An excerpt from
The Star in the East
To Beth Bethlen, Rome was a city of scents. The air sang with them. The ancient city wore them like a blanket, the way San Francisco wore fog, or Seattle rain. There was a district where she liked to shop—or had liked to when she’d still been strong enough to walk that far—that always smelled of the sea, even though the wind had left salt and fish long behind by the time it reached those airy, crowded plazas. The streets near her tiny, out-of-the-way hotel always smelled inexplicably of lemons. North, toward Vatican City, the streets smelled of bubbling sauces—tomato, basil, oregano. South, it was cheese—Parmesan, Romano, and something that might have been Gorgonzola, but sweeter, like it was touched with blueberries and honey. A few blocks east, and the aromas of fresh bread—morning to midnight—made her stomach rumble with happy anticipation, even though she never had much appetite. Not
Beth crinkled her nose. Here, the only scent on the still, heavy air was the weight of dank, damp decay, moldering stone, and time. This part of the city smelled old. Old, dusty, and forgotten. She glanced down at her phone and wondered why map apps never included smells. In Rome at least, it would surely be a huge help. Wrong smell, wrong district. Right smell, why, you were right on track. She shook her head and glared at the phone. No such luck.
She checked the phone again and nodded to herself, an introvert’s old habit, and let out a sigh. Uber rides and phone apps could only get her so far. This deep in the old city, where secrets rested, lost, modern maps were useless. But she was almost there at last. Thank God. She took a deep breath, her nose crinkling, and let it out slowly. She was tired, so very tired. She didn’t think she could have made it much farther.
Beth paused and adjusted her N95 facemask. With her weakened heart, she had to stop often to rest and catch her breath, even if it was just for a moment or two. She put her small carry-on suitcase down on the cobbled pavement and pulled her Boston Red Sox jacket more tightly across her thin frame. It was too large for her, especially now when she’d lost so much weight, but she wore it anyway because it belonged to her husband—it still smelled faintly of his Old Spice Bearglove after shave—and she liked to have something with her that made her feel close to him, even if he was half a world away. Beth smiled. He had no idea she was in Rome. He didn’t even know she’d left the States. He was going to be just all kinds of surprised.
She thought about sitting down, but she didn’t. Her nose crinkled again. She didn’t want any more of her person to touch the streets here than was strictly necessary. The soles of her shoes were more than enough, thank you very much, and she might literally just throw them away when she got back to the hotel. She didn’t even want to rest against the stone walls of the buildings, which leaned precariously over the narrow street like old men bent over their canes. She rested one knee on her suitcase and then the other. That would have to be enough. God but she was tired. Dammit, she wasn’t even thirty. No way she should be this frickin’ tired.
She smiled to herself. Frickin’. That was one of her husband’s words.
Beth slipped her phone back into the pocket of her Red Sox jacket. Now, she needed the kind of knowledge to which modern technology wasn’t privy, so she retrieved a bundle of brittle papers from the side pocket of her suitcase. It had taken her a long time to find those pages, and it had cost a small fortune. She was sure her husband would forgive her when he found out. The surprise was for him, after all. A Christmas mystery. One final puzzle, and the best for last.
The first showed a map of a more ancient Rome. Thankfully, Rome wasn’t a city that changed much, especially not this part, the one that smelled of dank dampness, one of the very oldest quarters of the city. Senators, philosophers, and centurions had walked these streets. Now that she was close, yes, yes, she could follow the map easily. And—she thanked God again—she apparently wouldn’t have to follow it far.
She looked up and nodded. There, just ahead. She was in the right place; she was sure of it.
She smiled again. Her husband’s word.
The old stone monastery filled several blocks, but it wasn’t in any of the guidebooks. Beth knew enough to know that the monks saw to that, just as they had done for centuries. It was a place that hid secrets; it wasn’t meant to be found, at least not by those who had no business there. Beth closed her eyes and mouthed a silent prayer, hoping that her errand would qualify. She allowed herself another quick smile. Prayer seemed especially appropriate before entering a monastery.
