Скачать fb2
The Emperor Awakes

The Emperor Awakes


Alexis Konnaris The Emperor Awakes

    CAST OF CHARACTERS

    Symitzis family:
    Elli: current head of the Valchern Corporation, matriarch of the family, elder sister of Iraklios, and mother of Aristo and Vasilis
    Aristo: Elli’s eldest son and brother of Vasilis
    Vasilis: Elli’s youngest son and brother of Aristo
    Iraklios: businessman and Elli’s younger brother
    Eleni: head of the family in the 15 ^th century, and mother of Michael and Mark
    Michael: Eleni’s eldest son and brother of Mark
    Mark: Eleni’s youngest son and brother of Michael
    Zoe: head of the family in the early 20 ^th century, Antonios’ elder sister, and mother of Manuel, Nikitas and Stephanos
    Antonios: businessman and Zoe’s younger brother
    Zozo: Antonios’ eldest daughter
    Manuel: Zoe’s eldest son, and brother of Nikitas and Stephanos
    Nikitas: Zoe’s second son, and brother of Manuel and Stephanos
    Stephanos: Zoe’s youngest son, and brother of Manuel and Nikitas
    Markantaskis family:
    Andros: businessman, head of the family, husband of Anna, and father of Giorgos and Katerina
    Anna: Andros’ wife, and mother of Giorgos and Katerina
    Giorgos: archaeologist, son of Andros and Anna, and brother of Katerina
    Katerina: businesswoman, daughter of Andros and Anna, and sister of Giorgos Ariana: Anna’s mother, and grandmother of Giorgos and Katerina
    Others:
    Madame Marcquesa de Parmalanski: leader of the Ruinands
    Mrs Manto: Antonios’ housekeeper and cook, grandmother of Manto below Mrs Manto: Elli’s housekeeper and cook, granddaughter of Manto above Andrew Le Charos: Australian businessman of Greek descent
    Ducesa de Mori Astir: wealthy socialite James Calvell: deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York
    John Halland: restorer working for the Metropolitan Museum in New York
    Alexei Sumarov: director of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia Spyros: abbot of the Monastery of Pantokrator, Mount Athos, Greece
    Aggelos: librarian of the Monastery of Pantokrator, Mount Athos, Greece

