The hammering on the door shot him into wakefulness like a handgun going off in his face. The young man scrambled for the dagger under his pillow, stumbling to his bare feet on the icy floor of the stone cell. He had been dreaming of his parents, of his old home, and he gritted his teeth against the usual wrench of longing for everything he had lost: the farmhouse, his mother, the old life.
The thunderous banging sounded again, and he held the dagger behind his back as he unbolted the door and cautiously opened it a crack. A dark-hooded figure stood outside, flanked by two heavyset men, each carrying a burning torch. One of them raised his torch so the light fell on the slight dark-haired youth, naked to the waist, wearing only breeches, his hazel eyes blinking under a fringe of dark hair. He was about seventeen, with a face as sweet as a boy, but with the body of a young man forged by hard work.
“You are to come with me.”
They saw him hesitate. “Don’t be a fool. There are three of us and only one of you, and the dagger you’re hiding behind your back won’t stop us.”
“It’s an order,” the other man said roughly. “Not a request. And you are sworn to obedience.”
Luca had sworn obedience to his monastery, not to these strangers, but he had been expelled from there, and now it seemed he must obey anyone who shouted a command. He turned to the bed, sat to pull on his boots, slipping the dagger into a scabbard hidden inside the soft leather, pulled on a linen shirt and then threw his ragged woolen cape around his shoulders.
“Who are you?” he asked, coming unwillingly to the door.
The man made no answer, but simply turned and led the way as the two guards waited in the corridor for Luca to come out of his cell and follow.
“Where are you taking me?”
The two guards fell in behind him without answering. Luca wanted to ask if he was under arrest, if he was being marched to a summary execution, but he did not dare. He was fearful of the very question; he acknowledged to himself that he was terrified of the answer. He could feel himself sweating with fear under his woolen cape, though the air was icy and the stone walls were cold and damp.
He knew that he was in the most serious trouble of his young life. Only yesterday four dark-hooded men had taken him from his monastery and brought him here, to this prison, without a word of explanation. He did not know where he was or who was holding him. He did not know what charge he might face. He did not know what the punishment might be. He did not know if he was going to be beaten, tortured or killed.
“I insist on seeing a priest, I wish to confess . . .” he said.
They paid no attention to him at all, but pressed him on, down the narrow stone-flagged gallery. It was silent, with the closed doors of cells on either side. He could not tell if it was a prison or a monastery, it was so cold and quiet. It was just after midnight, and the place was in darkness and utterly still. Luca’s guides made no noise as they walked along the gallery, down the stone steps, through a great hall and then down a little spiral staircase into a darkness that grew more and more black as the air grew more and more cold.
“I demand to know where you are taking me,” Luca insisted, but his voice shook with fear.
No one answered him, but the guard behind him closed up a little.
At the bottom of the steps, Luca could just see a small arched doorway and a heavy wooden door. The leading man opened it with a key from his pocket and gestured that Luca should go through. When he hesitated, the guard behind him simply moved closer until the menacing bulk of his body pressed Luca onward.
“I insist . . .” Luca breathed.
A hard shove thrust him through the doorway, and he gasped as he found himself flung to the very edge of a high, narrow quay, a boat rocking in the river a long way below, the far bank a dark blur in the distance. Luca flinched back from the brink. He had a sudden dizzying sense that they would be as willing to throw him over, onto the rocks below, as to take him down the steep stairs to the boat.
The first man went light-footed down the wet steps, stepped into the boat and said one word to the boatman who stood in the stern, holding the vessel against the current with the deft movements of a single oar. Then he looked back up to the handsome white-faced young man.
“Come,” he ordered.
Luca could do nothing else. He followed the man down the greasy steps, clambered into the boat and seated himself in the prow. The boatman did not wait for the guards but turned his craft into the middle of the river and let the current sweep them around the city wall. Luca glanced down into the dark water. If he were to fling himself over the side of the boat, he would be swept downstream—he might be able to swim with the current and make it to the other side and get away. But the water was flowing so fast he thought he was more likely to drown, if they did not come after him in the boat and knock him senseless with the oar.
