Blood!" The world’s most significant ring dented the tabletop; the fist bore it crashing into the wood again and again with each word. "We must have blood."
The secret room, smaller than a bedchamber, offered a faint echo of the final word. In the shadows along the cold stone wall, a small black beetle clattered softly to the corner.
"But, Your Holiness," Cardinal Venitelli sputtered, his sleeve trembling as he held up his hand ever so slightly, crimson skullcap twitching twice. "This book is in English. Who would pay attention to that?"
"The book is circumstantial!" the Pope interrupted, bellowing. "If we are to win back that dirty little island, the time is now. We would never have attempted this with Elizabeth, but James has been handed the throne. He is a proud man, and now he has set his intellectual talents, such as they are, to work on this book. He is both overly assured and mentally distracted. The time is ripe."
"But—when you say blood . . ." Venitelli had no idea how to finish the sentence.
Pope Clement’s red cape rose and fell with each labored breath. A white, translucent collar from the underdressing crested at the neck. Fire hissed in the hearth at the opposite end of the room.
"Blood will stop the book. Stopping the book will unravel James’s plan for En gland. The plan unraveled builds a bridge from Rome to London. That bridge will bring En gland back to the Church. You must at least see God’s humor, if not His plan, in this."
The small stone room in which the two men sat was quite hidden. It was unknown to all but the Pope’s most intimate visitors. From the outside, the door was invisible, hidden by the stones in the long hallway. Inside, the room was bare of furniture save for a table and four chairs. Two large candles fixed to the tabletop illuminated the walls. The walls were draped floor to ceiling with thick tapestries, which did their best to absorb all sound. The images woven there were also red, stabbed with thorns: hunting scenes of startling violence. The characters seemed to move fitfully in the flickering light.
The floor was nearly covered with a deep, intricately patterned carpet that had been stolen during the Crusades, it was said, from Saladin himself. Cardinal Venitelli always fancied he could smell Saladin’s encampment the moment he stepped on the rug. He had often struggled to explain the sensation to himself. The reason was just beyond his mind’s grasp. The room itself seemed accustomed to harsh words.
"Yes," the cardinal managed, "but the exact meaning—"
"You need not concern yourself with exact meanings." Pope Clement relished thinking of himself as an impatient man: it prompted quick action on the part of subordinates. "We have already set certain plans in motion. They involve, in part, the man who is housing these translators at Christ Church in Cambridge—a minister named Marbury, a Protestant. Alas, he is an intelligent man in a mire of idiots. But to the point: a scholar of the Cambridge group is this night to be—what word is best? Eliminated. When that happens, we shall introduce into their midst our avenging angel."
That phrase was a code well-known to the cardinal, but to assure himself he began to ask, "By which you mean to say—"
"These tapestries are elegant, are they not?" Clement looked away.
The cardinal understood: His Holiness must not say the name of his chief assassin— his avenging angel. In this way he could honestly say, in future conversations, that he had not called for him— not by name—and had certainly never spoken with him. That task was assigned to the cardinal, who did not relish it. His face grew ashen and his voice quavered.
"I am to ask— ask the man in question to go to En gland, and kill—"
"Certainly not! Hush!" Clement rolled his head around his shoulders. "Tell him only that he is to be assigned to the translators of the King James Bible. Emphasize the Bible. Then say to him these precise words: ‘The turning of the wheel by the tilling of the wheat.’ "
Venitelli felt a fist tighten in his belly. How many times before had he conveyed such coded phrases to the man in question, subsequently leading to foul murder?
"The turning of the wheel by the tilling of the wheat," Venitelli repeated, nodding.
The Pope smiled, but did not look at the cardinal. "We are using the man in question for his special talents— abilities which only he possesses. He has a telum secretus, if We may be permitted a dramatic flair."
"But our brother’s actual task— his assignment—"
"The reason We assign these administrative tasks to you, my brother Cardinal Venitelli," the Pope said soothingly, as if to a boy of seven, "is that you rarely grasp the import of any situation. You do, however, operate with discretion. You must understand that We will stop at nothing to reclaim En gland, bring her back to Mother Church. It is God’s plan. We have in mind a series of events, in fact, though they may take several years to unfold, which will achieve Us this goal."
"Yes," Venitelli’s voice betrayed his absolute confusion.
The Pope leaned forward, his face close to Venitelli’s, and he barely spoke above a whisper, but the sound of his voice was thunder.
"This will be my legacy, do you understand? History will write me as the man who restored En gland to the True Church. And that begins with the destruction of this book— this folly to which James aspires."
The cardinal’s nostrils were momentarily assailed by a scent of camels; his ears heard faint Islamic prayers. Though he did not speak Arabic, he believed that the prayers were calling for the blood of infidels. He glared down at Saladin’s rug. Was it possible that a curse of the vanquished Islamic warriors lingered on the rug, infecting decisions made in this room? Perhaps that would account for the odd smells that attacked his senses, and the Pope’s disconcerting passion.
"Are you attempting to think?" The Pope glared at Venitelli. "Are you giving second thought to Our words?"
The cardinal stood immediately. "A thousand pardons, Your Holiness." He reached for the papal ring. "God’s plan is glorious, and your name will live forever."
The Pope offered his hand, sighing— Venitelli kissed the ring.
Cardinal Venitelli bowed, turned, and hastened toward the secret door. He peered once through a crack in the stones, cold and gray, his hand upon them, making certain no one was in the outer hall. When he saw no one, he pushed through, leaving his Pope behind.
Once in the hallway Venitelli realized that his hands would not stop trembling, and that his hairline dripped with sweat. He fought to quell his worst fear: that the Pope had lost his mind.
He slowed his pace only slightly, trying to decide which disturbed him more, the conversation he had just endured with his Pope, or the one he was about to have with the coldest man in Italy.
Excerpted from The King Fames Conspiracy by Phillip DePoy.
Copyright © 2009 by Phillip DePoy.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.