Chapter 1
Givors, France
Monday, May 4
The Present
11:40 a.m.

Cassiopeia Vitt knew they'd found something important.


Hard to say. Just an instinct that came from years of digging in the dirt, building a castle. It was her labor of love, one that would probably consume her entire adult life. But it was worth it. Especially at moments like this when the French soil finally yielded up its secrets.

"It's definitely something," Viktor said.

A dozen men and women who'd also been working at the construction site had stopped, now gathered around where she and her site superintendent stood. Viktor had been digging an exploratory trench for a new masonry wall that was scheduled to be erected next week when he hit something. The stone for it was being quarried and already rose in piles nearby. She knelt down in the muck and peered into the trench, damp from a rainstorm last night. Despite a thin film of mud, a gleam suggested precious metal.

"Looks like gold," Viktor said.

"Any idea what it is?" she asked.

"From less than an inch exposed?" He laughed. "No idea. There's only one way to find out. Let me dig some more."

"I'll help, it'll go faster."

"Because goodness knows patience isn't one of your best virtues."

"Or yours," she teased back.

She'd been working the project for a long time. Best estimate was that the castle stood at about thirty percent complete. Three curtain walls were up, the fourth still on the drawing board. Several inner buildings had likewise been erected, their interiors though still being planned.

And Viktor was right.

Patience was not her virtue.

Together, they lay flat on their stomachs and carefully set about enlarging the find, slow and careful, using all of the proper techniques to keep it uncorrupted. Painstakingly, trowel by trowel, they removed layers of clay, rock, and debris. Finally, they exposed a corner and enough of one side to see that they'd located a gold box.

"Ingénieur, it looks like you've got yourself a treasure chest," Viktor said.

The staff had bestowed upon her the label of engineer during the first year of the project and, while she was generally averse to nicknames, she liked that one.

"Judging by what we can see, I'd say it's about forty-six centimeters wide and about the same in height," she said.

"And with that deduction I suggest we take a break. My back is killing me," Viktor said.

Reluctantly, she agreed. Her own spine also ached from lying on her stomach too long. Yes, she was curious to uncover more. But like Viktor had noted earlier, patience seemed in order.

They left the site and headed toward the high barn that housed the reception center, there to accommodate the several thousand visitors who came every year. Inside, in the back, was an employee kitchen where Cassiopeia brewed them both espressos. Viktor sipped his. She finished hers in two gulps.

"Ready to get back to work and see if we can remove it?" she asked as she laid the cup in the sink.

"Slow down. I said a break not a breath."

She couldn't sit still, so she brewed herself a second coffee.

"I'm as curious as you are," Viktor said. "But that thing has been there a long time. It's not going anywhere. Drink your coffee."

She knew he was right, but it was hard to tamp down her excitement. Finding artifacts was not unusual. Through the centuries the locale had played host to a variety of historical buildings, starting with a Roman fortress nearly two thousand years ago. Hundreds of items had been unearthed. Things like a 15th century ceramic jug without a chip. A pewter cape closure with a roughhewn topaz at its center. A thick brown glass bottle still containing dregs of ancient olive oil. And, really cool, a sword, maybe 13th century, in a badly deteriorated leather scabbard. All were important and valuable finds, and she planned on displaying them in a museum that would occupy part of the finished castle one day.

So what had the earth yielded this time?

Givors was an ancient place that evolved into an important medieval enclave. Its teardrop-shaped center was still entered through two 14th century gates, designed far more for decoration than defense. Two unremarkable churches lined the main square, along with old houses of wood and stone, the majority now filled with cafés and shops. Most of its inhabitants now lived in the forests beyond. Her chateau was one of many constructed in the 16th century, lovingly maintained through a succession of dedicated owners. Her castle reconstruction project was aimed at reviving one of the region's oldest fortresses, a ruin until she purchased the site and started her project.

The placard near the parking lot that greeted visitors said it all.

Welcome to the past. Here at givors, a site once occupied by Louis IX, a castle is being constructed using materials and techniques only available to 13th century craftsmen. A masoned tower was the very symbol of a lord's power. The castle at givors was designed as a military fortress with thick walls and corner towers. The surrounding environs provided an abundance of water, stone, earth, sand, and wood, which were all needed for its construction. Quarriers, stone hewers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and potters are now laboring, living and dressing exactly as they would have eight centuries ago. The project is privately funded and the current estimate is 20 years will be needed to complete the castle. Enjoy your time in the 13th century.