CHAPTER 1

    Forest of Valens, near Constantinople
    4th May 1453 A.D.
    He had committed a heinous crime, but his ruthlessness had ebbed away as he crossed the woods. The silence that shrouded everything around him would have been welcome had he not had blood on his hands, the blood of a governess to an innocent baby. He did not mean to do it. It was an accident. She got in the way. He had lifted the baby from his crib and was all packed up and ready to go when she appeared at the door, no doubt on her usual round to check on the baby.
    Why did she have to put up a struggle and start screaming? She had to be silenced otherwise the whole plan would have been shattered before it had even started. He had lost the element of surprise and the screams had cost him his head start.
    It was a long way to the rendezvous point. He would not make it there. But nor did he want to make it there. He had disobeyed his master’s instructions to avoid bloodshed. And now he could not return to his master to complete his mission and deliver the precious cargo. He had to flee. He knew what his punishment would be if he had gone to his master with the blood of an innocent bystander on his hands.
    He cursed under his breath and shook his head from side to side. He hated losing the rest of his payment. Yet it was better to be alive and with a bit of financial comfort than wealthy but dead. He decided his best chance was to hide in the forest of Valens, which was close enough to Constantinople to reach it under the cover of darkness and large and dense enough to disappear in it with his trail lost before dawn. Little did he know that things would not turn out to be that simple.
    On that particular night, a quiet and usually deserted forest would become particularly lively and he would be caught in the middle, a silent witness who would unintentionally slip.
    He was sweating profusely even though it was a cold night. Surely whatever predatory animals were out there would smell his fear. In the inhabitants of the woods he saw spies everywhere. In the shadows that jumped behind every tree, bush and rock he saw an army ready to pounce the moment he stumbled.
    The full moon was his enemy, bathing everything in bright light. But then again he was a master of disguise. He knew how to become one of those shadows he was so afraid of. He was on heightened alert. His fear became his ally and he relished it. It was a game of life or death. He was thirsty and hungry. He had not eaten since that morning. That was since he had left Constantinople.
    He had seen lights of inns in the distance, but he could not afford to stop. His disfigurements would betray him. His was not a face and body you could forget. People would only need to lay eyes on him once before he got imprinted on their memory and became the subject of drowning nightmares, ravishing one’s mind both as terrifying daydreaming and as terror-drenched sleep. He opened the flap of his bag and checked on the baby. He was fast asleep. He was a fearless little thing. He had slept the whole way.
    He had to get him to a nursing mother soon. He could not afford to let this little treasure and ticket to his future die in his hands. His daydreaming shattered as abruptly as it visited him as he remembered his current predicament. He had burned that bridge now, hadn’t he? He tapped the leather wallet hanging from his belt and breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the solid mass of the icon and the ring with the royal insignia hanging on the golden chain.
    The setting moon would briefly provide the best cover and opportunity for him to reach his refuge. He had a small window before dawn broke. The woods were already waking up and the first birdsong punctured the stillness and the different frequencies pulsated through the air, momentarily distracting his ears, and caressed the trees and animals that begun to stir.
    He became even more alert. And it was then that he caught that small sound carried by the wind. It was the most imperceptible of sounds, but unmistakable. Those were hoofs. He put his ear to the ground and frowned. Four horses. They were coming from the East. Was it a party pursuing him or was it unrelated? He looked for an inconspicuous hiding place. Immediately he thought of the baby in his arms. He could not afford to be betrayed if it awoke. But he could not let it go.
    In the time that it took him to debate his options, he heard a second set of horses coming from the opposite direction and approaching fast. He had no time to run. So he left the path and couched in a gap inside a large bush and waited. He was not a devout man, but he prayed.
    The two groups almost collided as they came around the bend. They stopped just in time in a tangle of hoofs, legs and dust and stared at each other. It would have been a face off, followed by a violent battle, were it not for the shock of the chance encounter. The head riders dismounted with the hand ready at their side where their swords hung. Yet as they moved closer to each other the tension was already dissipating.
    One group was Ottoman, the other Byzantine. They sized up each other and bowed respectfully. In the current environment this behaviour was mystifying. The hooded figure held his breath and watched through the openings in the branches. He was trying hard to make out what the two head riders were talking about.
    ‘Salam elekum, Suleyman, God is one’, the Byzantine said.
    ‘Elekum salam, Michael, Allahu Akbar’, the Ottoman replied, with not the slightest hint of surprise let alone shock at his supposedly mortal enemy’s respectful greeting.
    The two men embraced warmly and kissed. Without a further word they walked together to a clearing just off the path. Riders from both groups laid down rugs and started to prepare coffee, which they would serve to their leaders once they had settled down to their chosen spot inside the clearing.
    Suleyman breathed a secret sigh of relief at Michael’s self-control in keeping up the pretence and not blowing Suleyman’s disguise in his joy at this unexpected meeting. When they reached the clearing they sat down and conversed in whispers. Suleyman’s real name was Mark and he was more than just an acquaintance of Michael’s. Theirs was a relationship of blood.
    The hooded figure gave up trying to hear their conversation, but kept his eyes on the other riders who dismounted and were rubbing down the horses and giving them hay and water. Strangely there was no interaction between the riders of the two groups, which made the apparent intimacy of their leaders all the more startling.
    Once the coffee was served Michael and Mark dismissed their companions and, only when they were certain that they were out of earshot, did they start their conversation. The matters they had to discuss were not for prying ears. Michael spoke first.
    ‘My dear brother, your disguise has worked. My men were ready to launch an attack.’
    ‘So were mine. I stopped them just in time. And let me tell you it wasn’t easy. In these treacherous times they couldn’t understand why I was denying them their prey. I could see the hatred for me in their eyes. Sometimes I have my doubts about their loyalty. I get the sense I’m feeding mercenaries, with their vicious and ruthless nature bubbling under the surface and kept in check as long as I’m showering them with money and food. Of course in a fight I will need that vicious thirst for blood behind me, fighting my enemy as their enemy and looking out for me, as I hope will happen. If I let them catch even a single glimpse inside my soul I’m finished.
    ‘So I never let my guard down, but I do it in such a way as not to raise any suspicions. It’s a dangerous game we are playing my friend and let’s hope it will be over soon. But until that merciful time I have to watch my back before I slip in an unguarded moment and get carried away to oblivion with the tip of a sword protruding from my chest; nicely skewered and quartered for their dinner. But enough of that. What brings you here in these woods?’
    ‘I’m on my way to the city, but not directly. I plan to follow a wide arc around the city to check on the positions of the Ottoman troops before I make my final way inside with vital information I’ve gathered on my reconnaissance mission. I suspect your mission would take you on the same trajectory.’
    ‘Indeed, but not inside the city. I’ll try and see what kind of subterfuge I can achieve on the outside behind the enemy lines. I’ll try and wreak as much havoc as I can to delay the Sultan and give the city time. But tell me. Why would you risk your life trying to get back in? Why did you leave in the first place?
    ‘Well, to answer your second question, I hated being cooped up in the foul air of desperation. It was choking me. As to your first question I have decided to sneak in to persuade the Emperor to let me take his child and heir to safety. I don’t want to use force, if he does not see the wisdom of this decision, but I will not hesitate to do so, if he doesn’t. That child needs to be protected.’
    ‘How are you going to get in with your escort there? I hear the Emperor is in an unfriendly mood and has given clear instructions to hit and kill on the spot upon any unknown presence approaching the city.’
    ‘I’ll leave my carers behind and venture in alone and, hopefully, undetected. I hope to find one of the secret passages leading into the city. I hope someone would be waiting for me to show me the way. I’ve sent word ahead that I’ll be going. I don’t want to risk being killed before I’ve had a chance to have a chat with his Majesty himself. Still in these desperate times that paranoia reigns, I’ll need to be extra careful and suspicious, even if there is someone indeed waiting for me to lead me inside.’
    ‘I’d love to come with you, but I’ve got a slight suspicion that dressed like this I won’t make it within a hundred metres of the walls. And there is the small matter of shaking off my own group of governesses there.’

