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The College of Cardinals bristled with ebullience and electricity as they streamed back into the Sistine Chapel. In contrast, Mortati felt in himself a rising confusion he thought might lift him off the floor and carry him away. He believed in the ancient miracles of the Scriptures, and yet what he had just witnessed in person was something he could not possibly comprehend. After a lifetime of devotion, seventy‑nine years, Mortati knew these events should ignite in him a pious exuberance . . . a fervent and living faith. And yet all he felt was a growing spectral unease. Something did not feel right.

“Signore Mortati!” a Swiss Guard yelled, running down the hall. “We have gone to the roof as you asked. The camerlegno is . . . flesh ! He is a true man! He is not a spirit! He is exactly as we knew him!”

“Did he speak to you?”

“He kneels in silent prayer! We are afraid to touch him!”

Mortati was at a loss. “Tell him . . . his cardinals await.”

“Signore, because he is a man . . .” the guard hesitated.

“What is it?”

“His chest . . . he is burned. Should we bind his wounds? He must be in pain.”

Mortati considered it. Nothing in his lifetime of service to the church had prepared him for this situation. “He is a man, so serve him as a man. Bathe him. Bind his wounds. Dress him in fresh robes. We await his arrival in the Sistine Chapel.”

The guard ran off.

Mortati headed for the chapel. The rest of the cardinals were inside now. As he walked down the hall, he saw Vittoria Vetra slumped alone on a bench at the foot of the Royal Staircase. He could see the pain and loneliness of her loss and wanted to go to her, but he knew it would have to wait. He had work to do . . . although he had no idea what that work could possibly be.

Mortati entered the chapel. There was a riotous excitement. He closed the door. God help me.

Hospital Tiberina’s twin‑rotor Aero‑Ambulanza circled in behind Vatican City, and Langdon clenched his teeth, swearing to God this was the very last helicopter ride of his life.

After convincing the pilot that the rules governing Vatican airspace were the least of the Vatican’s concerns right now, he guided her in, unseen, over the rear wall, and landed them on the Vatican’s helipad.

Grazie,” he said, lowering himself painfully onto the ground. She blew him a kiss and quickly took off, disappearing back over the wall and into the night.

Langdon exhaled, trying to clear his head, hoping to make sense of what he was about to do. With the camcorder in hand, he boarded the same golf cart he had ridden earlier that day. It had not been charged, and the battery‑meter registered close to empty. Langdon drove without headlights to conserve power.

He also preferred no one see him coming.

At the back of the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Mortati stood in a daze as he watched the pandemonium before him.

“It was a miracle!” one of the cardinals shouted. “The work of God!”

“Yes!” others exclaimed. “God has made His will manifest!”

“The camerlegno will be our Pope!” another shouted. “He is not a cardinal, but God has sent a miraculous sign!”

“Yes!” someone agreed. “The laws of conclave are man’s laws. God’s will is before us! I call for a balloting immediately!”

“A balloting?” Mortati demanded, moving toward them. “I believe that is my job.”

Everyone turned.

Mortati could sense the cardinals studying him. They seemed distant, at a loss, offended by his sobriety. Mortati longed to feel his heart swept up in the miraculous exultation he saw in the faces around him. But he was not. He felt an inexplicable pain in his soul . . . an aching sadness he could not explain. He had vowed to guide these proceedings with purity of soul, and this hesitancy was something he could not deny.

“My friends,” Mortati said, stepping to the altar. His voice did not seem his own. “I suspect I will struggle for the rest of my days with the meaning of what I have witnessed tonight. And yet, what you are suggesting regarding the camerlegno . . . it cannot possibly be God’s will.”

The room fell silent.

“How . . . can you say that?” one of the cardinals finally demanded. “The camerlegno saved the church. God spoke to the camerlegno directly! The man survived death itself! What sign do we need!”

“The camerlegno is coming to us now,” Mortati said. “Let us wait. Let us hear him before we have a balloting. There may be an explanation.”

“An explanation?”

“As your Great Elector, I have vowed to uphold the laws of conclave. You are no doubt aware that by Holy Law the camerlegno is ineligible for election to the papacy. He is not a cardinal. He is a priest . . . a chamberlain. There is also the question of his inadequate age.” Mortati felt the stares hardening. “By even allowing a balloting, I would be requesting that you endorse a man who Vatican Law proclaims ineligible. I would be asking each of you to break a sacred oath.”

“But what happened here tonight,” someone stammered, “it certainly transcends our laws!”

“Does it?” Mortati boomed, not even knowing now where his words were coming from. “Is it God’s will that we discard the rules of the church? Is it God’s will that we abandon reason and give ourselves over to frenzy?”

“But did you not see what we saw?” another challenged angrily. “How can you presume to question that kind of power!”

Mortati’s voice bellowed now with a resonance he had never known. “I am not questioning God’s power! It is God who gave us reason and circumspection! It is God we serve by exercising prudence!”