Excerpt from I DELITTI DELLA LUCE (The Luminance Conspiracy)
by Giulio Leoni (Mondadori, 2005)
I delitti della luce © 2005 by Giulio Leoni
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English Translation © 2006 by Anne Milano Appel
All rights reserved.
Around the year 1240, the Emperor Frederick II assembles the foremost
thinkers of his time at his court in Sicily to discover the real shape of
the Universe and to demonstrate that Scripture is wrong. Mysterious forces
prevent the success of his prideful endeavors, however, and he dies before
he can complete his quest.
Meanwhile strange things begin to occur in the city. There is the strange, unknown device, a kind of machine with toothed wheels, salvaged from a galley that has run aground in the marshes of the Arno. Where did the boat and its horrifying cargo of dead crewmen come from? Who had tried to smash the strange machine and why? And there is the appearance of a puzzling relic, the Virgin of Antiochia, apparently capable of supernatural powers: what force keeps her seemingly alive? Whispers spread about a treasure linked to Frederick and about a descendant of his who is prepared to fight against Pope Boniface with the backing of several Roman families. An unusual cargo of outsized mirrors arrives, and plans and designs representing octagons are found everywhere.
And the crimes begin: the Emperor’s architect falls victim to two mortal blows, while the learned men who take up Frederick’s old obsession are killed one after the other. Why is Frederick II’s architect, the man who designed the mysterious and apparently senseless castello in the middle of nowhere, found savagely murdered in one of the towers of the old walls? It seems a specter has emerged from the past: the Emperor, insatiable and relentless in his search for knowledge, had died on the brink of a final, extraordinary revelation. Now others are on that same path to knowledge and the course is about to come full circle, dictated by the cold precision of the stars. As the city falls into a spiral of homicides that will bring it to the verge of civil war, Dante turns to the pages of an astrological work that should not exist. Obscure traces link the current events to Frederick II’s arrogant challenge: maybe Dante needs only to solve the Emperor’s last riddle to find the murderer…
Excerpt from I DELITTI DELLA LUCE by Giulio Leoni
the garden, enclosed by an arcade of marble columns, an intense perfume of
flowers wafted through the air, borne on a breeze that came from the sea.
emperor, reclining against purple cushions, had been absent-mindedly
tracing geometric designs in the soil with a small branch. Reaching out a
hand to pick up a citron that lay on the ground, he held it up to the
younger man who stood beside him.
this is how the earth is formed?” he asked after a moment’s thought.
solid sphere, curved all around” confirmed Guido Bonatti, the court
pondered those words. Then he abruptly opened his fingers, letting the
fruit drop. “What holds it up then?” he went on, turning to his other
fellow thinker who was sitting a little distance away. The man was fair,
with reddish hair and a face covered with freckles.
hand of God” replied Christianity’s foremost man of science, and the
pride of Frederick’s court, Michael Scot. A man as slight as one of the
river reeds that supported the pergola of vines.
how high are the heavens where God resides? Can you tell me, Guido?”
high as the light of God can reach, your majesty” the astrologer
replied, picking up the fruit with his left hand.
what lies beyond the light?”
it there is only darkness. As Scripture tells us, what remained after the
light was created” Michael Scot replied, pointing a finger up above.
enigmatic smile lit up Frederick’s face. Not far away, a man wearing the
coarse habit of the Friar Minors had been observing the scene in silence.
emperor turned to him. “Tell me its measure, brother Elia. The measure
of God’s greatness.”
small column had been trudging through the waterlogged ground for over two
hours, hindered by their heavy suits of armor, looking for a way through
the quagmire. At the head of the column, Dante Alighieri, wearing the
insignia of his priorship, was about twenty steps ahead of the group.
wait, slow down. Why such a hurry?” wheezed the bargello, breathing
heavily. The thickset man, wearing armor that made him even more ungainly,
slipped and slid in his attempt to catch up with the prior.
small stream was obstructing the way. Dante turned, wiping the sweat from
his forehead with his sleeve. Then with a determined gesture he gathered
the hem of his garment up over his knees and forded the brook, followed by
the others. Up ahead a rise in the terrain, covered with shrubs, concealed
the tower of Santa Croce... we should be almost there, by now” the
captain of the guard panted, pointing to a structure in the distance.
prior had stopped a little further on, halfway up the slope, and was
intent on wiping slime and mud off his boots.
a grimace of disgust he plucked a leech off his calf, hurling it some
distance away. A thin trickle of blood marked the skin at the spot where
the sucker had bitten the flesh. He rinsed the wound with a little water,
then stared impatiently at the clumsy moves of the bargello who was
floundering along, trying to catch up with him.
then, where is it?”
front of them, through an opening in the reed beds, the banks of the Arno
could be glimpsed. Further on the river disappeared from view again,
curving in a bend concealed by a rise in the terrain.
must be over there… behind that scrub.”
looked in the direction the captain was pointing to. The slimy slope
seemed to want to drag him back downwards. For the last few steps he had
had to pull himself along with his hands, grabbing onto the prickly tufts
that covered the top of the dune. Then at last he was able to get a
glimpse of the other side.
three hundred feet away, a dark form lay aground on the gravelly shore,
partly hidden by vegetation.
it was true… there it is” the bargello stammered.
too, found it hard to believe his eyes. Slightly listing on its side, a
war galley was resting against the river bank, its entire tier of oars
extended as if it were about to put out to sea.
devil must have piloted it here” the bargello murmured with a shiver.