    Michael and Mark. Brothers separated at birth in dangerous times. Chance brought them together. They always had a feeling that there was someone out there listening to each other whilst growing up. They each thought that they had an imaginary friend until one day they had to share a room in an inn far from home. And it was then that they realised that they were each other’s “supposedly imaginary friend”.

    At the palace of Vlachernae in Constantinople the discovery of the empty crib and the lifeless body of the governess were enough to briefly overshadow the menace of the Ottoman armies at the gates of the city and distract the Emperor and his advisers from the defence of the city facing impending doom, clearly telegraphed by the movements and positioning of the enemy in a blockade of the city.
    A huge search was initiated throughout the palace and the city, but as the minutes and the hours passed with no success, with not even a clue as to the whereabouts of the baby and his abductor, the feeling that it was too late hung in the air that was already heavy with fear.

CHAPTER 2

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Elli was in for another unsettled night’s sleep and an early wake-up call, a rude awakening. Around her there was peace; the city was too far away down the hill for any sounds to reach her. But inside her mind she was boiling in turmoil.
    It was the same dream every time lately. She would be standing inside a tomb in front of an open sarcophagus. She would start to go close, but before she reached it, the sarcophagus would start to spew body parts, which would be sliding down the sides and then on the cool floor towards her. The frothy boiling mixture would bubble, drenching the chamber, and her, with splash upon splash of blood and entrails.
    Every splash would burn her skin, every part would start to climb on her body and the nails would claw at her and scratch her again and again. Every splash was a collection of body parts from what looked like the mutilated body of a woman. The parts would rise and click together in their right place to form that woman. The woman would then rise, dripping blood, and extend her arms in pleading to her. A child would appear next to the woman and would try to hold her hand.
    The woman, seemingly rooted to the spot and unable to move closer to the child, would extend one arm in an attempt to reach the child, her hand desperately pining for the child’s hand. But however hard they tried, it was all in vain. They would never reach each other; their hands would never touch. Then suddenly they would both disappear in a cloud of loud screams that resonated in Elli’s head long after they had gone.

