portraits.

—Yes! I want to see them all! —Mei was genuinely enthusiastic.

Fiammetta went to an old trunk in the corner of the room. It had golden figures painted on it, and a two-pointed feather on the lock. She opened it. It was full of art books.

Fiammetta took a book out of the trunk and said:

—This was the first one.

Mei glanced at the open page and then gasped in surprise. In the Botticelli painting from the 15th century, The Birth of Venus the woman’s face was unmistakable: it was Fiammetta.

Chapter 28

Scotland, present day

The orchestra’s tour of Scotland was unexpected. Every autumn for many years, Carol had organised a series of concerts in the south of England, but one of the most generous sponsors of the Academy had asked her to include some Scottish cities as well. Our plans were ambitious: in the space of just three weeks, we were going to play in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Inverness, Perth and finally on Skye.

We started in Aberdeen on a grey Monday at the end of October. Anita was on the tour as well, and that filled me with mixed feelings. I always enjoyed her sense of fun, but I wasn’t sure that she would be the best person to help me face the inevitable difficult memories.

Halfway through the tour, we had a few days off to relax which I badly needed. Anita, though, had other ideas. She seemed more restless than usual and insisted that, instead of staying with the rest of the orchestra, we should head for a small village on the west coast, in the middle of nowhere. The view, she said, was the most beautiful in Scotland. We could take long walks during the day and go to the pub at night. Reluctantly, I agreed.

As dusk was falling, we reached a bed and breakfast in a village called Glen Lui. Across the grey sea, we could see Skye. The place had been a boat house and then been expanded into an ample and welcoming lodge. The owners welcomed us by a roaring fire, and I caught a whiff of malt whisky. Our room was small but warm and comfortable. There were flowers on the table, and a small bathroom off in one corner.

The next morning I woke up early and looked out of the window. The view was so much like my first day in Scotland with Will. From the lodge, I could see dark clouds threatening. There was dew on the grass, and the trees were stark against the leaden sea.

For a long while I sat by the window, lost in nostalgia. When Anita woke up, we went downstairs for breakfast, drawn by the smell of fried eggs. We decided to visit the grave of a local heroine who had apparently fought against the English, been taken prisoner and then burnt alive. It sounded really gruesome, and I would have been happier to stay in and read a book. But Anita insisted, and Anita usually got her way.

We climbed a steep hill, to find only a small and neglected grave —but the view was breathtaking. In the distance, on the other side of the bay, we could see a large granite-grey house.

—That must be Roshven Castle. Do you think people live there? —I asked Anita.

—Well, our landlord told me that a Baron lives there. Generous but strange, apparently. Anyhow, let’s keep moving, we can’t stand here.

—I want to stay here for a while. Since when were you a fanatic about exercise? ―I asked.

—I will explain later —she said, with a playful smile—. You will freeze if you don’t move.

—Don’t worry, I will stay just a few minutes. I’ll see you back at the lodge.

—OK, I am going to walk to the lighthouse and back.

Anita left, and I sat on a stone and gazed out at the sea. The rocky coast, the waves crashing on the shore, the salty breeze, —they took me back to a time when I was happy. Will had taught me to love this barren and haunting landscape, where it was easy to believe that a prehistoric monster lived in the bottom of a lake or that three witches lived in a forest, as described in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

It was starting to rain, and I decided to leave, walking towards Roshven Castle. I had read that it was one of the oldest buildings in Scotland, built around the year nine hundred as a fortress to protect the region from the Vikings. As I made my way down a slippery path towards it, I lost my balance and fell. I must have hit my head on a rock, and I do remember lying there for some time, in pain, wondering if I had cracked my skull. When I eventually opened my eyes, a man was staring down at me.

The End

About Book I

Thank you for your interest in The Guide of Time. If you enjoyed it, I’ d be very grateful if you wrote a review for your favourite retailer. Thank you!

The seeds of The Guide of Time were sown many years ago when I was studying science at university. I came to realise that great discoveries were always a combination of hard work, serendipity and inspiration. Of the three, inspiration was the one that most intrigued me. Scientists often describe the solution to a problem they have been working on as the appearance of an idea out of nowhere, a ray of light that comes to them with dramatic suddenness and a sense of certainty. Where do these ideas come from? What if mankind has been guided by some unseen hands? The answer to these questions is the essence of the trilogy of The Guide or Time.

But who are the Guides of Time? The idea of a superior human race came from an exhibition in London about the discovery of 800,000-year-old footprints in Happisburgh, eastern England. They were the oldest human prints ever found outside Africa, and they belonged to a group of perhaps five humans, a mixture of adults and children, probably a family. The footprints were found heading south along the bank of what was the River Thames –which at that time ran through Norfolk and out to sea at Happisburgh before the Ice Age pushed the Thames further south. These people were hunter-gatherers and a different species to ourselves, although their exact identity is uncertain. They may well have been trying to escape from the Ice Age. What if, to shelter from the freezing cold, they found refuge in caves and developed an underground settlement?

This idea is supported by the vast European network of tunnels what weaves from Scotland to Turkey. Although these were created relatively recent compared to the Happisburgh dwellers, they pose an intriguing question about human life underground. German archaeologist Dr Heinrich Kusch, in his book “Secrets of the Underground Door to an Ancient World” (Original title in German: “ Tore zur Unterwelt: Das Geheimnis der unterirdischen Gänge aus uralter Zeit … “) explained that these tunnels were dug under hundreds of Neolithic settlements all over Europe and the fact that so many have survived 12,000 years indicates that the original networks must have quite extensive and well built.

Dr Kusch states in his book that in Bavaria in Germany alone they have found 700 metres of these underground tunnel networks and in Styria in Austria 350 metres. Across Europe, there were thousands of them -from the north in Scotland down to the Mediterranean. The tunnels are quite small, measuring only 70cm in width, which is just enough for a person to crawl through. In some places, there are small rooms, storage chambers and seating areas!

While many believe Stone Age humans were primitive, incredible discoveries such as the 8000-year-old temple Gobekli Tepe in Turkey and, more recent , Stonehenge in England -which demonstrate advanced astronomical knowledge -indicate that they were not just hunter-gatherers as initially thought.

The real purpose of the tunnels is still a matter of speculation. Some experts believe they were a way of protecting man from predators while others believe they were a way for people to travel safely, sheltered from harsh weather conditions or even wars and violence.

In a recent trip to Iran, I ventured, through a vertical shaft 30m underground, in a Qanat, a small tunnel part of a vast network across the Persian empire used to transport water from an aquifer. Qanats created a reliable supply of water for human settlements and agriculture in a dry and hot climate.

So, underground human activity used to be quite dynamic in the past. What if, to shelter from the freezing cold, a group of our ancestors found refuge in caves? And what if they managed to develop an entire civilisation underground, more advanced than our own?

These are the questions that started me thinking about this book. Writing it has taught me a lot, and I hope you will enjoy reading it.

Text References

(1)A federation of East Slavic tribes in Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, including parts of modern Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. 

(2)“The cost of the Mongol conquest was a civilizational loss of incalculable dimensions. The destruction of libraries, bookshops, observatories, endowed institutions, archives, schools and scriptoria where copyists published the latest works in all fields was devastating…This sharp tear in the civilizational fabric of Central Asia is the most tragic legacy of the Mongol incursion”. S. Frederick Starr, 2013. Lost Enlightenment. Princeton Press, pp 466.

(3) Rossi, P. 2006. Il tempo dei maghi. Raffaello Cortina Editore. p.5

Bibliography

Book I

Chapter 9

Brahmagupta, 628. About the Right and Established Doctrine of Brahma, known in Hindu as Brahmasphutasiddhanta

O’Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., “Brahmagupta”, MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews

Chapter 11

Tess Anne Osbaldeston. 2000. Pedanius Dioscorides: De materia medica. Ibidis Press. Originally written in the 1st century of the common era.

Chapter 15

S. Frederick Starr, 2013. Lost Enlightenment. Princeton Press, pp 466.

Chapter 19:

Rossi, P. 2006. Il tempo dei maghi. Raffaello Cortina Ed. p. 5.

Roberts, R. 1989. Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. John Wiley & Sons Editions.

Barrett, D. 2007. Secret Societies. Constable and Robinson.

Chapter 21:

Wallace, A.R. 1858. The Malay Archipelago. MacMillan Press.

Wallace, A.R. 1847. Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. Kessinger Publishing. 

Chapter 23

Curie, Eve. 1937. Madame Curie. A biography. Da Capo Press.

Book 2: The Discovery

The Guide of Time

Book II: The Discovery

ISBN-13: 978-9956282-3-6

Copyright @ 2017 Cinzia De Santis

All rights reserved

Chapter 1

Roshven Castle (Scotland), present day

—How do you feel?

—Ok…I think… but, but, where am I? Who are you? —I asked, feeling quite dazed. Every part of my body was in pain. I put my hand on my head where it hurt most and felt a big lump.

—My name is Alexander Von Rossen. You have slipped and hit your head —his voice was kind and reassuring.

—Oh, yes, I remember —I stuttered; he was the man I had seen on the cliff before losing consciousness.

I looked around me and realised I was not in the lodge where I had been staying with my friend Anita. I was lying in a big comfortable bed in a room that seemed more like a museum than a bedroom.

—This is my home, don´t worry —he said as if reading my mind—. A doctor has taken good care of you. It seems you didn´t break anything, but it´s best for you to spend the night here.

—The night here? That´s impossible! —I cried—. My friend must be anxious.

—Do you mean your friend Anita?

—Yes! Have you talked to her?

—Don’t worry, she already knows you are here, safe and sound.

I tried to get out of bed but I couldn´t: the pain was too much. He touched my forehead, and I felt as if I was being wrapped in warm air. I wanted to say something, but the words didn’t come out of my mouth and, after a few seconds, I fell asleep.

When I opened my eyes again, it was getting dark. I looked at my watch: it was four in the afternoon. Again, I tried to stand up, which made me feel dizzy, but at least the pain in my head was gone. I realised I was in my underwear. Who had undressed me? I took another look around the room; it was bigger than my whole flat in London. It had high ceilings with an elegant chandelier, a sofa with a small table, a large wardrobe with mirrors and paintings on the walls, mostly seascapes. The effect was tasteful but sombre, even intimidating. Who was my host, I started wondering? I couldn’t remember his name.

There was a knock at the door, and a maid in a black uniform with an immaculate starched cap and apron came in with a tray of tea and biscuits. She was very young, with high red cheeks and small dark-green eyes.

—Good afternoon, ma’am. Mr Von Rossen thought you might be hungry—she said, in a gentle Scottish accent—. I’ve baked these biscuits myself, and it’s the right time for tea. A wee bit of food will do you good.

The smell of freshly baked biscuits made me feel better, and I sat up.

—That’s lovely. Thank you! I am actually quite hungry.

—Good! That means you are feeling better. Should I put the tray on the bed or would you prefer it on the table?

—On the table, please —I said, but trying to get out of bed was harder than I thought—. I am afraid I will need your help to get up, if you don´t mind.

—Here, put this gown on, you don’t want to catch a cold. I’ve undressed you, ma’am, I hope you don’t mind. Your clothes were a wee bit dirty and damp, so I sent them to the wash.

—Oh, right…well, thank you —I said, putting on the soft woollen robe.

The girl offered me her arm, and I walked gingerly to the sofa leaning on her.

—Please tell me where I am —I asked.

—This is Roshven Castle, the oldest castle in this part of Scotland. The laird’s Baron Alexander Von Rossen, the man you’ ve met already. He’s very kind, and he’ll treat you like a queen.

—Am I in Roshven Castle?

—Aye.

—How did I get here?

—You don’t remember, do you, poor thing? —she said with sincere concern—The Baron brought you here, in his arms. You were unconscious, and he said he’d found you on the cliff.

—Yes, you are right. He mentioned something like that. He also talked about a doctor. Who is he?

—It’s a she. Doctor Ruth, she took care of you. She is an old friend of the Baron and comes here often. She is quite young, mind you, but I have known her since I was a wee bairn. She’s kind and an excellent doctor. You couldn’t be in better hands.

As I ate the delicious biscuits, I tried to make sense of this strange twist in my life. After a pause, I asked her:

—What´s your name?

—I’m Isobel, ma’am.

—Do you leave here?

—Aye, I was born here. My parents worked for the Baron for many years, but now that they are too old, my brother and I’ve kind of replaced them. The Baron’s been very generous to us, we are lucky to work for him. Can I help you with anything else?

—Oh yes, please. I would love to have a bath. Can you give me a hand?

—Of course!

Isobel gently took my arm and helped me walk to the bathroom. She waited until the bath was full and sprinkled some salts in it.

—This will help you relax —she said—.Take your time, I will wait for you and tidy up the room in the meantime.

I sank slowly into the blissfully warm bath, enjoying the luxury of the perfumed water. As I relaxed, I looked around. The bath itself was another wonder: it was huge, and the rest of room could not have been more welcoming. There were a couple of armchairs and a dressing table with an antique mirror. The walls were a delicate pale blue, and the wall lights produced a soothing atmosphere. The pain seemed to ease, my mood lifted. I must have fallen asleep because I was woken by a gentle knock on the door.

—Are you alright in there, ma’am? Can I come in?

—Yes, of course, Isobel. I think I feel asleep.

—Aye, that’s good, you need to rest. Can I give you a hand?

I was reluctant to leave the warm water, but I didn’t want to keep Isobel waiting.

—Yes, please, help me get out of the bath. I am feeling much better, though. I think I can walk by myself. I just need some help to get out.

Isobel pulled me gently from the water and handed me a cotton cloudy-soft bathrobe. As we walked into the bedroom, lightening flashed outside followed by a clap of thunder, and the rain clattered against the windows.

—Welcome to the Highlands —chuckled Isobel, looking through the window blurred by the downpour—. It’s raining old wives and pike staves, we say in Scotland.

—Is it normal? I mean this weather, is it often like this in the Highlands?

—Aye, we are used to it. It doesn’t feel right when it’s sunny —she said, and her smile made her look even younger and prettier.

I was starting to feel tired.

—If you don’t mind, Isobel, I would like to rest —I said.

—Of course. If you need anything else, please call me.

—Sure, and thanks for all your help, Isobel.

She left the room, and I tried to fall asleep, but as soon as I closed my eyes, the storm worsened, and the world outside wouldn’t let me be. What a strange day, I thought: the fall, this castle, my host and now an apocalyptic storm. While I was pondering the events of the day, I noticed a smell of roses spreading through the room. Where was it coming from? I had seen some flowers in the bathroom, but I hadn’t noticed any in the bedroom. The scent was soothing and brought back memories of somewhere far away, where I had been before, a long time ago, a familiar place where I was happy, but I couldn’t remember where.

۞

I was woken by a knock at the door. I opened my eyes, briefly confused, but then a rumble of thunder brought my memory back: I was in Roshven Castle. Another knock at the door, and sitting up in bed I said:

—Come in.

A woman with long black hair and a kind smile entered the room. Her eyes were dark blue, with a warm gaze. She had a stethoscope around her neck, so she must be the doctor Isobel had talked about.

—How are you, Ariane, how do you feel?

—Much better, thank you …

—I am Doctor Cribbs, but please call me Ruth. Is this a good moment to have a chat or would you prefer me to come back later?

—Yes, of course, I was just waking up.

—I gather you’ve already met lovely Isobel —Ruth said with a smile—. She cooked some biscuits for you.

—Yes, actually, she was very kind, and her biscuits delicious.

—You fell quite badly, Ariane. I don´t think you have broken anything, but I would like you to stay until Monday and then I’ll take some X-Rays just to be sure. When you arrived at the castle, you were unconscious.

—Isobel told me that the Baron brought me here—I said.

—Yes, luckily Alexander was out for a walk on the cliffs.

—When did I arrive here?

—In the morning. I had to give you some strong pain killers. I hope they have worked?

—Yes, actually the pain is almost gone. I am really grateful for being so well looked-after, Ruth, but I have a concert on Monday. I need to talk to my friend Anita, she must be concerned.

—Don´t worry about Anita, she knows you are here. In fact, Alexander thought it would be a good idea for her to come tonight, so she will be here in a couple of hours.

—Anita? How…?

—How did we find out? —Ruth smiled—. Alexander sent his driver to the village to find out about you, where you were staying, and there he met Anita, who had already told the police. She was even organising a search herself.

Ruth must have realised how puzzled I was.

—Don´t worry, Ariane, you are quite safe here, and very welcome. I am an old friend of Alexander´s, and I come every year to stay for two or three weeks. He is the kindest, most generous host, and Roshven Castle is a heaven of calm and rest. Wait until tomorrow, at least. Anita can spend the night here, if that makes you feel better. I would prefer you to stay just in case something goes wrong.

Ruth smiled again and held the stethoscope.

—Can I?

—Yes, of course —I replied, smelling an exquisite perfume as she approached me—. What a lovely scent you are wearing.

—I make it myself —she said— with rose essence, a touch of lavender and Indian jasmine.

She concentrated on the stethoscope for a while, checked my temperature and my pulse and then said:

—Do you have any pain?

—No, not really.

—What about your head? You hit quite hard on the ground.

—I just feel a little bit dizzy.

—That’s the side effect of the painkillers —she said, looking into my eyes with a little but powerful light—. Everything seems to be OK. I am confident you will be able to go to your concert on Monday, but you will need to rest if you don’t feel well. I will see you later at dinner. If you need anything, just call Isobel, and she will come to help you.

—I…my clothes are in the wash.

—Oh, don’t worry. In the cupboard, there are some clothes that might fit you. See you later, Ariane, and welcome again.

When she left, I walked to the window to take a look outside. The storm had passed, and a full moon revealed a spectacular view of the sea, dark grey like molten lead, swelling in by the high winds. On the left, I could see a few lights that looked like a village, probably the place where I had been staying. To my right, I could make out the silhouette of an island —could it be Skye?— with a few twinkling lights. Below me, a long stretch of garden. It looked immaculate and was illuminated by concealed lighting. The lawn was bordered by flower beds, and I could make out a pond in the middle. Beyond a low hedge, the ground fell sharply down to the sea. The vastness of the view in front of me, the immense and desolate greyness, was unsettling. I felt as if a mysterious force was pushing me away from that place and another equally mysterious and powerful force wanted me to stay. I shivered, and I tugged the curtains closed, wanting to break the spell.

With my heart still racing, I tried to concentrate on mundane thoughts. If I was ever going to leave this room, I needed some proper clothes. I walked gingerly over to the cupboard, where a surprise was waiting for me. It was like going into a smart boutique; I chose several dresses and put them on the bed. They were all beautiful, but the one that caught my eye was black velvet. I slipped into it as if it were made for me and I was surprised how well I looked.

While I was admiring the dress in the mirror, Isobel came in and opened her eyes wide:

—Oh, goodness, how bonny you look, madam.

—Thank you, Isobel —I said—. Whose clothes are these?

—I don’t know ma’am. I have never been in this room before. The Baron usually puts his guests in another part of the house.

—It must belong to a secret guest —I said, still surprised by how well the dress fitted me—. Please help me with the zip.

—You look beautiful, ma’am, and I’m sure other dinner guests will think so too.

—Who’ll be there? —I asked.

—Apart from you and Doctor Ruth, your friend Anita …

—Is Anita here?

—She hasn´t arrived yet, but Thomas, the driver —he’s my brother, by the way—went to fetch her. The Baron´s nephew is coming too. He lives in Germany but visits quite often. His name is Mr Edward Kiefer, the son of one of the Baron´s cousins. They are very close, and the Baron treats him as his son. Apparently, he will take over the family business.

—I hope I won’t be spoiling a family reunion.

—I don’t think so, ma’am —she said—. The Baron doesn’t invite anyone he doesn´t like. Since I’ve been working for him, this is only the second dinner he has had. He receives many invitations but accepts very few, he’s a private man.

—And what does he do?

—As I said, he’s a private man, so I really don’t know. But from what I’ve heard —Isobel lowered her voice a little—, he has lots of charities and scientific projects. His assistant, Mr Blair, is a private person too, though a bit weird.

—Does he travel a lot?

—I think he must. He spends most of the autumn and winter here in Scotland, but we don’t know where he goes for the rest of the year.

By now I had finished getting ready, and Isobel exclaimed:

—You look stunning, ma’am!

I’d seen shoes in the cupboard, and I guessed I would find a pair my size —and, sure enough, there were three pairs. I chose the black ones with low heels and narrow straps and decided I had never dressed this smartly before.

—I just need to do something with my hair —I said, looking at my wild mane.

—I know how to fix your hair if you’d let me.

—Sure! Please, go ahead!

She paused staring at me as if pondering how to perform an impossible task.

—How would you like a cockernonnie?

—I’m not sure what a cockernonnie is, Isobel

—I’m sorry, ma’am —she said blushing—, I sometimes forget that visitors don’t understand some of our local expressions. It’s a gathering up of your hair. It’ll suit you.

She scurried off to the bathroom and Isobel came back in triumph:

—Found what I needed —she said, and with fast hands, she pinned up my hair and used a black velvet band to discipline my curls.

—Very bonnie, madam. If you are ready, I will take you downstairs.

With the new dress and shoes, I felt as if I was going to a ball. It seemed much too formal for a family dinner, but as I followed Isobel out of my bedroom, I was struck by the magnificence of the house. We were in a wide corridor that had rooms on both sides and at the end was a landing with a dark wooden table, carrying a huge China vase with a beautiful arrangement of flowers.

Almost hypnotised, I wandered along the corridor, glancing at the stern portraits on the walls.

—These are all the Baron´s ancestors —Isobel said—. A handsome lot, don´t you think? And they all look alike.

She was right. Even though the paintings were from different periods, all the faces were strikingly similar. We reached the landing. We walked downstairs and at the bottom of the large, where a man was waiting for us. He must have been in his fifties, and even a slight smile of greeting didn’t change his forbidding expression

—Good evening, Mrs Claret. I am Hamish Blair, the Baron´s assistant. Welcome, to Roshven Castle. They are waiting for you in the drawing room.

I looked at Isobel, and she nodded at me and whispered:

—Pleased to meet you, ma’am, call me if you need anything —and with a quick curtsy, she walked away.

Hamish Blair, without saying a word, guided me to a room where a few people were chatting, and there was Anita. As I walked in, she cried:

—My God, Ariane, you look stunning!

I recognised the Baron, the man whom I’d seen on the cliff in the morning and earlier in my bedroom. He was staring at me in a way that made me shudder. I had to catch my breath and lean briefly on the door frame. Ruth walked towards me:

—Maybe it wasn´t a good idea to come down —she said—. You must still be feeling quite lightheaded because of the pain killers.

—I’m fine, thank you.

Luckily, Anita took over the conversation.

—I was so worried, Ariane. When I came back from my walk, I couldn´t find you anywhere. I went back to the lodge, but nobody had seen you. At that point, I was so desperate that I decided to organise a search party. I even rang Naples, and my brothers and cousins were going to join me. I then met Alexander, and he told me you were safe. Otherwise, we would have had a Neapolitan invasion!

I glanced at the Baron, who had a slight smile on his face. He was apparently amused by Anita.

—Would you like to drink something? —Ruth.asked.

—Just a glass of water, please.

A young man approached me.

—If I may introduce myself, Ariane. Can I call you Ariane? My uncle has forgotten his good manners. My name is Edward Kiefer, his nephew. I am delighted to meet you.

—I am sorry, Ariane —the Baron intervened—. I haven´t introduced my nephew. He lives in Germany and is here for a few days.

—Happy to meet you —I replied. He was blond with brown eyes, but he didn´t resemble his uncle at all.

A butler, Mr Fraser, came in and announced that dinner was ready.

The Baron looked at me and, holding his arm out, said:

—Thank you, Thomas. If you’d allow me, Ariane, I will take you to the table.

The moment our hands touched, I felt as if a chasm was opening in front of me and I longed to run away. But the Baron put his hand on my arm, and I walked towards the dining room as though a powerful force I couldn’t control was guiding me.

The room was elegant and formal, with big chandeliers and walls heavy with paintings. The table was laid with a linen cloth, shining glasses, candlesticks and silver cutlery. A fire was burning in a large grate at one end of the room. Even if I hadn’t felt so vulnerable, I would have been impressed. Was this how family dinners were at Roshven Castle?

The Baron asked me to sit on his right, between him and Edward. The butler and a waiter served the different dishes with a perfect and discreet rhythm; gloved hands appeared and, as magicians, delivered food and wine. The Baron and Ruth were strict vegetarians, but for the rest of us, the menu was crepe of asparagus and fish with roasted vegetables. The pudding was the best chocolate mousse I had ever eaten.

Despite the excellent food and Anita’s lively chatter, I felt the dinner was painstakingly slow, and I was longing to leave. It all seemed so unreal. What were we doing in that place, having dinner with complete strangers? It didn’t help that the Baron was paying particular attention to me, and I felt as though his gaze was delving into the most obscure corners of my soul. I couldn´t wait for the night to end, and then Anita and I could escape.

—Ariane —said Edward— Anita has told us all about your success as a pianist.

—Anita is a loyal friend —I replied, knowing how that sort of conversation could end.

—I’m not the only one who says it —Anita responded immediately—. Ariane is not only the best pianist the Academy has produced but also one of the best young musicians in Europe. Alexander, if you have a piano, ask her to play. I promise you, you will never hear anything like it.

I could have strangled Anita, and I hoped the idea wouldn’t go any further. I was wrong.

—As a matter of fact, I do have a piano. A lovely idea, Ariane, don´t you think? —asked the Baron in a tone that didn´t leave any doubt what he wanted.

I made one last attempt to escape:

—Anita exaggerates, Baron, as usual.

—Please, Ariane —chorused Anita and Edward.

—We shouldn´t force her —intervened Ruth—. Let’s not forget she has had a nasty fall.

I looked at the Baron, and I knew I couldn´t say no. After all, he had saved me.

—All right, then —I replied—. After dinner, I will play something.

The conversation continued, with Anita in charge talking about her family and Naples and our days at the Academy. The glass of wine must have had an effect on me, or maybe I just gave up and let events take their course; but little by little, my unease disappeared, and I joined in the chat. Edward was friendly and not as intimidating as his uncle. Ruth encouraged Anita to keep talking and laughed at her witty enthusiasm. The Baron was silent.

When I was starting to feel quite relaxed talking to Edward, the Baron stood up and said:

—Let us go to the library. Ariane, the piano is there.

—What will you play? —asked Edward, taking my arm.

—What about Chopin?

—My favourite —he replied with a smile.

—Sonata number 1 in E minor, do you know it? —I asked cheerfully—. I will play the second movement.

We entered the library, which was as big as any lecture room at the Academy. It was lined with books from ceiling to floor, with a dark desk, a pair of armchairs by the chimney and a magnificent Steinway grand piano. I tested the keyboard, which was beautifully smooth, as though it was often used, and I felt a strange energy coming from the black and white keys, wanting me to play. I sat down and took a deep breath.

I knew the score by heart and that night, my fingers flew over the keyboard; the soothing chords of Chopin´s sonata filled the room, and the air seemed to vibrate with it. I felt a special connection with this piano and was soon carried away: it was the same feeling I used to get at the orphanage when I could be alone with the music. In the background, I could hear the gentle crackling of the wood fire and a scent of roses filled the room, making the atmosphere even more enchanted. I was reluctant to break this spell, but it wasn’t long before the movement came to an end and I could look up. Anita had tears in her eyes. The others were silent, holding their breath. Then I met the Baron’s gaze, his eyes like two fiery torches. A shiver of fear ran through my body but, luckily Anita started clapping and again broke the tension in the room. I stood up and made a mock bow, trying to hide my embarrassment.

Ruth spoke first:

—Fantastic, Ariane! You played sublimely.

—Thank you —I replied, blushing against my will.

—Anita is right —said Edward with enthusiasm—, you are the best pianist I’ve ever heard, Ariane!

I smiled at Edward and then, mustering courage, I said:

—This is an excellent piano. I hope you enjoyed the music, Baron.

—I did, Ariane —he replied. His eyes had a strange light, and for a moment I thought he was in pain.

—Where else are you going to play in Scotland? —Edward asked—. I want to follow your tour and…

—We have things to do in the next few days, Edward —interrupted the Baron.

—I will stay in Scotland a bit longer, Alexander. It’s not every day that I meet such a talented musician.

Ruth intervened:

—It’s time for you to rest. You’ve had a long and challenging day. You should go to bed, my dear, and tomorrow we will talk about the medical tests. I would really like you to be X-rayed before you go back to London. I can come with you to the hospital if you wish.

—I feel better, but I’ll do what you suggest —I replied, realising that I was indeed quite tired.

—Why don´t you take Ariane to her room, Ruth? —said the Baron—. Edward, can you show Anita her room? I don’t want to bother Isobel at this time of the night.

—I didn´t know I was staying —replied Anita with a big smile—. What a great idea! Thank you, Alexander. This is an unexpected bonus in our trip, isn’t it, Ariane?

—We really don´t want to bother you, Baron —I said.

—You don´t bother me at all. On the contrary, it’s a pleasure.

I didn’t reply, as it was quite clear the Baron would regard any change in his plans as unacceptable.

—Yes, it’s true, Ariane —Edward chimed in—. It’s too late now to go back to the lodge. Besides, we have already prepared rooms for both of you.

—See you tomorrow, and thank you so much for all you have done for me —I said. The Baron took my hand and kissed it. I had the same spasm of alarm I had felt earlier when he took my arm.

—Good night, Ariane. Thank you for a memorable recital.

—It was memorable. Indeed, Ariane —Edward said—. Good night, I will see you tomorrow at breakfast.

I said goodbye to the rest of the guests, but before I left the room, Anita hugged me and said:

—Sleep well, darling. We have a lot to talk about tomorrow!

—You are a very talented pianist, Ariane —Ruth said, walking with me towards my room—. We were very touched.

—I am pleased you like the piece. I am so grateful that the Baron rescued me. If he hadn’t found me, I would have probably frozen out there. You have been so kind to me, and I hope Anita and I didn’t disturb your plans too much.

—Oh, don’t worry, really, darling Ariane! Alexander seems distant, but I can assure you he is a splendid host and is pleased to have you both here.

—Yes, he is quite distant —I replied—. Mysterious, if you don’t mind me saying so. How long have you known him?