Dante was unable to suppress a smile.
He knew very well the tales that circulated about that place. But
if the devil really was there, at least he would see what he was made of.
no one to be seen on board. It appears to be abandoned” one of the
there is no sign of life” the poet confirmed, scanning the deserted
forecastle. No one could be
made out along the narrow central passageway, and no one was at the helm.
The ship looked to be in perfect condition, as if it had just
reached the landing, its large lateen sail neatly folded on the boom.
He felt a shiver run down his back.
It was inconceivable to think that the Arno, several miles from its
mouth, might still be navigable for such a large craft.
That presence was... well, it was impossible.
He looked for some sign that might reveal its provenance, but only
a black cloth hung limply from the mast.
go closer. I must see… and find out” he said. He set off quickly down
the slope, plunging into the swamp again, followed reluctantly by the
had snatched a sword from the hand of one of the men and, submerged in
water up to his knees, was heatedly slashing at the plants to clear the
way. Trickles of sweat ran
down his body, but the excitement of the discovery seemed to have wiped
away any fatigue.
first he was unable to see where he was going. Then he delivered one final blow and stopped with a jolt.
Behind him rose the horrified shouts of the bargellini.
bearded giant had materialized before him, more than twelve feet tall. On
his monstrous head, adorned with a crown, two hideous, opposite faces
scanned the entire horizon with twin malevolent gazes.
The giant was seated on a massive carved shaft that ended in a
bronze tip half-hidden in the mud of the gravelly shore.
insistent drone hummed in the air. The
insects, that had tormented them for the entire march, seemed even more
numerous and more aggressive now. They
encircled the head of the giant figurehead like a loathsome cloud.
lord of the flies” Dante murmured, waving a swarm away with disgust.
gust of wind swept the air, carrying with it the atrocious stench of
decomposition. “We must go
on board” the prior decided, after a moment’s hesitation.
the prow, a rope ladder hung from the anchor cable. Dante covered his mouth and nose with the veil of his stiff
square cap, then hoisted himself up on the remains of the severed spur and
from there began climbing laboriously up the ship’s bulwark.
Halfway up he turned and looked behind him, urging on the bargello
who continued staring at the figurehead with a dazed expression.
He waited for the man to begin climbing, and with one final effort,
pulled himself up on the deck.
captain of the guard had also reached the deck, puffing and panting.
He moved beside him, so he too could see, then brought his hand to
his mouth, stifling a gag. “But they are...”
are dead. Just as your men
of oarsmen, lined up on their benches, seemed intent on a macabre parody,
bent over their oars as though in a convulsive effort to row.
Towards the stern, other shapes lay supine, around the rudder. The
bodies were swollen and covered with an oily sludge, as if they had lain
exposed to the scorching sun for a number of days.
looked around in confusion. A blast of warm wind swept over the deck,
causing a whiff of air tainted with putrefaction to rise from the benches.
“There is the plague, on board!”
the bargello whispered, trying to protect himself with his hand
against the stench rising from below.
shook his head. That ship
must have maneuvered with extreme skill in order to follow the river’s
course up to there. How could
it have done so if the crew had fallen prey to disease?
No, the cause of that hecatomb was undoubtedly something else.
Death must have roamed around on board like a silent guest, its
claws scratching at length, before striking.
He raised his eyes, attracted by the flapping of the cloth on the
mast. Before the flag went
limp again, he just had time to glimpse the image of a skull above two
the middle of the deck was a hatch, leading to the hold.
Perhaps the ship’s cargo would reveal its mystery.
Picking up a wooden shaft, he quickly wrapped it with a strip of
tarpaulin that was lying on the deck.
With a few flint strikes he lit the improvised torch, then leaned
into the opening, lighting the way.
He did not see any gear, yards or spare sails, any kind of food
provisions, nor any wine or water supplies. No quarters for the crew, no
kitchen, no weaponry. Even the ballast weights had been discarded,
transforming the galley into a great empty hull.
seemed that the captain’s only concern had been to minimize the load and
decrease the draft as much as
possible, to be able to go up the river.
He turned his gaze towards the aft wardroom, below the quarterdeck.
The door of the captain’s quarters was swinging slightly, as if someone
inside were inviting him to enter.
cabin was submerged in shadow. In
the middle of the room, under an iron candelabrum that hung over their
heads, three men sat motionless around a small table, sprawled on ornate
seats, wine goblets at hand; they looked as if they had just broken off a
conversation, overcome by sudden sleep.
There was a heap of metallic fragments at their feet, in the center
of a pool of light.
Dante bent down and brought the torch closer. It appeared to be some kind of machine spiked with levers
and toothed wheels, on whose polished wood and brass surfaces the flame
kindled a thousand reflections. It
was about two feet high, of perhaps the same width and length, but it was
not easy to form a precise idea of its original appearance, since someone
must have struck it forcefully, smashing it to pieces. The axe used for
the destructive act was still on the ground.
picked up one of the wheels, testing the sharpness of its keen-edged teeth
against his fingers. There
were tiny characters along the rim, that he was not able to decipher.
that moment the galley swayed with a groan, as if an unexpected eddy had
been created in the river.
bargello had approached and was looking around, bewildered.
“But... they are Saracens! All
dead” he exclaimed, not paying any attention to the wrecked machine.