    Elli suddenly jumped out of her deep sleep. It was her recurring nightmare again. She thought it had left her for good. But it seemed that it was not to be. It was back with a vengeance, worse than before. She lay on the bed and listened. Nothing. The nightmare was still vivid in her mind and she felt disorientated and struggling for breath. She would not be able to go back to sleep now. She got up and put on her nightgown.
    It was June, but at 5.30 in the morning it was chilly. She opened the French windows leading into the garden and went outside. She wanted to shake that feeling of foreboding that enveloped her like a funereal veil. Dawn was breaking on the far horizon and the birdsong gave her some respite from the remnants of the nightmare following her even as she stepped out onto the balcony and tried to hungrily breath in mouthfuls of fresh air hoping that it would clear her head and dispel her nightmare.
    She began to relax as she surveyed her gardens below and the city beyond that looked as if it almost flowed into the sea lapping at its edge. A strange thought of the city spilling and dissolving into the sea in a mighty torrent, of a river-Amazon-like magnitude reaching its Atlantic delta, and disappearing in a flash, took hold of Elli’s mind and she smiled, amused at the absurdity and unlikelihood of it all.
    She looked around at the parts of her home visible from her vintage point. She loved this house. It sat atop the highest hill lording it over the city below. The sun was already rising on its daily tour of the sky. The view was magnificent. She could see the sea spreading in front of her for miles like a blinding jewel scattering the light in all directions in its attempt to repel the sun’s attack. She would never exchange this view with any other in the world. It was in her heart. Just like this city and the house puncturing the sky behind her were in her heart. This was the house that had stood here at this very spot for over 80 years.
    She felt a strange itch spreading across her body and she shivered involuntarily. She checked her body for scars, even though she did not really expect to find any. And yet there they were. She wondered whether this meant that it was a prophetic vision, a glimpse into the future through the eyes of an occurrence in the past. Perhaps it was both a treasure trove laden with clues and an instruction. Perhaps the vision was trying to tell her that there was something she was meant to do.
    The scars were real, as water running down the Mallachian weir was real. She smiled at the memory of that verse from one of her favourite poems, but worry lines returned to haunt her face and her mind. The evidence of the vividness of her nightmare was real this time. She used to get those marks from a nightmare when something terrible was about to happen. But if this was a warning, what was it for?
    She thought about her nightmare. She felt that there was something important that she should remember. But try though she might, she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. And then it hit her. The last thing she remembered from her dream was the image of a sarcophagus and two icons sitting atop it facing her.
    What made the whole image extraordinary was that the characters in the icons came to life and were speaking to her. They would get out of the icons and kneel on the lid of the sarcophagus in the position of supplicants and look at her with hope in their eyes.
    She wondered whether those icons were indeed real. She knew she had seen the icons before. And it was not in another of her dreams. But where? Who would know? There was only one man who could tell her. If he did not know, nobody would. That man was a monk, the librarian of a monastery on the autonomous monastic community of Mount Athos in Northern Greece. Making a mental note to arrange a trip in the near future, she turned her mind to more pressing matters in the real present.