“My lord,” he said, trying for dignity. “May I ask you now where we are going?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” came the terse reply. The river ran like a wide moat around the tall walls of the city of Rome. The boatman kept the little craft close to the lee of the walls, hidden from the sentries above; then Luca saw ahead of them the looming shape of a stone bridge and, just before it, a grille set in an arched stone doorway of the wall. As the boat nosed inward, the grille slipped noiselessly up and, with one practiced push of the oar, they shot inside, into a torch-lit cellar.
With a deep lurch of fear, Luca wished that he had taken his chance with the river. There were half a dozen grim-faced men waiting for him, and as the boatman held a well-worn ring on the wall to steady the craft, they reached down and hauled Luca out of the boat, to push him down a narrow corridor. Luca felt, rather than saw, thick stone walls on either side, smooth wooden floorboards underfoot; heard his own breathing, ragged with fear; then they paused before a heavy wooden door, struck it with a single knock and waited.
A voice from inside the room said, “Come!” and the guard swung the door open and thrust Luca inside. Luca stood, heart pounding, blinking at the sudden brightness of dozens of wax candles, and heard the door close silently behind him.
A solitary man was sitting at a table, papers before him. He wore a robe of rich velvet in so dark a blue that it appeared almost black, the hood completely concealing his face from Luca, who stood before the table and swallowed down his fear. Whatever happened, he decided, he was not going to beg for his life. Somehow, he would find the courage to face whatever was coming. He would not shame himself, nor his tough stoic father, by whimpering like a girl.
“You will be wondering why you are here, where you are, and who I am,” the man said. “I will tell you these things. But, first, you must answer me everything that I ask. Do you understand?”
“You must not lie to me. Your life hangs in the balance here, and you cannot guess what answers I would prefer. Be sure to tell the truth: you would be a fool to die for a lie.”
Luca tried to nod but found he was shaking.
“You are Luca Vero, a novice priest at the monastery of St. Xavier, having joined the monastery when you were a boy of eleven? You have been an orphan for the last three years, since your parents died when you were fourteen?”
“My parents disappeared,” Luca said. He cleared his tight throat. “They may not be dead. They were captured by an Ottoman raid, but nobody saw them killed. Nobody knows where they are now, but they may very well be alive.”
The Inquisitor made a minute note on a piece of paper before him. Luca watched the tip of the black feather as the quill moved across the page. “You hope,” the man said briefly. “You hope that they are alive and will come back to you.” He spoke as if hope was the greatest folly.
“Raised by the brothers, sworn to join their holy order, yet you went to your confessor, and then to the abbot, and told them that the relic that they keep at the monastery, a nail from the true cross, was a fake.”
The monotone voice was accusation enough. Luca knew this was a citation of his heresy. He knew also that the only punishment for heresy was death.
“I didn’t mean . . .”
“Why did you say the relic was a fake?”
Luca looked down at his boots, at the dark wooden floor, at the heavy table, at the lime-washed walls—anywhere but at the shadowy face of the softly spoken questioner. “I will beg the abbot’s pardon and do penance,” he said. “I didn’t mean heresy. Before God, I am no heretic. I meant no wrong.”
“I shall be the judge if you are a heretic, and I have seen younger men than you, who have done and said less than you, crying on the rack for mercy as their joints pop from their sockets. I have heard better men than you begging for the stake, longing for death as their only release from pain.”
Luca shook his head at the thought of the Inquisition, which could order this fate for him and see it done, and think it to the glory of God. He dared to say nothing more.
“Why did you say the relic was a fake?”
“I did not mean . . .”
“It is a piece of a nail about three inches long, and a quarter of an inch wide,” Luca said unwillingly. “You can see it, though it is now mounted in gold and covered with jewels. But you can still see the size of it.”
The Inquisitor nodded. “So?”
“The abbey of St. Peter has a nail from the true cross. So does the abbey of St. Joseph. I looked in the monastery library to see if there were any others, and there are about four hundred nails in Italy alone, more in France, more in Spain, more in England.”
The man waited in unsympathetic silence.