—For many years. He arranged a scholarship for my doctorate studies in Medicine, so I too am very grateful to him. I also have a lot of respect for him, and I care about him. He is a man with a big intellect and a bigger heart.

—It seems like you two are close —I said, immediately regretting my impertinence. I didn’t want to sound as if I were intruding into their lives.

—Yes, we are. Alexander is an extraordinary man, quite different from the rest —Ruth said with an enigmatic smile.

By now, we had walked back to my room, and I was grateful that Ruth had shown me the way. I had forgotten which one was my room! I opened the door and smiled at her:

—Thanks for taking care of me, Ruth. Good night.

—Good night, Ariane. If you need anything, pull the cord by your bed. Isobel will come, and she will call me if necessary. I am on the other side of the house, but the room at the end of the corridor is Alexander´s —she said, giving me a kiss.

As I was about to shut the door, I felt heat in the back of my head and turned around. There was the Baron, in front of his door, staring at me. We looked at each other for only a moment, both frozen like statues. I went into my room with my heart racing and quickly locked the door.

On the bed was a blue silk dressing gown with matching pyjamas and slippers. On the bedside table was a note from the Baron wishing me good night. What an extraordinary day, I thought, and what a strange man Alexander Von Rossen was. I could still feel the heat of his stare on the back of my neck. At least, I could now have a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. The room was warm, and I picked up the lingering smell of roses, the same scent Ruth had. I slipped out of my dress and put the pyjamas on. I was longing to go to sleep. To the gentle sound of rain pattering on the window, I fell asleep.

۞

It was still dark when I woke up, and the clock on the wall showed five o´clock. I opened the curtains and looked outside. The moon and the stars were still high in the sky, but I could see a slit of light from the east gradually peaking through the horizon. I opened the window: the sea was calm, and a gentle sultry breeze snuck through. Noise in the garden attracted my attention. I saw the Baron walking towards the house, a dog by his side. As he got closer, I could see from his clothes that he had been walking through mud. All of a sudden, he lifted his head and looked up at my window. My heart jumped, and I quickly hid behind the curtain. I was sure he had seen me.

I had a shower and was dressing in my clothes that had miraculously been washed and out in the cupboard when I heard a knock at the door. It was Isobel, with a steaming cup of tea.

—Good morning, Mrs Claret, I hope I am not bothering you. I heard you were awake and I thought you might like some tea.

—How kind of you, Isobel. Yes, please, I would love that.

—Did you sleep well?

—I woke up at 5, but I slept very well. I happened to look out of the window, and I think I saw the Baron. Was he out at that time?

—Aye, Mrs Claret, that would have been him. He gets up very early and takes the dog for a walk whatever the weather. Oh sorry, I almost forgot. Edward sent you this —said Isobel, handing me a rose.

I didn’t hide my surprise.

—How kind! Everything smells so nice here —not knowing what to say.

—That´s true, ma’am, even the dogs smell good. The Baron has breakfast at 7:30 and he would like you to join him in his study.

—Thanks, Isobel, I will go downstairs and join him. Will the others have breakfast too?

—No, ma’am. It’s only the two of you.

—Oh, I see.

I assumed the Baron was keen on punctuality, so had some time before joining him for breakfast. I sat on the sofa, drinking my tea. As I realised how nervous I was feeling, I stood up and looked in the mirror. I looked very different from the night before, with an old pair of jeans and a sweater, and my curls had escaped from last night elegance. Oh well, I shrugged to myself, this is who I am, and I not going to be intimidated by this grand castle and its very grand owner.

When I left the room, the butler was waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

—Good morning, Mrs Claret. I hope you had a good night.

—Thank you, I did. Can you please show me the way to breakfast?

—Indeed, madam. The Baron has asked me to take you to his study. This way, please.

The Baron was at his desk but got up as soon as I came in. He looked rested, and though casual, he was impeccably dressed. His dog, a golden brown Labrador, was lying by his side and didn’t seem to notice my arrival except for a brief flicker from his tail. How old was the Baron? He seemed one of those people who never aged, who always looks the same. There was something different about him, though —indeed, all three of the people we had met last night—, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. They seemed so formal, even ancient: yes, that was the right word.

—Good morning, Ariane. I hope you are now feeling better. Did you sleep well?

—Good morning, Baron. I did, I had a proper rest, thank you.

—I hope you don´t mind if I take a little bit of your time.

—Of course not. Besides, I am your guest.

—This is my dog, Socrates, by the way.

—Curious name for a dog.

—Yes, I know, but he is a wise dog —the Baron said with a disarming smile, patting the Labrador—. Please sit down. I have ordered porridge with honey and almonds and also some fruit. Would you like something else?

—Porridge sounds perfect, thank you.

—Tell me about your life, Ariane. You are not English, Sassenach. Isobel would say.

—Sassenach?

—Yes, the Scottish word for an English woman.

—Oh, I see. No, I’m actually from Malta. I won a scholarship to study at the Academy of Music in London. After I had finished my studies, I joined the Academy’s orchestra.

—I know the Academy very well. It’s an excellent institution. Do you play with other orchestras too?

—As a matter of fact, yes. And I also teach piano to small children.

—Do you still have family in Malta?

—I don´t have any family, at least none that I know of.

—I see —the Baron frowned.

We were silent for a moment, and then I said:

—Now that you know about my life tell me something about yours.

—My story is quite boring, Ariane. My family is from Eastern Europe, but we always had links with the United Kingdom. When Russia invaded our country, we moved to Scotland. This castle has been in our family for generations.

—And what do you do for a living? —I asked, pretty sure his real story was not that simple.

The Baron smiled:

—I have business interests in technology and research; nothing as exciting and rewarding as playing the piano.

—Well, that’s kind of you to say so, but you have a variety of interests, don’t you? That sounds quite exciting to me.

—Yes, up to a point. I am interested in all branches of science. Are you, Ariane?

—Absolutely not.

—A person who plays the piano like you do knows about science, or mathematics anyway. The harmony, the melody, the rhythm, they are the product of a subtle and perfect calculus that you, Ariane, do quite unconsciously.

—Maybe. I never thought about it like that.

The Baron sipped his tea and said:

—I know you will have to go soon, but you can stay here for as long as you like. We can take you to Edinburgh or anywhere else. Ruth insists you have some X-rays.

—Thank you, Baron. I don´t want to abuse your hospitality. Anita and I will leave after breakfast. The orchestra is waiting for us for rehearsals. Our director will be worried when he finds out what happened.

The Baron looked at me, strangely distant.

—That´s fine. At least let me send you with my driver to Edinburgh.

—I don´t want to bother you. If you can get us to the bus station, we will be fine, we have tickets already.

—You don´t bother me at all, but I will not insist.

With relief, I heard Anita´s voice.

—It sounds as if they are all downstairs —said the Baron—. We can join them in the dining room.

Then he stood up and helped me out of my chair. His manners were charming but peculiarly old-fashioned.

—Good morning! —Anita exclaimed when we came into the room—. Where were you?

—We missed you at breakfast —said Edward, standing up. Ruth smiled at me and, ever the doctor, asked:

—No new aches or pain? You look quite relaxed.

—I am much better, thank you, Ruth. I have just had breakfast with the Baron.

They all seemed surprised, then I said:

—Anita, as soon as you have finished, we have to go. We have been spoilt by the Baron´s hospitality, and now it’s time to catch the bus and go back to Edinburgh.

—Don´t you want to stay a bit longer? —Edward sounded genuinely disappointed—. It´s such a beautiful day, and I would like to take you around the gardens.

—I’m sorry, but we have to go. The journey to Edinburgh will take several hours, and we must be there for our rehearsal this afternoon —I said before Anita could protest. Then I added—: Another time, I hope.

—Oh, all right —Anita said—. Besides, Edward has confirmed he will come to the concert tomorrow.

—I didn´t know you were going, Edward —said the Baron.

—I did mention it last night, don’t you remember? And this morning it seems an even better idea. I’m hoping Ruth will join me.

—Let´s see —Ruth replied—. I would love to go, but I’m more interested in making sure Ariane goes to the hospital to have some tests.

—Of course, don´t worry —I assured her—. I´ll go as soon as I can. We are all set, then. Anita, I´m going to my room to get my bag. Let´s meet in the hall in ten minutes.

—OK, Sergeant Ariane, just as you say —said Anita with a smile, but I could tell she was disappointed.

I went up the stairs and to my room. On the bedside table, there were some fresh magnolias. My favourite flowers! How was that possible at this time of the year? Maybe there was a greenhouse on the estate. But I wasn’t going to stay to find out; the sooner we left this place, the better. A sudden sense of urgency hit me as if I had to run away from an ever-present danger. On the bed, I noticed a parcel with a note from Isobel saying that the Baron wanted me to keep the black velvet dress. I left the package on the bed, took my bag and left the room. In the corridor, I thought I heard a door opening and closing, but nobody was there.

Anita, Isobel, Edward and Ruth were waiting in the hall. The Baron wasn´t.

—Alexander apologises —Ruth said—. He has to take an urgent call, and he’s sorry he can´t say goodbye. He asked me to send his best wishes for the concert.

I was sorry too, realising that I would probably never see him again.

—Oh, what a shame! —Anita said—. I wanted to thank him for his kindness.

—You can send him a card —I replied, not wanting to give her a chance to delay our departure. Then, to the others—: Thank you so much for everything. You couldn´t have been kinder.

—I will see you tomorrow, Ariane —Edward said—. Let´s have dinner after the concert; I have already booked a restaurant.

—Sure! —said Anita with even more than her usual enthusiasm.

—That would be nice —I said, realising that I was pleased by his invitation.

Ruth and Edward followed us to the car where Thomas, the driver, greeted us.

—Good morning, ma’am. The Baron says I’ll take you to the bus station —I could recognise Isobel’s red cheeks and dark-green eyes in her brother.

—Good morning, yes, please.

A thought came to my mind as we were climbing on the car.

—Anita, don’t we need to stop off at the lodge? We need to pay and collect our suitcases.

—It’s all done ma’am —said Thomas with a gleaming smile—. The Baron asked me to go to the lodge and settle the account. Your suitcases are in the boot.

—How kind —I replied, but I was uncomfortable with the idea—, but the Baron shouldn’t have done it. We want to pay.

—Oh, well, ma’am. You will have to talk to the laird for that. He wouldn’t like me taking any money from you.

Anita looked at me and put her finger to her lips, then whispered in my ear:

—Leave the poor man alone. Tomorrow we will sort this out with Edward.

Anita was right. I didn’t want to make things awkward for Thomas. As he turned the engine on, I looked back to wave goodbye. The Baron was at his window, with an expression on his face that shrunk my heart. As the car drove away, I could still feel the Baron´s look following us.

The twisting road to the gate of the estate was bordered by a dense forest of firs. I took a look back at the grey, imposing building with a sense of relief. What was so disturbing about it? About its inhabitants, the Baron, in particular? Ruth and Edward seemed so close to him, so friendly to us and yet still strange.

Anita couldn’t stop talking: how lovely they were, how attractive Edward was. And wasn’t the Baron fascinating? Yes, he was, I said, realising that every time I thought about him, I also had a twitch of fear. And yet, the idea that I would never see him again made me feel strangely sad.

It was a bright morning, and the journey from Roshven Castle to the bus station took us through the road lined with a magnificent variety of trees, their autumn colours vibrant with gold, auburn and brown. Thomas decided to take the longer route bordering the loch, to show us a little bit of the Highlands. Even in the bright sunlight, the loch was dark grey. It seemed it had its own life and mysteries.

—That building over there, that’s Urquhart Castle —Thomas said, stopping to show us a stone ruin on the edge of the loch—. It’s cursed, they say, by the witches of the loch. Would you like to stop?

Before Anita had the chance to say yes, I quickly replied:

—No, thank you. Take us to the bus station, please Thomas.

—All right ma’am. It’s not far from here.

When we arrived at the bus stop, Thomas took our cases from the boot of the car, gave us two bus tickets and said goodbye, hoping to see us back at Roshven soon. As he drove away, I felt a great sense of relief. At last, we were back on our track.

Coming towards our direction, we saw the lodge landlady. She rushed to talk to us.

—Where were you, girls? I was so worried! —I could sense a tone of blame in her voice.

—Sorry —I replied—, we should have called. We stayed the night at Roshven Castle.

—What? You must be joking! Nobody ever stays at Roshven Castle except the Baron’s nephew and that sweet doctor. Ruth, I think her name is.

—Really? —asked Anita genuinely surprised—. That’s strange, because they invited me too, just for Ariane not to be on her own, and they wanted us to stay another night.

—Well, aren’t you lucky lasses?

—It seems so —I replied, intrigued by the comment of our landlady.

—Going back home?

—No, we still have to play in a few more places.

—Well, get your umbrellas. It’s going be a dreadful day —and saying that she hastened to cross to the other side of the street, her stout figure hobbling along

—I think she means it’s going to rain —Anita said—. She must be wrong.

The landlady actually turned out to be right. When we left the village, the sun was shining from a cloudless sky; by the time we reached Edinburgh, it was pouring with rain and chilly. The journey, enlivened by Anita´s chattering, seemed interminable. She alternated her usual complaints about the British weather with praise for Edward and Alexander. In fact, she said, Alexander looked old and young at the same time, and she didn´t seem to be bothered by the absurdity of the statement. How old did I think he was, thirty-five, forty? And how charming Edward was, how elegant and sophisticated, and how different from his uncle. And what about that lovely doctor, Ruth, surely something was going on between her and the Baron. And the castle: the bathroom in her bedroom was bigger than her flat in London! Anita couldn’t stop talking.

When we finally got to our hotel in Edinburgh, the orchestra conductor, a young Ukrainian called Vassily Prabachencko, was anxiously waiting for us.

—We have been so worried about you, Ariane! —he sounded mightily relieved.

—I’m sorry, Vassily. It was clumsy of me to fall in the middle of nowhere but, I am fine now.

—I leave you alone for just a moment, and you get into trouble —replied Vassily, looking at Anita reproachfully.

—It was quite an adventure —I said quickly—, but this time it wasn´t Anita´s fault.

—Are you sure you want to rehearse today? You could take the afternoon off, if you want.

—Don´t worry, Vassily, the concert is tomorrow, I need to practice. I will rest for an hour or two, and then I´ll be ready.

I left them talking and went to my room. I had a lot of time for Vassily: he was talented and always supportive. During my worst days after Will´s death, he sent me cards and often asked Carol about me. He didn´t make it difficult for me when I wanted to leave, and when I came back, he was delighted. I was sorry we had upset him.

After a brief rest and a quick sandwich, I joined the rest of the orchestra, and we set off to the rehearsal. It was raining so hard during the journey that we couldn’t see much through a grey, blurry curtain of water. The rehearsal was in a private concert hall, in the garden of a large Victorian house belonging to Sir Angus MacDonald, a generous supporter of the Academy. The hall was a simple building and could sit 500 people. When we arrived, the stage seemed like an ant´s nest. There had been an opera the night before, and the set and the lighting for it were still being taken away and the place cleaned up. But it wasn’t long before our instruments were on stage, the piano was moved into position, and we could get started.

The programme for the concert included the Sonata in A Minor by Grieg and the Concerto No 22 by Mozart. We knew both of them well, and I was relieved that the rehearsal lasted less than two hours. When we got back to the hotel I was too tired to have dinner with the orchestra so went to my room. To my surprise, I found a message under the door. I opened it and felt a tingling in my stomach. It was from Edward, wishing us good luck. He would meet us after the concert for dinner.

How did he find out where we were staying? And how could he send a message so quickly? It was a five-hour journey from Roshven Castle to Edinburgh. When Anita came back, she took the card from my hands and said:

—This is really strange. How did he know we were here?

—That’s just what I thought. I have no idea, I thought you’d told him.

Anita looked at me, her eyes wide open.

—How could I? I only found out today where we were staying. Vassily had to change the hotel because the one booked by the Academy had had a flooding.

—How odd!

—Oh, well, he must be a magician —giggled Anita, retouching her lipstick in front of the mirror—. It will be fun to see him again, don´t you think?

—Where are you going? It’s late, we should go to sleep.

—You go, mia cara Ariane. I have plans for tonight —she said, winking as she left the room.

I got into bed with two aspirins and a hot water bottle. I didn´t feel any pain, but I was shattered.

Woken the next morning by my alarm, I went downstairs where other members of the orchestra were already having breakfast. The chattering of a bunch of young musicians in the hotel attracted the attention of the other guests, and when we left for the coach with our instruments, people smiled at us. The rain had stopped at last, and we could appreciate the city. Edinburgh was a picture that morning. From a distance, we saw the castle on the top of a cliff, majestic under a crisp blue sky. On the journey to the concert, we saw winding rivers and wooded hills. We had to go around a loch that we hadn’t even seen the day before because of the rain. It had the same aura of mystery as the one Thomas had shown us. It wasn’t surprising there were so many legends about strange creatures lurking in the bottom of the lake.

—Have you ever seen Nessie? —asked one of the members of the orchestra to the driver, a humongous red-haired Scot who could barely fit behind the wheel of the small cabin at the front of the bus.

—Nay —he replied—. I don’t believe there’s any monster there.

—But there have been sightings —she insisted.

—Aye, but I don’t believe in stories. There’s something queer about that loch, no doubt. But no monster.

—I heard that Loch Ness is bottomless —intervened another girl— and that in the past they used to make human sacrifices, even little children were sacrificed to the evil spirit that lived in the loch.

—Well, if you want to believe —said the driver, doubtfully— there are plenty of stories in the Highlands. And not from the past. There’s a Baron, the laird of Roshven, and folk say he’s a witch.

Anita nudged in the ribs. We were both listening to the conversation.

—What do you mean? —she asked.

—Well, he is an excellent laird, very generous. He and his family have done a lot for the people around here. But strange things happen there. Folks have seen lights in the sky at night and, and heard strange noises. Anyhow, enough of that, we’ve arrived.

The conversation finished there, and Anita and I looked at each other and burst into laughter. When we got off the bus, our host was waiting for us. Sir Angus MacDonald was passionate about classical music, and many concerts and operas were held in his theatre throughout the year. His reputation as a tough businessman was matched by his generosity for the causes he supported, and one of them was the Academy.

—Welcome to you all —he said—. I am very grateful that you came to Scotland. I know it was a last-minute change in your plans, but I hope you are having a good time.

He had a brief talk with Vassily and went back inside. At the rehearsal, we played poorly. It wasn´t the first time we hadn´t done well just before a concert, but on this occasion, it seemed as if the collective mind of the orchestra was somewhere else —and mine was too. When we had finished, we went back to the hotel to rest and get ready for the evening.

In the afternoon, Vassily wanted to talk to me. Sir Angus had invited a group of musicians to dinner after the concert, and Anita and I were included. I told him we already had other plans, but Vassily wasn’t happy. Sir Angus was an important benefactor of the Academy, and Vassily didn´t want to upset him.

—Can´t you invite somebody else? —I insisted—. He doesn´t know us, he won´t even realise if we aren’t there.

—I don´t think so, Ariane. Sir Angus asked me specifically to invite you, and if you are missing, he will notice it.

—OK —I said, disappointed at the change of plans—. Let me try to cancel the other invitation.

I looked for the card Edward had sent earlier and, luckily his number was on it. I left a message apologising for cancelling dinner. Shortly afterwards, he rang back.

—Oh, Ariane, I was so looking forward to seeing you! Why can´t you come?

—Sir Angus MacDonald, the sponsor of the concert, has invited us to dinner. I’m so sorry about this last minute change, but the conductor insisted, and I couldn’t say no.

—That´s fine, Ariane. Don´t worry. I will see you at the concert anyway.

I realised how much I liked his voice and said a reluctant farewell. I decided to wear my best black dress for the occasion, nothing to do with the beautiful garment I used at Roshven, unfortunately, but it did suit me better than the others I had brought for the tour, and the cleavage down the back was slightly lower.

The stage was busy with the usual activity before a concert: some people were practising a few chords, others were tuning their instruments, and others were just talking. The theatre started to fill up, and by the time the concert was due to start, there were no empty seats. The orchestra took their places and Sir Angus MacDonald, dressed in a kilt with a sporran and a beautiful silver brooch on a tartan across his shoulder, made a short speech of welcome. Then Vassily and I came on and were greeted with warm applause. For no particular reason, I looked up at the boxes and almost screamed. There they were: Edward, Ruth and even Alexander!

I could feel my heart beating, and my hands were shaking. I looked across at Anita, but she seemed not to have noticed. Vassily raised his baton. My hands had never felt so heavy, and even though I had played this piece a hundred times, I felt insecure. An expert ear would have noticed that I missed the right note several times, but the audience was quite happy. I took several bows and glanced up at the box. I saw only Edward; neither Ruth nor Alexander was there.

When we left the stage, Vassily asked me what had happened; he had noticed my mistakes, of course. I told him I was still affected by my fall and, luckily, he believed it. He then went back to his podium, and the orchestra finished the concert with Shostakovich.

Afterwards, we met Sir Angus in the foyer. He was delighted.

—Ariane, you played so well, and —I hope you don’t mind an old man saying this— you look enchanting. Actually, I think one of your admirers is coming to join us.

When I turned around, a smiling Edward was walking towards us.

—Do you know him? —I asked Sir Angus.

—Indeed I do, though I know his uncle better. It´s a shame Alexander couldn´t stay for dinner, but he´s always busy.

—My dear Ariane, what a fantastic concert! —Edward said, his brown eyes bright with flashes of gold—. And you couldn´t escape me for dinner. When you told me you had a commitment with your host, I called Angus, and here I am.

—I leave you in good hands, Ariane, but you will sit next to me at dinner, please. If not, this young man wouldn’t leave you in peace —Sir Angus said, turning away to talk to other musicians.

—It is good to see you again, Ariane —Edward said.

—Good to see you too —I replied, and I wasn´t lying. His enthusiasm was contagious. He chatted for a while, and then he took my arm, and we walked towards the dining room.

—This is one of Ian’s ancestors, the founder of the MacDonald clan in this part of Scotland —said Edward, pointing at a painting on the wall—. The patterns of the kilts are different for different families, and because kilts don’t have pockets, the sporran —the small bag hanging from the waist— has the same function. The old Scottish families each have their own coat of arms. Angus´s family has a lion fighting with a snake, symbol of the struggle between good and evil. You can see it in his silver brooch on the plaid and on the sporran.

We sat down where our host had placed us, and he said a few words:

—Welcome to my home and thank you for coming —Sir Angus raised a glass of wine—. The concert was a great success; you should come to Scotland more often. A toast to the Academy!

Sir Angus was a charming dinner companion and knew a lot about classical music. His mother had trained as an opera singer, so he had developed a passion for it. Sir Angus´s father had had a fleet of fishing boats that the son had turned into a large international business servicing the oil industry. His tastes were simple —like a fisherman, he said— and his passion for music was his only extravagance.

After telling us about his life, he said to Edward:

—I’m glad to see you are not like your uncle, who only eats grass.

Edward laughed.

—That’s a good way to describe him, Angus. No, I´m not vegetarian, as you can see.

—It is such nonsense! —Sir Angus said—. Food is the only thing that Alexander and I disagree about.

—Why is he vegetarian? —I asked, genuinely curious.

—I don´t know, Ariane —replied Sir Angus—. Alexander is a philosopher, a scientist, a Renaissance man. He looks healthy and fit, though, so maybe there is something good in his diet, but I am almost 70, and I’ve been eating all sorts of animals my whole life.

—Angus —interrupted Edward—, this beautiful girl grew up on a Mediterranean island where the food is delicious.

—Is that true, Ariane? —asked Sir Angus.

—Yes, I did. I lived in Malta until I was 16 —I replied, without going into detail about the type of food we had in the orphanage.

Anita, sitting on Sir Ian´s other side, intervened at that point. All the men in her family were hunters, and she knew how to shoot a rifle. Sir Angus, amused, wanted to know more. Edward asked Vassily to change seats, and by the time the pudding arrived, he was by my side. He was good company, looked me straight in the eye, and unlike his uncle, his manner was light.

The wine, too much food and the strain from the concert were taking a toll, and I couldn´t contain a yawn.

—Are you tired? I can get you to the hotel if you want —said Edward.

—Thank you, but I should wait for the others. I just hope Vassily is as tired as I am.

At that moment, Sir Angus stood up and said he was ready for bed; we could stay if we wanted to. Thankfully, Vassily took the opportunity to leave too. The tour was moving on tomorrow, and we had an early start.

—I´m still happy to drive you back to the hotel —said Edward.

—That’s kind of you, Edwards, but I’m sure Vassily would prefer me to go on the bus. He got very nervous after my accident, and I don´t want to worry him.

—I understand. He doesn´t want to lose the best pianist in the world —said Edward with a warm smile, and I smiled back—. Well, I´ll say good-bye then. I get to London quite often. Can I call you?

—Yes, of course. Do you go there with your uncle?

—Not always, Alexander thinks London is too busy, too noisy, so it needs something special to get him there.

—See you soon, Edward —I said.

—I hope so. Oh, and before I forget, Ruth will call you to ask about your medical tests. She won’t let go that easily.

—OK, I will do the tests. I promise.

—Anyway —Edward’s voice seemed to crack a little—, expect me to call; it has been very special to meet you.

He kissed me gently on the cheek, turned around and left. I walked towards the bus, as light-headed as I had felt for a long time.

Chapter 2

Istanbul, present day

It was an unusual September in Istanbul. The heat of the summer still hung over the city and drought had almost exhausted the natural springs that supplied most of Istanbul´s water. In one of the streets near the ancient citadel of Ṻsküdar on the Asian side, just in front of the pier, stood the Mosque of Sultan Mihrimah. Close by was the souk, stuffed with noisy dealers selling from sticky sweets to carpets. Tourists were busy taking photos and eating falafel and Turkish nuts, wandering through the stalls and the clutter of the bazaar, and sweating in the thick air of the afternoon sun.

Steva Yanukovych, wearing dark glasses and a black suit, that was much too hot for the scorching temperature, walked towards the ferry port with three burly men. At the entrance of Mosque, they met a woman dressed in a burka, and the five of them headed towards the ferry that would take them across the Bosporus to the European side of the city.

The sea was crowded with boats crisscrossing dangerously close to one another, their captains swearing at each near-miss. It was rough that day, and the ship in which Steva and his companions were travelling was tossed around by the waves. He could hear the fastidious voice of a guide explaining how busy that stretch of sea had always been. 400 years ago during the Golden Age of the city, when merchant ships from East and West were laden with spices, carpets, precious stones and silk, the Bosporus was renowned for commerce between the two worlds. Steva and his party also had some trading to do, but of a very different nature which would be much more exciting than any other trading in Istanbul.

In half an hour, their ferry reached the other side. The four men and the woman disembarked in silence and headed for a large hotel near the pier. The lobby was the last word in modern luxury, its floors and walls made of marble, the ceilings hung with imposing chandeliers, the floor covered with beautiful carpets. The tables, the paintings, the ornaments, —everything had been carefully chosen to occupy a precise place, making the lobby look more like an art gallery.

The concierge recognised Steva and greeted him with a bow. He always came with a Muslim woman, his wife probably, and the same three bodyguards. Mr Yanukovich was one of the hotel´s most distinguished guests —and, without a doubt, the most difficult too. He complained about everything: the noise, the smells, the food. His group always took five rooms on the top floor, including the presidential suite, and spent most of their time there. The parcels Mr Yanukovich received while he stayed at the hotel were quite extravagant: rich jewellery, shirts and suits for men; the best Russian caviar; water bottled in the Artic. The concierge had never seen such a display of wealth. It was peculiar, the concierge thought, that he never saw any parcels for women. Mr Yanukovich must have been very tight with his wife.

The group crossed the lobby in silence a word and took the lift to the top floor. Steva and the men went off to one room, and the woman went into the presidential suite. Inside, four men were sitting at a large table, having a heated discussion. The eldest of the group was the Imam Abdul al-Baghdadi, a violent Islamist who didn´t disguise his surprise when the woman opened the door. They all stood up, and a deathly silence descended on the room.

Then Al-Baghdadi asked angrily:

—Who are you? What are you doing here?

She looked at the men for a few seconds, then took her veil off.

Al-Baghdadi couldn’t contain his astonishment:

—Zardoff! What…

The look in Zardoff’s eyes froze the man’s words in his mouth. Al-Baghdadi already wished he hadn’t challenged the visitor in the burka, but he was shocked to see Zardoff in that disguise. What was one of the most powerful men in the world doing hiding behind a burka?

Zardoff was not tall, but his face imposed him on any room. His mouth was curled, as if ready to snarl, and his eyes were bloodshot and chilling. Zardoff distilled cruelty. The more fear he spread, the better he felt, and the four men knew it. He looked around the table at the Islamist leaders, staring at each in turn until they could meet his gaze no longer. The arrival of Hugo Zardoff caused obvious tension amongst the men. That was a start, anyway, thought Zardoff, but he needed much more from them today than mere subservience. He had to galvanise them, scare them into being more useful instruments of his plans. After a long silence, he spoke in a cold voice laden with menace.

—Let´s start. The threat has not disappeared. Our enemies are if anything encouraged by the progress they are making, and we have to move now to block them. You are not doing enough. You are losing control of your territories and, even worse, of the resources. You are not recruiting enough people.

—We need more weapons —said al-Baghdadi, knowing that Zardoff’s comment was directed At him in particular.

—We need more martyrs —Zardoff spat back.

—We have recruited thousands of them, from all over the world —intervened one of the others, who had been quiet until then.

—And who are you? Who authorised you to talk?

Zardoff looked at him with a chilling smile and lashed out, striking at the man’s neck. Ignoring the groan from the floor, Zardoff turned back to the others.

—You have recruited people thanks to what I have done to help you, it was my strategy that drew fighters to your cause. If I had left everything to you, you would never be where you are now. But if others had had all the money and the help you have received, they would have made much more progress.

Al-Baghdadi didn´t like the taunt, but his reply was weak:

—Allah´s enemies are many, Zardoff. We are doing all we can.

Zardoff stared at him, his expression so vicious that al-Baghdadi struggled to control the fear in his body.

—Don´t you dare defy me —Zardoff spat the words at Al-Baghdadi—. I have no patience with incompetence. If you are defeated and lose your territory, then you will have achieved nothing. A few terrorist attacks here and there are not enough. If you can’t hold on to your positions and you can’t recruit more people, you will have me to deal with. Take it as a warning. Now go, I am done with you.