She and Viktor walked back toward the east curtain wall. Overhead loomed a cloudless sky, the warm May air freshened by a floral breeze. Back on their stomachs, they resumed excavation. A half hour of meticulous work revealed a few more centimeters of the box.

"This is a bigger chest than I first thought," Viktor said.

"You made a mistake?" Cassiopeia teased.

It was a running joke between them that Viktor was never wrong and, even when he was, he never admitted it. Instead, it was the circumstances that had fooled him. Or someone else screwed up? Or, her personal favorite, the whole thing was a cruel and vicious lie put out by his enemies to discredit him.

She liked Viktor. They'd attended university together, both working on architectural degrees, hers with a specialty in medieval history. During their second year she'd shared her dream of rebuilding a medieval castle, and that she had the means to make it happen. Five years after they graduated, she asked him to come on board and he'd agreed.

They made a good team.

She produced the initial designs and Viktor changed them. Which was fine, since all of his edits were right on target. She could not have undertaken such a gargantuan project without him. She employed more than 120 men and women who worked year round. The costs were enormous. Luckily her parents had left her a fortune thanks to her Spanish grandfather who, in the 1920s, bought coal, minerals, precious metals, gems, and gold mines all over the world. Today, that output was used in everything from high-end electronics to parts for planes and missiles. Demand never seemed to cease. Since her parents died, the people who ran the corporation had doubled its net worth. She was proud that she was putting some of that capital to historical use.

History should be seen.

Her father taught her that.

She often wished she could show him the site. He'd be so proud. She missed him. They'd been incredibly close. And so similar. Except when it came to religion. Their battles on that subject had been epic, threatening their entire relationship. Her parents were devout Mormons, but she'd never been able to share their beliefs. And not for any hostility toward the Latter-day Saints, who were good people, she just possessed no faith. And God, if he even existed, surely would not have approved of parents and children fighting over believing in Him. She'd never been able to reconcile that her father, brilliant in so many ways, was somewhat irrational when it came to religion. His greatest flaw. His only, in her opinion. He'd firmly believed a divine plan existed that every person had to follow. If done, you were rewarded with heaven and all of its wonders. If you failed, only darkness came your way. For a daughter who idolized her father, his blind faith had been hard to accept. To her, no plan existed. No heaven or hell. The Bible? Just a story made up by men in order to get other men to obey. Religion seemed the last vestige of man's intellectual infancy. A remnant from the past.

Like her castle.

She stared at the find in the ground.

They'd exposed the entire box.

Which had a majesty about it. Definitely gold. The top decorated with an assortment of cabochon stones in the shape of a curious cross, its points dotted. Like an inverted Maltese cross, but shorter and squatter.

"It's the Cross of Toulouse," she said.

She knew the history. First seen in the late 12th century when the counts of Toulouse added the cross to their coat of arms. Eventually, it became the symbol of Languedoc resistance to French invaders during the Albigensian crusades against the Cathars. Today it was called the Occitan cross and sometimes, mistakenly, the Cathar cross.

"Let's see what we have here," Viktor said as he snaked ropes underneath the chest.

She helped, then they each grabbed the ends and lifted.

"This is heavy," Viktor said as they struggled.

Finally, they freed the chest from its grave and settled it on the ground.

She immediately snapped a dozen pictures from every angle with a high-resolution camera.

The entire work crew had gathered around, the excitement among them palpable. It was that way with every find. Thankfully, no paying visitors were around today. The site was closed on Mondays to allow for some of the heavy lifting to happen without the worry of hurting anyone. Shelby Randall, a journalist embedded at the site for the past week, there to write a piece about the castle for the magazine Archéologie, swept in and snapped some pictures of her own.

"You do the honors, Ingénieur," Viktor said.

She brushed the remaining mud off the lid in soft, easy strokes. Viktor leaned forward and together they inspected the container.

"Definitely gold," Viktor said. "It had to come from a church or cathedral."

She agreed. "It looks like they melted some wax and created an airtight seal all the way around the lid."

Which meant there could be something quite valuable inside. Given the style, ornamentation, and materials it appeared like some sort of religious casket.

"I'd bet those are gem quality cabochon rubies embedded in the design," she said.