“I calculated the likely size of the nails,” Luca said miserably. “I calculated the number of pieces that they might have been broken into. It didn’t add up. There are far too many relics for them all to come from one crucifixion. The Bible says a nail in each palm and one through the feet. That’s only three nails.” Luca glanced at the dark face of his interrogator. “It’s not blasphemy to say this, I don’t think. The Bible itself says it clearly. Then, in addition, if you count the nails used in building the cross, there would be four at the central joint to hold the cross bar. That makes seven original nails. Only seven. Say each nail is about five inches long. That’s about thirty-five inches of nails used in the true cross. But there are thousands of relics. That’s not to say whether any nail or any fragment is genuine or not. It’s not for me to judge. But I can’t help but see that there are just too many nails for them all to come from one cross.”
Still the man said nothing.
“It’s numbers,” Luca said helplessly. “It’s how I think. I think about numbers—they interest me.”
“You took it upon yourself to study this? And you took it upon yourself to decide that there are too many nails in churches around the world for them all to be true, for them all to come from the sacred cross?”
Luca dropped to his knees, knowing himself to be guilty. “I meant no wrong,” he whispered upward at the shadowy figure. “I just started wondering, and then I made the calculations, and then the abbot found my paper where I had written the calculations and—” He broke off.
“The abbot, quite rightly, accused you of heresy and forbidden studies, misquoting the Bible for your own purposes, reading without guidance, showing independence of thought, studying without permission, at the wrong time, studying forbidden books . . .” the man continued, reading from the list. He looked at Luca. “Thinking for yourself. That’s the worst of it, isn’t it? You were sworn into an order with certain established beliefs, and then you started thinking for yourself.”
Luca nodded. “I am sorry.”
“The priesthood does not need men who think for themselves.”
“I know,” Luca said, very low.
“You made a vow of obedience—that is a vow not to think for yourself.”
Luca bowed his head, waiting to hear his sentence.
The flame of the candles bobbed as somewhere outside a door opened and a cold draft blew through the rooms.
“Always thought like this? With numbers?”
“Any friends in the monastery? Have you discussed this with anyone?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t discuss this.”
The man looked at his notes. “You have a companion called Freize?”
Luca smiled for the first time. “He’s just the kitchen boy at the monastery,” he said. “He took a liking to me as soon as I arrived, when I was just eleven. He was only twelve or thirteen himself. He made up his mind that I was too thin; he said I wouldn’t last the winter. He kept bringing me extra food. He’s just the spit lad, really.”
“You have no brother or sister?”
“I am alone in the world.”
“You miss your parents?”
“You are lonely?” The way he said it sounded like yet another accusation.
“I suppose so. I feel very alone, if that is the same thing.”
The man rested the black feather of the quill against his lips in thought. “Your parents . . .” He returned to the first question of the interrogation. “They were quite old when you were born?”
“Yes,” Luca said, surprised. “Yes.”
“People talked at the time, I understand. That such an old couple should suddenly give birth to a son, and such a handsome son, who grew to be such an exceptionally clever boy?”
“It’s a small village,” Luca said defensively. “People have nothing to do but gossip.”
“But clearly, you are handsome. Clearly, you are clever. And yet they did not brag about you or show you off. They kept you quietly at home.”
“We were close,” Luca replied. “We were a close, small family. We troubled nobody else, we lived quietly, the three of us.”
“Then why did they give you to the Church? Was it that they thought you would be safer inside the Church? That you were specially gifted? That you needed the Church’s protection?”
Luca, still on his knees, shuffled in discomfort. “I don’t know. I was a child: I was only eleven. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
The Inquisitor waited.
“They wanted me to have the education of a priest,” he said eventually. “My father—” He paused at the thought of his beloved father, of his gray hair and his hard grip, of his tenderness to his funny, quirky little son. “My father was very proud that I learned to read, that I taught myself about numbers. He couldn’t write or read himself; he thought it was a great talent. Then when some gypsies came through the village, I learned their language.”
The man made a note. “You can speak languages?”
“People remarked that I learned to speak Romany in a day. My father thought that I had a gift, a God-given gift. It’s not so uncommon,” he tried to explain. “Freize, the spit boy, is good with animals; he can do anything with horses, he can ride anything. My father thought that I had a gift like that, only for studying. He wanted me to be more than a farmer. He wanted me to do better.”
