11:30 PM

THE SENESCHAL AWOKE. HE'D DRIFTED OFF IN A CHAIR BESIDE THE bed. A quick glance at the clock on the night table told him that he'd been asleep for about an hour. He glanced over at his sick master. The familiar sound of labored breath was gone. In the scattered rays of incandescent light that washed in from the abbey's exterior, he saw the film of death had gathered in the old man's eyes.

He felt for a pulse.

The master was dead.

His courage forsook him as he knelt and said a prayer for his departed friend. The cancer had won. The battle was over. But another conflict of differing proportion would soon begin. He beseeched the Lord to allow the old man's soul into heaven. No one deserved salvation more. He'd learned everything from the master--his personal failings and emotional loneliness long ago tossed him under the old man's influence. His had been a quick education, and he'd tried never to disappoint. Mistakes are tolerated, so long as they are not made again, he'd been told--only once, since the master never repeated himself.

Many of the brothers took that directness for arrogance. Others resented what they believed to be a condescending attitude. But none ever questioned the master's authority. A brother's duty was to obey. The time for inquiry came only with the selection of the master.

Which was what the day ahead now promised.

For the sixty-seventh time since Inception, a point dating back to the early part of the twelfth century, another man would be chosen master. For the sixty-six who'd come before, the average tenure was a mere eighteen years, the contributions varying from nonexistent to beyond compare. Each, though, had served the Order until death. Some had even died fighting, but the days of open warfare were long over. The quest today was more subtle, modern battlegrounds places the Fathers could never have imagined. The courts, the Internet, books, magazines, newspapers--all were venues that the Order regularly patrolled, making sure its secrets were safe, its existence unnoticed. And every master, no matter how inept he might have been, had succeeded in that singular goal. But the seneschal feared that the next tenure would be particularly decisive. A civil war was brewing, one the dead man lying before him had kept in check with an uncanny ability to predict his enemy's thoughts.

In the silence that engulfed him the rushing water from outside seemed closer. During summer the brothers often visited the falls and enjoyed a swim in the frigid pool, and he longed for such pleasures but knew there'd be no respites anytime soon. He decided not to alert the brotherhood of the master's death until prayers at Prime, which would not be for another five hours. In times past they'd all gathered just after midnight for Matins, but that devotional went the way of many Rules. A more realistic schedule now governed, one that recognized the importance of sleep, geared to the practicalities of the twenty-first rather than the thirteenth century.

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He knew that no one would dare enter the master's chamber. Only he, as seneschal, was granted that privilege, particularly while the master lay ill. So he reached for the comforter and stretched the blanket over the old man's dead face.

Several thoughts raced through his mind and he fought the rising temptation. Rule, if nothing else, instilled a sense of discipline, and he was proud that he'd never knowingly committed any violations. But several were now screaming to him. He'd thought about them all day while he watched his friend die. If death had claimed the master while the abbey was alive with activity, it would have been impossible to do what he now contemplated. But at this hour he would have free reign, and depending on what happened over the next day this might be his only chance.

So he reached down, slid back the blanket, and parted the azure robe, exposing the old man's lifeless chest. The chain was there, precisely where it should be, and he slipped the gold links over the head.

A silver key dangled from the end.

"Forgive me," he whispered as he replaced the blanket.

He hustled across the room to a Renaissance armoire darkened by countless waxings. Inside lay a bronze box adorned with a silver crest. Only the seneschal knew of its existence, and he'd seen the master open it many times, though he'd never been allowed to study its contents. He carried the container to the desk, inserted the key, and once again begged for forgiveness.

He was searching for a leather-bound volume that the master had possessed for several years. He knew it was kept inside the strongbox--the master had placed it there in his presence--but when he hinged open the lid, he saw that there was only a rosary, a few papers, and a missal. No book.

His fear was now a reality. Where before he'd only suspected, now he knew.

He replaced the strongbox in the armoire and left the bedchamber.