Al-Baghdadi stood up with the other men and left in silence. Zardoff smiled. For now, he had scared the Imam enough. He had wanted to deal with al-Baghdadi first; he was the most violent and the most ruthless, and he had been the most effective at causing destruction and death. But Al-Baghdadi´s side was losing, and even though he had a vast network of zealots, men with a deep hatred of all infidels and who could adapt quickly to new challenges, Zardoff’s plan for global conflict was far from being achieved. He stood up and looked out the window, the sun still a red disc in the sky, the sea choppy, people walking up and down, busy with their miserable lives.

He looked at the clock on the wall. Soon the others would come. The men who would come to see him shortly ―the ultra-conservative rabbi, Ben Rosenthal, and the Catholic Cardinal, Alfredo Polluccio― were even less useful. The Catholics weren´t any longer the dominant force in the hearts and minds of millions. In the past, the Church of Rome had had absolute power over the lives of its followers; it was always able to instil fear into them and convince them to take part in bloody wars in the name of God. The prospect of eternal damnation was one of the most powerful weapons to control the faithful. But things were different now, and the new Pope didn´t help either. With his openness and his obsession with managing even the mundane details of the Roman Curia, he was definitely an obstacle to Zardoff´s plans.

Ben Rosenthal was the shrewdest, but also the most careful. He did his work without making much noise and was able quietly to influence the intelligence services of his country. Al-Baghdadi would be surprised to know how much of the weapons that armed his jihadists had actually come via Mossad. The rabbi´s goals were simple: to create chaos in the Middle East and so divert attention from Israel´s expansionist plans; and his achievements, even if not visible, were considerable. Zardoff wasn’t interested in the Zionist agenda. He wanted Israel to use its nuclear power, he wanted an apocalyptic war, and the Middle East would be the place where it would start. If only his allies were more efficient.

Zardoff hated humans and detested having to deal with them. This is why, when he had to be in a crowded city like Istanbul, he covered himself in a burka. He didn’t want to be talked to or bothered in any way. The people he despised most were the religious leaders who, behind their supposed piety and love of God, hid the same thirst for power as others had. With them, he had to play an elaborate game, and that took so much time. The other people he dealt with ―arms dealers, politicians and businessmen― in many ways were easier; with them, he could go straight to the point.

But none of them knew his ultimate goal. It suited Zardoff to play the different groups against one another. It kept them under control and whoever was most successful could destroy the others. The more brutal the actions, the more fanaticism grew, and people were prepared to be martyrs for a cause without asking too many questions. Religion had divided mankind since the beginning of time, and Zardoff did all he could exacerbate the division. Death and violence were his trademarks. He played with half truths, he was the conspirator behind all the conspiracy theories, he manipulated the manipulators. He spread ridiculous ideas to confuse and disperse humans’ attention from the real sources of evil. His plan was to reduce mankind to what it was: an inferior race that didn’t deserve to control the surface of Earth. He wasn’t the first to try this, but he was sure he had come closest to achieving it. Unfortunately, he had to deal with the Seers and their foolish ambassadors: the Guides of Time. What nonsense!

Somebody knocked at the door. Zardoff opened it and in walked Cardinal Polluccio.

Chapter 3

Edinburgh, present day

We were all tired as the bus headed back to the hotel —tired, but in high spirits. The concert had been a success, Vassily assured us, and Sir Angus had not only promised to continue supporting the Academy but had also said he would get some of his friends to become donors.

I had another reason to be excited, though I didn´t want to admit it. The warm touch of Edward’s lips on my cheek was still on my skin, spreading a pleasant warmth that kept me distracted throughout the journey. When we arrived at our hotel, Anita and a few others from the orchestra went to the fire-lit lounge to play board games. I was exhausted and went to my room.

Just as I was getting into bed, I heard tapping on the window. For a moment I thought it might be more rain, but it actually sounded as someone was outside. My room was on the second floor, but perhaps it had a balcony I hadn’t noticed earlier. I went over to the window and looked out into the darkness. Nobody was there; I must have imagined it. But then I froze, seeing a figure reflected in the window. Somebody was in the room. I was too scared to turn around, so I tried to scream, but nothing came out of my throat. My heart was racing —and just at that moment, I was woken by a knock on the door. It was just a nightmare! I heard Anita’s voice outside, and as I went over to open the door, I saw some wet footprints on the floor. The prints were much too big to be mine. Somebody had been in the room.

Chapter 4

Milan and Switzerland, present day

Since he was a small child, Mario Barni had been a bit odd. Uncomfortable with his contemporaries, the little boy preferred the company of books. By the time he was three, Mario had learned to read and write, and soon he was doing his brother’s homework. Seeing their precocious son so keen to learn, his parents arranged for him to enrol in a private institution, a Jesuit school in Milan. He was two years younger than any other pupil, but he immediately topped his class in every subject. His curiosity soon took him to existential questions: on his fifth birthday, just before blowing out the candles on his cake, Mario asked his parents why was he born. His elder brother replied with contempt:

—What a stupid question. You are just a bratty, stupid child. Blow your candles out and let’s eat the cake!

Undaunted, Mario looked at him and asked again:

—No, really, why was I born? Who am I? I want to know.

His parents —he was a professor of biology, and she was a dressmaker— tried to answer his questions as best they could, but he didn´t seem convinced. Mrs Barni decided to talk to the Divinity teacher, Father Salinas, about her son’s doubts. The boy needed somebody who could guide him, she said, and the priest was more than happy to educate this bright little boy about God and the reason for human existence. Once a week, Father Salinas kept Mario back after class and talked to him about the Bible, original sin, the prophets, Jesus Christ, the New Testament, and why the Catholic Church was the only one and true faith.

Mario listened carefully, gazing at the priest with his inquisitive eyes and asking lots of questions. Father Salinas gave him books to read at home, and every week Mario came back with more questions. The priest was elated; he had never had such a brilliant and dedicated student, until one day. Then one day, he was still six, Mario said:

—I don’t need any more lessons. Father. Thank you, you have already explained to me what I wanted to know about God and religion.

Satisfied, Father Salinas called Mario’s parents to reassure them he had succeeded in dispelling the child’s doubts. In fact, Mario had concluded that religious doctrine was an anachronism and a senseless belief. At its heart, there was even a mathematical anomaly. If Jesus Christ died on the cross on a Friday afternoon and rose again on the third day, it meant that the resurrection happened on a Monday, not a Sunday. Either he was being taught the wrong arithmetic or religion didn´t have a sound foundation. But this was just one of the contradictions and gibberish claims he found in the three Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism and Buddhism didn’t convince him either. When the time came for his First Communion, to avoid upsetting his mother and Father Salinas, he went through the whole process. The only thought that kept him interested throughout the annoying and nonsensical ritual was the creamy chocolate given to the children after the ceremony.

He first saw a quantum physics book when he was nine, and he felt he had found his reason to live. From that moment, he knew he wanted to be a physicist, and his teenage heroes were Einstein and Bohr. By then, Mario had become tall and skinny, and could barely fit behind his school desk. To his classmates, he was just odd. Few of them realised that behind his sad and rather distracted appearance there was an inquisitive and hyperactive brain. Just as he had done with religion, he decided that school wasn´t for him. The teachers weren’t smart enough, the daily routine was stupid and unnecessary. Again, he kept his views to himself and conformed enough to be top of his class every year. His teachers thought he was kind and cooperative.

Wanting to cut short his time at school, Mario told his parents he wanted to combine two years in one. The idea of not having to pay a year of tuition was persuasive, but they were concerned about their child’s youth. But Mario insisted, and they made the formal request to the school. After lengthy discussions, the teachers agreed. Mario passed his exams for the scientific diploma while he was still 15, and with such high grades that he was immediately accepted by Turin University to study physics. Away from his family and the intellectual frustrations of school, Mario was free.

At university, he met people just like him. All the ideas he had been holding back finally came tumbling out, in earnest conversations that lasted far into the night. His natural curiosity resonated with the some of his fellow students at the university. They were determined to solve the problems of the universe and often spent their evenings absorbed in dense discussions about physics and philosophy. It was also at that time that Mario decided to devote his spare time to music.

Just like his idol, Albert Einstein, Mario learned the violin. Long hours of practice helped Mario to develop his intuition. He believed that logic alone would not reveal the fundamental laws of nature; only through intuition would he unravel its secrets. Even though Mario rejected religion as a way to discover God, he started to develop what Einstein defined as a profound cosmic religious feeling. He also shared Einstein’s belief that knowledge started with intuition, which then produced concepts, and from them came ideas that could be tested against reality.

Mario had a few girlfriends, but never serious; in fact, he realised he was happier in the company of men. He wasn’t too bothered about this; he was used to feeling different. But at that time homosexuality was still a stigma in Italian society, and to avoid upsetting his family, Mario kept his preferences to himself.

When he was still 19, Mario graduated with top honours and received several job offers from scientific institutions in the United States and Europe. He chose a job at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland where he could also continue with his PhD. When he joined the Centre, he was the youngest scientist on the staff, and he was assigned to work with an “old man” (as they called anyone aged 30 or more), David Hull.

Dr Hull was a brilliant particle physicist, ambitious, with lots of confidence and a personality larger than life. He could also be irritable and unpredictable, but he was a superb tutor and helped Mario not only to grow as a scientist but also to embrace and enjoy his sexuality. Soon after they met, they became a couple.

The years Mario spent with David were the happiest of his life. They worked long hours at CERN, and at weekends went skiing or walking in the mountains. Both were passionate about music, and they took every opportunity to go to concerts in Geneva, Strasbourg and Paris. Mario got his PhD with special commendation and went on to win the Max Planck medal, one of the most glittering prizes in Physics. His colleagues even started talking about him as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Although David was proud of his successes, Mario’s meteoric rise began to put a strain on the relationship.

David became more unpredictable and irritable. He could be cruel, and his harsh comments on Mario’s appearance or shyness hurt the young scientist. As in the past, Mario kept his feelings for himself, but an invisible barrier of resentment and silence started to grow between the two men. Just when it seemed impossible to continue, Mario received news that gave him hope they would recover.

CERN started building the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, and both David and Mario were transferred to the project. The accelerator would be the key to understanding the sub-atomic world, the very essence of creation. Through the long underground tunnels, two beams would travel in opposite directions almost at the speed of light, to collide at a middle point. The collision would produce massive amounts of energy, and magnetic detectors would record and interpret every shred of new information. The project would provide answers to many theoretical questions about the existence of certain types of particles. More, it would determine the validity of the Unified Model, the holy grail of physics.

Everything about the project was path-breaking. For a start, getting two sub-atomic particles to collide was equal to shooting two needles from 10 kilometres apart with such accuracy that they would meet exactly head-on. The calculations needed to make that happen were head-splittingly complicated. Working them out was Mario’s job.

David was in charge of coordinating the first experiment to be performed in the Large Hadron Collider. A few days before the big moment, an electrical accident caused a leak of liquid Helium, freezing several sections in the tunnels. The experiment had to be postponed and David, proud and perfectionist, couldn’t forgive himself for the delay. From then on, his attitude changed; he became anti-social and irritable, and his whole life was affected. One day, during a discussion, he threw a paperweight at one of his colleagues and was forced to resign from CERN.

For David, it was painful to see Mario go to work every day while he stayed at home doing nothing. Their relationship, already strained, fell apart, and before long both agreed it would be better to split up. David’s departure had a profound effect on Mario. He felt guilty about David’s demise, blaming himself for not doing enough to help him, and he was bitterly sad to have lost his lover, his mentor and his best friend.

Mario responded in the way he knew best, by burying himself in his work. It wasn’t long before he faced a new challenge, every bit as fascinating as the Large Hadron Collider, and much more perplexing.

***

That January, Mario Barni was in London for a joint research project with Oxford University. On his was back to Switzerland he stopped in London and went to Westminster Abbey to visit the graves of some of the most famous names in British history of science. He stopped at Darwin’s tomb, the scientist who —though reluctantly and spurred on by Alfred Wallace’s push— had revolutionised the view of man’s position in the universe, and delivered a mortal blow to the biblical story that creation had happened in seven days.

As Mario walked towards the great East door of the Abbey, he saw another visitor. The man attracted Mario´s attention: he was tall, elegant, with dark hair and luminous black eyes. The stranger smiled at him:

—Professor Barni? —he asked.

—Yes, that´s me. Sorry, do we know each other?

—You might not remember me, but we met a couple of years ago when I visited CERN. Let me introduce myself again: my name is Alexander Von Rossen.

—Apologies for my bad memory —Mario said, extending his hand and blushing slightly.

—No need to apologise. You have lots of visitors at the centre.

—That´s true, it´s the best way to explain to the general public to understand what we do.

—I agree; visitors get to know that CERN´s research is not only exciting but crucial.

—Everyone at CERN believes that —said Mario with a smile—, but it´s still hard to justify the billions of dollars spent on theoretical research.

—If you have a couple of minutes —said Von Rossen— I would like to ask you a question about the recent experiments at the Fermilab. Have you heard about it?

—I know Fermilab, of course —replied Mario—, but I´m not sure which experiments you´re talking about

—It seems they have found a new fundamental particle, the meson b.

—Those are just rumours, nothing has been confirmed yet. Considering how quick the Americans usually are to boast, they are keeping this work very quiet. Most physicists think it’s just a prank.

—I know —said Alexander—, but as I understand it, you will lead a CERN project with the most powerful accelerator in the world. Are you planning to replicate Fermilab´s experiments?

—I don´t think so —replied Mario, increasingly intrigued by the conversation.

—Why don’t we discuss it over a warm cup of something? It’s getting quite chilly here in the Abbey.

—Oh…thanks. Yes, I would love some coffee.

They walked into a coffee shop close to the Abbey, and Alexander continued:

—If the Fermilab experiments are confirmed, it would be a breakthrough in physics.

Mario looked at Alexander, wondering what was this conversation was all about.

—As I said, Mr Von Rossen —Mario replied—, I know very little about it. If the Fermilab people had in fact discovered a new particle, they would have let the entire scientific community know. But not a single paper has been written about the so-called meson b.

Alexander was briefly silent, staring out of the window. There was something remarkable about his eyes, Mario thought; at times they were starry bright and then so dark, they were almost scary. But he seemed to know a lot about what was going on at Fermilab and also at CERN. Mario was pretty sure he would have remembered Von Rossen if they had met before.

Alexander spoke again:

—I have read your article explaining your hypothesis about the Graviton. You say that if there is a particle that carries the gravity force, in the moment of collision with another particle it would leave an energy balance and then it would disappear in a different dimension.

—That´s correct, and then it reappears —replied Mario, wondering just how well Von Rossen really understood particle physics—. It is not a new hypothesis; I just made some new calculations which confirm the theoretical existence of the particle. But this is pure speculation at this stage. Nothing has been proved yet.

—But if it did disappear, even for a trillionth of a second, it would defy the laws of thermodynamics —Alexander said.

—Yes, but, in theory, the particles that “disappear” do come back. The truth is that it´s impossible to prove the existence of the Graviton; we can only infer its presence.

—The particle found in the Fermilab work behaves like the Graviton in the sense that it disappears and then reappears, but, in other respects, it is quite different —Von Rossen said, staring at Mario.

Mario was feeling ever more uncomfortable with this conversation.

—You seem to know more about it than I do, Mr Von Rossen —he replied.

—It seems so, indeed —said Alexander with a gentle smile. He looked down but even so, behind his dark lashes, Mario could see the sparkle of Von Rossen’s extraordinary eyes.

After a moment´s silence, Alexander took a card from his pocket.

—I don´t want to take more of your time, Professor Barni; you have been very patient with me —he said standing up and giving Mario the card—. This is in case you would like to get in touch or if one day you want to visit Scotland. I am sure our paths will cross again.

—Yes, perhaps they will —replied Mario, puzzled by the man. His card had his name and a phone number on it. The logo was a blue-silvery feather, split in two at one end.

Chapter 5

London, present day

The tour continued for two more days, and by the end, I was exhausted and happy to get home. The three weeks in Scotland had been intense and successful, and I couldn’t help sensing a slight thrill when I remembered Edward’s kiss. But I needed my place, my routine, the certainty of my small world. Besides, I was missing the buzz of London, with its swarm of lights, the happy noise of the great theatres, the lively crowds swelling the streets. The city was bursting with life, so sadness had nowhere to settle.

Ruth called me a couple of times to ask me how I felt and about the results of the X-rays I’d had in Edinburgh, but I didn’t hear a word from Edward or Alexander. After a few weeks, the tour in Scotland seemed like a hallucination, a vague memory, something that had happened to another woman. But it had helped me to miss Will slightly less, and now Christmas was coming up. For the first time since he died, I was looking forward to it.

My private lessons and the Academy absorbed me completely. We had to rehearse for our Christmas concert, one of the Academy’s much-loved traditions, and this time we were also celebrating the knighthood Mr Grace had received earlier in the year, to the great delight of Elspeth and many people at the Academy. A British friend told me I should call him Sir Christopher, but he insisted I use “Christopher” from then on. It would be a very special occasion. Vassily chose the programme and warned us we had long working sessions ahead of us: “Work and more work, you will have fun after the concert”, he warned us. In fact, during the last ten days of November, I spent more time at the Academy than at home.

On the morning of the Christmas concert, during our final rehearsal, the venue manager took a special delivery: a beautiful arrangement of magnolias and roses. I thought it was from Carol, who often sent flowers to wish us all good luck. This time, though, the flowers were from Edward. “Good luck tonight,” said the card. Anita, curious as ever, called across the whole orchestra:

—Who sent it?

—Edward —I mouthed back, longing for her to keep quiet.

—Edward! —she exclaimed, coming over to me—. The guy we met in Scotland? Alexander´s nephew?

—Yes, him.

—And who are these for?

—He wishes us luck for the concert —I lied.

—Let me see —she said, trying to grab the card—. Last time he sent a card only to you.

—Because I was ill.

—That doesn´t matter.

—Anita, Ariane, please stop talking. We have a concert tonight, remember? —Vassily never raised his voice, but this time he was irritated.

I couldn´t concentrate properly during the rehearsals. The flowers and the message from Edward had unsettled me. We were practising something we had last played at Sir Angus´s house, and with each chord, the memories of that weekend seemed to jump out of the keyboard. Vassily realised that my mind was elsewhere. He stopped the rehearsal and said:

—Ariane, you aren’t following me. What is happening?

—I am sorry, Vassily, I will concentrate from now on.

The rehearsal continued without serious disruption, and we ended at noon. I would have time to go home for a break.

Anita and I went to a Chinese takeaway and came out with two greasy, smelly bags of chicken and rice, and two fortune cookies. We got to my flat and Anita said:

—You must spend a fortune on gas.

—And electricity, but it doesn´t matter, I don´t like being cold and dark.

—This is why you always have the same clothes and the same shoes, you spend all your money on keeping warm!

—Don´t exaggerate, I also spend money on pins and clips to keep my curls under control. Go and turn the TV on. The concert might be on the news.

—And you, please open a bottle of wine, I need to relax —spat Anita—. Vassily was impossible today, and he shouldn´t have spoken to us like that. It wasn’t necessary. Sometimes I don´t understand him, he can be charming and kind, then, all of a sudden, rude and intolerant, but look…it´s not possible!

Anita´s cry made me jump.

—On the TV, it´s him, Alexander, at Oxford University!

Anita was right; it was the Baron, with a small group of people in a college quadrangle.

—Turn the volume up! Let´s see what they’re saying.

—“This morning a new physics laboratory was opened at Oxford University. It has the most advanced equipment anywhere in the United Kingdom. With the Dean of the Physics department was Baron Alexander Von Rossen, known to be one of the most generous supporters of science in this country. The media-shy benefactor didn’t want to answer our reporter’s questions, but sources confirm that the sum of money donated was in the order of four million pounds” —said the BBC presenter.

—What a surprise! —Anita cried—. I can’t believe Alexander is in the news. And what a coincidence: in the morning Edward sends flowers and now this! Look, he´s turning his back on the camera.

It was true; it almost seemed the Baron was trying to avoid appearing on TV.

—Let´s look him up. There must be lots about him on the web —said Anita, moving to the desk where my computer was.

—alexandervonrossen —she typed on the browser.

I was looking over her shoulder.

—Nothing! —she said.

—Nothing? That´s impossible —I remarked, incredulous—. If the press mentions him, he must be somewhere on the web. Look up the news of Oxford University.

—Let´s see: yes, here it is, the lab´s inauguration, but no mention of Alexander, neither in the picture nor even his name.

—It´s not possible, look on the BBC website. There´s bound to be a reference there.

—Nothing! They mention the lab opening, but not a word about Alexander, he isn’t in the picture either.

We tried different searches: Roshven Castle, Scotland, particle physics, but all of them drew a blank.

—This is very strange! Alexander doesn´t exist on the web.

—That makes him even more interesting —said Anita winking. Then, she changed her tone—. Enough of Alexander, we need to get going if we want to be on time for the concert.

The unexpected thing about Anita was her punctuality. She hated being late. It fuelled my suspicion that my friend´s exuberance and spontaneity were a facade to hide an English soul. We had a quick lunch while discussing Baron Von Rossen mysterious absence on the web, and had enough time to doze in a chair. I had unsettling dreams of Alexander and Edward. I couldn´t imagine the surprise I would get a few hours later.

Chapter 6

Asturias (Spain), present day

The journey would be long. Omar walked through the passages of the mine, lighting lamps in the wall sconces, opening up the tunnels with a flickering yellow light. From this point, he would have to rely on the food stored in recesses of the walls and underground streams. They were all marked clearly on his mental map, for Omar didn´t need conventional charts to move underground. He knew exactly where to go; that was his gift —and his calling.

As he threaded his way through a passage, he felt the same excitement he remembered from the first time his father took him underground when he was just five years old. Omar had learned from him how to move without difficulty in the labyrinth of the Seers’ vast underground network. He had lost count of how many times he had walked through these tunnels, each time discovering something new: a cave, a hideout, a subterranean lake, a stream.

To explain his absence, he had told the other miners he was going to visit his family. It was the same excuse he used every time he had to be away for a long time. But nobody would question his explanation. They were used to his prolonged absences, and they didn’t mind their odd foreman being away for a while. If truth be told, they were more comfortable with his deputy, an ordinary lad from the village, someone like them.

Nobody would know that Omar would walk for many weeks several hundred metres below the seabed before reaching his final destination in Scotland. They didn’t know Omar’s true nature and true mission. He was an Explorer, and for centuries he and those like him had played a crucial role in the fraternity of the Seers. Thanks to the Explorers, the Seers could travel through an extraordinary network of tunnels: every country in the world could be reached underground. It had been the work of many millennia, as his predecessors went deeper and deeper when human beings started using the shallower caves for refuge against enemies or dangerous weather. Omar and the other Explorers were in charge of establishing new tunnels and maintaining them. Once a year, every Explorer had to travel the full length of the tunnel in his domain, and Omar knew that his was one of the most daunting challenges that any of them faced.

The tunnel Omar had entered began in a gold mine in northern Spain, where he was the supervisor. Unlike other employees on the mine, he often went into caves beneath the mine. But not even the geologists knew about the existence of a deeper layer, where Omar was heading.

The mine was one of the oldest in Europe producing its first gold in the late 1500s, Spain’s Golden Age. By the time Omar became its manager, production was falling rapidly, and several seams had been abandoned. Its geology was particularly tricky, and the gold-bearing veins were mixed with other minerals, some of them toxic like mercury. But Omar knew the real reason for keeping the mine open. Many years before, the Explorers had identified a natural network of tunnels that connected Spain with the British Isles, and the gold mine was the access. Mining activity was a perfect cover-up for their real purposes, and the Explorers controlled hundreds of key mines on the surface of the Earth

Then, 10 years ago, tragedy struck. An earthquake trapped 20 miners working in the deeper tunnels. The accident gave Omar the perfect excuse to close the deep shafts of the mine so he wouldn’t be disturbed as he inspected the subterranean routes and make sure they were clear. It was a solitary task, but it was his calling, and he revelled in the guts of the Earth.

Omar was small and dark. The miners called him “Moro” for his resemblance to the Arabs who had invaded the South of Spain centuries earlier. They would never know how accurate the nickname was: his ancestors were from Baghdad, but, after the Mongol invasion in 1289, his family moved to Spain where Omar was born more than 200 years ago. He was quiet and discreet, lived alone, and had told everyone that his only relative was a cousin who lived in Scotland whom he visited from time to time. He was definitely odd, but his workers respected him. He was generous and punctual with their wages and was genuinely concerned about their safety —a concern not universal in the mining industry.

Omar lived on the top of a hill, a long way from the village and the mine. He rarely showed up in the village shop, and hardly ever took part in local events. Nobody ever visited him, so nobody knew how he lived. But one day there was an emergency at the mine, and a miner went to his house to tell him. He caught a glimpse inside: there were only one armchair and a small table, and all the walls, from floor to ceiling, covered in books. In a village where people could barely read and write, his reputation as an eccentric was confirmed. Some villagers even thought he was a sorcerer. Since he had first arrived almost forty years ago, he had changed very little. He didn´t have grey hair or wrinkles. Even his clothes seemed the same. He had never been ill, and the only times he went away was to visit his cousin. On Saturdays and Sundays, he was always at home. Or at least, that was what he wanted the others to believe.

That year, as he had done so often before, he started his long trek to Scotland on a Friday at the end of autumn. He gave the workers the afternoon off and made sure they were all gone by 3 pm. Then he entered the main shaft and started the descent. The first levels of the mine had been exploited many centuries ago and were still known by their original names. Around 100m down was the Maiden; underneath it was the Dragon, and then —more than 300m below the surface—, the Magician. That part of Spain had been submerged under the sea for hundreds of thousands of years. It emerged during the glaciations and was flooded only occasionally after that.

Omar often wondered about the challenges the first miners faced. How long did it take to open a shaft? How did they remove the earth from digging the holes? How did they secure the mine walls and the ceilings? Underground mining was a dangerous activity. Omar was glad that Exploders’ sophisticated system could prevent catastrophic accidents and operated with strict safety standards. On those rare occasions when an accident happened, the Explores’ ability to survive with minimal oxygen, their acute sense of direction and their phenomenal strength meant that they never had fatalities.

Omar was a proud Explorer, as his father had been before him. To prepare himself to take over from his father, Omar had undergone a long and strict training. He had to learn how to develop his natural skills as an explorer: to be able to get his bearing underground. He could perceive the Earth’s magnetic field and walk in darkness guided only by the vibration against the walls of the tunnels. To recover his strength, Omar used a special mix of minerals his father taught him to prepare.

On this journey, as in the previous ones, he started with confidence and enthusiasm, and the deeper he went below the Earth’s surface, the better he felt. He was upping the pace, as he was getting to his favourite part of the tunnels. Soon he would reach plenty of fresh water, where he could catch fish he would salt and carry on his journey. He kept an exact count of the days he spent in the tunnels; it was very easy to lose all sense of time.

On the fourth day, Omar reached a cave that only he had ever been to. In front of him, there was a vast vault covered with gigantic stalactites, all different colours and hanging from the roof like bunches of calcified grapes. Since he had discovered it many years before, he had made sure to visit it as often as possible, and he was always amazed by the sight. He turned the torch off, and in the darkness, the gentle iridescence of the stalactites produced ghostly figures that seemed to come alive. He could hear the sound of drops falling, echoing on the walls. The effect was hypnotic and the atmosphere of the cave even more haunting. Omar found a recess where to spend a few hours surrounded by the energising crystals. He ate some food, lay down in his sleeping bag and closed his eyes.

It was four in the morning when he woke, a good time to restart his journey. Even when he was several hundred metres below the Earth´s surface, and the concept of day and night didn’t make any sense, Omar tracked time rigorously and tried to follow some of his surface routines. And the best way to do that was to start with a cup of coffee, he smiled to himself. He boiled water and added the mix of powdered coffee and bergamot, as his father had taught him. He ate a piece of salted fish, some bread and a bag of nuts, he then poured in water the minerals’ mix and then started walking.

The hardest part was about to start, but it was there where he felt most powerful. He could feel the strength surging through his muscles and his lungs filled with energy. It was the vital force from the centre of the Earth, the force that Omar and the other Explorers had learned to master. From it came the strength, the longevity, the intuition. For him, living on the surface was like living in exile, far from the call of his soul. He could breathe, feel and think properly only when he was underground. But he, and his father before him, and others like him, had taken an oath and they had a major role to play in the success of the Seers’ mission to guide mankind.

That role also meant he was determined to fight the forces of darkness, the powerful enemies who were not interested in improving life on Earth. The worst of them all was Zardoff: Omar shivered at the thought. He had witnessed the cruelty Zardoff was capable of, and occasionally he had doubted the man could be beaten. But, in one way or another, Alexander had always managed to control and defeat Zardoff. Omar couldn’t have wished for a better Guide of Time, a better leader and friend. He would soon be meeting Alexander again in Roshven, and that thought encouraged him to walk faster. Eventually, he decided it was time for a break. He had a quick supper of dry grains, raisins and nuts and then fell asleep.

For days on end, Omar followed the same routine: wake up at 4:00 am, quick breakfast, march for about 15 hours, then dinner and sleep. Huge caves alternated with narrow passages that scraped his skin; sometimes he had to swim across fresh-water rivers or descend steep cliffs. Each day that passed brought him closer to Scotland, but before that he knew an extraordinary phenomenon awaited him. He had seen it often before and yet, every time he got there, he was mesmerised by the glow coming from particular bacteria that lit up at the slightest movement. Caves and tunnels seemed to be covered with Christmas lights that changed colours in wave after wave as he walked through them. Sometimes the light was so intense that Omar could see without a torch. The bacteria dominated several kilometres of tunnels where a particular combination of minerals and air quality allowed the micro-organisms to thrive. When he reached that impressive sight, Omar knew he was under the seabed below the Channel.

He still had a long way to go, but Omar never doubted he would continue to make rapid progress. He was eating sparingly, had plenty of fresh water and after a month underground, he had never felt better.