She shuffled the musty pages and found another map, this one showing a maze of dark catacombs and deep tunnels, ancient and secret. This was the map she would need next, once she was inside. She studied it carefully for a long moment and then took another deep breath, this time for courage. She picked up her suitcase and headed to the monastery’s great door, dark wood against dark stone, hidden in shadow, and marveled at how easy it would have been to miss, at least if one wasn’t looking for it specifically, and if one didn’t know where or how to look. It was old, even in a city where frickin’ everything was old. The door was unlocked, but it was even heavier than it looked. She had to use her whole body to push it open. Once, not too long ago, she would have just had to shove it with her arm. She slipped inside, but then she had to pause again to slow her breathing. Her heart pounded. That wasn’t good. Her doctors would have a fit. She had to put her suitcase down again and use both hands to push the door closed behind her again. She grunted with the effort.
When her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Beth turned and found herself in a long entrance corridor with walls of unadorned stone. The air was still and stale, and cooler than it had been outside. The dank smell lingered. At the end of the corridor, a monk sat behind an ornate desk that, Beth couldn’t help thinking, would have been called an antique when her great-great-grandparents were infants. Frickin’ Caesar probably would have called it an antique. A simple wooden cross stood on the desk, along with an open leather-bound book and a fountain pen. Behind the desk stood another tall door, also of wood stained dark by time.
Beth approached the desk and sat her suitcase down again. Her Italian absolutely sucked, so she had to rely on her phone’s translation app. “Hello,” said Beth. “I’m here for the, uh, Graveyard of Secrets.”
The app’s synthetic voice repeated: “Ciao. Sono qui per, uh, il Cimitero dei Segreti.”
She reached into her shirt and pulled out the heavy silver chain she wore around her neck. It held an oddly shaped pendant—an iron key.
The monk regarded the key and for a moment, his eyes widened slightly. He nodded once. “I Custodi ti stanno aspettando.”
Beth looked down at the translation screen and read: The Keepers are expecting you.
The monk made a note in his book. Then, he stood and unlocked the door behind him. He bowed slightly and motioned for Beth to enter. She managed a smile. “Grazie.” She didn’t need the app to say thank you, at least.
The monk nodded and closed the door behind her just as she found the light switch. It clicked loudly when she flipped it, and the lightbulbs buzzed. The walls here, too, were of stone, although there were carpets on the floor. Sconces lined the walls, but they were empty of candles. It took her a minute, but Beth found another door at the far end of the chamber—another one she would have missed easily if she hadn’t been looking carefully. It seemed to be made of the same stone as the walls. Beth frowned. She wasn’t sure she would have been strong enough to push that door even if her heart . . . even if she wasn’t sick. She closed her eyes, took another deep breath, and pushed all her weight against the stone door, struggling to push it open. As she did, she heard counterweights shifting behind the door and, to her very great surprise, the door swung open easily. She wished her husband could be there with her. The ingenuity of the ancient mechanism would have impressed him. He was fond of old things, as his father the scholar had been, and he admired clever things.
Since she could see a faint glow ahead, she didn’t bother with the light switch. Instead, she thumbed on her phone’s flashlight and started down a stairway of narrow, damp stone. There were walls of plaster on either side, much of it flaked away to reveal more stone, but she wished for a handrail. The stairs took her down a long, long way.
At the bottom, Beth found that the still air smelled more dusty than dank. Dim and flickering lights—for which she could not see the sources—made strange shadows but provided enough illumination to show her that she had three choices, or four if she counted back up the stairs. The latter was no choice at all. So she could go left, right, or straight ahead. She checked the second map. Straight ahead, then right, and then two lefts.
With the phone’s flashlight and the flickering lights to guide her, Beth made her way through the maze of tunnels, a dark and secret way far beneath the streets of Rome. The architecture wasn’t quite ornate enough to be Gothic, Beth supposed, but it was too damn creepy to be anything else. Somewhere to her left, water dripped, echoing in the vast darkness. She took another right, and then a left. After a time, she came to a narrow stone bridge that arced over a dark and deep chasm, the walls of which were lined with rough brick. Far below, she could hear the music of rushing water. She sniffed. It wasn’t sewage, thank God. It must be a lost, underground river, or a stream, anyway, too deep in shadow to be seen. She wondered where it let out, if it ever did, or if anyone in the outside world knew of it.
