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Cardinal Mortati gazed up at the lavish ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and tried to find a moment of quiet reflection. The frescoed walls echoed with the voices of cardinals from nations around the globe. The men jostled in the candlelit tabernacle, whispering excitedly and consulting with one another in numerous languages, the universal tongues being English, Italian, and Spanish.

The light in the chapel was usually sublime—long rays of tinted sun slicing through the darkness like rays from heaven—but not today. As was the custom, all of the chapel’s windows had been covered in black velvet in the name of secrecy. This ensured that no one on the inside could send signals or communicate in any way with the outside world. The result was a profound darkness lit only by candles . . . a shimmering radiance that seemed to purify everyone it touched, making them all ghostly . . . like saints.

What privilege, Mortati thought, that I am to oversee this sanctified event. Cardinals over eighty years of age were too old to be eligible for election and did not attend conclave, but at seventy‑nine years old, Mortati was the most senior cardinal here and had been appointed to oversee the proceedings.

Following tradition, the cardinals gathered here two hours before conclave to catch up with friends and engage in last‑minute discussion. At 7 P.M . . . the late Pope’s chamberlain would arrive, give opening prayer, and then leave. Then the Swiss Guard would seal the doors and lock all the cardinals inside. It was then that the oldest and most secretive political ritual in the world would begin. The cardinals would not be released until they decided who among them would be the next Pope.

Conclave. Even the name was secretive. “Con clave “literally meant “locked with a key.” The cardinals were permitted no contact whatsoever with the outside world. No phone calls. No messages. No whispers through doorways. Conclave was a vacuum, not to be influenced by anything in the outside world. This would ensure that the cardinals kept Solum Dum prae oculis . . . only God before their eyes.

Outside the walls of the chapel, of course, the media watched and waited, speculating as to which of the cardinals would become the ruler of one billion Catholics worldwide. Conclaves created an intense, politically charged atmosphere, and over the centuries they had turned deadly: poisonings, fist fights, and even murder had erupted within the sacred walls. Ancient history, Mortati thought. Tonight’s conclave will be unified, blissful, and above all . . . brief.

Or at least that had been his speculation.

Now, however, an unexpected development had emerged. Mystifyingly, four cardinals were absent from the chapel. Mortati knew that all the exits to Vatican City were guarded, and the missing cardinals could not have gone far, but still, with less than an hour before opening prayer, he was feeling disconcerted. After all, the four missing men were no ordinary cardinals. They were the cardinals.

The chosen four.

As overseer of the conclave, Mortati had already sent word through the proper channels to the Swiss Guard alerting them to the cardinals’ absence. He had yet to hear back. Other cardinals had now noticed the puzzling absence. The anxious whispers had begun. Of all cardinals, these four should be on time! Cardinal Mortati was starting to fear it might be a long evening after all.

He had no idea.