He judged he had only a few days left when he started walking uphill. He began to feel the sorrow of having to leave his natural habitat mixed with the thrill of seeing Alexander again. He was even joined by the occasional bat, and he knew he was getting close to the surface. Pressing on, he started to sense something different, something that didn’t feel right. And for the first time on his journey, he felt anxious. A living being was in the tunnel, and it wasn’t a bird or a bat. He could feel the vibrations of a human being. He sensed it was moving, but every time he paused to check, there was silence. He tried to reassure himself: he was the only one who knew about this place; maybe, after so many days underground, he was being hypersensitive; probably, after all, it was indeed a bird or bat. He kept walking, and soon he reached a small cave where he would begin his final climb. The passage out of the cave was narrow, and he was about to start crawling through it when something heavy crashed down on his head.

۞

A few hours later, Omar woke up with a searing headache. He lay still for several minutes, trying to gauge what had happened to him. Then he put his hand on the place that felt most tender, and he realised his head was bleeding. Omar got up slowly and washed his cut with water from the bottle hanging from his belt. He searched the cave and the passages, but couldn’t find any trace of his assailant. He decided to continue his journey to Roshven, glancing back over his shoulder. Omar had no doubt he had been attacked. Somebody —who, for Heaven’s sake?— had found the secret tunnel. And whoever was, must have hit him with quite a heavy object, for Omar wouldn’t faint that easily.

He arrived at the castle late in the afternoon and was met by Mr Fraser. The butler was alarmed: Omar looked as though he had come straight from a swamp, with a thick beard and blood on his head and shirt. He asked Omar if he needed the first aid kit, but Omar was adamant: he just wanted to rest while he waited for the Baron. Mr Fraser showed Omar to his room and left him on his own.

Omar looked at himself in the mirror. What a dreadful sight, but before he could worry about anything else, he had to stop the bleeding. He went into the bathroom, and with a clean cloth, he pressed against the wound. After ten minutes or so, the flow seemed to stop, and he went back to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. He had been in that same room often before, and he usually enjoyed the comfort of the deep bath and the soft bed after a long journey through the tunnels. This time, though he was exhausted, he couldn’t relax. He kept glancing at the roof, worried sick about what had happened in the tunnel. He could think of nothing else. What if he had been followed to the castle?

Whoever the attacker was, he had been in a place where nobody was supposed to go. He didn´t like the idea of telling Alexander what had happened. As far as both were concerned, the existence of the underground labyrinth had been a secret for centuries. Only the Seers knew about the caves and tunnels, which were deep enough to ensure that no human being would ever try to get into them.

These were the times when Omar missed his father, Abdul al-Naren. He had guided his son with wisdom and patience on a path full of hidden corners and mysteries. He knew that Omar was the obvious choice to succeed him as the leader of the Explorers, and he took enormous trouble to prepare him. Even so, Omar sometimes felt he wasn´t up to the task. He didn´t have the poise, the wisdom and the confidence of his father. Abdul would never have been ambushed in the way he had been, he would have never allowed the secret of the tunnels to be compromised. Maybe Omar hadn´t learned enough, perhaps he should have spent more time with his father.

When Abdul had explained about their real nature, their bloodline, the Seers and the role they had as Explorers, Omar had realised how privileged they both were: they were part of a small group who were quite unlike other human beings. They had a great responsibility that they could fulfil only if they kept it an absolute secret. It was a lonely path, said his father. It is hard to live in the normal world hiding their peculiarities, but that had been his destiny, and now it was Omar´s too.

Abdul and his son travelled all around the world, moving from one country to another, always with the goal of developing underground tunnels and discovering new places for the Seers. From time to time, Omar noticed in his father a deep sadness, and he knew the reason: Abdul missed his wife. She had died a long time ago, but she was present wherever they went. Photographs, her favourite brooch and even her perfumes went with them during their travels around the world. His father didn’t remarry, devoting his life to his son and his work, but never getting over his sense of loss.

A knock on the door took Omar back to Roshven Caste. It was the butler to let him know that Alexander had arrived and was waiting for him. Omar went downstairs immediately, all too aware that he was still wearing the same clothes and sporting a messy beard.

—Ah, Omar —Alexander greeted him. He couldn’t hide his surprise at Omar’s appearance—. When did you arrive? Have you been to your room yet?

—I am fine, thank you, Alexander, and apologies for the state I’m in. I got here about an hour ago. My room is very comfortable, as usual.

— Let´s go to the library for a chat. Would you like some tea?

The butler was waiting for them there with tea and sandwiches, and the two men settled down in front of a welcoming fire.

After the butler had left, Omar went straight to the point and explained what had happened.

—It was very strange —he said, looking down at his cup—. I have been making the same journey for years now, and this time I travelled without any problem for more than a month. But when I was about two hundred kilometres from here, I heard something moving in the tunnel. I thought it was a lost bird or a small animal, but then a shadow jumped out of a corner, hit me on the head and I must have fainted. I suppose I was unconscious for a couple of hours, and when I woke up, there was no trace of my attacker.

—Are you alright? Do you want Ruth to see you?

—No thanks, Alexander; I’m fine now, but I am worried about what happened in the tunnel.

—Do you have any idea how it might have happened? —Alexander´s tone showed how worried he was too—. Do you think somebody followed you from the mine?

—Impossible. There was nobody there when I entered the tunnel; besides, how could anybody follow me for more than a month without my noticing it? I think he must have found the entrance from this end and he happened to bump into me while he was exploring the tunnels.

—Yes, that makes sense. Maybe he entered from Roshven —Alexander said—. Which is also very worrying. The access from this end is well hidden, or that’s what I always thought. We need to find out exactly what happened. It´s not the only strange thing that has happened recently, and we must be on guard. It seems our enemy is planning something.

—Do you think Zardoff is behind the attack?

—Perhaps. He knows he is running out of time, but he never dared to come this close.

—You are right. Before I leave, I would like to check the entrance to the cave from here. My attacker is bound to have left some clues.

—Agreed, but I’ll join you. We’ll go down into the tunnel tomorrow, but right now I have some things I need to deal with. Let´s meet for dinner in a couple of hours, so you will have time for a bath and some fresh clothes.

Omar smiled apologetically and went back to his room, gloomy thoughts lingering in his head. Alexander had been kind and didn’t reproach him, but no doubt he was disappointed with Omar. He had remembered his father’s words before he died: “You come from a long ancestry of Explorers. Make your lineage proud”. But Omar had failed.

Two hours later, Omar went to the dining room where Alexander was waiting.

—Come and sit down —Alexander said—. I have found some letters from your father. I’d rather you have them. He was an exceptional man, Omar I miss him too.

Omar took the letters in his hands. The oldest was dated 1387, and it was written in Arabic on vellum. Omar’s eyes lit up, and a sad smile crossed his face:

—Sometimes I feel he left too early. It´s not just that I miss him, Alexander, but I also don´t think I am ready to undertake the task you have given me. Something like this would have never happened to him.

—Don’t be too harsh on yourself —Alexander said—. The incident in the tunnel was not your fault, and your father lived in simpler times. Big changes are coming, and none of us is really ready for them. But rest assured: I trust you.

—Thank you, Alexander.

—In fact, I want to talk about something else, Omar. As an Explorer, you play a crucial role in the Seers´ existence and security. We all need to start identifying our successors early on, even if the process can take centuries. Have you given any thought to who might follow you?

Omar blushed slightly. Yes, he had thought a lot about it, but he wasn´t sure what to do next.

—I… I have analysed different options, and I think the ideal would be to do what my father did.

—Do you mean…?

—I want to have a child and hope that he will carry the Explorers’ lineage. What do you think?

—I believe that it’s the best option, but only if it keeps the bloodline alive —and that´s not always the case for the Guides´ descendants.

—I know, Alexander. I just want to follow my father’s path.

After a brief silence, Omar asked:

—Was it difficult for you to identify Edward and prepare him?

—It took some time to find him, but it wasn´t hard to prepare him. He had a strong bloodline, the right attitude and he showed that he understands the changing world we are living in. He is ready now so I can go.

—We will miss you, Alexander. You have guided us through very turbulent times. Mankind has never been so close to catastrophe —or to enlightenment.

—I agree, but I think enlightenment will win. I have faith in human beings.

Omar was silent, and Alexander smiled:

—I know what you are thinking, you don’t have faith in mankind.

Omar blushed. He couldn’t hide anything from Alexander.

—You are right, I’ve seen too many things, and sometimes I have doubts about mankind. But that doesn’t mean I will ever reject the Seers or the Guides. I rely on your judgement and your vision, you can see better into the human soul.

—I know I can count on you, as I could always rely on your father. Your commitment is solid as the rocks that you love so much. Unfortunately, not all of us are like you —Alexander looked out the window, his hands clenched.

—What will happen to Zardoff? —asked Omar.

—It’s my mission to make sure he doesn’t jeopardise this stage of human development. We are at a crucial point, and he knows it. And, because of that, right now he is even more dangerous than he’s ever been.

Chapter 7

London, present day

Anita and I rushed from my flat to the hall where the Academy’s Christmas concert was taking place. The excitement was palpable, and Vassily as anxious as ever. I saw he and Anita talking animatedly in a corner, and I could swear she was crying, but I didn’t have time to catch up with her. In a selfish way, I was keen on seeing Edward again, and I scanned the audience for signs of him. There he was. I could make out his irresistible smile and his brown eyes. He waved at me, and I felt a shiver of pleasure running through my body. We started playing Liszt´s Hungarian Rhapsody, and from time to time I looked up at him. Edward was following every movement of my hands as if he were hypnotised. This time, though, I wasn´t nervous, and I was putting everything into my performance, and the notes were coming out vivid and lively. Edward clapped with enthusiasm after each piece and joined in every call of Encore. Afterwards, Vassily was thrilled; he said it had been one of the best concerts he had conducted.

Anita and I walked out of the dressing room and found Edward waiting in the foyer. Anita hurried over to him:

—Lovely to see you, Edward!

—And you too, Anita —he replied—. You were all marvellous.

—Thank you! We were in a happy mood —said Anita, looking at me.

—Vassily seemed happy too —was the only thing I could say. Edward´s presence was like a charge of electricity, and I could feel myself blushing.

—Can I take you out to dinner? —Edward was smiling—. This time you can´t escape.

—Of course! —said Anita, with her usual enthusiasm—. Ariane and I have been fasting for hours.

—What do you say Ariane, you accept my invitation?

—Yes… sure —I heard myself saying—: we’ll see you outside in a couple of minutes.

When Edward left, Anita looked at me mischievously.

—There is something you haven´t told me?

—What do you mean?

—I don´t know if you realise it, but Edward is not here for me.

—You must be joking.

—No, I´m not, and I have a sixth sense for that sort of thing. I will join you for a while and then I´ll leave you alone. Edward will thank me for that.

—Anita, you have a wild imagination.

—Let´s see.

With an excitement I hadn’t felt in a long time, I put some lipstick on and tried to arrange my hair under a woolly hat. It was bitterly cold outside, but it was as if every cell of my body was energised, making me feel warmer. Edward hailed a taxi. The streets and shops of London were bright with Christmas lights and decorations, and the whole town buzzed with the sparkle of the season. Edward had already booked a table in a restaurant on the top floor of a famous hotel. The view of London was breath-taking.

—This place is fantastic! —Anita cried.

—You deserve it, both of you. You put on a fantastic performance, and the whole of London should be applauding.

Edward seemed at ease with the whole ritual of chatting with the maître (who knew him well), choosing the wine, recommending the specialities —all with the kindness of a true gentleman. Anita was excited picking the food, and I was too self-conscious to utter a word. In Edward’s presence, everything seemed more intense, brighter, and I felt myself being pulled towards him.

The dinner was delicious, and after a few glasses of wine, our laughter raised some eyebrows at the other tables. We didn´t care. We were young, and we were having fun. Anita, as she promised, left early, and Edward and I stayed in the restaurant. I can’t remember what we talked about, but it was almost midnight. We walked through the streets, still busy with people. Edward hailed a taxi to take me home.

—I love London —he said—. I’m sure you have heard Dr Johnson´s saying that “if you are tired of London, you are tired of life”.

—Yes, and I quite agree. There is always something new, something interesting going on. I was very lucky to end up here.

—We were lucky, Ariane. In fact, the entire United Kingdom should be grateful —he said with a bright smile.

—That´s absurd! —I replied bursting into laughter.

—What will you do for Christmas?

—I´m not sure yet. I might go the Cotswolds, Christmas there is beautiful. Or I might spend it with Anita´s family in Naples, they invite me every year, and I haven´t spent Christmas with them for a long time. What about you?

—I have to travel with Alexander, but I will be back before the end of the year. I would like to see you again.

—I would too —I replied, a shiver running down my back—. How is your uncle?

—Busy as ever. I admire his energy and his commitment.

—We saw him today on TV. He was inaugurating a physics laboratory in Oxford or something like that.

—Oh, quite likely. He’s a great supporter of particle physics. He thinks the sub-atomic world holds the key to the secrets of the universe.

The taxi stopped in front of my door, and before I got out, Edward took my hand. He was staring at me, his eyes piercing into my soul.

—It has been really nice to see you tonight, Ariane. I’ll call you when I come back.

—Yes, please, I’d like that.

—So, do we have a date?

—Yes, we do.

Chapter 8

Minsk (Byelorussia), present day

Sebastian paced up and down, trying to control his anxiety. The room he was in was a mess: a couple of holes in the floor; a broken window; plaster peeling from the walls. It was cluttered with a torn sofa, old armchairs, tattered paintings on the walls and broken bits and pieces of china. The roof was sagging, and the door frames were loose, about to collapse. Sebastian’s home used to be a beautiful manor, with elegant arches, high ceilings and fine candelabra. It was now so run-down it was dangerous. Sebastian didn’t care. He was angry, he was scared, but most of all he was tired of his life.

He paused for a few seconds to look at the only thing that stood out from the decay: a polished black stone on a corner table, so polished that it shone in the gloom. It had been a gift from somebody very dear to him, who wasn´t in his life anymore, someone whom he loved but then had lost. The wound was still fresh, though, even if it had happened centuries ago. He kept walking, looked out the window for a sign of his visitor, but the night was wrapped in a harsh silence.

Sebastian’s inner turmoil was almost unbearable. The only way to calm down would have been to take his dogs out and walk through the forest around the manor until dawn. How many times had he done that; yet now, when he needed it most, the simple remedy was impossible. He couldn´t go out. He was waiting for a dangerous visitor. If he wasn’t there when he arrived, the consequences were unimaginable.

He kept glancing at the clock on the wall. It was getting late, and Zardoff hadn´t shown up. Not a good sign. Usually, Zardoff sent other people; he hated leaving his fortress in Siberia. This time, he was coming himself. Sebastian knew that Zardoff was angry with him; he had failed too many times in his mission, and they were running out of time. Each step he took now could be fateful. He would go out later if he were still alive by the time Zardoff left.

Sebastian heard his mastiffs howl outside. He opened the door, and they ran to his side shaking, their breathing fast and agitated. He walked round the house to see what had scared them. The wood was full of haunting sounds: the wind in the trees, the chirruping of nocturnal birds. All of a sudden, it all went silent, and an icy gust froze the blood in Sebastian’s veins: Zardoff was close. Sebastian went back inside the house and had to stifle a cry: there he was, staring at him with his ghostly face and his cruel smile.

—Aren´t you pleased to see me? —Zardoff’s voice was laced with sarcasm.

Sebastian loathed him, and Zardoff knew that, but he seemed to rejoice in the hatred. The dogs cowered behind Sebastian, trembling with fear. They recognised the man who had killed one of them, cut out his liver and eaten it raw; they could still smell the blood on Zardoff´s hand.

—You look terrible! What’s happening, Sebastian, are you scared? —Zardoff said, with a chilling laugh—. Don´t worry, it’s not your time yet.

Then, changing his tone, he continued:

—You have disappointed me, Sebastian. After all these years, I am dissatisfied with your service, and you know what that mean. When I chose you, I thought you were the cleverest, the most ambitious, the most capable of all my followers. And look at you now, hopeless, fearful and —shouted Zardoff— defeated by a woman!

His words produced a tremor that seemed to shake the whole building. The mastiffs whimpered, pressing up against Sebastian’s legs.

—I have tried everything —replied Sebastian, hoping to disguise the anger in his voice—, but one way or another, she has always managed to survive.

—I don´t want to hear your excuses! —Zardoff screeched—. You have lost her trail, right? You have lost it because she is with Alexander, something that should never have happened!

Sebastian mumbled a reply:

—I won’t let it happen again, Zardoff. What do you want me to do?

—I shouldn´t need to tell you. That is your job. But you have been so useless that I will have to take charge myself. I have asked Steva to check on Roshven and how to get in there.

Sebastian couldn’t hide his disgust. Steva was his bitter rival. He competed with Sebastian for Zardoff´s favours and did everything he could to humiliate him, especially now that Sebastian was failing his mission. Steva was circling like a vulture, and he had only one goal: to replace Sebastian as Zardoff’s second in command.

—I know how to get to Roshven. You don’t need Steva for that —Sebastian couldn’t hide his irritation.

—Yes, but I don’t trust you. I want Steva to keep an eye on you. He has already been through the tunnel from a cave near the castle, but he bumped into Omar. Steva hit him on the head and put him out of action for a while. Steva found the tunnel that leads to the basement of the manor which will be useful in the future. We don’t have much time, Sebastian. Organise your people and carry out my orders. If you had been anybody else, I would have got rid of you, but you have served me well in the past. But be warned: I am running out of patience.

Without saying goodbye, Zardoff swept out of the room, and Sebastian heard the front door slam. As usual, after seeing Zardoff, he felt physically sick. He doubled over in pain, his body contracting in a severe spasm, vomiting as if cleansing his guts of a terrible poison. And he also remembered Pyros, and their life together after he left the monastery in Galle when he was a young monk. How different all that was! Travelling, discovering, learning: that was a life worth living. Now all he had was hatred and fear. He put his head back and howled.

***

11th century, Greece

Zardoff had approached Sebastian in the library of the monastery of St. John of Patmos(1) one sleepy afternoon in 1093. Sebastian was on the island to visit the monastery recently founded by a monk named Christodoulos. Its library had precious books and documents from all parts of the world. Christodoulos was a pious and humble monk who, because of his devotion to teaching, especially poor children, was assigned by the Emperor Alexios I to fund monasteries and libraries across his empire. The one in Patmos was already well known in the Eastern Mediterranean. Sebastian had already started his education with Pyros, accompanying him in all his travels, learning about the world and his true nature as a Guide, and discovering his powers. The trip to St. John of Patmos was the first he was doing on his own.

One day, Sebastian was studying a papyrus in the monastery’s library when he saw a richly dressed man with pale skin and intense blue eyes staring at him. He came over to the table where Sebastian was sitting and introduced himself as Hugo Zardoff, a merchant of precious stones and a supporter of the monastery, interested in ancient history.

The stranger intrigued Sebastian. He was handsome, with fair —almost transparent— skin and prominent cheekbones. He had the manners of a nobleman, but there was something obscure and disturbing about him. Maybe were his eyes, deep-blue with a twist of red, stared at Sebastian as a voracious animal bores in on its prey. For the next week, they met in the library every day, talking for hours about the most interesting manuscripts that were in the library.

Sebastian soon found himself mesmerised by Zardoff´s knowledge and charisma.

Over the next few months, Hugo Zardoff stayed in Patmos. He and Sebastian continued their discussions while walking in the hills around the monastery. When the time came for Sebastian to leave Patmos and move to Florence to pursue his education, Zardoff promised to visit him there. Sure enough, he turned up a week later, and the two men continued to talk just as they had done in Patmos. Sebastian admired Zardoff’s sharp intellect and his irreverence; to Zardoff, nothing was sacred, which made conversations with him stimulating and exciting.

Shortly afterwards Pyros arrived in Florence. Europe seemed to be entering an age of darkness and fanaticism when knowledge would be suppressed in the name of the Church, and the Guides had to be prepared for new challenges. Pyros and Sebastian greeted each other with the same warmth and affection as ever, but the master quickly turned serious.

—I know you have been meeting an individual called Zardoff —he said—. Be careful with him. Zardoff is very, very dangerous. As I have told you before, throughout your life as a Guide, you will come across people who will oppose us. Zardoff is the worst of all. He is our enemy. He is trying to win your trust to harm us, to harm you.

Sebastian was shocked. He knew there were forces that sought to jeopardise the mission of the Guides, those who didn’t believe in helping human beings to achieve their potential. But Pyros had never mentioned Zardoff before. He wanted to know more.

—Who is Zardoff? From what I’ve seen, he is bright and knowledgeable. He can talk about any topic as though he is an expert.

—Yes, I’m sure —sighed Pyros—. Zardoff was one of ours, one of the best.

—What? —asked Sebastian, his eyes wide.

—It’s a story I haven’t told you yet. It was a difficult time for us.

—What do you mean?

—I had met him before I met you. He was, as you say, bright, a quick learner and ambitious. Zardoff was not only one of my brightest students, but he was also developing his powers faster than any of my disciples. The consensus amongst our Elders was that he could take the responsibility of becoming my successor, the next Guide of Time. But he lacked one of the most crucial qualities to fulfil his role. A true Guide of Time needs to feel a deep compassion for the human condition, needs to be absolutely determined to take mankind to a higher level. Zardoff had no empathy whatsoever. He believed our mission to enlighten humanity was useless. He considered humans an inferior species, primitive, cruel and unintelligent, who didn’t deserve to populate the surface of the Earth. It was a waste of time to try to guide them. It was better to let them destroy themselves, and encourage them to do that, or even to enslave them and use them for the Seers’ benefit.

—So he was around when you and I met in Gall —interrupted Sebastian.

—Yes, I had sent him to the Far East to give him a last chance, but it didn´t work. By that time, Alexander had already demonstrated he could be my successor. After I had told Zardoff, he was furious, and he started to change, or maybe he just revealed who he really was.

—How did he start to change? —asked Sebastian.

—Zardoff set out to take his revenge. He persuaded some of our people who thought like him to join him in creating a new group. The Superiors, they call themselves. Their aim is to inspire fear, hatred, chaos and fanaticism. Zardoff and his acolytes have been behind the cruellest wars, have stirred intolerance and religious hatred and have promoted all forms of human misery.

—But that’s the opposite of what we are meant to do! —exclaimed Sebastian.

—Indeed, but that’s what he has done. In fact, it’s the reason why I have lived longer than I was supposed to. Zardoff disrupted our own progress and our destiny, so I had to keep going. Since then, many of the setbacks in human history have been inspired by Zardoff. His cruelty has no boundaries, and he hates us. If he could, he would destroy us.

—But cruelty has been present in mankind since the beginning of time; humans are a primitive species, we know that.

—Yes, that’s true. Human cruelty didn’t start with Zardoff. Under the wrong circumstances, humans can be cruel and ruthless. Besides, Zardoff has not been the first Guide who thinks like him. There have been others before him who fed mankind’s fears and ambitions and roused the worse monsters of human nature. But Zardoff is the cleverest and most dangerous of all.

Sebastian looked at Pyros, astonished.

—But why did he approach me? Why have you waited till now to tell me about him? I would never have talked to him if I had known who he was.

—I would have told you sooner or later. Zardoff did manage to recruit new followers, then for a long time he stopped trying, I thought he had decided to give up. I hope he had realised he was wrong. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and for some years now he has been approaching young Guides. I’m sure he sees great value in you, just as I do.

—Does he think he can influence me?

—I don´t know what he thinks. His mind is impossible to read. But he wouldn´t run the risk of exposing himself to something that didn´t matter to him. Please believe me, Sebastian, Zardoff doesn´t feel sympathy for anybody and doesn´t care about anybody.

—It seems impossible that people like that exist amongst our race.

—I know, Sebastian, but they do exist. He is smart, and he can even inspire loyalty. Stay away from him.

—I will —Sebastian replied—. I certainly will.

For years, Sebastian avoided any contact with Zardoff, but during one of their last trips together, Pyros and Sebastian saw him again. It was early one summer morning, and they were walking by the Seine in Paris. The city was waking up, and the shopkeepers were placing stalls of vegetables and fruit out on the pavements. Pyros loved markets; they were such good places to observe humans. Men and women were strange creatures, with their pettiness and contradictions, their possibilities and their dreams.

As they continued their walk, Sebastian noticed that Pyros was getting tense. Even in the warmth of the rising sun, he felt a coldness spreading through his body, a freezing grip in his heart.

—Zardoff is close —said Pyros, holding Sebastian by his arm.

They looked around and then they saw him. Further up the river, a black boat with a head of a Medusa in the prow was coming towards them. Standing in the boat was a man with a cape around his shoulders. Sebastian immediately recognised the marble-like face and the intense blue gaze. It was Zardoff. He held his head high, his teeth bared in a cruel smile.

Other passers-by noticed the strange boat and the ripples of the river gathering strength in front of its bow. As the boat came closer, Sebastian felt the earth shake beneath his feet and saw the river swelling up its banks. People started screaming and running away, but Pyros was rigid, his eyes locked on Zardoff’s. Sebastian knew that this was a severe clash of wills between the two most extraordinary men he had ever met. The struggle lasted only a few minutes, then Zardoff smiled diabolically at Pyros. Sooner or later, he would catch his prey and Pyros knew it. Sebastian could see his beloved mentor exhausted, his shoulders sagging and his head downcast. Pyros spoke so faintly that Sebastian could just hear his words:

—The threat has not disappeared, and I won’t live long enough to defeat it.

***

Only Sebastian knew how accurate Pyros had been. But it was still some time before Fiammetta came into his life, and that gave Zardoff a way into Sebastian’s mind and soul.  

Chapter 9

London, present day

Edward’s words had stayed with me since we had parted outside my flat. “We have a date”, he said. How long had it been since I had had a date? Four years? More than four years, but the excitement was the same as the first time a student at the Academy had asked me out. That night I couldn’t get to sleep and, ignoring all the sound advice to overcome insomnia, I went back to the laptop. This time I was searching for Edward. I checked on his card, his last name was Kiefer.

But Edward Kiefer didn’t show up anywhere on the web. Just like his uncle, which made it even stranger. I looked at the third and fourth pages of the search engine, and then, in the fifth, there it was —a brief reference to Edward Arthur Kiefer, a “brilliant young scientist who quit his job to take care of his family affairs”. He had worked at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. There was a photo of him, presumably from about that time, but Edward looked exactly the same now as he did then. That was the only reference to him I could find, so I searched the web for Ruth. The result was the same. There was nothing on the internet about her, and yet, she was a doctor, or at least that’s what she said. How very intriguing. Who were they, these three people who had been kind to me? I was getting tired, and I decided to solve the mystery another day and went back to bed. Some classical music did the trick, and after a few minutes, I was asleep.

The next morning I decided I would stay in England for Christmas and go to the Cotswolds with Elspeth and her family. Surrounded by the warmth of the Bowman’s, I would be at peace. I called Anita to let her know.

—How did it go?

—Good morning, Anita, I’m all right, thank you for asking.

—Right, how did it go?

—It went well. You were with us, Anita!

—Yes, at the beginning. What happened after I left?

—Nothing happened, Anita. What do you think?

—Well, mia cara, he is interested in you, and you couldn’t stop smiling. Oh, I’m so happy for you, Ariane!

—Anita, please, you have a wild imagination.

—When are you seeing him again?

—When he comes back from a trip with Alexander.

—That’s fantastic!

—Actually, Anita, if you don’t mind, I will stay here for Christmas.

—Oh, don’t worry! As soon as my parents hear about Edward, they will forgive you for not coming.

—Please, Anita, don’t make a big deal out of this.

—I won’t, mia cara. He will.

Chapter 10

Roshven Castle, present day

Since Ariane´s visit, nothing had been the same at Roshven Castle, Ruth thought as she looked out from her window at the restless sea. The days Ariane was there had been quite different from what Ruth was used to. It was a ritual she had never missed: every year, wherever she was in the world, she had gone to Roshven to spend a few weeks with Alexander. They were special days she shared with her friend, her master, her confidant.

Besides, it was unusual for her to have people who cooked her meals, made her bed and took care of all her needs. Her work as a doctor in war-torn areas meant she had to live in tents, eating whatever was available and cherishing every drop of water. The small troop of Roshven´s employees, directed by the butler, seemed to be happy to see her every time she showed up and they looked after every little detail to make her comfortable. The Roshven weeks were always much-needed breaks from the horrors she witnessed in her work, and Alexander was a balm for her soul.

But this year everything had been different. Alexander was distracted and distant. Why didn´t he say goodbye to Ariane and Anita? Why didn´t he stay after Ariane´s concert at Sir Angus’s house? It wasn´t like Alexander, not like him at all. Ruth didn´t want to pry —it was better for him to talk to her if he wanted to— but Ariane had to be the cause of his strange behaviour.

With these thoughts in mind, Ruth went to the library where she found Alexander sitting at his desk, his eyes fixed on a piece of paper. He looked up, and she noticed a deep furrow on his forehead. A shadow shrouded those usually serene, lofty, features that she loved so much. Sometimes Ruth wondered if, deep in her heart, she felt something other than friendship and admiration for Alexander, but it was a thought she never dared to entertain for long. And now, what mattered was to understand if something was upsetting him. She would do anything to help her dear friend.

—Ah, Ruth, I wanted to talk to you. Sit down, please.

—Sure, are you feeling OK?

—Yes, well no…

—What is it, Alexander?

—It is about … it´s her I want to talk about.

—I assume you are referring to Ariane?

—Yes, exactly —he said, standing up all of a sudden. He looked as if an inner struggle was consuming him. She had never seen Alexander like that before.

—It wasn´t a chance meeting.

—What do you mean?

—I knew Ariane a long time ago.

—Is she one of us?

—No, she isn´t. Come with me, I want to show you something.

He went across to a bookshelf and tapped it three times. It swung out into the room, revealing a small door. They went through it into a narrow passage and down some steep stairs. At the bottom, Alexander turned the light on. Ruth couldn’t believe her eyes as she walked into a narrow gallery overlooking three more levels below her. The yellow flickering lights on the walls made it difficult for Ruth to distinguish the dimensions of the room, but it was massive. They went down to the lower level, and Ruth gasped. She was in a room with high ceilings, full of books, tables and strange objects. The room seemed to be organised into sections, each labelled in Latin: Mathematica, Chemia, Philosophia. What most attracted her attention was a row of glass jars, each containing some sort of animal preserved in formaldehyde. One of them looked like a small dragon. The tables there were covered with scrolls, pens and a device that might be a barometer.