She kept going. Soon she was breathing heavily, so she stopped and set her suitcase down. She checked the map again—so far, so good. Her heart was still pounding, so she found a prescription bottle in her jacket and swallowed a pill, even though she didn’t have any water. It wasn’t the first time she’d done that, not by a long shot. She was almost used to it; the little bastards hardly ever stuck in her throat anymore. It went down like a pinecone. Once she’d choked it down, she gathered her suitcase and continued on, glancing down at the map one more time as she moved.
Ten or so minutes later, Beth opened a wooden door and emerged blinking into a cavernous, domed room that, she would have bet, had been old in the Renaissance. Bookcases climbed nearly to the ceiling far above. Beth wished she had time to gaze at the titles. The light was brighter here, and Beth found herself blinking. Beyond the bookcases, doorways opened into corridors, and a winding staircase led up. The next thing Beth noticed was that she was not alone.
Three men in monk’s robes stepped forward, while nine more held back, making a ring around a stone table. The robes didn’t match. Two were white; the others were black or brown. Beth wondered if that meant they were of different orders or something; she didn’t think fashion choices were much of a thing with monks. She was glad she hadn’t stolen a glance at the book titles. She doubted the men would have approved. She swallowed and approached them. She opened the translation app on her phone and said, “Is this the Graveyard of Secrets?” The app translated.
One of the monks, a plump man with close cropped white hair, fingered the cross he wore around his neck as he answered in English. “Welcome, Mrs. Bethlen.” Beth smiled. The man’s voice was warm, and his accent was lovely. “We offer you the blessings of our Lord.”
Beth’s smiled widened. “Thank you, Father. I . . . um, I’m looking for a book. That’s why I’m here. The Roots of the Bethlens.”
A different monk answered her. This man was younger and thinner, and his accent, she thought, must be from a different region of Italy, one she hadn’t visited. “I’m sorry, my child. We can give the book to only the Bethlen heir.”
Beth nodded. “That’s my husband. Gaspar. Gaspar Bethlen.”
“Gaspar,” the monk with the close-cropped hair said with a lip twitch that almost, almost hinted at a smile.
“That’s . . . an unusual name.”
Beth nodded. “It’s a family name.” She tried to smile. “His is . . . an unusual family, I think. He’s related to a Hungarian count. Did you know that?” The monk nodded. “I don’t think my Gaspar does. I can’t wait to tell him! Anyway. I . . . I’m here to, uh, claim it for him. Gaspar. The book, I mean.”
The monks shifted and looked at one another. They frowned awkwardly. Beth felt her own smile wilt. Uh oh. She forced the smile back into place. “My husband’s father spent his life looking for that book. He died looking for it.”
The plump monk nodded. “Dr. Bethlen, the Nativity scholar. We know his work. He was a brilliant man.”
“And . . . and I have the key,” said Beth. “It belonged to Gaspar’s great-grandfather. You know it, don’t you? Yes?”
Another monk spoke. This man had an accent that wasn’t Italian. Beth thought it might have been Scottish. “And his before him, my child, and his before him. That key is ancient.”
The second monk, the thinner one, spoke again. “You should know . . . we have only the first volume of three.”
Beth felt another smile blooming and hoped it didn’t look smug. Well, not too smug, anyway. “I already found the other two.”
The plump monk’s eyes popped open wide. “Did you? Extraordinary.” The other monks muttered softly to one another in Italian or maybe even Latin. Did monks still speak Latin? Beth couldn’t follow any of it.
The thinner monk ignored the others and frowned. “Be careful. Keep those books hidden. And safe. They are the keys to . . . to a very special legacy.”
Beth nodded. “I know. It’s this, isn’t it?”