"If there are rubies on the outside, what's inside?" Shelby Randall asked.

Good question.

Cassiopeia reached out and stroked the latch, then hesitated, savoring the anticipation. Shelby inched closer, ready for the reveal shot. Cassiopeia lifted the latch, opened the lid, and peered into the box. Inside, an object lay wrapped in a gray silk fabric, eaten by time but still relatively intact.

She fingered the tattered cloth. "It's silk."

"And it survived," Viktor said, "thanks to the seal."

She lifted the object out, freeing it from the casket. How long had it lain there? Hard to say at this point. Best guess? Given the Occitan cross, sometime in the past eight hundred years. Which wasn't saying much.

She laid the object on the ground and parted the moldy silk.

Revealing a book.

Its binding fashioned of a tooled, dark brown leather. About twenty millimeters tall and twelve wide. In the center of the front cover lay a raised medallion consisting of two gilt concentric circles enclosing a stylized rose that glowed red and purple in the late morning sun. It reminded her of Notre Dame's famous rose window in miniature. Dozens of chipped rubies and amethyst stones were set into the leather to create a startling resemblance. The top and bottom outer corners were covered with gold protectors and, in the middle of the right edge, a gold clasp held the pages together. Staining of the edges evidenced moisture damage.

"When would you date it?" she asked Viktor, interested in his opinion.

"Thirteenth to 14th century, based on the decoration," he said, pointing at the cover. "But the outside can be quite different from inside. The cover could have been reused."

She agreed.

They'd seen that before.

She carefully undid the clasp and opened the book to reveal an illuminated manuscript. They were all stunned by the quality of the work, riveted by its beauty and rarity. On the title page were the words Libre de las Õras, Book of Hours, in Occitan.

"That's odd," she said. "Not Latin."

Viktor nodded. "That is unusual."

The pages were highly illustrated with the anthropomorphic initials of monks, most likely the artists themselves. The indigos, emeralds, and crimsons seemed as resplendent as if they'd been painted yesterday. Every letter, finished in chrysography—a mix of powdered gold and gum—glowed in the sunlight.

She slowly turned the page.

A braid, painted in gold and silver, bordered on the right and left. The left braid enclosed an elaborate figurative biblical scene, still clear, untouched by time. On the right historiated letters, with an illustration inside, led off a block of text. Every millimeter of white space was filled with complex floral motifs utilizing silver and gold, along with more blues, greens, and reds. She turned to another equally magnificent page, rich with designs that the eye could not resist.

"Illuminated manuscripts of this quality are rare," she said.

Viktor nodded. "Tell me about it. This one is a beauty."

Shelby, at Cassiopeia's elbow, clicked away, her camera recording each reveal. The sound caught Cassiopeia's attention and brought her back to reality.

"Okay, show's over," she said. "We need to get this inside and sealed away. The middle of a construction site isn't the best place to study such a precious find. And all of you need to get back to work."

The crowd dispersed and she and Viktor rewrapped the book.

"My father would have loved this," she said.

"Something else he collected?" Viktor asked.

She smiled. "Sometimes I think he had no choice but to become successful, just to indulge his passion for art."

"Lucky man that he was a billionaire."

"He was nothing if not determined and disciplined. He had a great interest in hand-painted religious tomes. He admired monks who lived in isolation, hunched over their desks in scriptoria. I think he was a little jealous of them."


"They had a freedom in their isolation that he never enjoyed. The time needed to create infinite beauty. As he called it."

Illuminated manuscripts were the picture books, the coffee-table books, of the Middle Ages. Hard to produce and expensive. Reserved for special texts, like a Bible. Or, like here, a Book of Hours, which noted prayers appropriate for different times in the liturgical day. Many of the wealthy possessed such a book. They were mainly created in monasteries, but she knew that commercial scriptoria eventually appeared in big cities, like Paris. What one was doing buried in the south of France was anybody's guess.

A mystery.

She loved mysteries.

Her friend Nicodème, who curated the Museum of Mysteries in Eze, loved them too and might be of some assistance. Perhaps she'd give him a call.

Right now, she needed to protect the find.

She lifted the book, set it back inside the chest, and turned to leave.

A chill ran down her spine. Where'd that come from? She glanced around at the construction site.

Nothing unusual or strange in sight.

So she walked away.