—I didn´t know about this place. What on Earth is it for?

Alexander smiled, put his hand on the barometer and another door silently opened.

—There is more? —Ruth was astonished. She thought she knew everything about Alexander.

The door had opened into a cramped, dark room. As Ruth got used to the darkness, she saw that the walls were covered with thick grey panels.

—These are lead walls, several metres thick —said Alexander— nothing can get through them. It is the safest place in the world.

— Why so much security? What do you keep here?

—Many secrets —said Alexander with a shy smile—, but this is what I want you to see.

He walked towards a panel with the word Somnia engraved on it.

—Here is where my dreams materialise themselves —he said, as the panel slid aside to reveal more small rooms.

—Why didn’t I know anything about this before?

—It’s one of the features of the Guides of Time. Like all the Guides, we are conscious during our dreams; they have valuable lessons and messages for us and warn us about imminent dangers. But in my case, as in the case of every Guide of Time before me and those who will come after me, these mirrors have been capturing my dreams. It’s a way to help us decipher more clearly the future, and sometimes they show us the steps we need to take to fulfil our mission.

Ruth’s gasped, he eyes wide open in astonishments. The walls were covered with mirrors, some with black and white images, some in colour: mathematical formulae, battle scenes, landscapes, music sheets, people from different eras. They were not static images; they were as vivid as real life. But what took Ruth’s breath away was what all the mirrors showed —the face of a woman.

—It´s not possible! —Ruth cried—. It´s her, Ariane!

—Yes, it’s her —replied Alexander.

—How long have you been dreaming of her?

—Since I have had the use of reason.

—Do you mean…

—Yes, I mean for more than a thousand years.

Chapter 11

London, present day

After our dinner together, Edward became a continuous presence in my life. He often telephoned, even when he was abroad. Sometimes I received a letter from him, sometimes an email. I set off for Christmas with Elspeth and her family with new warmth in my body, with new hope growing in my heart. Edward was due to be in London just before the end of the year, and I couldn´t wait to see him. Throughout those weeks, I heard nothing at all about Alexander.

When I returned to London from the Cotswolds, the bell rang, and I opened the door to a beautiful basket of exotic flowers I had never seen before.

—Are you Mrs Ariane Claret?

—Yes, that´s me.

—It’s for you, special delivery. Happy New Year!

I closed the door and tore open the card. It was from Edward.

—“I hope you had a good Christmas. I have just arrived in London and would love to see you tonight.”

Later, when I was walking to meet him, I realised I was trembling with excitement. Aldwych was a busy part of London, full of theatres and restaurants, and the sense of Christmas celebration was still in the air. It matched my mood exactly. I went to the restaurant, and Edward greeted me with his sparkly smile. He looked even more attractive than I remembered, and a tingle of pleasure ran through my body.

—At last! You have no idea how much I missed you —he said standing up to kiss me—. It has been far too long.

—Well, it was just before Christmas —I replied teasingly, looking up into his eyes and feeling a warm tremor at the touch of his lips—. How was your trip?

—Excellent! We made a lot of progress with the project. Alexander is very pleased.

—Was Alexander with you all the time?

—No, he stayed only a few days. He wanted to introduce me to the team of scientists working on the project. He is handing over most of his activities to me now. He is planning to retire soon.

—Isn’t he too young to retire? He looks in his forties —I said regretting it immediately, it sounded too inquisitive. Edward burst into laughter.

—Well, not quite, he is older than he looks —he said, with a mischievous smile —. But I won’t tell you how much older. He might not like it.

It was easy to feel comfortable with Edward. He concentrated his attention on me, and his face, his words, his attitude all seemed to react to my smallest gestures. A delicious dinner and a bottle of wine helped our conversation flow, and I realised just how happy I was after the sad years since Will’s death. I felt a twinge of guilt: I felt I was unfaithful to Will´s memory. But any unease didn´t last long, as Edward had a charm I found difficult to resist.

We drank our coffee slowly, to lengthen the time together. When we got up to leave, Edward was quick to suggest a walk.

—It´s a pleasant evening— he said, helping me with my coat.

—I would love a walk, and anyway, my flat isn´t far from here.

Outside, the crowded pavements forced us to stroll close to each other, brushing our bodies from time to time. My winter gloves didn´t stop me feeling a rush of pleasure when he took my hand.

The last yards to my door took us ages, we didn´t want the night to end. Edward held me in his arms and said:

—I want to see you again, Ariane. You have captured me since the first moment I saw you.

He stared at me with an intensity, even a harshness, that made me feel I was falling off a cliff. I stepped a pace, realising as I did so that Alexander had given me the same feeling.

—Sorry —he said, smiling again— I hope I didn´t upset you.

—No, you didn´t upset me, it´s just that …

—What?

—I am not sure, Edward. I only know that this has been the best night I´ve had in a long time and, yes, I would like to see you again too.

—I have some work to finish off in Germany, and then I will definitely move back here. Alexander wants me to live at Roshven, but neither Scotland nor the castle is right for me. They are too far away from what interests me —he added, his voice hoarse.

—Will Alexander be upset if you aren’t at Roshven?

—No, of course not! He knows I love London. Besides, Alexander and I are very different.

—How do you mean?

—He feels comfortable with his books, the forest, the silence, exploring caves.

—Exploring caves?

—Yes —Edward said with a smile—. Alexander is an intrepid speleologist. I have been on expeditions with him, and I’m always impressed that he’s such a good explorer. I, on the other hand, need to be with people, I love the hustle and bustle of the city. That´s not been common in our family; most of my ancestors were like Alexander. But times are changing, and we need to adapt.

—It´s good you know who your ancestors were, I don´t even know my parents.

—I know. I´m sorry, Ariane, it must have been so difficult for you.

—It was. It still is, in a way. Maybe that´s why I was so close to Will, and when he died, I wanted to go with him.

Edward took my hands and held them tightly in his.

—Never say that again, Ariane, please.

—You´re right, I shouldn´t have mentioned it. Now I am fine, or at least at peace.

—You deserve much more than peace, Ariane. You don´t realise what you are capable of, but I can feel you have an extraordinary life ahead of you. You have the whole world at your feet.You have a real power, what couldn’t you do?

—I think you’re exaggerating. I know nothing but music. It’s my lifeline, and I don´t know what would have become of me without it. I’m sorry; I keep talking about sad things.

—I like to hear you talking about your life. I want to know everything about you, I want you to feel I listen to every word you want to tell me. You know, Ariane, some things seem to be predestined.

—Maybe, Edward —I said, wanting to believe him. The, after and awkward silence, I said—: I think it´s time for me to go to sleep.

Edward came closer, staring into my eyes. He traced a finger across my hairline, and his touch made me blush. His finger then moved to my face, from temple to chin, smoothing the hair behind my ear. He took me in his arms and holding me tight, he kissed me. I felt my heart beating fast, and my whole body was shaking. The emotion I was feeling was almost a physical pain.

—You tempt me— he whispered. His voice was intense, and he seemed to be suffocating in an inner struggle, his eyes sending flashing waves of blackness. He looked at me as if I were a strange creature, and as his hand passed behind my neck, stroking it and pulling me towards him, he kissed me again.

—I will see you soon, my lovely Ariane —he said softly.

Chapter 12

Roshven Castle, present day

Alexander and Edward were pacing the lawn of the back garden at Roshven castle. The hedges, showing early signs of spring, looked green and perfectly pruned in stark contrast to the rough grey sea behind them.

—What I don´t understand is why you didn´t talk about it earlier—Alexander was upset—. You knew I knew. More than that, you wanted me to know. You didn’t even try to conceal it from me. Why? Don’t you think this is a matter that requires the utmost openness? You’ll be my successor, Edward. We can’t play these games.

—I am so sorry, Alexander —Edward´s voice was full of regret—. I’m very confused about this myself. And you’re right: I did want you to know, which is why I didn’t conceal my feelings. I thought that if you could see what was going on you could help me work it out. Besides, it was so quick, so unexpected…the way she came into our lives, the way I feel about her… but now I have made up my mind.

—What does Ariane think?

—Can’t you see what she thinks? —Edward was surprised.

—I haven’t tried. We have rules, Edward. I respect them.

—I know, I just thought that maybe in this case…you could help me to see the way ahead.

—Are you telling me you haven’t seen in her mind?

—I’ve tried, but I can’t.

—What do you mean you can’t?

—When I tried to look into her, her future, her soul, a thick fog surrounds her. There is a force that doesn’t allow me to get closer. I hoped you could… —Edward said.

Alexander looked up at the sky, where dark clouds were closing in, signalling a storm, a sign of Alexander´s state of mind. The sky at Roshven was always a reflection of the Guide of Times´ feelings. Nobody, not even other Guides, could see into their leader´s thoughts. His training and command of every function of his body, mind and emotions were absolute, and in that sense, Alexander was the best of them all. But the skies at Roshven were very revealing.

—I can’t, Edward —he replied, with a tone of voice that left no doubt.

—But you could see her future, our future. Sometimes she has doubts, she thinks things are going too fast. But she loves me, I’m sure she does.

—Have you told her who you really are? —Alexander asked—. Does she know you will need to move around the world and that you might not have children? Have you explained the risks she runs?

—No, I was hoping to tell her this weekend —replied Edward—.I have also asked Ruth to join us.

—Have you already told Ruth? —Alexander sounded exasperated.

—Yes… I wanted to know what she thought of Ariane.

—What did she say?

—The same as you. She thinks I am rushing, that I should have told Ariane more about me, about us, before going so far. But she does agree that Ariane is an extraordinary human being.

Alexander kept silent, but a deafening thunder filled the air. Then he asked:

—Have you thought what is going to happen in the future?

—What do you mean?

—As time goes by, Ariane won’t be what she is now. What is going to happen when she gets older, and you will still be a young man?

—I don´t know. That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. Is there any chance that she…?

—No, Edward. Ariane doesn´t have our bloodline, of that I am sure. And there is no way we could help her. She is an ordinary woman, she will follow the natural course of a human life, and she´ll die at a normal age. You will have to deal with her frailty, her illnesses. Have you thought about that?

—Yes —replied Edward—, I have thought about it, and I will face it. I will be by her side. Some of us have done it before, it´s not the first time that a Seer, or a Guide, has fallen in love with a human.

—That´s true, not often, but it has happened.

—Besides, Alexander, there is something about her which goes beyond her physical being; you must have noticed it too. You say she is a normal human being, but she isn’t. I´ve noticed some quite extraordinary things about her.

—Like what?

—I have the impression —actually, it´s a certainty— that she is being followed. And by not friendly people. I can´t read her mind, but she can read mine with an accuracy that astonishes me. And her hands: even if she’s not a Seer, her hands have a powerful energy. I’m sure that if she tried, she would be a remarkable healer. Besides, what I feel about her is inexplicable, almost pre-ordained. This is why I thought that maybe her bloodline was…

—We have no evidence of it —Alexander interrupted him—. We don´t know who her parents are, so we can´t find her ancestors. But I agree with you, she is unusual, the fact that we can´t trace her past is odd.

After a pause, Alexander muttered:

—Unless… No, that´s impossible —then he continued—: I don’t want to interfere with your decision, Edward, but I encourage you to talk to her as soon as possible.

—And I will, I promise —Edward said convincingly—. I would like to tell Fiammetta about us. She has always been close to me. Is she still in China?

—She is back in London, I have been in touch with her a couple of times, she seems to be very busy.

—It´s about time. Fiammetta can´t live for long away from Europe —Edward chuckled—, she dries up.

—She will come to the Main Ceremony —Alexander said—. The transition from one Guide to another is the most important event in our brotherhood. But I have the impression, Edward, that you are more preoccupied with your personal life than with your mission. Please never forget: you will be the next Guide of Time.

—It´s true —confessed Edward, sounding embarrassed—. At the moment Ariane occupies a lot of my time. And it´s also true I will never be able to match you and Pyros, but I am as passionate as you have been about mankind´s progress. And really, I’m the lucky one; this final phase will be the most exciting.

—I agree on that point. You will be the lucky one—replied Alexander with a brief smile. It was already pouring with rain, and Alexander´s words were muffled by the heavy drops falling on the ground.

—Don´t worry, Alexander. I won’t disappoint you. I´ve already talked to our brothers and sisters, and they will be here. Although I think it will be more your farewell than my nomination. They all want to celebrate and recognise your extraordinary work in very challenging times.

—My mission is over, now it´s your turn. —Alexander paused and then continued—: I find it ironic that I now feel so distant from the world I helped to create. The communications, the transport, even the new approaches to scientific research. It has all changed so much. My soul belongs to another era, when letters took weeks or months to arrive when books were on paper only, and the smell of leather filled the libraries.

—In reality, you have always been a Renaissance man.

—I have enjoyed mankind´s evolution, all the eras that I’ve lived through. And this era, in particular, will be the most extraordinary of all. Mankind will finally see the light. The real meaning of the Apocalypse —as the Bible prophets called the end of times— is revelation, to unveil the truth of the human condition. Yes, you are definitely lucky, Edward, to be the Guide of this time.

—What is not going to change is Zardoff´s threat —said Edward, pensively.

—I know —Alexander replied with a sigh— he will never stop being a threat. But even here, this era is a lucky one. This is the time to destroy him once and for all. You will still face the forces that want to keep mankind backwards, as they have done so far. But you will have one huge advantage: science is getting very close to defeating the fear of death, mankind´s deepest fear, the fear from which all other fears derive. When that happens, it will be more difficult for human beings to be victims of ignorance, fanaticism and the selfishness of those who use fear of death to manipulate the world.

—You’re right, this is a crucial moment, and Zardoff knows it.

—Precisely, and that makes him dangerous. Anyway, he is my battle, my last battle.

—And I will be by your side, Alexander.

—Yes, I know, and I’m grateful for that.

They went back to the castle, and Edward got ready to depart.

—Before you leave, Edward, I would like to ask you one last question. Are you sure you aren’t selfish towards Ariane?

—I don´t know why you say that.

—She has a brilliant career ahead of her; she craves a family, a home. She won’t get any of that at your side.

—I make her happy, she has told me that many times—Edward found it hard to hide his unease, as he wasn´t too sure about what he had just said.

—That´s fine. You have made up your mind. I hope all will go well for you and for her.

—Goodbye, Alexander. I don’t want to miss my flight. See you at the weekend —Edward said.

—See you at the weekend, Edward.

From his study, Alexander watched Edward leaving the house, his head down. His protégé was all he had hoped for in a successor: bright, determined, disciplined and with a deep compassion towards the human condition. He also had the charm and enthusiasm that seemed to be so important for mankind in an era when how things were said was as important as what was said. No, thought Alexander, he shouldn’t have any doubts now. When the Elders —the ruling body of the Seers— had come to decide on his successor, Edward hadn´t been a difficult choice.

***

East Berlin, 1970

Alexander knew Edward’s family well. His parents were part of the East German intelligentsia that fought against the communists after World War II. Any opposition to the hateful regime was extremely dangerous, and one night, when Alexander went to visit them at their home in East Berlin, Edward´s parents asked him to look after their beloved boy. Alexander had already identified the child with bright brown eyes and curly blond hair as a Seer, with a strong bloodline that could be developed to its full potential. He had been following the movements of Edward’s family, knowing that at some point they would be willing to let their child escape from a regime they regarded as barbaric.

Alexander took Edward to his castle in Roshven, where he raised him as the son of a cousin. He kept in touch with Edward’s parents as much as he could, but a few years later they were deported to one of the gulags the Soviet Union reserved for dissidents. Edward grew up with the memory of his brave and intelligent parents but developed a deep attachment to his uncle, Alexander.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Alexander tried to find Edward’s parents. After several years of fruitless searching, he discovered they had died of exhaustion in the gulag, just months before the freedom they had cherished was granted to their country. Hamish, who was already working as Alexander’s assistant, looked after him with the devotion of a father. To help Edward recover from his sadness, Alexander took him to his first long expedition to the caves around Roshven. Once Edward was comfortable there and learned the essential elements of speleology, Alexander told him to prepare for a long journey. They set off one wet autumn morning and travelled for many miles through the tunnels. The two spent time exploring, hiking, crossing rivers, marvelling at the beauty of the underground world, until they reached the place where their race originated: the home of the Seers. At that point, Edward’s life took a new turn. Although he was already aware of his real nature and potential, to discover an entire civilisation underground was beyond his wildest imagination.

Amongst the Seers, Edward found himself. He learned how to control his body and mind, to use his inner energy to muster physical strength and resilience and to manipulate the forces of Nature. Compared with others in his age group, Edward excelled even in those attributes like telepathy and perception which were usually more developed in the dwellers of the underground world. He learned how to navigate with his eyes closed through kilometres of tunnels without getting lost. He could sense the Earth’s magnetism and could move underground with the ease of an Explorer, and he could also perceive vibrations and the whole spectrum of light from ultraviolet to infrared. He became a skilled fencer, the sport that the Seers most admired. Its elegance and the control it required reflected the way they lived. Edward spent a year underground with Alexander.

When they returned to Roshven —before leaving, they had told Hamish and the rest of the staff they would be travelling around the world— it was difficult for Edward to fit back to a simpler life. He was tutored at home, but soon his tutors had nothing to teach him. He took A-levels at 15, and an American university offered him a scholarship in maths. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and decided to return to the United Kingdom do a PhD at Cambridge.

By the time he was 22, Edward had completed his doctorate. He was also a remarkable fencer, with a good chance of being chosen for the British team at the next Olympic games. Edward was an excellent communicator and had a rare charm that captivated people immediately. He worked for some years at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, earning the admiration and friendship of colleagues and students. Without a doubt, he was on his way to becoming Alexander’s successor. When Alexander proposed his nomination to the Elders, no one had any misgivings about him. The time came to prepare himself to succeed Alexander. That meant absolute commitment.

During all these years, Edward and Alexander had been working together without even a hint of friction. But now things had changed. Ariane had produced new emotions in both of them, creating a tension they had never experienced before. Edward’s behaviour was so different that Alexander was perplexed. He was usually confident, transparent, intelligent in the way he approached things, and now he couldn´t even understand what was going on inside of himself. But there was no way back; Edward was determined to continue his relationship with Ariane and nothing would change his mind.

Although Alexander didn’t like to admit it, his angst hadn’t got much to do with the unfairness of launching Ariane on a risky journey. He had hardly stopped thinking of her since the moment he found her unconscious on the cliff. Alexander was feeling jealous, really jealous: an unacceptable feeling for a Guide to have, something he had never expected to feel at the end of his life on Earth.

All of a sudden, the weather turned even wilder, reflecting Alexander´s inner turmoil. Throughout his long life, he had never once been at the mercy of his emotions. He had known the excitement of new scientific discoveries, he had marvelled at nature’s beauty, he had been moved by great composers and music, but what Ariane produced in him was far from those feelings.

At various stages in his life, Alexander had had relationships with women both from his own race and humans, but none had ever produced in him the eagerness, the anguish and the desire that Ariane did. She had been in his dreams since as long as he could remember, but Alexander always thought this recurring image of a young and beautiful woman was just a trick of his mind, a memory hidden in his subconscious without a specific meaning. Besides, both Edward and he had strong feelings for her, and that coincidence was as unusual as it was worrying. There was something mysterious and powerful about her, and he couldn’t put his finger on it.

He spent the rest of the afternoon deep in his armchair, looking at the raging sea crashing against the rocks. He felt tired, as though the weight of all those centuries had finally combined on his shoulders; and for the first time in his life, Alexander felt lost.

Chapter 13

London, present day

That night I was due to go to Covent Garden with Edward to see Un Ballo in Maschera, my favourite Verdi Opera. I was rushing all day, but I did manage to find a quiet five minutes to organise my thoughts. I still had to collect my dress from the dry cleaners and buy some inner soles for new shoes that were too large for me. I had very little time left between work and the opera and had to rush.

So many things had happened during the past few months; my world had been turned around, and I could barely keep up with the pace of the changes. Anita, of course, was the first to point it out. We had planned a weekend in Dorset for some walking and sightseeing. On the beaches and in shallow pools it was possible to find fossils and, to my astonishment, Anita said she was a keen fossil hunter. We were going to stay in the same village where the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman was set, and it was her favourite movie. It had been months since the two of us had spent time together, and though she was up to speed with new events in my life, we missed our intimacy. But when the time came to pay for the hostel, I realised I had another commitment.

—Ariane —she said, hands on hips—, what’s happening? This is not the first time you’ve cancelled on me.

—I’m sorry, Anita. But this is an important party, Edward…

—Yes, I know, I know —she interrupted me—. Look, I am the first to be happy —no, not happy, delighted that you are seeing Edward. But he is taking you away from us. Elspeth hasn’t seen you in ages…

—Elspeth? How do you know? Has she called you?

—No, I call her. Since you are so busy, and she feels lonely, I call her every week, and I visit every time I can. I am busy too, you know, but I don’t forget my friends.

—Oh! What are you talking about? I haven’t forgotten you! How come I didn’t know you are so close to Elspeth? —The revelation shocked me: Anita and Elspeth had never been that friendly and Anita was too chaotic for my organised landlady.

—Yes —continued Anita—, since Will’s death and your illness, we have been quite close. See? You didn’t even notice! That’s what I’m saying.

I was mortified, I had been so absorbed in my new life that I had forgotten the only family I had ever had.

—You are right, Anita. I’ll make it up to you. But not this weekend, please.

Anita looked at me for a while, I could see in her dark brown eyes flashes of disbelief, but then her cheerful nature bounced back, and she hugged me.

—OK, I forgive you. I am so happy for you! Let’s plan for another weekend.

We went away a few weeks later to Dorset, but that episode made me think.

The truth was that since that date with Edward at the end of December, my life had been overturned. If his intention was to dazzle me, he had succeeded. He had to travel a lot for his work, sometimes with Alexander, often on his own, and I wasn’t always sure where he was, but he was never far from my thoughts.

Things got serious fairly quickly. I remember the date well: March 21st, the first day of Spring. We went to St James’s Park, my favourite park in the heart of London. It was a cold day, but the sun shone, and we were both in high spirits. We sat on a bench by the lake and fed the ducks. There was suddenly something strange about Edward’s behaviour; even when he was throwing bread for the birds, he didn´t take his eyes off me. I felt my left cheek burning from his stare.

—Ariane —he said, in a tone I hadn’t heard before—, I think you know you are very special to me, you have been since the first time I saw you in Roshven. You fascinate me, and even I am surprised by the strength of my feelings for you. I know you have been through a lot but…

I put my finger on his mouth, moved closer and kissed him. He took me in his arms, and we stayed silent for a long time, dimly aware of the swans swimming in the lake, but conscious of the rush of pleasure and excitement running between us.

—But there are things I need to tell you —he continued—, you need to know more about me, about my family.

—I would love that, Edward.

—Well, you met my uncle, Alexander. And Ruth, she is like family to me. But there are other people I wish you could meet.

—Of course! Do they live in Britain?

—No, not really. They live quite far away. But we can plan a trip, I am sure you would be fascinated by them, and they will find you lovely.

—Yes, sure! I would love to travel with you. Where do they live?

He didn’t reply, while he stared out over the lake.

—That doesn’t matter now —he said, changing the conversation—. What is important is what I feel for you, and I hope you feel the same for me. I want us to be together, Ariane. Do you understand what I am saying?

I gasped, I didn’t expect this. It seemed too soon.

—Edward, I am flattered, but I am not sure I can commit to the longer term, yet. I feel happy with you. But it’s just that I still…well…I still

—Yes, I know —he interrupted me—. You still think about Will. But I’m not asking you to stop thinking of him. I am just asking you to consider me as your companion, in your own way, at your own pace. I don’t mind whatever shape our love takes, as long as we are together. This feeling I have for you, this wanting, it’s completely out of my control. And it only grows with time, Ariane.

There was a sense of urgency in his words, so compelling it was disturbing and exciting at the same time. I closed my eyes and let him stroke my hair and run his thumb over my lips.

—Let’s take a step at the time —I said.

He took my hand and kissed it saying:

—That’s good enough for me, my lovely Ariane.

Since that morning in the park, everything had changed. When Edward was in London, we saw each other every day. Whenever he could, he came to rehearsals and concerts. My colleagues in the orchestra liked him, especially Vassily. I made sure we spent time with Anita and Elspeth so they wouldn’t resent Edward, and in the end, he completely won their hearts too.

I discovered that Edward had a wide circle of friends, from unknown scientists to members of the Royal family, and they all seemed captivated by his charm. Wherever we went together, he was always the centre of attention, but he always made sure I was comfortable and at ease, no matter whom we were with.

I often thought of Alexander. Although he and Edward worked together, I never saw him. When I asked Edward what his uncle thought about our relationship, the answer was vague, but I was pretty sure he didn’t approve. He perhaps wanted a different woman for his nephew, somebody from their same class or wealth, but I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn´t want to push Edward too hard on what his uncle might think; he admired Alexander and had a deep sense of respect towards him, and as long as Edward and I could get to know each other, I was happy. I was riding on a wave of pure exhilaration, and nothing mattered more than that.

On the night of the opera, though, something happened, and if I had been more observant, I would have realised that things were not as perfect as they seemed. Edward had booked a box looking down on the stage, and everything seemed set for a magical evening. After we had settled into the box, Edward went off to make a phone call. I was reading the programme, so was only vaguely aware of a movement in the back of the box. Then I realised a man was there, and at first I thought he was an usher. As he came towards me, I saw his face was marked with a scar, and his eyes were wild, bloodshot. He had one hand under his coat and was approaching me with a menacing attitude. I cried out, thinking he was going to attack me. At that moment, Edward came back, for a moment remonstrated with the man and with a strength I didn’t know he had, lifted him off the floor and ushered him out of the box. When Edward returned, his smile seemed forced as he told me:

—I hope he didn´t scare, you, Ariane. He is mentally disturbed, and it’s not the first time he has got into the theatre and bothered some of the audience. The police are already taking care of him.

I accepted Edward’s explanation, but the face of the stranger in the box haunted my dreams for many months afterwards.

Chapter 14

Roshven, present day

It was his free afternoon and, after saying goodbye to his wife, Hamish Blair walked briskly out of the house. He was in a hurry, but he didn’t drive, so he’d asked Thomas to give him a lift to the village. They chatted in the car about that night’s football game. They were both strong Rangers supporters and followed the Scottish Premiership in great detail. On this occasion, Thomas noticed that Hamish wasn’t paying attention. He was obviously very keen to get to the village as soon as possible.

Thomas left him in front of the pub, and Hamish hurried away without even saying thank you. The truth was that Hamish couldn’t stand Thomas. In fact, working for the Baron had become intolerable, and he took any opportunity to be away from the castle. Life had changed for Hamish Blair, and he was determined to answer the call of the Lord. He felt ashamed that he had allowed his weakness of character to undermine his faith for so many years. He had been softened by the Baron’s charm, his impeccable manners, his kindness when Hamish needed help. He had even admired Alexander for his intelligence, his charitable work in the village, his fierce privacy.

Hamish and his wife had spent many happy years at the castle. Hamish had been particularly fond of Edward, who reminded him of his youngest brother, who had died tragically when he was a boy. Von Rossen explained that Edward’s parents had been killed in a car accident and Hamish was quite happy when the Baron had asked him to look after the young boy. Hamish had often taken him fishing and had taught him about the birds and trees in their corner of the Highlands. But everything changed after the year young Edward went travelling with his uncle. The boy came back a young man, rather distant, uninterested in spending time with Hamish as before.

But all that was now irrelevant. Hamish was determined to make up for all the time lost during the years he had worked for the Baron, a sinner without any chance of redemption. Von Rossen had betrayed the only true God, and he, Hamish Blair, had to punish him. His suspicion fully confirmed, Hamish Blair was waiting in the village pub, ready to take his revenge.

***

Glasgow, 1960

Like many in the deprived parts of Western Scotland, Hamish had had to leave school early, hoping to find a job. In due course, he did manage to find work as a day labourer on a dairy farm. He was the eldest of five children. His mother was a devout Presbyterian, and the family went to Church every Sunday without fail. The best part was tea at the end of the service. It included fruit scones, slices of buttered toast and sometimes even an egg. That was often the only decent meal of the week for the Blair family. Hamish was the best student at Sunday school and the favourite of the Minister, the Reverend Neil McHaig, who at that point became the most influential man in Hamish´s life.

When Hamish turned 15, Rev McHaig talked to his mother. Her son was pious and disciplined, he told her; with the right help, he could become a Minister himself. Rev McHaig had taken the liberty of talking to Mr Alistair Ross, another strong Presbyterian and the wealthiest man in the small town nearby. Hamish could work for him and at the same time study for a religious vocation. The job wasn´t difficult: Hamish had to organise his master´s wardrobe, clean his shoes and do a few chores in town. It would leave him plenty of time to study.

Mr Ross, an inscrutable man with a harsh manner, seemed pleased to have Hamish around, but the boy soon realised Mr Ross had a dark side. He was a radical Protestant, deeply suspicious of Roman Catholics; but he reserved his greatest contempt for Muslims. Whenever he had Hamish´s attention, he would produce a hate-filled remark about Islam, as though he was prompting the boy to say something even more extreme. It wasn´t long before Mr Ross introduced Hamish to others who shared his beliefs, and their gatherings quickly came to dominate Hamish´s thinking.

It was at one of these meetings, in the depths of winter, that Mr Ross’s group decided it was time to do something to confront the evil in their midst. The problem was, there was nothing in their midst. The nearest Muslim community was miles away in Inverness, and it was only a few dozen strong. However, Mr Ross had heard they were planning to erect a makeshift Mosque, and this was all the excuse Hamish and his new friends needed.

A few weeks later, at two o’clock in the morning, they showed up at the small shed in Inverness, forced their way in and set fire to one of the carpets. Before long, the shed-Mosque was burning, and Hamish and his friends were speeding away in an old builder´s lorry.

Although the local police managed to trace the truck back to Hamish´s village, for a while, it looked as though they would take no further action. But Hamish’s worst fears were realised when a policeman knocked on Mr Ross´s door one damp evening, and it wasn´t long before Hamish found himself behind bars in the Inverness Prison. In one way he was fortunate: a strong character reference from Mr Ross swayed the judge into sentencing him to just a year.