    Elli thought of the day ahead and trembled with excitement. Aristo was coming. Her son, at thirty-four, had been working with her at the Valchern Corporation, the family concern, for ten years now. Since starting at the company, Aristo had worked his way through all of its divisions. As time passed, with an increasingly expanding role encompassing more and more of the company’s activities, he gradually proved his ability and his suitability to eventually run the whole company. He had already attained major-force status in the global world of business.
    The Valchern Corporation was an industrial powerhouse. It was not only one of the world’s biggest private companies, but one of the biggest companies listed or otherwise. Its origins went back over eight hundred and fifty years. It was founded in Constantinople in 1151 A.D. moved to Smyrna in 1453 A.D. with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and went through numerous incarnations throughout the years to become the giant that it was today.
    Elli was the matriarch of the Symitzis clan and, as chairman of the Valchern Corporation, wielded enormous power and influence. Aristo had been installed as chief executive officer four years ago and was her right-hand man. Elli was the majority shareholder with 60 % of the company’s single class of shares. The second largest shareholder with 20 % was Iraklios Symitzis, Elli’s younger and only brother, close confidant and deputy chairman of the company. Their loyalty to each other was unquestionable, their close bond unbreakable.
    But theirs was, at times, an uncomfortable relationship, which was to be expected when you had two headstrong and dominant characters who knew how to argue and enjoyed doing so. But against all the odds or because of the productive tension fired by their passion for the business and the ideas that they bounced off each other, the arrangement worked. Together with Aristo they formed a formidable business team. The remaining 20 % of the company’s shares was scattered amongst other descendants of Artemisia, the original founder, and her two brothers.
    Aristo’s younger brother, Vasilis, was also involved in the family business, but in a lesser role. He had a sideline that kept him busy. His main calling in life was to track down secret members of that elusive group, the Ruinands, who had not reared their ugly head for centuries, but who Elli and the Order of Vlachernae knew were there, watching and biding their time for the right time to strike.
    The rivalry between the Symitzis family and the Ruinands lay in the very distant past, before the foundations of their rival commercial ventures were even established. The rivalry started between the Pallanians, the frontrunner of the Order of Vlachernae, and the Ruinands, a rivalry between good (Pallanians) and evil (Ruinands). The Pallanians evolved into the Order of Vlachernae, the leadership of which was at some point in time taken up by the Symitzis family soon after one of their ancestors was invited to be initiated into the secrets of the Order. That was when the Symitzis family took up the challenge of wielding the sword of justice.
    The Symitzis family had for the first couple of centuries since the foundation of their dynasty only concerned themselves with building their formidable business interests and influence, ignoring, wilfully or not, the rising presence of the Ruinands or their resurgent re-emergence, if the stories that they had once been powerful were to be believed. By then the Ruinands had declined to an obscure, but still, sometimes, dangerous cult. However, they did not seem to pose any kind of serious threat to the Symitzis family let alone to anybody else for that matter. Their intentions were vague; the purpose of the existence of their organisation was unknown. There was a very old story, so old it seemed like a fairytale, about a clash between them and the Pallanians. But the truth, if there was any in that clash, was lost in the depths of time, with nobody alive that had witnessed it to vouch for its veracity.
    In the events of 1453 A.D. — the abduction of the Imperial son and heir from the Palace of Vlachernae in Constantinople and the disappearance of the last Emperor in the midst of the momentous fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans — lay the beginnings of the quest that Elli and her family were about to embark on.