Beth knelt and opened her suitcase pocket. She found a parchment in a folder of clear plastic and gazed at it, as she had some many times already, before she handed it to the thinner monk. It showed an antiquated, hand-tinted etching of a jewel set in what appeared to be gold, ornately crafted, nearly the size of her husband’s palm. Her husband had very large hands, an athlete’s hands. The artist had etched fire onto the stone. Beth had assumed that was meant to be symbolic, although she had no idea what it was supposed to represent. Something mysterious, no doubt. Something numinous, something holy.
The monks glanced at one another with scarcely contained surprise.
“My husband’s father had that parchment when he died,” Beth said. “I think this is meant to be actual size. It is, isn’t it? The gem must . . . why, it must be priceless!”
“More so than it appears,” the thinner monk said softly, nodding, “for this gem carries with it a secret. One that has remained untold for more than two thousand years. Did you know that?”
Beth nodded. “I think so. That’s why I need the book. It’s the last clue. I think so, anyway. It belongs to my husband, yes? I mean, it’s rightfully his. Uh, right? The book, I mean. And the gem, too, if I’m right. And if the book is the last clue.”
The plump monk smiled and inclined his head, a barely perceptible motion. “My child, we cannot give you the book. Come back to us. With your husband.” Beth closed her eyes and sighed. This was what she had feared. Okay. It was time to play her trump card. It was time to tell these monks the truth.
“No. No, you don’t understand.” She took a deep breath. “This . . . this is my last trip. Like, ever, I mean. Father—”
“Brother,” the monk corrected her.
She nodded. “I’m dying, Brother.” She managed a smile, even though she knew it was a sad one. “Heart condition. Degenerative. A few months. Maybe a year. I’m never going to have a baby. I’m never going to be forty. Christ, I’m never even going to be thirty-five.” She didn’t think the monk was offended. She hadn’t meant the Christ as profanity; she’d meant it as a sort of prayer. Nonetheless, she added, “Uh, sorry, Father.”
“Brother,” the monk corrected her again. Beth saw a smile in his eyes.
Beth had to fight to hold back her tears. “I’m not looking for pity. I’m . . . I’m at peace. I am, truly. But . . . here’s the thing, see? My husband will be hurting. He’ll be alone. This is my last gift to him. I . . . I want to give him his family. He . . . he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything about his own legacy, or the books, or the jewel. Definitely not the secret.”
The monks bowed their heads, sadly, all twelve of them, even the ones who hadn’t spoken.
“May God bless you, child,” the plump monk said. The thinner monk managed a smile. “We’ll show it to you, if you like. Even though we shouldn’t even do that much. But you may not take it with you. I’m sorry.”
Beth wanted to argue, to plead, to beg, even, but she knew it would do no good. She valued economy of effort as only one who knows she is dying can. She sighed. There was only one thing left to do. “He’ll come here. My husband, I mean. After . . . ” She swallowed. “After I’m gone. Maybe not right away. But he’ll come. Someday. I’ll make sure of it. Could I . . . could I leave you something? To give him?”
The thinner monk nodded. “We’ll keep it with the book. We will guard it, like all the secrets we are called to protect.”
Beth nodded. “Thank you.”
“One more thing,” said the plump monk. “The Bethlen legacy. Your husband will have to know where to take the books. And he’ll need to answer certain questions.” Beth looked up and grinned. This time, she didn’t even care if she looked smug. “I already found the answers. Well, all but the last one, anyway. Three of the four. I’m not sure where to go. Yet. I’d need the book for that last one. I think. If not, well, I’m pretty sure I know how to find out.”
“And how is that, my child?”
Beth smiled again. “Marco Polo knew.”
The monks muttered again, this time with something that might, almost, have been excitement. The thinner monk didn’t try to hide his astonishment. “But you answered the third question, yes? Even your husband’s father never—”
“I found the answer. Gaspar’s father didn’t, see, because he was looking in the wrong place. Well, the wrong time, anyway. An astronomer in Rome helped me find the answer.” Beth knelt and produced a final engraving, an antique star chart. The colors had long since faded, but the elegant lines were clear. “The sky above Bethlehem,” she said. “The first Christmas.”
The thinner monk pressed his lips together, an almost-but-not-quite frown, as he bent to examine the legend. “That’s not the date scholars usually accept.”
Beth grinned again. “No. It’s not.”