The Inquisitor sat back in his chair, as if he was weary of listening, as if he had heard more than enough. “You can get up.”
He looked at the paper with its few black ink notes as Luca scrambled to his feet. “Now I will answer the questions that will be in your mind. I am the spiritual commander of an Order appointed by the Holy Father, the Pope himself, and I answer to him for our work. You need not know my name nor the name of the Order. We have been commanded by Pope Nicholas V to explore the mysteries, the heresies and the sins, to explain them where possible, and defeat them where we can. We are making a map of the fears of the world, traveling outward from Rome to the very ends of Christendom, to discover what people are saying, what they are fearing, what they are fighting. We have to know where the Devil is walking through the world. The Holy Father knows that we are approaching the end of days.”
“The end of days?”
“When Christ comes again to judge the living, the dead and the undead. You will have heard that the Ottomans have taken Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire, the center of the Church in the east?”
Luca crossed himself. The fall of the eastern capital of the Church to an unbeatable army of heretics and infidels was the most terrible thing that could have happened, an unimaginable disaster.
“Next, the forces of darkness will come against Rome, and if Rome falls it will be the end of days—the end of the world. Our task is to defend Christendom, to defend Rome—in this world, and in the unseen world beyond.”
“The unseen world?”
“It is all around us,” the man said flatly. “I see it, perhaps as clearly as you see numbers. And every year, every day, it presses more closely. People come to me with stories of showers of blood, of a dog that can smell out the plague, of witchcraft, of lights in the sky, of water that is wine. The end of days approaches and there are hundreds of manifestations of good and evil, miracles and heresies. A young man like you can perhaps tell me which of these are true and which are false, which are the work of God and which of the Devil.” He rose from his great wooden chair and pushed a fresh sheet of paper across the table to Luca. “See this?”
Luca looked at the marks on the paper. It was the writing of heretics, the Moors’ way of numbering. Luca had been taught as a child that one stroke of the pen meant one: I, two strokes meant two: II, and so on. But these were strange, rounded shapes. He had seen them before, but the merchants in his village and the almoner at the monastery stubbornly refused to use them, clinging to the old ways.
“This means one: 1, this two: 2, and this three: 3,” the man said, the black feather tip of his quill pointing to the marks. “Put the 1 here, in this column, it means ‘one,’ but put it here and this blank beside it and it means ‘ten,’ or put it here and two blanks beside it, it means ‘one hundred.’”
Luca gaped. “The position of the number shows its value?”
“Just so.” The man pointed the plume of the black feather to the shape of the blank, like an elongated O, which filled the columns. His arm stretched from the sleeve of his robe, and Luca looked from the O to the white skin of the man’s inner wrist. Tattooed on the inside of his arm, so that it almost appeared engraved on skin, Luca could just make out the head and twisted tail of a dragon, a design in red ink of a dragon coiled around on itself.
“This is not just a blank, it is not just an O, it is what they call a zero. Look at the position of it—that means something. What if it meant something of itself?”
“Does it mean a space?” Luca said, looking at the paper again. “Does it mean: nothing?”
“It is a number like any other,” the man told him. “They have made a number from nothing. So they can calculate to nothing, and beyond.”
“Beyond? Beyond nothing?”
The man pointed to another number: -10. “That is beyond nothing. That is ten places beyond nothing, that is the numbering of absence,” he said.
Luca, with his mind whirling, reached out for the paper. But the man quietly drew it back toward him and placed his broad hand over it, keeping it from Luca like a prize he would have to win. The sleeve fell down over his wrist again, hiding the tattoo. “You know how they got to that sign, the number zero?” he asked.
Luca shook his head. “Who got to it?”
“Arabs, Moors, Ottomans, call them what you will. Mussulmen, Muslim-men, infidels, our enemies, our new conquerors. Do you know how they got that sign?”
“It is the shape left by a counter in the sand when you have taken the counter away. It is the symbol for nothing, it looks like a nothing. It is what it symbolizes. That is how they think. That is what we have to learn from them.”
“I don’t understand. What do we have to learn?”