CHAPTER 3

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    The sun had been awake for two hours now and was already bathing the city in a humid boiling haze. Aristo parked his car outside his mother’s home and rushed through the front door. He had crossed the entrance hall and was climbing the stairs as the clock in the hall chimed 9 o’clock in the morning. He was excited to see his mum after an absence of two weeks on a tour of the Valchern Corporation’s Australian operations.
    As his foot touched the first stair, he heard his name and turned, his renegade foot briefly floating in the air rudderless before it decisively landed back on the firm ground of the marbletiled hall, his face already wreathed in smiles. Mrs Manto was standing there smiling back at him, an amused expression on her face, part joy, part reprimand.
    ‘And where do you think you are going, young man?’
    ‘I am meeting mum at 9.’
    ‘I know you are. Punctual as always. She’s sitting outside in the veranda.’ She opened her arms beckoning him over. ‘Welcome back. Now be a good boy and come and give an old woman a hug and a kiss. Only then will you be free to go.’
    Aristo did as he was told. Mrs Manto held him at a distance and looked at him, her admiration and love for her boy evident.
    ‘When you’re done, come to the kitchen. I’ve got your favourite cure for your sweet tooth fresh out of the oven.’
    ‘Pourekia?’
    Mrs Manto nodded.
    ‘Mrs Manto, you always know where my heart lies. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’d better get some fuel inside these cells before I go out to mum. I’m sure a few more moments of peace will not do her any harm. It’s time to let my nose take me to the temptation it can detect already. But I think I need a moment to compose myself and control the urge to run in there and demolish the entire tray.’
    Mrs Manto smiled and followed Aristo through into the kitchen. She was proud of her duty to look after this family. The destiny of her family became intertwined with the Symitzis family more than a hundred years ago when her namesake grandmother became housekeeper and cook to the then head of the Symitzis family, Antonios Symitzis, in Smyrna in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
    It was hard when they had to leave their home in a hurry in 1922 A.D. as the army of Kemal Ataturk was knocking on the gates of the city and he was preparing to invite himself and his hungry-for-vengeance followers to a veritable feast of looting and massacre and wholesale destruction. Her grandmother did not even doubt what she wanted to do and she followed the Symitzis family to Cyprus. Since then two successive generations, first her mother and now herself, had also proved their love and loyalty to the Symitzis family over and over again.

    ‘Hi, mum.’ He planted big kisses on his mum’s cheeks and hugged her close.
    ‘Hi, darling. I’ve missed you, you know. Come and sit with me.’ She waited until he took a cup of coffee and joined her at the table. ‘How was your trip?’
    ‘It went very well. Our oil and gas division has struck a huge deposit of natural gas off the coast of the Northern Territory. The news has already got out and we’ve had an informal approach from Parlamen Proprietary Ltd for an outright acquisition of our activities or at the very least a joint venture.’
    Elli looked at her son, her expression belying her challenge to him. Unable to resist, only to amuse herself, she was continuously testing him, even though she had absolute faith in his abilities and business instinct and was in no doubt that she had made the right choice for the person to lead the company into the next phase of its development. ‘What would you do?’
    ‘I would turn the tables on them and make an offer to buy them outright and consolidate our neighbouring fields. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to snatch the largest Australian miner. You know they have been in a dead end for two years now. I bet they are looking for a way out of their dire financial situation and for a way to revive their sluggish share price. We already own a 26 % holding in Parlamen, from the sale of those mines to them five years ago. They have very valuable assets. The company is at the moment severely undervalued by the market. And I hear they are in negotiations with Artanda Mining, the South African company listed in London. We need to move fast.’
    ‘I agree. We have the financial resources to pull this off. You have my blessing to go ahead. Now, do we have any news out of South Africa? The proposed equality tax would be damaging financially. And the troubles near Johannesburg and Cape Town are worrying me. The unrest could cripple our operations there.’
    ‘We are monitoring the situation. There is no danger yet for a disruption to our activities there, and all our mines are operating normally. But I think it’s only a matter of time before the trouble reaches us. I’ve already taken steps to increase the security of our operations and employees there.’ Aristo knew instantly from the almost imperceptible change in his mother’s expression that her mind had already moved onto another matter. Sometimes you felt as if you could see her brain working, its wheels turning. He waited for her to speak.
    ‘Aristo. There is something else I have been considering for some time now. I have decided not to dispose of our personal care division, but keep it and strengthen it significantly and possibly spin it off retaining a near-majority stake. I think Iraklios would be the right person to handle this project and I want you to work with him. I want you to compile a list of potential acquisitions and have it ready for me within two weeks.’
    ‘I’ll get right down to it.’
    ‘Good.’
    Aristo allowed a pause before he raised something that had been bothering him and that he suspected would, perhaps, lead his mother to put up her guard. He was curious to see her reaction to what he was about to say. ‘There is something else that happened on the trip. I met this businessman, Andrew Le Charos.’ If Elli was stunned, she did not show it. Aristo had no way of imagining what that name meant to her. ‘You may have heard of him.’ Elli nodded. ‘Apparently he’s one of the richest men in Australia, the owner of one of the biggest private companies over there. He made his fortune in mining in Western Australia and made a bundle in property in the last ten years. He now lives in Sydney and his company is based there. He had a proposal for me. He made an informal offer for our mining operations in Queensland and mentioned in passing his interest in our oil operations in the Northern Territory as well. I was quite surprised to put it mildly. He had just met me and he was very forthcoming, very blunt. I told him we were not interested in selling any of our operations there, but would be open to joint ventures or some kind of consolidation to reduce operational costs. He simply nodded, gave me a warm smile and then changed the subject altogether. Before he moved away, though, he did ask me to pass his regards to you. And as he walked away, I saw him turn back to stare at me. It felt as if he was trying to look inside my soul. I felt a bit uncomfortable and not a little bit mystified, to tell you the truth.’ Aristo paused and looked at his mother. When he continued his tone was subtly interrogatory though he tried to disguise his challenge as curiosity. ‘How do you know him? And more precisely how well do you know him?’
    ‘It’s a long story. I will tell it to you another time. But let me say that we worked together briefly on some projects a long time ago and then we fell out. Let’s just say he fell a few notches in my estimation. I thought at the time that he was suddenly greedy, demanding of ever larger shares in the profit from our deals and ventures, and even though some measure of hunger is useful to succeed in business, you have to be fair and let some of the profit go to others who have worked hard and deserve it. In the end his behaviour was such that I found I could no longer trust him.’
    Elli decided not to tell Aristo yet of the other matter troubling her. She had remembered why those icons in her dream could be important. Was it possible? Could it be? Could those be the fabled Likureian icons? She needed more information. She had to set in motion the search for those icons. She would need them for the mission that it seemed had been involuntarily thrust upon her.
    She felt that she had been waiting for this moment all her life. Her whole life, everything that had happened to her, to her grandmother, to her mother; it all seemed to prepare her for this moment. She knew what she had to do. She had to finish what started all those centuries ago.

