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Despite the soft glow of candlelight in the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Mortati was on edge. Conclave had officially begun. And it had begun in a most inauspicious fashion.

Half an hour ago, at the appointed hour, Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca had entered the chapel. He walked to the front altar and gave opening prayer. Then, he unfolded his hands and spoke to them in a tone as direct as anything Mortati had ever heard from the altar of the Sistine.

“You are well aware,” the camerlegno said, “that our four preferiti are not present in conclave at this moment. I ask, in the name of his late Holiness, that you proceed as you must . . . with faith and purpose. May you have only God before your eyes.” Then he turned to go.

“But,” one cardinal blurted out, “where are they?”

The camerlegno paused. “That I cannot honestly say.”

“When will they return?”

“That I cannot honestly say.”

“Are they okay?”

“That I cannot honestly say.”

Will they return?”

There was a long pause.

“Have faith,” the camerlegno said. Then he walked out of the room.

The doors to the Sistine Chapel had been sealed, as was the custom, with two heavy chains on the outside. Four Swiss Guards stood watch in the hallway beyond. Mortati knew the only way the doors could be opened now, prior to electing a Pope, was if someone inside fell deathly ill, or if the preferiti arrived. Mortati prayed it would be the latter, although from the knot in his stomach he was not so sure.

Proceed as we must, Mortati decided, taking his lead from the resolve in the camerlegno’s voice. So he had called for a vote. What else could he do?

It had taken thirty minutes to complete the preparatory rituals leading up to this first vote. Mortati had waited patiently at the main altar as each cardinal, in order of seniority, had approached and performed the specific balloting procedure.

Now, at last, the final cardinal had arrived at the altar and was kneeling before him.

“I call as my witness,” the cardinal declared, exactly as those before him, “Christ the Lord, who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

The cardinal stood up. He held his ballot high over his head for everyone to see. Then he lowered the ballot to the altar, where a plate sat atop a large chalice. He placed the ballot on the plate. Next he picked up the plate and used it to drop the ballot into the chalice. Use of the plate was to ensure no one secretly dropped multiple ballots.

After he had submitted his ballot, he replaced the plate over the chalice, bowed to the cross, and returned to his seat.

The final ballot had been cast.

Now it was time for Mortati to go to work.

Leaving the plate on top of the chalice, Mortati shook the ballots to mix them. Then he removed the plate and extracted a ballot at random. He unfolded it. The ballot was exactly two inches wide. He read aloud for everyone to hear.

Eligo in summum pontificem . . .” he declared, reading the text that was embossed at the top of every ballot. I elect as Supreme Pontiff . . . Then he announced the nominee’s name that had been written beneath it. After he read the name, he raised a threaded needle and pierced the ballot through the word Eligo, carefully sliding the ballot onto the thread. Then he made note of the vote in a logbook.

Next, he repeated the entire procedure. He chose a ballot from the chalice, read it aloud, threaded it onto the line, and made note in his log. Almost immediately, Mortati sensed this first vote would be failed. No consensus. After only seven ballots, already seven different cardinals had been named. As was normal, the handwriting on each ballot was disguised by block printing or flamboyant script. The concealment was ironic in this case because the cardinals were obviously submitting votes for themselves. This apparent conceit, Mortati knew, had nothing to do with self‑centered ambition. It was a holding pattern. A defensive maneuver. A stall tactic to ensure no cardinal received enough votes to win . . . and another vote would be forced.

The cardinals were waiting for their preferiti . . .

When the last of the ballots had been tallied, Mortati declared the vote “failed.”

He took the thread carrying all the ballots and tied the ends together to create a ring. Then he lay the ring of ballots on a silver tray. He added the proper chemicals and carried the tray to a small chimney behind him. Here he lit the ballots. As the ballots burned, the chemicals he’d added created black smoke. The smoke flowed up a pipe to a hole in the roof where it rose above the chapel for all to see. Cardinal Mortati had just sent his first communication to the outside world.

One balloting. No Pope.