“To look, and look, and look. That is what they do. They look at everything, they think about everything, that is why they have seen stars in the sky that we have never seen. That is why they make physic from plants that we have never noticed.” He pulled his hood closer, so that his face was completely shadowed. “That is why they will defeat us unless we learn to see like they see, to think like they think, to count like they count. Perhaps a young man like you can learn their language too.”
Luca could not take his eyes from the paper where the man had marked out ten spaces of counting, down to zero and then beyond.
“So, what do you think?” the Inquisitor asked him. “Do you think ten nothings are beings of the unseen world? Like ten invisible things? Ten ghosts? Ten angels?”
“If you could calculate beyond nothing,” Luca started, “you could show what you had lost. Say someone was a merchant, and his debt in one country, or on one voyage, was greater than his fortune, you could show exactly how much his debt was. You could show his loss. You could show how much less than nothing he had, how much he would have to earn before he had something again.”
“Yes,” the man said. “With zero you can measure what is not there. The Ottomans took Constantinople and our empire in the east not only because they had the strongest armies and the best commanders, but because they had a weapon that we did not have: a cannon so massive that it took sixty oxen to pull it into place. They have knowledge of things that we don’t understand. The reason that I sent for you, the reason that you were expelled from your monastery but not punished there for disobedience or tortured for heresy there, is that I want you to learn these mysteries; I want you to explore them, so that we can know them, and arm ourselves against them.”
“Is zero one of the things I must study? Will I go to the Ottomans and learn from them? Will I learn about their studies?”
The man laughed and pushed the piece of paper with the Arabic numerals toward the novice priest, holding it with one finger on the page. “I will let you have this,” he promised. “It can be your reward when you have worked to my satisfaction and set out on your mission. And yes, perhaps you will go to the infidels and live among them and learn their ways. But for now, you have to swear obedience to me and to our Order. I will send you out to be my ears and eyes. I will send you to hunt for mysteries, to find knowledge. I will send you to map fears, to seek darkness in all its shapes and forms. I will send you out to understand things, to be part of our Order that seeks to understand everything.”
He could see Luca’s face light up at the thought of a life devoted to inquiry. But then the young man hesitated. “I won’t know what to do,” Luca confessed. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. I understand nothing! How will I know where to go or what to do?”
“I am going to send you to be trained. I will send you to study with masters. They will teach you the law and what powers you have to convene a court or an inquiry. You will learn what to look for and how to question someone. You will understand when someone must be released to earthly powers—the mayors of towns or the lords of the manor—or when they can be punished by the Church. You will learn when to forgive and when to punish. When you are ready, when you have been trained, I will send you on your first mission.”
“You will be trained for some months and then I shall send you out into the world with my orders,” the man said. “You will go where I command and study what you find there. You will report to me. You may judge and punish where you find wrongdoing. You may exorcise devils and unclean spirits. You may learn. You may question everything, all the time. But you will serve God and me, as I tell you. You will be obedient to me and to the Order. And you will walk in the unseen world and look at unseen things, and question them.”
There was a silence. “You can go,” the man said, as if he had given the simplest of instructions. Luca started from his silent attention and went to the door. As his hand was on the bronze handle the man said: “One thing more . . .”
“They said you were a changeling, didn’t they?” The accusation dropped into the room like a sudden shower of ice. “The people of the village? When they gossiped about you being born, so handsome and so clever, to a woman who had been barren all her life, to a man who could neither read nor write. They said you were a changeling, left on her doorstep by the faeries, didn’t they?”
There was a cold silence. Luca’s stern young face revealed nothing. “I have never answered such a question, and I hope that I never do. I don’t know what they said about us,” he said harshly. “They were ignorant, fearful country people. My mother said to pay no attention to the things they said. She said that she was my mother and that she loved me above all else. That’s all that mattered, not stories about faerie children.”
The man laughed shortly and waved Luca to go, and watched as the door closed behind him. “Perhaps I am sending out a changeling to map fear itself,” he said to himself as he tidied the papers together and pushed back his chair. “What a joke for the worlds seen and unseen! A faerie child in the Order. A faerie child to map fear.”