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TWO HUNDRED YARDS from Madrid’s Royal Palace, inside Almudena Cathedral, Bishop Valdespino had momentarily stopped breathing. He still wore his ceremonial robes and was seated at his office laptop, riveted by the images being transmitted from Bilbao.

This will be a massive news story.

From all he could see, the global media were already going wild. The top news outlets were lining up authorities on science and religion to speculate about Kirsch’s presentation, while everyone else offered hypotheses as to who murdered Edmond Kirsch and why. The media seemed to concur that, by all appearances, someone out there was deadly serious about making sure Kirsch’s discovery never saw the light of day.

After a long moment of reflection, Valdespino took out his cell phone and placed a call.

Rabbi Köves answered on the first ring. “Terrible!” The rabbi’s voice was nearly a shriek. “I was watching on television! We need to go to the authorities right now and tell them what we know!”

“Rabbi,” Valdespino replied, his tone measured. “I agree this is a horrifying turn of events. But before we take action, we need to think.”

“There is nothing to think about!” Köves fired back. “Clearly, someone will stop at nothing to bury Kirsch’s discovery, and they are butchers! I am convinced they also killed Syed. They must know who we are and will be coming for us next. You and I have a moral obligation to go to the authorities and tell them what Kirsch told us.”

“A moral obligation?” Valdespino challenged. “It sounds more like you want to make the information public so nobody has a motive to silence you and me personally.”

“Certainly, our safety is a consideration,” the rabbi argued, “but we also have a moral obligation to the world. I realize this discovery will call into question some fundamental religious beliefs, but if there is one thing I have learned in my long life, it is that faith always survives, even in the face of great hardship. I believe faith will survive this too, even if we reveal Kirsch’s findings.”

“I hear you, my friend,” the bishop finally said, maintaining as even a tone as possible. “I can hear the resolution in your voice, and I respect your thinking. I want you to know that I am open to discussion, and even to being swayed in my thinking. And yet, I beseech you, if we are going to unveil this discovery to the world, let us do it together. In the light of day. With honor. Not in desperation on the heels of this horrific assassination. Let us plan it, rehearse it, and frame the news properly.”

Köves said nothing, but Valdespino could hear the old man breathing.

“Rabbi,” the bishop continued, “at the moment, the single most pressing issue is our personal safety. We are dealing with killers, and if you make yourself too visible—for example, by going to the authorities or to a television station—it could end violently. I’m fearful for you in particular; I have protection here inside the palace complex, but you … you are alone in Budapest! Clearly, Kirsch’s discovery is a life-and-death matter. Please let me arrange for your protection, Yehuda.”

Köves fell silent a moment. “From Madrid? How can you possibly—”

“I have the security resources of the royal family at my disposal. Remain inside your home with your doors locked. I will request that two Guardia Real agents collect you and bring you to Madrid, where we can make sure you are safe in the palace complex and where you and I can sit down face-to-face and discuss how best to move forward.”

“If I come to Madrid,” the rabbi said tentatively, “what if you and I cannot agree on how to proceed?”

“We will agree,” the bishop assured him. “I know I am old-fashioned, but I am also a realist, like yourself. Together we will find the best course of action. I have faith in that.”

“And if your faith is misplaced?” Köves pressed.

Valdespino felt his stomach tighten, but he paused a moment, exhaled, and replied as calmly as he could. “Yehuda, if, in the end, you and I cannot find a way to proceed together, then we will part as friends, and we will each do what we feel is best. You have my word on that.”

“Thank you,” Köves replied. “On your word, I will come to Madrid.”

“Good. In the meantime, lock your doors and speak to no one. Pack a bag, and I’ll call you with details when I have them.” Valdespino paused. “And have faith. I’ll see you very soon.”

Valdespino hung up, a feeling of dread in his heart; he suspected that continuing to control Köves would require more than a plea for rationality and prudence.

Köves is panicking … just like Syed.

Both of them fail to see the bigger picture.

Valdespino closed his laptop, tucked it under his arm, and made his way through the darkened sanctuary. Still wearing his ceremonial robes, he exited the cathedral into the cool night air and headed across the plaza toward the gleaming white facade of the Royal Palace.

Above the main entrance, Valdespino could see the Spanish coat of arms—a crest flanked by the Pillars of Hercules and the ancient motto PLUS ULTRA, meaning “further beyond.” Some believed the phrase referred to Spain’s centuries-long quest to expand the empire during its golden age. Others believed it reflected the country’s long-held belief that a life in heaven existed beyond this one.

Either way, Valdespino sensed the motto was less relevant every day. As he eyed the Spanish flag flying high above the palace, he sighed sadly, his thoughts turning back to his ailing king.

I will miss him when he’s gone.

I owe him so much.

For months now, the bishop had made daily visits to his beloved friend, who was bedridden in Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of the city. A few days ago, the king had summoned Valdespino to his bedside, a look of deep concern in his eyes.

“Antonio,” the king had whispered, “I fear my son’s engagement was … rushed.”

Insane is a more accurate description, Valdespino thought.

Two months earlier, when the prince had confided in Valdespino that he intended to propose marriage to Ambra Vidal after knowing her only a very short time, the stupefied bishop had begged Julián to be more prudent. The prince had argued that he was in love and that his father deserved to see his only son married. Moreover, he said, if he and Ambra were to have a family, her age would require that they not wait too long.

Valdespino calmly smiled down at the king. “Yes, I agree. Don Julián’s proposal took us all by surprise. But he only wanted to make you happy.”

“His duty is to his country,” the king said forcefully, “not to his father. And while Ms. Vidal is lovely, she is an unknown to us, an outsider. I question her motives in accepting Don Julián’s proposal. It was far too hasty, and a woman of honor would have rejected him.”

“You are correct,” Valdespino replied, although in Ambra’s defense, Don Julián had given her little choice.

The king gently reached out and took the bishop’s bony hand in his own. “My friend, I don’t know where the time has gone. You and I have grown old. I want to thank you. You have counseled me wisely through the years, through the loss of my wife, through the changes in our country, and I have benefited greatly from the strength of your conviction.”

“Our friendship is an honor I will treasure forever.”

The king smiled weakly. “Antonio, I know you have made sacrifices in order to stay with me. Rome, for one.”

Valdespino shrugged. “Becoming a cardinal would have brought me no closer to God. My place has always been here with you.”

“Your loyalty has been a blessing.”

“And I will never forget the compassion you showed me all those years ago.”

The king closed his eyes, gripping the bishop’s hand tightly. “Antonio … I am concerned. My son will soon find himself at the helm of a massive ship, a ship he is not prepared to navigate. Please guide him. Be his polestar. Place your steady hand atop his on the rudder, especially in rough seas. Above all, when he goes off course, I beg you to help him find his way back … back to all that is pure.”

“Amen,” the bishop whispered. “I give you my word.”

Now, in the cool night air, as Valdespino made his way across the plaza, he raised his eyes to the heavens. Your Majesty, please know that I am doing all I can to honor your final wishes.

Valdespino took solace in knowing that the king was far too weak now to watch television. If he had seen tonight’s broadcast out of Bilbao, he would have died on the spot to witness what his beloved country had come to.

To Valdespino’s right, beyond the iron gates, all along Calle de Bailén, media trucks had gathered and were extending their satellite towers.

Vultures, Valdespino thought, the evening air whipping at his robes.

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