Being released from prison didn´t bring a change in Hamish’s fortunes, in fact, the reverse. Within a few weeks, Mr Ross was laid low with pneumonia and died. Hamish found himself out on the street. Homeless and angry, he spent several weeks looking for a job, but with his turbulent past, nobody wanted to hire him. One night, while he was sitting on the floor at the entrance of the Church waiting for the vicar to give him some food and shelter, a tall, elegant man approached him: it was Alexander Von Rossen. He talked to Hamish in a calm and reassuring voice, asking him who he was and what he was doing there. Hamish, surprised by the kindness of the stranger and feeling that he could trust him, told him his story. Tears poured from his eyes and talking to that stranger he felt as if he was, at last, freeing himself of a terrible burden. Von Rossen took him to a lodge nearby, paid for a week’s lodging and food, and before he left he gave him a card saying:

—If you need a job, ring me. I might be able to help you.

And so it had started, a relationship that would last more than 30 years. Over time, Hamish became the Baron´s personal assistant, trusted by him as much as he had been by Mr Ross. In Roshven, Hamish met Molly who later would become his wife. They didn´t have children, but their life was peaceful, and her bubbly personality lightened up Hamish’s darker side. It seemed as though the days of his religious fanaticism were over, buried in the past.

On his free afternoons, Hamish went for a quiet drink in the village pub where he met up with other locals, to play cards or discuss the latest football match. On one of these occasions, there was only one person in the pub who immediately captured Hamish’ attention. The stranger had strong features and was of medium height, but what stood out were his piercing blue eyes. He looked across at Hamish, who felt a shiver run down his spine.

—Good afternoon —he said, looking at Blair with a smile—. A quiet day today, I see.

—Aye, the lads are coming later —replied the pub landlord, who received a lethal look from the stranger, making it clear he wasn’t welcome in the conversation. The innkeeper took the hint and disappeared into the back of the pub.

—My name is John Melville, it’s a pleasure to meet you —the stranger said, stretching out his hand.

—I’m Hamish Blair, good to meet you too —Blair replied. He shuddered as he shook Melville’s hand and had to sit down to compose himself.

Melville’s voice and manners reminded Hamish of Mr Ross, and he realised he was feeling the same intense combination of fear and admiration that he had forgotten about when Mr Ross died. Melville said he was often in the area for business reasons and he liked to stay at the pub in the village. No doubt they would meet again, he said, and sure enough, they did. At least once a month Hamish would find Melville in the pub when he arrived.

Hamish soon discovered that John Melville shared his early religious beliefs, and it wasn’t too long before their conversations were rebuilding Hamish´s old fervour and his sense that the world was a wicked conspiracy.

—We have to burn the heretics, Hamish —said Melville one day—. And not only the Muslims and the Catholics. Nowadays there are even more witches and sorcerers, more than before, and they are even more dangerous. It is difficult to find them, they hide away in their smart clothes and fancy houses, but they are evil. They are amongst us, Hamish, and God wants us to be His paladins, to exterminate the Devil on Earth. What you did in the Mosque in Inverness was the right thing: you were obeying our Lord´s will. Do you understand?

—How do you know about the Mosque? —asked Hamish, alarmed. It was more than 30 years ago that he had firebombed the shed in Inverness.

—I know a lot about you, Hamish —said Melville with a chilling smile—. God has talked to me: you are a chosen one, you have a mission.

—What do you mean? —asked Hamish.

—I will tell you later. For now, you just need to know that you have an important role to play to secure God´s will on Earth.

That night, Hamish couldn´t sleep. Melville´s words churned around in his head, and his religious convictions returned, as bright as they had been 30 years before.

One day, when no one else was in the pub, Melville asked Hamish about his employer.

—There are many rumours about him —Melville said—. I’m sure you have noticed strange things. What books does he read? What kind of people does he meet? I bet he doesn’t go to Church on Sundays.

—The Baron has his peculiarities, and he is not religious at all, it’s true, but he has always been good to me.

—Of course he has! He wants to trick you, but you mustn’t let him, Hamish. God asks us to be brave. Remember Matthew: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother”. Isn’t God more important? Don’t you think you should fight for Him against the Baron?

Although Hamish wasn’t prepared to think of Von Rossen as an enemy to destroy, Melville’s words bothered him and he tussled with his loyalty for the Baron and God’s call. Melville didn’t give up, and after months of pressure, Hamish agreed to ask the Baron about his beliefs.

His efforts were not a success, though. When Alexander tried to explain his views of life and existence, Hamish was dismayed: no faith in God, no obedience to His name. Later in the week, when he talked about his conversation with the Baron, Melville looked shocked, and replied with anger:

—Your employer is even worse than I’d thought. He doesn’t deserve your loyalty, Hamish. God needs you.

For weeks afterwards, Hamish wrestled with his thoughts, and at the end, he decided it all came down to a single question: God or the Baron? There was only one answer. He had to act.

Chapter 15

London, present day

That fortnight was busy. Carol had organised various meetings to discuss plans for next season, and she wanted me there. I was the resident pianist for the orchestra, but more and more she involved me in management decisions. That wasn’t something I enjoyed, but I couldn’t let her down. It was early May, and the spring colours were everywhere. I would have loved to be outside, feeling the sun melt the cold accumulated in my body during the winter. No chance: for weeks on end, to relax was a luxury.

It was an intense routine. Every day I left early for the Academy, worked for more than eight hours, went home to change —and then I went out with Edward. The rhythm often overwhelmed me, but he seemed unfazed. It was as though he wanted to compress the hours, to squeeze every minute out of our time together.

He moved to London, and whenever we could, we travelled abroad together. I was surprised how fluent he was in several languages, amusing a taxi driver in German, flattering a grand lady in French, discussing football with an Italian waiter. Nobody could resist his charm. From time to time he spoke about his project, and his face lit up; I listened attentive, struggling to understand what it was all about.

We often spent time with his scientist friends, and on those occasions, I felt particularly lost. All those difficult names and concepts, ideas that sounded to me more science-fiction than real science. It could have been intimidating, but on those occasions, Edward took the time to explain in simple terms what they were talking about and my unease went away. I wondered how life would be when we lived together. Edward wanted me to join him sooner rather than later, but I felt we still needed to know each other better. Sometimes we talked about our future, but it was all too vague —and we never talked about our past.

It had been so different with Will. In my memory, he was as vivid as ever, and I still missed the time we had spent discussing our dreams and ambitions. We had worked out a clear path for our life together, based on what we both wanted. Will was my life companion, whereas Edward was a whirlwind who lifted me off the floor to fly with him. In that flight, we somehow forgot to ask the important questions.

I didn´t have much time to think about that, though. The crucial weekend, when we were going together to Roshven, was coming nearer, and each day I felt more apprehensive. I would meet Alexander again, and the thought of that terrified me.

One morning my phone rang when I was still asleep. It was quite early, but Elspeth´s agitated greeting immediately cleared my head.

—Get out of bed, Ariane, and meet me as soon as possible in the coffee-shop round the corner from your flat.

—What´s going on, Elspeth? Are you alright?

—I am fine, I am fine. It´s you I’m worried about.

—Me? Why?

—I can´t explain over the phone. Please meet me in half an hour.

It was a Tuesday, and I had to go to work anyway. The coffee shop had become an obligatory place in my morning routine; though the waiter always seemed on the brink of a nervous breakdown, it had the best cappuccino in London.

I had a quick shower, put on some clothes and went out. The coffee shop was a few blocks away from the flat, and the short walk was always a delight. No matter what the season, Pimlico Road with its shops, its trees and its charming square was always my favourite street. The cafe was already open and, as usual, the waiter looked at me as if he had seen a ghost.

—Good morning —I said, as every day, and he mumbled something back. Elspeth was already there, sitting at a small table in the corner, her face almost covered by an extravagant hat.

—Sit down —she said, looking around as if the shop weren´t absolutely empty at that time of the day.

—Good morning, Elspeth. What is so urgent? Are you sure you are alright? You are scaring me.

—Well, my darling, you should be scared. Listen, I know you don´t like me interfering in your life, but I´ve been talking to Anita, and we both agreed you needed to know.

—You and Anita? Well, I’m glad to see you’re so close.

—Don’t be jealous, darling, it’s just that you aren’t often around.

—I know, Anita keeps telling me the same. I am sorry. Anyway, tell me what this is all about.

—Well, I did tell you about my husband, Lawrence.

—Yes, you had a lot of fun with him, in many different ways, I remember you saying.

—Yes, that´s true, but I mean something else. You remember I told you he was in the Secret Intelligence Service. MI6 we call it.

—Yes, I do remember.

—Well, don´t be mad at me, but I talked to one of Lawrence’s ex-employees. When he recruited him in Libya, he was a bright young thing, and Lawrence and I looked after him as a son. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I asked him about your new boyfriend.

—What? About Edward? I can’t believe it, Elspeth! Why? —I was shocked, how could she be so intrusive?

—Don’t worry, darling, I did the same with Will, he and his family came out squeaky clean. The only black mark in their dossier was a distant relative who was an opium smuggler during World War II.

—You did what? —I was beside myself.

—I know, I know, I shouldn´t have done it. Well, my dear, I checked on you too. I couldn’t let you in my home without knowing who you were. I’ve done it with every student who came to stay with me. I need to know who is living under my roof. Just for you to know, your background was as clean as it should be for a girl raised in a convent. One of the nuns, though, had a fling with the handyman and had to leave. Didn’t you know? Well, anyway, that doesn’t matter now. Listen, you are going to thank me for what I found out.

—What? That Edward is an arms dealer and his family is from Mars?

—Something like that —she replied with a mysterious expression on her face.

—I can´t believe you, Elspeth. And Anita knew about your spying and never said a word? You should both be ashamed of yourselves.

—Listen first, and then you will judge me. I just want to assure you that the only reason why I checked all your friends and boyfriends is for your own safety.

—So, I suppose Anita and the… the trombonist, what was his name? You also checked him.

—Yes, of course! Anita´s family credential are impeccable, hers less so, but nothing that could harm you. Anyway, going back to your boyfriend. Do you know his last name?

—Yes, Kiefer and his uncle’s name is Von Rossen.

—That´s what they said.

—What do you mean?

— See, Ariane, a man like Alexander Von Rossen, with all his money, all his charities, who has tea with the Queen…

—Has Alexander had tea with the Queen?

—Yes, not only that. He is very often at Buckingham Palace, and as you can imagine, he had to be checked first. Well, there is nothing about his past. Nobody knows who his parents were, or where his family comes from. The deeds for Roshven Castle appear to go from one Von Rossen to the other, but there is no record of his ancestors’ births or deaths. Some years ago the Special Branch of the Secret Service started an investigation to find out where his money came from. They suspected there was some money laundering involved. But no, they couldn’t find anything suspicious, his money comes from mining, farming and investments, but again, the titles for his assets show that he has inherited his wealth from his non-existing family! When things started to get a little bit hairy, the secret service received a direct order from the Palace to stop all investigations into Von Rossen!

—Well, I can see that´s odd, but what about Edward?

—Edward is not his nephew.

—No? So…who is he?

—His parents were East German dissidents during the Soviet years and died in a gulag.

—You are kidding me. He told me his parents died in a car accident.

—He is lying. I got this from my friend at MI6 —Elspeth produced a manila envelope with a piece of paper inside. Most of the text was blacked out.

—But…this, this piece of paper doesn´t say anything —by this point, I was absolutely astonished.

—That’s my point. But can you read the page number? It´s 108. That means 107 pages were removed. And the only page left is illegible. My friend says he has never seen anything like this, but he recommended you to be very careful.

I gasped. I still couldn´t believe what Elspeth was telling me. It was unbelievable and, I had to admit, a bit scary.

—What should I do? —I asked.

—Talk to him. Ask him to tell you the truth. Of one thing you can be sure: if the Queen has tea with Von Rossen, he can´t be a bad person, and so we can suppose that Edward is also OK. But if you are serious about this guy and you are thinking about sharing your life with him, you should know the truth.

—I guess you’re right. Can I keep this page? It doesn´t say anything, but at least it has Alexander´s name on it.

—Sure, I made several copies, just in case But I would think twice to show it to Edward. He might not be too happy about it.

—Of course —I replied, staring at the piece of paper in front of me.

—When will you see him again?

—We are going to Roshven next weekend. Edward is on a business trip this week.

—Well, you might be able to kill two birds with one stone, then —said Elspeth, but her worried expression suggested she wasn’t exactly hopeful.

Chapter 16

Berne (Switzerland), present day

The phone call surprised Barni. He knew the president of the CERN Council, but not once in all the years he had been working at the institute had he been summoned to a private meeting with him. He didn´t know what to think. His project was progressing as planned, and the results were encouraging. All sorts of possibilities crossed his mind, but he would never have guessed what was about to happen.

In the room was Professor Jean-Jacques Lille, president of the Council, a Frenchman in his fifties with a strong reputation both as a scientist and as a political operator. Lille was a particle physicist, like Mario, who had spent most of his career in the United States at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. When he was offered the chance to lead CERN, he didn’t think twice. Lille liked the pragmatism and easiness of the people in his department at Caltech, but among them, he was just one more bright scientist. At 30, he threw the traditional party to celebrate the death of his brain, and it was at that point that he realised he would soon want to try something different. Five years later, the offer from CERN couldn’t have come at a better time. He would later admit that the pressure and frenetic rhythm of work at Caltech were taking a toll on his marriage. His wife was also French, and they had both had enough of large supermarkets and Californian wine.

Mario knew that Lille wouldn’t call a researcher unless there were something quite extraordinary to talk about. Lille welcomed him warmly:

—Please come in, Professor Barni. Thank you for accepting my invitation.

—My pleasure —replied Mario.

—How are you doing? I have been following your career, you are one of our brightest stars!

—Thank you, Doctor Lille. I am enjoying myself.

—I understand that the experiments to standardise the LHC (2) are on track

—Yes, that’s correct. We are just tweaking a few things. After being out of commission for two years, we need to be quite sure the LHC is working as it should.

—The accident was a tragedy —Lille lamented.

—That´s right, a real tragedy —replied Mario, still wondering what the real purpose of the meeting was.

Lille was silent for a few seconds, rubbing his chin as if pondering his next words.

—Have you heard about the results with the meson b?

—Physicists everywhere are talking about it. It’s quite a strange particle —quite difficult to identify, and the way it behaves is also hard to fathom —replied Mario, now even more puzzled by the purpose of the conversation.

There was a knock at the door, and Lille´s assistant let in someone Mario recognised: it was Alexander Von Rossen, the man he had met at Westminster Abbey in London.

—I think you already know each other —said Lille.

—I imagine you are now thoroughly confused about the reason for this meeting —said Lille looking at Mario with a smile.

—Yes, to be honest, I can´t imagine what I’m doing here.

—Fine, let me explain. First of all, Professor Barni, this conversation must go no further than this room —said Lille, all of a sudden serious.

—I understand —replied Mario, intrigued.

—My dear friend Alexander Von Rossen has always been a generous supporter of CERN —said Lille, looking at Alexander—. He is not a scientist, but trust me, he knows more about science than you and me, and if one day you want to hear his anecdotes about the history of science, he will surprise you. He tells the story as if he had been there.

—You are very kind, Jean-Jacques —intervened Alexander—, but I suppose Professor Barni is keen to find out why we are here.

—Of course, of course. So, as I was saying, Alexander has created a special fund for a new project with the LHC, and we would like you to get involved with the project.

—Well, I might be able to —Mario replied, sounded hesitant. This wasn’t the usual way projects were assigned, directly from the head of CERN—. I would need to rearrange my plans, but that´s not impossible.

—I’m glad to hear that. But first, there are some details I need to explain and, as I said, they must remain secret.

—I am listening.

Lille looked at Alexander and continued:

—The experiments we would like you to run are, let´s say, controversial.

—Meaning what, exactly?

—As we were discussing before Alexander came in, the Fermilab has found a unique particle.

—The meson b.

—Yes, but the most remarkable findings have not been divulged —said Lille, glancing at Alexander again.

—I understand that they need to review the data —noted Barni.

—Yes, that’s what they say on the record, but the real reason is that the results of the modelling of the data were, to say the least, puzzling. The extraordinary thing is that what they found was a coincidence, a bit of a game, but the fact is that the researchers decided to keep them secret.

Intrigued, Mario said:

—I remember at the beginning it was more like a rumour. In fact, Mr Von Rossen, when we met in London we talked about it. But now the experiments have been repeated, and several papers have been published. Like many things in particle physics, the results can be surprising, but not deniable.

—What you have read is half of the story, Professor Barni. They haven´t published all the data. Fermilab has shared all their findings, reluctantly, I must say, with only a few people. Baron Von Rossen and I are among them.

—I didn’t know that —Barni couldn’t understand what Lille was talking about—. Why the mystery?

—Because the results are extraordinarily hard to believe —said Lille. After a pause, he continued—. The best way to describe the behaviour of the particle is as if it was “communicating” with the researcher.  

—Are you talking about some sort of Observer´s Effect(3)? It’s a quite well known in physics.

—No, not in this case. When they modelled the results, they realised that the particle behaved in an organised pattern.

—That´s what particles do —replied Barni.

—This pattern was different —intervened Alexander, sensing Lille’s discomfort about telling the full story—. It corresponded to a verbal communication.

—A verbal communication? —asked Mario, now very surprised—. What are you talking about?

—As Lille said, what happened was a coincidence —continued Alexander—. See, Professor Barni, the Fermilab has several projects to disseminate its work to a wider audience, and one of them is an Artificial Intelligence algorithm that transforms the results of particles colliding into sounds.

—I didn´t know about this, but it seems a good idea —Mario said.

—Some artists are exploring the concept of making science a sensorial experience, rather than an intellectual one.

—As I said, it sounds like a good idea, but what does it have to do with the project you want me to undertake? I am not an artist.

—All the previous’ data —Alexander continued— “produced” funny noises when they were put into the Artificial Intelligence software. It was very entertaining, and a useful way for people who visited Fermilab to relate to science, especially children. But with meson b, something quite different happened.

—What do you mean?

—Amongst the incoherent sounds, it was possible to distinguish a clear word.

—A word?

—Yes, a word, Professor Barni. I know it sounds far-fetched, but that’s what happened. It could be a coincidence, or it could be a real breakthrough.

Mario looked at Lille, who nodded while Alexander was speaking, though he looked a trifle uncomfortable with the conversation.

—And what was that word?

—TESLA —said Alexander, his tone firm and clear, as though he was stating an undisputable fact—. That´s the word that came through. At the beginning, the researcher thought it was a software glitch that, by an unusual coincidence, produced the result. Or even a joke from his colleagues. But when he reviewed the process step by step, with the best computer scientists and software developers, he confirmed the results.

There was a brief silence, and then Mario burst into laughter.

—You must be joking.

—Not at all, Professor —said Alexander.

—Are you telling me that Nikola Tesla(4) who died in 1943, sent a message from the other world? —said Barni, his tone both incredulous and irritated—. Come on, Lille, this is absurd!  

—We didn´t believe it either, so Alexander himself went to Chicago to investigate the data. He too confirmed what we have just told you —said Lille—. As unlikely as it sounds, Alexander believes we have a lead into something completely new.

—That’s right, Professor Barni —intervened Alexander—. And even if everything is a striking coincidence, I am prepared to invest whatever it takes to find out what is going on. The new particle needs to be investigated by our best brains, and you are the right man to lead the project.

—I am flattered, but you have the wrong man. Frankly, this would be an unacceptable waste of my time. Why don´t you ask the Fermilab people to continue with the studies? After all, they discovered it.

—The general opinion is that with a more powerful accelerator the results will be more reliable —replied Alexander.

—Are you interested, Professor Barni? —asked Lille.

—Absolutely not. I don´t think I’m the right person —replied Mario, annoyed by the conversation—. I´m sorry Professor Lille, thank you for asking me but I don´t want to be involved.

—We know what it would mean for you—said Lille—. You will have to stop your current experiments, and the topic is controversial, but…

—I´m not bothered about that —Mario interrupted—. It´s that I don´t believe the result is real, it’s just an anomaly. There’s no theory in the world to support such evidence. It is not possible, full stop.

—You will have all the resources you need —Lille continued, as though he hadn´t heard Barni´s objections— and you will be able to choose your team. You will work at CERN with the particle accelerator and have a private lab somewhere else, in a low-key place of your choice. Your colleagues will not know what you’ll be working on.

—Professor Lille —insisted Mario—, with all due respect, I don´t think it’s right to undertake a project you don´t believe in just because we can get some new equipment. And I I can assure you I don’t believe in this project. Actually, I don’t think you can believe it either.

—Before refusing the offer —suggested Alexander—, why don´t you see the Fermilab´s results yourself? That’s all we are asking.

—It would be a waste of time and money —Mario spoke sharply to Alexander, as he was getting frustrated by the man’s insistence—. If you want to push ahead with this project, I´m sure some of our bright young things will be happy to do it. But don’t count on me.

—I understand your reluctance, Professor Barni —Alexander sounded undeterred—, but I want you to think about this. If, and I know it is a big IF, if the results are true, we are facing a new paradigm, a new and revolutionary physics. It might be possible that, through our instruments, we have found a link between matter and the spiritual world. Can you imagine what it would mean for mankind if life after death were proven scientifically? What would happen in a society without fear of death?

—I’m afraid this conversation is nonsensical —replied Mario irritated—. Do you agree, Lille, with what Von Rossen is saying? I hope you don’t. You are a serious scientist!

—This is a concept that the ancient philosophers proposed—Alexander pressed on—: they thought that creation was one, embedded in a universal consciousness.

—But that’s philosophy, Von Rossen —spat Barni—. You said it yourself. Why do you want to involve CERN in such an insane adventure?

—Suppose just for one second: if the results are true, the possibilities are infinite. Think of having verifiable communication with another world, with life after death, wouldn´t that be something worth exploring? Why don´t you at least check the findings and give them a chance? We are not asking you to come on board before you see the results of Fermilab yourself. We are asking you to do a preliminary assessment. What if you could add to human life a new layer of understanding? What if physics could give an answer to a philosophical question?

Barni looked at the two men, both intelligent, educated people excited by a ridiculous idea. He could justify Alexander’s interest in the project as a rich man’s extravaganza, but Lille was a serious scientist. They were mad. But, after all, he wouldn´t lose much by going to the Fermilab, proving that it was all a big prank, and then coming back to the serious stuff.

—OK —he said with a sigh—, I’ll go to Chicago, I’ll prove this is all nonsense, and you’ll leave me in peace.

—That’s fine with me —replied Alexander with an intriguing smile.

Chapter 17

Roshven Castle, present day

The conversation with Elspeth had sent my head spinning. There must be a logical explanation for Alexander and Edward’s stories. After all, strict records of births and deaths had only recently been put in place. And Edward did say something about his ancestors leaving their home country because of the Russian revolution. Yes, I was confident there was a rational answer behind his mystery. After all, it was possible that, if his parents were dissidents against the Soviet Union, Alexander might have wanted to protect the child by changing his name. Anyway, I would take the opportunity during the visit to Roshven to raise these questions. I just needed to find the right moment.

On Saturday afternoon, Edward and I took a flight to Inverness. Scotland was being battered by heavy winds coming from the Artic, and the flight was so bumpy that the cabin attendants weren’t allowed to their seat belts off. Edward was quite calm, taking my hand and reassuring me that everything would be fine. At one point, he even dozed off, ignoring the plane’s lurching and bumping! After circling Inverness for more than half an hour waiting for the visibility to improve, the pilot managed a rough landing.

Thomas greeted us with his usual good humour, ready to drive us to the Castle. The effects of the storm were everywhere: fences flattened, cars overturned and we saw several houses that had had their roofs blown off. Nonetheless, Edward was in high spirits, and between him and Thomas, they entertained me with stories from Scotland´s past. I could tell they loved the country. At one point, Edward blurted out:

—Maybe one day we will move to Roshven.

I stopped breathing for a second, and he quickly added:

—Only if you wanted to, of course.

But his last words didn´t make me feel better. Why hadn´t we talked about it? How many things had he planned that I wasn´t aware of? Only at that point, I understood I had a lot to talk about this weekend with Edward. He must have sensed my discomfort because he immediately changed the conversation to the flat he was doing up in London, asking me questions about which styles and colours I liked most. But there was an awkwardness between us that lasted the rest of the journey.

When we reached Roshven, the rain was stopping, and a few shafts of sunlight brightened up the grass. The last time I had been there, more than seven months ago, it had looked quite different. Today the castle seemed like a luminous island in the middle of the green garden, with the white-flecked sea in the background. The air filled my lungs with a magical freshness.

At the entrance, Ruth and Alexander were waiting for us. When I saw him, my heart jumped, and my hands started sweating. He wore the same expression that had scared me when I met him, but I did glimpse a brief smile that troubled me even more.

Ruth, as warm as usual, was the first to greet me.

—Ariane, how wonderful to see you! —she said, giving me a big hug.

I wondered if she knew what was happening between Edward and me.

—Welcome, Ariane. It is a pleasure to have you here —Alexander said.

—Thank you for inviting me —I replied, my heart beating uncomfortably fast.

—My dear Ruth, I´ve missed you —sEdward said—. You should work less and have more fun. You haven´t visited me in London.

—Oh, don´t start complaining, Edward! You know I travel most of the time. Anyhow —Ruth turned back to me—. I want to know all about Ariane. I will take you to your room, and we can chat. Unless you want to take a walk in the garden. It´s so nice now that the rain has gone.

—Yes, but I’d like to go upstairs first —I said, keen to spend time alone with Ruth. She might answer some of the questions I had about her friends.

—I hope the flight wasn´t too rough —Alexander intervened—. They closed the airport just after your plane landed.

—We were lucky then —I replied—. The flight was very bumpy, but Edward knew how to calm me down.

—It was just a bit windy —Edward laughed—. I have been on worse flights, especially when I have been the pilot. Anyway, let´s go inside.

—Well, Ruth, take Ariane to her room. You can walk in the garden before dinner, the days are longer at this time of the year, the sunset can be stunning —Alexander said—. Would you like to stay in the same room as last time, Ariane?

Something about the way he said those words made me shiver. It sounds absurd, but I felt as though something terrible was about to happen to me; as if I were in danger and Alexander was going to pull me deeper into it. A rare tension filled the air, paralysing all of us in an awkward silence. Ruth came to my rescue.

—Let´s go, Ariane. We can have a walk later before the sun goes down.

We went into the house, and Ruth said:

—You look very well. You have put on some weight, and it suits you. I hope Edward is treating you as you deserve.

—So you know?

—Oh, I´m sorry —Ruth seemed mortified—. I thought Edward had told you.

—Don´t worry, Ruth. I guessed he would say something, especially to you and Alexander.

—Yes, you´re right. Edward is very open. Here, this is your room. The same you had last time you were here. I will wait for you downstairs.

It was indeed the same room I had had the first time I had been at the castle, the same bed, the same curtains, the same bathroom and, to my astonishment, in the cupboard the same black velvet dress I had borrowed the night I met Edward. I unpacked and put on some more comfortable clothes to go out. I realised it was raining again, and the wind was getting up. Try as I might, I couldn´t understand the unease Alexander produced in me. I looked around; nothing in this room had changed since the first time I had been here, but I still felt uncomfortable. Then something caught my eyes: on the chest of drawers was a red velvet box, with an envelope propped up behind it. I leant over to open it, and I couldn´t believe my eye: inside was a sapphire and diamond brooch. It was beautiful, but what stunned me was its shape: it was a two pointed feather.

I opened the letter. It was from Alexander:

—This brooch has belonged to the family for many years. It will be an honour for us if you wear it.

The brooch seemed to burn in my hands. Its heat was so intense that I dropped it on the bed. I read the letter again. It surely meant that Alexander knew of my relationship with Edward and was giving his approval? I felt a twinge in my heart. Why? What was I expecting from Alexander?

I went downstairs, and Ruth was waiting for me.

—Maybe we should change our plans. The rain looks pretty set —she said.

—I think so, what a shame! I wanted to see the garden at this time of the year, and the sunset.

—One thing you can be sure of is that the weather at Roshven can change all of a sudden —Alexander´s voice surprised me. He was behind us and seemed to be ready to go out as well. —In fact, I bet you the sun will be out again soon. Do you mind if I join you?

—How odd. I´ve never seen such a dramatic change —I said, noticing the rapid shift of weather as we spoke.

—Well, this is the Highlands —replied Ruth with a smile—. Things are unpredictable here. Oh, and look, now Edward is here too! Let´s all go for a walk.

Alexander guided us to a pebbled path that led into an enchanting garden with a striking variety of plants. The flowerbeds were organised in geometrical patterns and walking through them it felt as if the garden was a mathematical puzzle. The flowers were a joyful display of blues, reds, oranges, yellows, purples. Edward was chatting happily with Ruth, and I could sense Alexander looking at me.

—You have a beautiful garden, Alexander. Did you plan it yourself or did your ancestors do it? —I asked. If I couldn´t be alone with Ruth to ask questions, at least I would try to find out more from my host.

—Not me, I’m afraid. But I did instruct the gardeners. I love plants, trees in particular. Some are very old, they never cease to inspire, nourish and protect us. Did you know that trees seem to use a sophisticated way of communicating with other trees through chemical molecules and even electrical impulses?

—No, I didn´t know that, but it sounds fascinating —Alexander and I were some distance from Ruth and Edward, and we walked in silence for a while, going into a wood bordering the garden. It was silent, with only a gentle breeze coming in off, and all of a sudden I was calm and peaceful as if Alexander’s presence was now washing away the fear I had felt earlier. He stopped, looked at me and held my arm.

—Ariane…

He was interrupted by Edward, hurrying towards us:

—Look what I’ve found! A little bird, it´s still alive, but not for long, I’m afraid.

—Let me hold it —I said. Edward put the bird in my hands. I stroked its head and, to my surprise, a few seconds later it flew away.

—You healed it!— Edward said.

—Did I? I don’t think so. It just needed some warmth.

—Well, it´s time to go back —Ruth said—. There’ll be some tea waiting.

Alexander looked at me again but didn´t say anything. I walked with Edward towards the castle desperately curious to know what Alexander had been going to tell me.