The abbey was a maze of multistory wings, each added in a differing century, the architecture conspiring to create a jumbled complex that now housed four hundred brothers. There was the obligatory chapel, a stately cloister garth, workshops, offices, a gym, common rooms for hygiene, eating, and entertainment, a chapter house, a sacristy, a refectory, parlors, an infirmary, and an impressive library. The master's bedchamber was situated in a section built originally in the fifteenth century, facing sheer rock precipices that towered over a narrow glen. Lodgings for the brothers were nearby, and the seneschal passed an arched portal that led into the cavernous dormitory where lights burned, as Rule forbid the chamber to ever be totally dark. He noticed no movement and heard nothing except intermittent snores. Centuries ago a guard would have been posted at the door, and he wondered if perhaps that custom would have to be revived in the days ahead.

He glided down the wide passageway, following the crimson carpet runner that shielded the rough flagstones. On either side paintings, statuary, and scattered memorials recalled the abbey's past. Unlike at other Pyrenean monasteries, no looting had occurred here during the French Revolution, so both its art and message had survived.

He found the main staircase and descended to ground level. Through more vaulted corridors he passed areas where visitors were schooled in the monastic way of life. There were not many invitees, a few thousand each year, the income a modest supplement to the annual operating expenses, but enough visited that care was taken to ensure the brothers' privacy.

The entrance he sought stood at the end of another ground-floor corridor. The door, laced with medieval ironwork, was swung open, as always.

He entered the library.

Few collections could claim to have never been disturbed, yet the innumerable volumes that surrounded him had remained inviolate for seven centuries. Started with only a score of books, the collection had grown through gift, bequest, purchase, and, in the Beginning, production from scribes who labored day and night. The subject matters then and now varied, with emphases on theology, philosophy, logic, history, law, science, and music. The Latin phrase etched into the mortar above the main doorway was fitting. CLAUSTRUM SINE ARMARIO EST QUASI CASTRUM SINE ARMAMENTARIO. A monastery without a library is like a castle without an armory.

He stopped and listened.

No one was around.

Security was of no real concern, as eight hundred years of Rule had proven more than effective in guarding the stacks. No brother would dare intrude without permission. But he was no brother. He was the seneschal. At least for one more day.

He navigated his way through the shelves, toward the rear of the massive expanse, and stopped at a black metal door. He raked a plastic card across the scanner affixed to the wall. Only the master, marshal, archivist, and himself possessed the cards. Access to the volumes beyond was gained only with the master's direct permission. Even the archivist had to obtain an okay before entering. Stored inside were a variety of precious books, old charters, title deeds, a register of members, and, most important, the Chronicles, which contained a narrative history of the Order's entire existence. As minutes memorialized what the British Parliament or U.S. Congress accomplished, the Chronicles detailed the Order's successes and failures. Written journals remained, many with brittle covers and brazen clasps, each one looking like a tiny trunk, but the bulk of the data had now been scanned into computers--making it a simple matter to electronically search the Order's nine-hundred-year record.

He entered, navigated the dimly lit shelving, and found the codex lying in its designated spot. The tiny volume measured eight inches square and an inch thick. He'd come across it two years ago, its pages bound in wooden boards sheathed with blind-stamped calf. Not quite a book, but an ancestor--an early effort that replaced rolled parchment and allowed text to be inscribed on two sides of a page.

He carefully opened the front cover.

There was no title page, the cursive Latin script framed by an illuminated border of dull red, green, and gold. He'd learned that it had been copied in the fifteenth century by one of the abbey's scribes. Most of the ancient codices had fallen victim, their parchment used to either bind other books, cover jars, or simply kindle a fire. Thank goodness this one survived. The information it contained was priceless. He'd never told anyone what he'd found within the codex, not even the master, and since he might need the information, and there would be no chances better than the present, he slipped the book into the fold of his cassock.

He walked an aisle over and found another thin volume, its script also hand-penned, but in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Not a book written for an audience, but instead a personal record. He might need it, as well, so he slipped it into his cassock.

He then left the library, knowing that the computer that controlled the security door had recorded the time of his visit. Magnetic strips affixed in each of the two volumes would identify that both had been removed. Since there was no other way out except through the doorway lined with sensors, and removing the tags could well damage the books, little choice existed. He could only hope that in the confusion of the days ahead, no one would take the time to examine the computer log.

Rule was clear.

Theft of Order property was punishable by banishment.

But that was a chance he would have to take.

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