Chapter 18

Roshven Castle, present day

Alexander was in his bedroom staring outside the window. On the other side of the corridor was Ariane´s room. He felt worse than ever. To see her again had had a stronger impact on him than he would ever have guessed. This emotional turmoil was new to him; not even in the most difficult moments of his long life had he felt so helpless and lonely.

He was tired, very tired. He looked in the mirror, something he seldom did. But while in the past he used to see a peaceful soul contented with his life, today the image reflected angst and muddle. And that’s how he felt: anxious and confused. This was supposed to be the end of his journey as the Guide of Time, but since Ariane had burst into his life, everything had changed. Her face had been in his dreams throughout the centuries, that was true, but he had always thought of it as a symbol, one of many that the Guides had to learn to interpret in their journey through life. He had always taken her image as the archetype of spiritual beauty and perfection that he as a Guide should aspire to. But now she was a physical presence, and he had to acknowledge the intense feelings she produced in him.

Alexander sighed and walked over to a large wooden case hanging on a wall. Many times in the past, when he was facing a difficult situation, he had found comfort in it. He opened it, turned a dim light on and a gentle breeze, with a scent of old fabric and incense, came out of it. Inside there was an astonishing tapestry. It combined magnificent threads of gold and silver, with a mosaics of precious stones. The colours were so vivid that the tapestry seemed to be alive. It had been made many centuries earlier when he was a young Guide. He stared at it now, as though beseeching it to help him, but after a few minutes he closed the case and sighed again. Nothing there could put his mind at ease.

***

11th century, many miles underground

When Pyros introduced Alexander to the arts of foresight, the first lesson he learned was to create his personal destiny. The Seers could choose the paths they wanted to take in life, though always in accordance with their bloodline. Alexander’s bloodline was to be a Guide, one of those who lived on the surface of Earth to mentor human beings. But within that broad picture, he could choose how to achieve his mission.

Creating a Seer’s destiny involved one of the most secret and rituals of all. It happened in a special place, a deep cave far below the surface of the Earth. Greeting the Seer to the entrance of the cave were the Weavers, whose mission in the fraternity was to teach each Seer how to “weave” his or her destiny. Over a period of several weeks, a master and a disciple entered into a state of deep meditation, and with the help of a Weaver, they created a rich tapestry with threads of multicoloured fibres of a plant that grew in the cave and precious metals and stones. On the tapestry, a vivid picture of the main events of a Seer’s life was being formed, with well-defined scenes, dates and people. Once the bigger picture was ready, the disciple and the master left the cave. During their lives, a Seer’s tapestry grew in detail, and as long as they accomplished their mission and learned the lessons needed to move to the Higher Light, anything was possible. Once the Seer left the cave, the tapestry continued to weave itself, becoming a reflection of the owner’s life but also providing a glimpse into the future. Not everything was described by the embroidery, as the Seers lived in a harmonious flow of predestination and surprise.

Alexander’s tapestry was exceptionally rich and complex, as was always the case for any Guide of Time, and the details changed as his life passed by. Edward and the others disciples he had, people he had met, they were all there. The perplexing thing was that in Alexander’s exquisite and bright-coloured tapestry, Ariane never showed up. Worse, he could see the tapestry of other Seers and every human being, except Ariane’s.

Then, with a jolt, Alexander noticed something: Fiammetta, the Guide of Arts, one his most beloved and tormented disciples who had inspired hundred of artists throughout the centuries, had a striking resemblance to Ariane. The same red-velvet curly hair, the same bright green eyes, the same delicate profile. Both women oozed intensity, but whilst Fiammetta was the quintessence of artistic sensuality, Ariane was elusively ethereal, and yet she inspired in Alexander feelings that he had never felt before for Fiammetta or any other woman.

Alexander was very confused. At this point in his journey, he should have been aiming for a serene life with his books, exploring different caves, scrutinising the stars, advising Edward on his new role, and waiting until the time came for the Arcane to visit him to announce his departure to the Higher Light. That was what his tapestry had shown him. But today, with Ariane so deeply in his heart, he was facing a challenge he wasn’t expecting, he wasn’t prepared for.

***

Alexander closed the wooden case and looked at the clock. It was time to go downstairs and talk to Edward and Ruth. Even if he wanted to explore this mystery, he couldn’t. Edward was so taken by Ariane that Alexander would never dare to jeopardise his happiness. The best he could do was to help his successor tell the truth to Ariane.

Chapter 19

Roshven Castle, present day

I wasn’t expecting it. Alexander’s presence perturbed me in a way I couldn’t explain. It was a powerful magnetism that pulled me towards him, sometimes making me feeling serene, it other times scaring me in ways I couldn’t describe. For the first time, I realised how appropriate Anita’s description of him was: Alexander looked young and old at the same time. His eyes seemed like a black hole wanting to swallow up my soul, but could also be a source of warmth and kindness.

How could I be so confused at this point? Edward was about to announce our engagement, for heaven’s sake. I had to talk to him before he said anything. I walked outside my room determined to find him before dinner. I knocked on his door, but he wasn’t there. I then went downstairs and looked for him around the house, but I couldn’t find him. I bumped into Thomas, the driver. He told me Edward had gone for a run and it was usually more than an hour before he came back. Frustrated, I went back to my bedroom. To my surprise, Alexander was at the top of the stairs, staring at me. For a few seconds, our eyes were locked in a mysterious, painful longing. He went into his room, leaving me gasping in confusion.  

Chapter 20

Roshven Castle, present day

Alexander found Ruth and Edward already in his study.

—It´s best if you do the talking, Alexander —said Edward.

Alexander frowned.

—If you want; but I think you should introduce the conversation. After all, she is with you.

—All right —Edward sounded reluctant—. After dinner, I will say we need to talk to her about our family.

—Maybe I shouldn´t be there —Ruth said.

—On the contrary, she trusts you —Alexander responded immediately.

—The biggest question is when we tell her the whole truth —Edward said—. She needs to know who we are and what we do, but I´m not sure she should know about our enemies.

—She has to know— replied Alexander—. Zardoff and the ageing issue are the most critical ones for her. We have to talk about everything.

Edward looked down at the floor.

—Are you sure, Edward, that you want to take this step? —Ruth asked.

—Yes, I´m —he replied convinced and serene—. What I feel for Ariane goes beyond time, beyond her physical appearance. I will always love her and protect her. Even when she becomes an old woman, I will take care of her until the end.

—That´s fine, Edward. In that case, we will support you —Alexander said—. But we must tell her everything.

—I agree —Ruth said.

After a pause, Edward nodded in agreement.

At that moment they heard Ariane coming down the stairs. When she entered the room, she seemed to illuminate it. She was wearing a light green dress, her hair loose on her shoulders. She seemed to be ethereal, wrapped in a magical aura. Alexander held his breath, and Ruth looked across at him and felt sorry for her friend.

—I never thought a woman could grow more beautiful every day —Edward stood up to greet her—, but you, my lovely Ariane, are the proof that it can happen.

Ariane blushed and found herself glancing at Alexander out of the corner of her eye.

—Edward is right, Ariane. You look stunning —Ruth said.

At that point, Edward’s phone rang. He looked surprised and walked to a corner of the room to answer it.?

—Yes? —he asked—… what?

His face had gone pale.

—Are you sure you’re alright? No…But…That’s fine. I will come over straight away.

—What is it, Edward? —Ruth seemed worried.

Edward turned his phone off and looked across at Ariane.

—I’m so sorry, but I’ll have to leave. That was Hamish. He and his wife had an accident, and he is asking me to go and help them. He can’t get hold of the emergency services.

—An accident? —asked Alexander—. Are they OK?

—I don’t think so, he sounded in a terrible state.

—Shouldn’t I go with you? —intervened Ruth.

—No, Hamish insisted that he didn’t want to bother anybody else. He seemed quite embarrassed. I’m so sorry, I will have to go. I should be back in less than an hour. Why don’t you start dinner and I will join you as soon as I can?

—Do you want me to come with you? —Ariane asked.

—No, you are very kind, Ariane, but I’d prefer you stay here. It looks as if the rain will be back soon.

—It must be a real emergency for Hamish to call you —acknowledged Ruth—. The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll get back.

—I think Thomas is in tonight —Alexander intervened—, he can drive you. Two of you might be more helpful.

—Yes, that’s a good idea. We’ll better get going, and I hope I’ll join you later.

A few minutes after Edward left, Mr Fraser came in to say that dinner was ready. As they went into the dining room, Ariane remembered the first time she had been there. The table looked beautiful, decorated with magnolias that filled the room with their delicate smell.

—This is made from vegetables from the garden —explained Ruth when the soup was served— with a touch of Alexander´s favourite spices. I wouldn´t know how to pronounce their names, he brought them back from his last trip to Malaysia.

Ariane looked across at Alexander, waiting for him to say something, but he seemed distant and just nodded his head. Ruth was very chatty over dinner; she talked about her travels abroad in the most interesting and sometimes dangerous countries. It turned out that she was not only a doctor but also an experienced pilot. Ruth loved flying, and on several occasions had evacuated patients who needed specialised medical attention. Ariane was fascinated by her stories and was full of admiration for Ruth’s courage and skills.

Throughout dinner, Alexander was almost silent. Glancing from time to time at Ariane, he seemed relieved when it was over.

—Ariane, would you like coffee or herbal tea? —he asked.

—Yes, please —she said— chamomile would be lovely.

As the butler was bringing in a teapot and some cups, the lights suddenly went off.

—What’s going on? Alexander, don’t tell me you forgot to pay the electricity bill? —Ruth laughed.

Alexander didn’t say a word, but he sensed something wasn’t right. In the darkness, he could make out the butler moving across the room to search frantically in the drawers of a sideboard.

—Don’t worry —said Mr Fraser—, it’s just a power cut. It sometimes happens when there’s a storm. I will light some candles

—That will be so romantic! —Ruth said—. Let’s continue with our din…

Her voice was interrupted by a loud explosion that rocked the room. In a matter of seconds, sparks of fire fell on the carpet and curtains. It was so quick and violent that, for a moment, nobody reacted. Then the butler went to the door to try to open it, but he was horrified to discover it was locked. He went to the windows, but they were locked too. Smoke started to fill the room, making it hard to see and breathe, and the heat from the fire was quickly building up.

Alexander cried:

—Get on your hands and knees now and cover your mouth! Move towards the door, I’ll try to open it.

Ariane tried to crawl, but the intense heat pushed her back. She heard screams, and then a beam from the roof fell near her. The smoke was heavy and thick now, rising towards the ceiling. The temperature in the room was becoming unbearable, and she heard the cracking of the candelabra coming loose from the ceiling, but she was too terrified to move. A moment later, Alexander by her side, tugging her away from the middle of the room just before the chandelier crashed to the floor. He covered Ariane’s mouth with a handkerchief and lifted her over his shoulders. He then barged against the door, and finally, it gave way. As all jostled their way out of the room, When they finally left the room, for the second time, Ariane fainted in Alexander’s arms.

Chapter 21

London, present day

The skin transplant had been successful, and the burns on the rest of my body had been minor. The last bandage was removed from my leg almost six months after the fire. The doctor told me I had been sedated for several days to control the pain, and in the hospital, they took great care to avoid scars, at least the visible ones. It was my hands that concerned the doctors. Two of my fingers had been broken, and it seemed unlikely I would recover full mobility. After the cast came off, I could only just move my right hand, and for weeks the physiotherapy didn’t seem to make any difference. Then one day, things started to change.

The doctors told me it was the effect of the morphine, but one night I had very vivid dreams with a woman who looked after my hands. She looked like a doctor, with her white scrub and a stethoscope around her neck but she spoke a strange language. Every night, she came into my room, touched my fingers one by one and put some ointment on them. She then massaged them carefully, all the while whispering to me, and though I couldn’t understand what she said, I knew she was kind and reassuring. Each time, after she finished massaging my hands, she gave me some coloured pills that drifted me into a pleasant sleep. The strangest thing was her perfume: she had the same scent I had smelled the first time I met Ruth. The doctors dismissed the story of the mysterious doctor as hallucination, a side effect of the morphine I was taking, but I knew my visitor was real, and my hands healed completely.

I had only a vague memory of what had happened after Alexander rescued me, but I remembered quite well what had happened before. I saw him crossing the room, lift me from the floor as if I were a feather and then break down the dining room door. I can also remember his voice while I was in his arms: the usually calm and distant Alexander sounded desperate. He called my name a thousand times, or so it seemed. Half-fainted, I looked at his face with his handsome profile, and some powerful force shifted inside me. Or maybe I just dreamt it. I wanted to know. But all the weeks I was in the hospital, he never came to see me.

I was told that the emergency services arrived quickly after the fire, and I was airlifted to the closest hospital, but I was in so much pain that I couldn’t remember the journey. I was given a powerful painkiller, and by the time I reached Inverness, I was unconscious. I spent a couple of days in the intensive care unit there, and once I was stabilised, I was moved to a burns unit in London, where my recovery started. While I was in hospital, I had a lot of time to think about my life. Yet again, I was facing a tough turn of events, but most perplexing of all was the discovery of my real feelings towards Edward. And Alexander.

Edward came every day to the hospital —only for short spells, as the rules in the burns unit were strict and visits were tightly controlled to avoid infections. He was devastated. He couldn’t forgive himself for not being at the castle during the fire. Besides, he never found Hamish; he and his wife had never had an accident. In fact, that same night the wife was staying with her sister in a village near Roshven. It was clear that Hamish had been responsible for the fire. The police found some explosives in his room and on his personal computer they discovered hate messages against Alexander. But why? I couldn’t understand it, and neither Ruth nor Edward could explain it to me.

I felt sorry for Edward. He was upset and worried, but the numbness induced by the painkillers helped me hide my detachment towards him: the magic between us was gone, but I didn’t have the strength to tell him.

Being a doctor, Ruth was allowed to stay with me all the time, which I soon realised was making Elspeth, and especially Anita, more than a little jealous. But I was reassured by Ruth’s presence. She never said a word about Edward, being concerned only about my recovery, but I am sure she realised what was going on. One day I woke up and saw her sitting in a chair by my bed. She had set up an embroidery frame and was glancing from time to time a thick black book lying open on the side table. I had never known Ruth liked embroidery. The piece she was doing was large and was still less than half-finished. She chose threads from the coloured tangle that lay on her lap and sewed blue into the sky or green into the grass. I could see the outlines of the design she was working on. It looked like a woman with red curly hair playing the piano, a man standing by her side. Between stitches, Ruth referred to the book as though she was following some instructions. She looked up and realised I was staring at her. She blushed violently and put the embroidery down.

—I didn’t know you were awake! —she said with her lovely smile.

—I didn’t know you liked embroidery.

—Oh, it’s very relaxing. I picked it up when I was in the Balkans, an old lady taught me how to do it.

—Can you show me what you’re doing?

—Oh, I am still trying things out, this is just a sketch. Even I’m not sure what I am doing! —She then changed the conversation—. I have some great news! I spoke to your consultant. He thinks you will be out in a couple of weeks. Isn’t that great?

—Yes, of course! I can’t wait to get out of hospital. I can’t thank you enough, Ruth, for being so caring, so kind to me.

—Oh, Ariane, we all feel so terrible! That accident should never have happened.

—Do you know why it happened? What motives would Hamish have had to harm you?

—Hamish had a complicated life. Some of his old demons came back to haunt him, at least this is what Alexander thinks.

—How is Alexander? —I asked, feeling my cheeks burning under her scrutiny.

—He’s fine, he didn’t come to any harm.

—But why he hasn’t been to see me? Why hasn’t he called?

—That, my dear, you should ask him yourself. But I think the best you can do for now is to get strong and well.

—That night, Ruth…strange things happened.

—I know, but I can’t explain it either, Ariane. It’s better if you talk to Alexander —Ruth replied.

I didn’t want to insist. Maybe he just didn’t want to be bothered by me. I couldn’t tell her the truth, that I had realised I was in love with Alexander.

Once I left the hospital, Anita moved into my flat to take care of me, and Elspeth came every day to make sure I was eating properly. It also turned out she was a qualified nurse, so she changed my dressings while she chatted away.

Elspeth was the first to raise the subject.

—I think, Ariane, it’s about time you forgot these people. Look what happened. Who knows what sort of strange business they are involved in? And you have already paid the price. Can you imagine what would have happened if you couldn’t play the piano again? —Elspeth could not control the emotion in her voice. I had never seen her crying before.

—But Alexander rescued me —I said—. He could have have been selfish and save himself, but he risked his life to save mine.

—I don’t know, Ariane, I am not convinced.

—I am worried about something else —Anita intervened—. I didn’t say anything earlier because I didn’t want to bother you, Ariane, but I don’t think you are interested in Edward.

—Why…why do you say that?

—Because at night, you call out Alexander’s name, not Edward’s. Don’t worry, I won’t say a word. And because I can see that when Edward is around you look distracted. You don’t look like a woman in love. Besides, I agree with Elspeth. You should stay away from them.

—I don’t know what to say, Anita. Probably you are right. I am very confused at the moment.

—Let’s not talk about it —Anita replied, taking my hand—. For now, you only have to worry about getting better. Then you will decide what you want to do. I hope you decide to ditch all of them.

—Including Ruth —intervened Elspeth.

—Above all Ruth! —exclaimed Anita—. While you were at the hospital, she was outrageous! She didn’t want us to see you.

—She was looking after me, Anita —I commented, trying to calm her down.

The weeks passed by and I had many visitors: my colleagues from the Academy, Vassily, Carol and Christopher. But the person I wanted to see was Alexander, and his silence hurt more than anything else.

Chapter 22

Roshven Castle, present day

Alexander was out in the garden, staring at the line of pine trees on the edge of the cliff. They were moving in the wind, as they had done for decades, the generous trees, the first front of protection from the sea. Adapted to the ocean breeze and saltpetre, they had been silent witnesses to all the mysteries of that strange place.

Since the fire, Alexander had not spent a night away from the castle. For weeks on end, he had overseen the reconstruction. He also wanted to make sure nobody had access to the basement. After the fire, it was the first place he went to check on. The entrance was intact. Hamish Blair hadn’t discovered it, or perhaps he wasn’t interested.

After Blair’s disappearance, his wife had gone to stay with her sister to recover from the shock of knowing that her husband was responsible for the fire. She was so mortified that she couldn’t look at Alexander when he asked her about Hamish. The only thing she could say repeatedly was:

—I’m so sorry, Sir. I’m so sorry.

Apart from what the police had found, Isobel testified that on the day of the fire Blair had ordered her out of the dining room on a vague pretext and then stayed in there for about hour.

The villagers spoke of nothing else. The castle had been there, intact and impregnable, for more than 500 years. Its strength was the village´s strength, and now its vulnerability was too. Nobody could explain how a man like Blair, a pious Christian, decent and honest, could have committed such a crime. The thing that most confounded the villagers was his motive. Alexander had confirmed that, though much had been damaged in the fire, nothing of value had been taken. It was also clear that Hamish had called Edward to get him out of the house, to protect him.

Alexander knew exactly what had driven Blair to his terrible betrayal. Zardoff had never dared to get so close to Alexander himself, and he wouldn´t have done so now unless he was becoming desperate. Desperate, and therefore even more dangerous. What worried Alexander the most, though, was that he had never had any warning of what was about to happen. As with everything that involved Ariane, this event was shrouded in mystery. Neither he nor Edward had been able to foresee it.

When Edward returned to the castle that night, he found mayhem: firemen, ambulances, helicopters, police, it was as if all of Scotland’s emergency services were there that night. The explosion had been so loud that the villagers reported it. The fire had been put out by a torrential storm that started immediately after the accident. By the time the fire engine arrived, it was mainly smoke. The staff in the castle were all safe, and both Ruth and Alexander were unharmed. But when Edward found out that Ariane, badly injured, had been airlifted to the hospital in Inverness, he almost went berserk. Without saying a word to Alexander, he took the car and raced off to Inverness.

Alexander didn´t get in touch with him immediately. He could sense Edward’s desperation and didn’t want to interfere between him and Ariane. But in reality, though, Alexander felt just as desperate. As days passed by, he found his self-imposed isolation from her more and more difficult. He wanted to see her. He needed to see her.

What he couldn´t work out was whether Blair´s crime was partly directed against her. It was hard to believe she Was be the main target —she hadn´t played any role in the fight between Zardoff and the Guides. But if she was indeed a target, what was the reason?

Alexander cast his mind back to that fateful day when he rescued her on the cliff. He had seen a man in a hooded jacket walking nearby and had assumed he was with Ariane. But the man had kept walking, and then disappeared. Why, in such isolated country, was the man walking just there? Maybe it wasn´t just a coincidence; maybe Ariane´s fall wasn´t down to the slippery ground.

While these thoughts were preoccupying him as he paced Roshven’s gardens, Ruth arrived. She had seen Ariane the day before in hospital, and now she wanted to spend time with her old friend. She was worried about him. Since the fire, Alexander had withdrawn into himself, a shadow always in his eyes.

—How is Ariane? —was the first question he asked after greeting her.

—She is fine, getting better by the day. She has been very disciplined with her exercises and therapy.

Alexander didn’t reply, his eyes fixed on the foggy horizon, his face showing a suffering that made Ruth’s heart sink.

—Do you think it´s possible that Zardoff wants to kill Ariane? —she asked.

—Zardoff is capable of anything, of course —Alexander’s tone was cautious—. And he doesn´t need a motive to kill. But to risk so much over Ariane, who isn´t even a Guide: that would be surprising. The only way I can imagine him attacking us so directly is that he is realising he is weaker, he knows that a turning-point is coming and he will try to stop it, as he has done before.

—Maybe Ariane had nothing to do with the fire. It was just an unfortunate coincidence that she was there —concluded Ruth.

—That´s what I thought at the beginning, but I now have my doubts.

—Do you think Zardoff was in touch with Blair? His wife swears he never showed any signs of hostility towards us. On the contrary, he seemed very grateful for all you had done for him.

—He didn´t tell her the truth. People in the village often saw him going to the pub. He made friends with a man called Melville, an outsider, and they spent a lot of time together.

—Could we find Melville? He could help us get to the bottom of this madness.

—The police couldn´t trace him. I´m sure that, if he was a Zardoff ally, he has already disappeared.

—It´s possible.

Alexander paused, then said:

—Do you remember the first time I brought Ariane home?

—Yes, of course.

—A man was walking nearby on the cliff.

—I didn’t know that—Ruth said, surprised—. Do you think he had something to do with her fall?

—I never gave it a moment´s thought, but Edward told me about a couple of other things that have happened to Ariane, which make me wonder whether they were just simple coincidences.

—Like what?

—When Ariane was a child, a man followed her to the convent, and it turned out that he was a dangerous criminal. On another occasion, somebody very nearly attacked her at the opera in London. And it seems quite possible, she was once shot at in the Cotswolds.

—Then… it could be… —Ruth didn´t finish the sentence.

—Yes, it could be. Definitely, it could be. She has had several assassination attempts, but why? —Alexander felt a chill running down his spine.

—We need to find out as soon as possible —Ruth said anxiously—. If Zardoff is behind all this, Ariane is in real danger. Shouldn´t we talk to her?

—I don´t think this is the right time to talk to her; she would be even more upset —Alexander´s reply was full of angst.

—If what you say is true, how are we going to protect her?

—The strange thing is that, in one way or another, she has always managed to escape, as if she was already protected.

—By whom?

—I don´t know, I can´t read Ariane´s life. That’s another mystery, it’s never happened to me before —said Alexander, clenching his jaw—. The fact that she was hurt here in Roshven makes me fear that our proximity puts her in danger; something has changed in the pattern of events.

—Maybe this is all a coincidence —Ruth sounded very uncomfortable—. Or maybe she is linked to us in a way we don´t understand.

—It could be —Alexander was staring into the distance—. We need to know a lot more. I don´t have enough pieces of the puzzle.

Then, changing the subject, Ruth asked:

—Have you heard from Edward?

—No, I haven’t. He needs time to work out what happened. I want to leave him alone to look after Ariane. Not being here that night has upset him terribly. Have you seen him?

—Yes, I have. He goes to the hospital every day. He can only see her for short periods, and it can get quite busy when Anita and Elspeth visit too, but he is always the…

Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by the crash of broken glass in the house. They rushed inside and found the broken remains of the large mirror that had hung for centuries in the entrance hall. It was reduced to a dozen pieces, spread out on the floor. On every one of them, etched as though by a master engraver, was the face of Ariane.

Chapter 23

London, present day

I returned to the Academy as soon as my fingers had recovered, practising for long hours to recover the flexibility. Edward kept visiting me, but he could sense that things had changed between us. He asked on several occasions if there was something wrong, but I just said I was still in shock from what had happened, which was partly true.

More than six months after the fire, when the leaves on the trees started to turn orange and yellow, the colours of autumn were in their full splendour, and the days started to get shorter, I took up Emily´s offer to spend a week at her house in the Cotswolds. Since I had been in the hospital, I hadn’t spent a night on my own. I needed some space, I wanted to think about what to do next, what to do with my feelings for Alexander. The peace of the English countryside would help me to ask deep questions of myself. I took long walks in the morning, and in the afternoon read and listened to music. Anita and Elspeth resisted the urge to visit me.

During those days I looked back at my life and how chequered my path had been: the losses, the pain but also the opportunities. Maybe the fire at Roshven had been a blessing as it made me understand my own feelings. With Edward, I had been swept along by a fantasy, an illusion. It was all too exciting and too wonderful to think about it properly, but my feelings for him had never been as profound as what I felt for Alexander.

One morning I went out for an early walk. It was a cold day, the grass was dusted with frost, and the sunrise was drawing a line of fire in the horizon. I realised I was walking through the same field where, many years ago, on a Christmas day, a man had saved me from a gunshot. I shuddered at the thought, and a few minutes later, to my astonishment, the same man walking towards me.

—Good morning! —he said with an ample smile—. Do you remember me?

—Yes, of course: it was almost 10 years ago.

—I bet you don’t remember my name. I do remember yours, though: it’s Ariane Claret. I’ve been following your career.

—Oh, thank you! But I’m afraid you are right: I don’t remember your name

—I am Professor Zaher Dawy, from the University of Beirut.

—Yes, of course. Are you living in the UK now?

—No, I am still in Lebanon. It’s a fascinating country and in much need of help to rebuild it. What about you? I think I read somewhere that you spent some time on the continent, Austria, wasn’t it?

—Yes, I did. You are well informed.

—Well, nowadays it’s very easy to follow people we are interested in.

—Yes, some of us are, anyway.

Professor Zaher was silent gazing at the sunrise, at the bright-orange strings of clouds brushing the sky. Then, looking directly at me, he said:

—I know you’ve been through a lot, Ariane. But you have a bright future ahead of you. You are just starting to live, and all the obstacles have only helped you to get closer to your true destiny.

I was stunned into silence. Did he know about my personal struggles? How?

—Some people have to forge their life with fire —he continued— because their nature is like a precious metal. For others, it’s much simpler because their nature is like wax, easy to mould. You are made of the most precious metal, Ariane. And what happened to you had to happen to get you to the right place. Don’t try to ignore the signals that life is giving you.

I looked at him, intrigued and perplex, and I could only stammer out:

—Thanks…thanks for the advice.

—I’ll leave you now —he said—. We might meet again. Have a lovely day.

Saying that, he walked back from where he had come from, a stranger still but someone I felt I could trust. I puzzled on why that should be as I bought a few groceries in the village shop, before heading back to the house. On the doormat was a letter from Edward. I decided to ring him there and then, and tell him the truth. He had no place in my life, and it was better for him to hear that from me.

Chapter 24

Siberia, present day

The room was cold, the kind of cold that pierced the flesh and the mind and all but froze the heart. Sebastian was at Zardoff´s house, in the middle of the snow-white steppes. He had been summoned there for only one purpose: to be humiliated.

—You have failed again —hissed Zardoff—. The fire didn´t kill her. I spent a lot of time with the idiotic Blair. You had to help, and you didn´t.

—Why do you blame me? It was you who chose Blair to carry out your plan. The explosion didn’t kill them because he didn’t do the job properly —said Sebastian, without lowering his head—. Did you really think that he would have succeeded with three Guides in the room?

—I told you to be there —roared Zardoff—, you should have made sure that the fire killed her. Why didn´t you show up?

—Because the plan was a shambles and I would expose myself.

—What are you saying, imbecile? I give the orders! —Zardoff slapped him so hard on the face that Sebastian was knocked to the floor.

Zardoff composed himself and spoke in a cold, distant voice.

—You have changed, Sebastian. In the past, you were capable of destroying entire cities, of staging the cruellest wars, and now you can´t even deal with an insignificant woman.

Sebastian looked at him defiantly:

—You have changed too, Hugo, and you know that.

Zardoff shot him a withering look, but Sebastian was determined not to lower his eyes. The tension in the room seemed ready to explode.

—Be careful, Sebastian —said Zardoff with a terrifying sneer.

—I am careful, very careful —said Sebastian, softening his expression a fraction—. I have served you well for centuries; if I am failing on this occasion, there must be a force beyond you and me that makes this task much harder and more dangerous than we thought.

Sebastian knew it was risky to challenge Zardoff, but he also knew the cards he was playing: Zardoff would never face Alexander directly, he was terrified of him. And all his lackeys were useless. He needed Sebastian.

Zardoff turned his back on Sebastian and seemed to be collecting his thoughts. After a long pause, he said:

—You are right, you have served me well.

—I need to know —continued Sebastian— why you are so interested in this woman. It will help me to understand what protects her.

Zardoff didn´t reply immediately. Then, turning towards Sebastian, he said:

—If her bloodline mixes with Alexander´s, it will be the end of us.

—What do you mean? She and Alexander to have a child? Isn’t she with Edward? Besides, it´s very rare for Guides to reproduce themselves, and almost impossible with a human.

—She is not a normal human —Zardoff sounded adamant—. She has a very powerful bloodline, even if it hasn´t manifested itself. That’s why she is protected. Any child of hers and Alexander would mark the dawn of a new era, and we would lose our grip on the mind and soul of humanity. This is why it’s so crucial that she is eliminated. Unless you want to try and kill Alexander —Zardoff’s last words were full of derision.

—I will focus on the girl, I will make sure she doesn’t survive next time.

—I warn you, Sebastian. This is the last chance you have. You shouldn’t be too confident about my reliance on you. You know very well how what happens to those who disappoint me.

Sebastian’s heart froze at the words. The suffering Zardoff could inflict on others, Seers or humans, was unbearable.

—I know, Zardoff. You have made it clear already. I will not fail this time, but you have to listen to me and let me do my job without interference from anybody else.

Zardoff looked at Sebastian with contempt. He couldn’t trust him and yet he was the best chance he had to achieve his goal, and that dependence made his hatred even more poisonous.

Chapter 25

London, present day

Vassily was the first to suggest I shouldn´t go on the Academy´s summer tour. I could stay in London giving private lessons, practising, doing physiotherapy and building up my stamina little by little. I was feeling better, but I hadn´t recovered my energy. The scars on my arms were sometimes painful, and my hands got tired more than they used to. My friends and colleagues at the Academy couldn´t have been kinder. I knew Carol and Christopher were worried I would fall into the same darkness I experienced after Will´s death. In fact, there was no danger of that. I was stronger, and the clarity of my feelings gave me the emotional strength I needed to move on.

My conversation with Edward had also affected me, though not half as much as it had upset him. I tried to be as tactful as possible, not giving away my true feelings for Alexander. Even so, Edward was devastated. He couldn’t understand the reasons for my decision. He had arrived at my flat the day I returned from the Cotswolds.

—You look so well, Ariane. The country air has done you good —he said, taking me in his arms.

—Let’s talk now, Edward. Would you like a cup of tea?

—No, thanks. I’m fine. Ariane, please sit down, I don’t want you to get tired. I am keen to move forward with our plans. This horrible accident has taken a big toll on our lives, and I want to be sure you are ready to move on.

—Edward, I don’t know how to say this…

—What is it? Aren’t you ready yet? You have gone through a lot, my darling, I know that, and I can wait, of course.

—While I was in hospital, I had the chance to think about me, about us. I…I don’t think we should carry on together.

Edward went pale. His lower lip started trembling, and, from the expression on his face, I thought he didn’t understand, he didn’t want to understand.

—What…what are you talking about?

—I’m sorry, Edward, I really am. You are an extraordinary man, but I’ve realised I’m not the right woman for you.

—I don’t agree, Ariane —he said, his voice cracking—. I’ve never felt anything like I feel for you, and I’ve been sure that we should be together since the first day we met.

—I’m so sorry, Edward, but I think it’s better for us if we separate now rather than regret it later. —I was trying to be as gentle as possible, but it was heart-breaking to see this man, usually full of fun and life, so devastated.

Edward stood up, pacing up and down the small flat, wiping his face nervously.

—It’s because of the fire —he said, his eyes bright and liquid.

—No, it’s not because of the fire. It’s just I think we would make a terrible mistake.

Edward stared at me in a way that shrunk my heart, and without saying another word, he rushed out of the door.

Weeks passed by and Edward didn’t make any contact with me. Nor did Ruth. Perhaps they had both decided to ban me from their lives, I thought, and I must forget about them. But what really hurt me was Alexander´s silence. I hadn´t heard from him in more than six months. Instead of hoping he would show up, I would probably have to contact him and repeat how grateful I was to him for saving my life a second time. Maybe he had wanted to leave me alone and to give Edward the chance to be close to me during a difficult period. But I knew Alexander wasn’t indifferent to me. Yes, I had to let him know how grateful I was, I had to apologise for my silence.

I wrote him a letter and sent it to Roshven Castle. Less than 24 hours later, a linen envelope appeared under my door. My hands were sweating and shaking when I opened it. It was from Alexander, in his impeccable handwriting; he was in London and wanted to see me next day, and would I please call him to confirm. His number was on the card.

A voice I didn´t recognise answered the phone:

—Yes, Mrs Claret, I will give him your message; he told me to wait for your call —it was a Mr Carson, Alexander´s new assistant.

After the call, a confused mix of emotions took me over. I was afraid, the same fear I felt the first night I met him, as though I was on the edge of an abyss. But, at the same time, I was so excited to see him again that I couldn’t think about anything else. I was raving, I was exultant, and that night it took me hours to get to sleep.

At seven in the morning, I was on my way to the Academy. Even a torrential rain didn’t stop London from waking up; bicycles, cars, vans, buses, all manoeuvring through streets too small for all of them. Trying to calm down, I walked to the Academy.

—You are early today —and soaking —Vassily said when he saw me. He was always the first to arrive—. Is everything all right? You look tired.

—Yes, I´m fine. I just didn´t get much sleep.

—You should rest, Ariane. You could catch a cold, why don’t you stay at home?

—I don’t want to, Vassily. I´m keen to get on with the rehearsal.

—Good, because today we have a special visitor —a possible sponsor. I´m told he is a rich man from Eastern Europe who is interested in the orchestra and has insisted on attending a working session. Carol couldn´t say no, so don´t be surprised when you see a stranger in the theatre.

The other musicians started to drift in and, little by little, the Academy was bustling with the chattering of the students. I felt some nostalgia for those years when I was one of them, full of dreams and carefree. So many things had happened since the day I walked through the doors of the Academy for the first time. Now I was one of its established musicians, and in that sense, I had fulfilled my dreams.

I went to the hall where we were going to rehearse. It was the build-up to Christmas, which meant some of the Academy’s most important commitments. Just before we started playing, I saw the man whom Vassily had mentioned. He came into the hall, staring at all of us, sitting forward in his seat. I felt an immediate revulsion, something so deep and dark that it made my skin crawl. He looked more like a gangster than a philanthropist.

After an hour, we had a short break. Some of the musicians approached Vassily, saying that the stranger was making everybody feel uncomfortable. Vassily sighed and said he didn´t like him either, but the Board had insisted, so we had to tolerate him for a day or two. We resumed our rehearsal, but it was as if all of us had agreed to play as badly as possible to make sure the man would not get involved with the orchestra.

As soon as we finished, I hurried out of the Academy. It was 4 pm and almost dark, but the streets were bright and busy. As I walked towards the café where I would meet Alexander, I could only just contain my excitement. I was quite early, and I sat at the table close to the entrance so he would see me when he arrived. I ordered a mineral water and looked out at the street. Around the Tube station nearby the crowds were coming and going: rush hour was starting. A few minutes later I saw Alexander, and my heart jumped. He was wearing a black coat and a grey scarf, he was walking fast, his dark hair ruffled by the wind. He entered the coffee shop, and when he saw me, the smile on his face was blinding.

—Thanks for coming, Ariane —he looked at me in a way that thrilled me.

—I am the one who should say thank you, Alexander, for what you did for me at Roshven. I should have written to you earlier.

—I didn´t expect you to write at all. You have only bad memories of Roshven, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn´t want to hear from us at all. Have you talked to Edward?

—Not since we ended our relationship.

Alexander couldn´t hide a slight smile. His dark eyes sparkled with bright flames, and I felt a wave of warmth running through my body. My heart was racing now, or so I felt, and the heat was almost unbearable. All of a sudden, he was terribly serious, he took my hands and held them tightly. I stopped breathing.

—Ariane, I…don’t want to overwhelm you, after all you have gone through. But I want you to know I want to continue to see you. I am worried about you, and I worry when I don´t hear from you.

I couldn’t listen to a word he said, as he kept talking and holding my hands. He must have realised the state I was in because he let them go. Then I reacted:

—Everything seems so confused. I don´t understand what has happened between us, but I do know that I want to continue to see you too.

Alexander smiled and took my hand again, but this time his grip was gentler.

—If you give me time, I will clarify everything, at your speed. You decide when. I don´t want to impose my presence on you —. His eyes seemed to burn into me, I tried to pull my hand away, but he kept holding it—. Don´t be afraid of me, Ariane. I would never, ever, harm you.

—Can we leave this place? I feel I am suffocating —I said, trying to stop the anxiety that was taking me over.

Alexander stood up, and we went outside. We walked in silence for a while, leaving behind the hustle of the main street until we reached a small square and sat down on a bench. Some Christmas lights lit the trees, and the street lamps reflected a yellow, dim glow. Alexander was looking at me, but I couldn´t say a word. After a few seconds of perfect silence, I heard the music. It was a lovely tune, but I couldn’t recognise the instrument. It reminded me of a kora, an African instrument that sounds like a harp, and produces the most enchanting sounds. I looked around to see where the music was coming from, but nobody seemed to be there. The square was empty, and all the doors and windows of the houses were closed. We listened to the music, and the thought occurred to me that the tune was expressing Alexander’s feelings towards me. It felt like a melody that captured all the poems, all the love words, in the world.

—Oh, Ariane, my dear Ariane —he said, taking my hand to his lips.

—What are we going to do, Alexander? —I asked.

He drew closer and took me in his arms.

—If only you knew… there are so many things I want to tell you —he whispered in my ear.

Then something remarkable happened. The sky seemed to light up with dozens of shooting stars, but they weren´t the usual thin trails that disappeared immediately. They were more like paths of pure light, lingering in the sky. I looked up in awe, while Alexander smiled.

—How extraordinary! —I said.

—Yes, the universe is extraordinary —he replied.

The scene couldn’t have lasted more than a minute, and then the sky turned black again.

—It’s time to go —I said— I´ve got an early start tomorrow.

—I´ll take you home —replied Alexander.

We walked hand in hand, slowly, covering the short distance between the square and my flat feeling a happiness that seemed impossible to bear.

I couldn´t know that, at exactly that moment, an eerie howl echoed across the Siberian steppes.

Chapter 26

London, present day

In a quite street near Kensington Gardens, limousines with darkened windows were dropping off passengers at the entrance of the elegant Georgian House. If curious pedestrians got too close, they were shooed away by the bulky men in dark glasses. Their boss had given strict instructions not to let strangers anywhere near the house.

The mansion had once belonged to a ducal family, but any traces of aristocratic tradition had disappeared once the new owner, Dimitri Medvedin, put his stamp on it. The hall was dominated by a red Ferrari displayed on a gold plinth, surrounded by red velvet chairs so that Medvedin’s sycophants could admire it. Above the car hung a large chandelier decorated with miniature red Ferrari. The rest of the house was equally extravagant.

Medvedin was a Russian oligarch who, after making an illicit fortune in the oil business, spent much of his time between the London mansion and a couple of yachts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. He owed many favours to Zardoff who, in return, used Medvedin’s house for his meetings when he was in London.

That day, a group of men had gathered in a room with no windows. Zardoff had held several meetings of this kind before, but this was the first time he had called for an urgent one. The men in the room knew of each other, but they had never met before, and even though they had huge differences, they had one shared interest: violence.

Cardinal Polluccio arrived in London with the Vatican private jet, while Imam Al-Baghdadi and Rabbi Ben Rosenthal both came later on commercial flights. By a curious twist, the Archbishop of Canterbury happened to be holding an interfaith summit, and several of the three men’s colleagues were in town. The Archbishop had always kept an open dialogue with the different religions to try to contain the world’s rising tensions; the three men in Medvedin’s house wanted the opposite.

They were waiting in a bullet-proof, sound-insulated room with no windows, and the only door was guarded by Medvedin’s men. People who got into that room not always get out alive. The three men waited in uncomfortable silence for what seemed an eternity until Dimitri finally showed up.

—Zardoff will join you soon —he said, closing the door on the three men.

The announcement made them even more nervous, the hostility between them growing by the minute. What was the urgency? None of them asked in case the others knew, not wanting to look foolish. When Zardoff eventually arrived, he seemed to have aged, his mouth contorted, his look more terrifying than usual. Polluccio asked:

—What is going on, Zardoff?

—We are running out of time —he hissed—. Our plans for the Middle East are failing. We need to act now.

The Rabbi intervened:

—I disagree with you, Zardoff. We have been working very hard; the Middle East is in turmoil.

—Helped by us —added al-Baghdadi.

—It’s not been enough —Zardoff’s slammed his hand on the table—. Our enemies are moving faster.

—In many years, we have never been so close to a regional war in our part of the world —insisted the Rabbi, looking sarcastically at Polluccio.—And what about you, Cardinal?

—Things are getting difficult —he replied—. Our networks are being infiltrated, and some of my allies have been side-lined.

—You shouldn´t even be talking —roared Zardoff, turning on him in fury—. You have done nothing, your commitment is weak, your actions pathetic.

—It’s all different now —protested the Cardinal weakly—. I am being followed. There are new controls and scrutiny on how we spend money, and we have to work long hours on Vatican duties. This is not the only battle I am fighting, Zardoff, things are changing in the Vatican, and many of us don´t like it.

—We all have problems —said the Imam with evident contempt—, but we still work, and we don´t lose the focus of our objective.

Zardoff´s smile was satanic:

—Are you saying, Al-Baghdadi, that our friend the Cardinal has been indolent? Isn´t that one of your deadly sins, Polluccio?

This riled the Cardinal, but Zardoff didn´t let him reply:

—Yes, the Cardinal is getting old and doesn´t want to risk his comfortable position in the Curia. Maybe we don´t need you, Polluccio.

—You don´t know what you’re talking about, Zardoff. I have always supported you. I am your best ally in the Vatican.

—There is always fresh blood wanting to do the job in the name of God and the Holy Church —said Zardoff.

Polluccio felt panic running through his body. He looked at the other two men, but neither was coming to his rescue.

—Who do you think is behind the far-right movements in Europe and America? —he asked, struggling to keep his voice firm—. Who is stirring up the intolerance and hatred against other religions? Who is influencing populist movements around the world and is swaying elections’ results? We are. We do it carefully, we avoid getting caught, we are setting the scene for what you want: a religious war. For these two, it’s easy to operate in failed states, but in the West, it’s much more difficult.

The old fox knew he was in a weak position and that both the Imam and the Rabbi wanted to see him fail. Polluccio despised them and what they represented. No other religion had the refinement, the history or the majesty of the Catholic Church, and in the war about to begin, he was sure Catholicism would prevail in the end. Polluccio didn´t care what Al-Baghdadi or Rosenthal thought, but he was scared, deeply scared, of Zardoff.

—Enough of lame excuses! —yelled Zardoff—. I want all the Middle East on fire, I want to see wars in every corner of the region, so not even one country can feel safe. Rosenthal, you will take charge of getting the weapons, and you Al-Baghdadi, I want to see a terrorist attack every week. I want the death toll to rise tenfold. And for you, Polluccio, I have a special mission, and this is your last chance.

—What do I have to do?

—I want you to destroy CERN.

Chapter 27

Between London and Roshven Castle, present day

Alexander bought a house in the centre of London, close to St. James´s Square. It had big windows, high ceilings and a small back garden. On the third floor, he put his library and a piano, and that was our special place. I loved the house, loved being there, but I didn´t move in with him.

—This is your home in London, whenever you are ready, it will be waiting for you —he said.

I kept working as though nothing had changed, but of course, I knew that everything had changed. I could never imagine the depth and the breadth of the feelings I could hold in my heart. Alexander was my home and my heaven. I found in his love the family that I missed so much, and I was insanely happy. I often joined him at Roshven for the weekends. Our relationship couldn’t be more harmonious. His idea of a perfect evening was to listen to me playing the piano, to read or just to gaze at the fire in each other´s arms.

Extraordinary events started to happen now that I was with him, but I didn´t see, or I didn´t want to see, the connection between them and Alexander. One morning in Roshven there was a massive snowfall. We spent the day inside enjoying the beauty of the snow from a sofa by a fire, but the next day Alexander woke me up early saying:

—Follow me— and he walked outside, barefoot in his dressing gown.

—Alexander! —I thought he must be going mad. The temperature outside was below zero.

—Come on —he said—. It will be fun.

The snow seemed to melt under his feet, he took his dressing gown off and walked into a small bubbling pond. Since when was there a Jacuzzi in the middle of the garden at Roshven? He waved at me to join him. Surprised, I left the house in my coat and snow boots. When I got to the pond, he was smiling, his eyes bright as a little kid who had done something naughty. I took one boot off and put a foot into the water. To my astonishment, the water was warm, and I quickly stripped off and walked in.

—Do you feel how nice it is? —he said with a big smile on his face.

—But how…?

He didn´t let me finish, pulling me down into the water. I could see that the pool walls were covered in snow. He hugged me, and we laughed and splashed around like two little kids.

—I have to tell you many things, Ariane. I haven´t told you until now because I didn´t want to spoil the magic of our time together. These have been the best weeks of my whole existence, but it´s not fair on you, you have to know the truth.

—What I want to know is how it is possible that, with temperatures below zero, there is a pond in the middle of the garden and the water is so warm.

—It has to do with what I want to tell you.

—What is it?

—My true story, the story of my people, the story of the Guide of Time.

Chapter 28

Kievan Rus´ (Ukraine), 11th century

Anna watched anxiously as her son Alexander played with the lion cub. The child, with eyes dark but bright like stars, chortled with delight, pulling the cub’s tail while it responded with harmless cuffs and the occasional hiss. How long could they keep the cub? The child adored it and was very good at managing it, but she had never forgotten what Malusha, her mother-in-law, had said as she cradled her newborn son in her arms.

Anna Porphyrogenita was the younger sister of Basil II, Emperor of Constantinople. Her marriage to Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev (5) had been arranged in exchange for six thousand men. Basil II needed them badly, for he was preparing to put down any signs of rebellion by the aristocracy in Anatolia.

Anna’s ancestors were kings of the greatest empire of the tenth-century. She had been born in the Purple Chamber of the Imperial Palace, a room reserved only for the birth of the Emperor´s children. Raised in the noblest of traditions, she was horrified when her brother decided she would marry a pagan barbarian, a man who already had several wives and children. Worse, Prince Vladimir was the bastard son of Sviatoslav I, Grand Prince of Kiev and Malusha, the palace’s prophetess. There was only one consolation: the Emperor had insisted that, as a condition of marrying Anna, Vladimir must convert to Christianity and make it the official religion of his Court.

A devout Christian, Anna had only contempt for her mother-in-law. But as she got to know her, she was surprised by Malusha’s sensitivity, and particularly by her ability to predict the future. Anna found it hard to admit that Malusha´s prophecies were often accurate, but when she became pregnant, she listened to anything her mother-in-law said about the baby and his future. She was a late mother, inclined to be over-anxious about her baby, longing for signs that the birth would be straightforward and the child healthy.

Anna lived in Novgorod with Vladimir, but he spent more time away with his soldiers than at home. That was the perfect excuse for her to go back to Constantinople to give birth. Malusha insisted on going with her, and Anna found her companion less uncomfortable than she had feared. Alexander was born on the first of the year 1000 —a date when, based on some interpretations of the Bible, the world was supposed to end. But the day dawned with a bright blue sky, and a full moon still on the horizon. Though Anna was dreading the whole business of labour, the baby’s arrival was quick and painless. He didn´t cry and immediately opened his big dark eyes, looking calmly at the world around him.

Malusha was in the room with Anna, and when she saw her tiny grandson her eyes filled with tears. She wasn´t a particularly emotional woman, but that baby touched a deep chord in her heart.

—He will be a great man —Malusha’s voice was cracking with emotion—. He will enlighten entire nations with his wisdom.

Anna, thinking Malusha was seeing Alexander’s future as the religious leader of Kievan Rus’, felt very happy. That was the plan she had for her son, to continue the work she and Vladimir had started. The Prince, fulfilling the promise he had made to Vladimir when the two got married, imposed Christianity on his subjects, destroyed every trace of pagan images and persecuted those who resisted the change. For her part, Anna founded new churches and monasteries in every part of Kievan Rus’. She was confident that her new-born son would continue his parents´ mission, spreading the light of truth in all the countries beyond the Urals.

After a year, Anna took Alexander back to Novgorod, and Vladimir met his son for the first time. He was pleased how bright and lively the little boy was, and in due course set about making sure Alexander had a military education. Anna wanted something more for her son, so she hired tutors from Byzantium to teach him Greek, Latin, maths and philosophy. Alexander excelled in whatever he was asked to do, so both Anna and Vladimir saw their aspirations come true.

When Alexander turned six, Malusha talked to Anna:

—Your son´s destiny is extraordinary, much more than you can imagine. He will be very powerful, his wisdom will inspire others, and he will make the whole world a better place.

—Your words encourage me, Malusha. I agree: he will have a bright future.

—But he won’t follow the path you want for him —continued Malusha, looking grave—. And he will have powerful enemies.

Anna was dismayed:

—You are talking about my son! How can you say that sort of thing?

—Alexander is the light of my life too, Anna, but I have to say what I see. Fulfilling his destiny is his best protection. The only real danger will come with a red crown which will captivate him with magical sounds.

—What do you mean? What will happen to him? —asked Anna anxiously.

—This is all I can say right now —replied Malusha—. Your son´s path is extraordinary, but not all of it is discernible.

Anna didn´t understand what Malusha meant, but every time she remembered those words she trembled —which was why, even if she didn´t want to admit it, she was terrified of watching her son playing with the lion cub, and she prayed to God to protect him from all evil.

By the time Alexander turned fifteen, he was already an accomplished swordsman and a formidable fighter. His real passion, though, was developing his mind. His tutors were amazed by his intellect and his grasp of a wide range of subjects. He took a special interest in science, yearning to understand what created the planets, how life appeared on Earth, how the clouds moved and much more. Not wanting to upset his mother, he didn’t tell her that the answers given by his religion were not good enough for him.

Within a year his father died, and his mother became regent, holding the throne until Alexander came of age. Shortly after Vladimir’s death, a visitor arrived at the palace in Novgorod, with a letter of introduction from Basil II, Anna’s brother. He said his name was Pyros, and Basil’s letter described him as the most illustrious polymath he had ever met. He encouraged his sister to receive him and suggested she should ask Pyros to be Alexander’s tutor. Anna was happy to receive the stranger her brother recommended so highly and agreed that Alexander should study with him. Pyros was accompanied by a younger man called Sebastian, a French student. He seemed quite introverted and definitely in his master’s shadow.

Young Alexander quickly came to like his lessons with his new tutor and was soon spending several hours a day with Pyros and Sebastian. Sometimes he went off with them for days, without telling his mother where he was going. Anna was worried, and had to remind Alexander that in less than a year he would become Prince of Kievan Rus’; by then he would need to be familiar with what was happening in his kingdom, so he shouldn’t be frittering away his time with Pyros. Besides, Vladimir’s other children were not happy with Alexander becoming the new ruler, and the court buzzed with rumours that they might block his succession. Anna had reasons to fear for her son.

Malusha tried to calm her down:

—Why are you so worried? —she asked one day—. Your brother sent Pyros, you can trust him; your son is safe with him.

—Alexander is neglecting his duties, and I’m afraid his brothers might be plotting against him.

—Oh, all those rumours —Malusha waved them away—. You shouldn’t worry about palace gossip. Besides, I have never seen Alexander so happy.

Anna nodded:

—Yes, that’s true. He told me that in one week with Pyros he had learned more than he did in a year with his other tutors.

—So stay calm, Alexander is where he’s supposed to be.

What she didn´t tell Anna was that the time had come for Alexander to leave.

The next morning, Pyros came to see Malusha while she was performing salutation rituals to the sun, as Zoroastrian tradition required.

—You know why I’m here, Malusha —said Pyros.

She nodded.

—You know Alexander´s destiny, but her mother is an obstacle. His future is much more extraordinary that Anna will ever be able to understand. She won’t accept anything that seems to contradict her religion.

—I know —replied Malusha.

—Anna trusts you, and you need to help her understand.

—I don´t want Alexander to leave either.

—It is his destiny, the destiny of beings like him.

—You are right, unfortunately —Malusha sighed deeply.

—Talk to his mother, please. Anna wants to send him to Byzantium, to be with her brother and to get him away from me. But soon Constantinople will fall to the Mongols, and he would be in real danger there.

—Where will you take him?

—I will show him his future.

—Will we ever see him again?

—No, unless at some point he decides he doesn´t want to follow me, but I doubt that. Alexander is the most extraordinary young Guide I have ever known. He has the courage, the audacity, the intelligence and the passion needed to fulfil his mission.

—Will you protect him?

—With my life, if necessary.

—I will help you then —she said, turning her back so Pyros couldn´t see the tears running down her cheeks.

Alexander left the palace in Novgorod on the 1st of January 1018 and never saw his family again. Anna was beside herself, and to overcome her loss, she redoubled her work spreading Christianity. Within a few years, she decided to leave the court and retired to one of the convents she had helped to found. As for Malusha, she felt her work was now done. She went back to the cave where she had been born and lived for more than 100 years.

Pyros embarked on the vital next phase of Alexander’s education, travelling with him and his other students to the remotest places in the world. They visited China and the strange lands beyond the Great Sea, studying the history of the civilisations they encountered, their religion and, especially, their science. They discovered a more advanced medicine, a different view of the cosmos, astonishing engineering. The more Alexander learned, the more his talents developed.

Apart from his remarkable intelligence, Alexander showed a real commitment to human beings. Like other Guides, he came to see them as younger brothers who needed to be guided to reach their bright future. Pyros had no doubt that he had found his successor, and he started to share with Alexander all his deepest secrets so the young man could grow into fulfilling his destiny.

Alexander learned to control his body, to go for weeks without water and food, lowering his heartbeat almost to a standstill; he learned to see the future and to interrogate the inscrutable past; to read the minds of human beings; to influence them, and to manipulate the invisible energies that surrounded him. He learned to control natural phenomena, from putting out a fire to unleashing a storm. But even as he became more powerful, he never abused his power. During his travels around the world, Alexander met extraordinary people. He found himself in the middle of wars, plagues and natural catastrophes, always incognito, always helping.

Alexander travelled through the underground tunnels that the Guides used and the caves where they could be safe and where their race was born. Even after the split with Zardoff, Alexander and the other Guides continued with their mission to guide and inspire great ideas for mankind´s progress.

When Sebastian betrayed them to join Zardoff, Pyros warned Alexander that he would become the target of their hatred. They would try to thwart his mission in every way they could. Far from intimidating him, though, Pyros’s prediction made Alexander even more determined. No matter how much havoc Zardoff and Sebastian created, Alexander would defeat them, would fulfil his mission. He would develop all the strength that would make him a great leader. And so, for centuries, he was —until Ariane showed up in his life.

***

At that point, Alexander stopped talking. Ariane had been spellbound not daring to interrupt, and not wanting to either. She was silent, searching for the right words to describe her feelings. In the end, all she could say was:

—What you’ve told me has astonished me, Alexander. I hope you won’t mind if I go away for a few days.

—Will you come back?

—I…don’t know.

The End

Book III will be published in June 2017

Text References

 

 

 

 

(1) John of Patmos is the name given to the author of the Book of Revelations. It states that the author was called John and that he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, where the monastery still stands

(2) LHC: Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator in the world

(3) Observer’s effect in physics means that the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed

(4) Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian-American inventor best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system.

(5) Vladimir the Great was the ruler of Kievan ´Rus between 980 and 1015 A.D. He is remembered by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as Saint Vladimir for his role in converting to Christianity a large region of Eastern Europe.

Acknowledgments

Several people were kind enough to read early drafts of the books: Carolina Afán de Rivera, Dalgi de Berardinis, Hernán Castellanos, Johanna Hohle and Alfonso Riascos. I am also grateful to Ascanio Afán de Rivera, who tried very hard to make me understand particle physics; to Natalia Moreno who proof-read the book; to Ned Pennant-Rea who made me rethink some of my assumptions; and to my husband, Rupert Pennant-Rea. He is not only the best editor in the world; he is also the best husband in the world.

About Book II

In the second volume, I introduce the idea of a scientific discovery at Fermilab, a particle physics lab in Chicago, that could have extraordinary implications for life as we know it. The idea that particle’s behaviour can be translated into sound came to me after visiting an exhibition by the Japanese artist, Ryioji Ikeda. In Supersymmetry -the name of the exhibition- the artist drew on inspiration from his 2014 residency at CERN, the world’s biggest particle physics research centre. While there, Ikeda was able to observe the experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider, a gigantic structure underground, in which two high-energy particle beams are made to collide at almost the speed of light. In Supersymmetry, Ikeda attempted to transform the complexity of quantum information theory into an experience the general public could appreciate, mixing sounds with visual and high-speed light displays, giving us a hint of what the sub-particle world might sound or look like.

In Book II, scientists in Fermilab discover a particle whose properties, when introduced in an Artificial Intelligence software, produce a coherent message from the great inventor and scientist, Nikola Tesla, dead in 1943.

Mario Barni, the sceptical scientist from CERN, considers the discovery a fluke, an oddity that doesn’t deserve any attention. Alexander, the Guide of Time, asks Barni to consider the possibility, even if small, that the results might be true. Their conversation in the CERN Director’s office reflects the well-known tension between science and spirituality, but the idea that both are intertwined is not new.

Since the beginning of time, humans have observed the universe with a sense of awe. For Albert Einstein “… the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”. But a particularly dangerous pathology of our era is the tendency to worship reason and intellect and scorn spirituality. Bertrand Russell aims at “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.”

The truth is that we know very little of our own universe. Most of what is out there is either dark energy or dark matter, of which we know nothing. New theories talk about several dimensions of reality, multiple universes. How can we be certain that after life there is nothing if we don’t even understand what we can perceive in this life?

What if, in the same way we currently capture waves that translate into images on a TV, science one day will be able to capture messages from the energy that is left after we die? And how would that change the world? Who would benefit and who would want to stop this discovery?

These ideas are at the heart of the trilogy The Guide of Time.

Other Sources

You can find out more interesting information about science at:

www.paperveins.org

www.dreaminterpretation-dictionary.com/albert-einstein

www.wikipedia-Newton occult studies.com

www.brainpickings.org

About the Author

Cinzia De Santis was born in Italy and moved to Venezuela shortly after. She studied Marine Biology, and after an exciting and varied career, she devotes her time to her passions: books and travelling. She had previously also been an actor, performing both as an amateur and a professional, and it was then that she started writing short stories in Spanish. Cinzia moved to England in 2003 and now lives in London with her husband and daughter. The Guide of Time is her second novel in English. More about Cinzia and her books at: www.cinziadesantis.com

How to contact Cinzia

Email: [email protected]

My website: http://cinziadesantis.com

Twitter: @cinziadesantis_

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cinziadesantis2016/

https://www.instagram.com/santiscinziade/

https://www.youtube.com/dashboard?o=U


The Guide of Time: Book I and II

  • Author: Cinzia De Santis
  • Published: 2017-03-02 10:50:41
  • Words: 101278
The Guide of Time: Book I and II The Guide of Time: Book I and II