CHAPTER 4

    Cappadocia, Asia Minor
    (Modern-day Turkey)
    Present day
    It was a bright sunny August day with a glorious blue cloudless sky. The heat was stifling outside, but inside the caves it was comfortable and cool. The only sounds were voices and the distant impact of chisel on rock.
    It had been a gruelling day for the excavation team that were running out of funds and out of time. They had been doubling and redoubling their efforts. And with funds almost exhausted, they could not afford to employ more people and had to do the additional work themselves. That had meant little sleep and many cups of coffee.
    Giorgos was sure this particular cave hid something precious. He had done his research and to him the trail led here. It would be a natural place to hide something so precious away from prying eyes and the threat of looting.
    Giorgos was with a special archaeological expedition, a collaboration between the Greek and Turkish Departments of Antiquities, which had been excavating a cave believed to be a Byzantine chapel carved out of the rock in around 1453 A.D.
    Survivors of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. fled to all directions. A band of them came here, in this remote area, scattered with caves hewn out of the unusually shaped hills, a perfect refuge, which had been used in the past as shelter from Saracen and other attacks on the coastal settlements.
    Giorgos hoped that the cave hid a secret bigger than a chapel and some random artefacts, and he wished he could coerce the cave and seduce it to gorge out its secrets.
    He was tired of endless archaeological excavations with little treasure. He ached for that big break, the glory of that big discovery, to rival the discovery of the tombs of the Macedonian Kings in Vergina in Macedonia, Northern Greece, the tomb of Tutankamun in Egypt, the discovery of Knossos and the Minoan civilization in Crete, Mycenae in the Peloponnese and Troy in Asia Minor.
    Apart from the discovery of the tomb of Alexander the Great which would rank amongst the greatest discoveries of all time, there was one discovery that would probably, at least for the Greeks, rank as one of the greats; the tomb of the last Emperor of Constantinople, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos, who disappeared during the siege and fall of the city to the Ottomans on 29 ^th May 1453 A.D.
    That disappearance had given rise to the prophecy that once awakened from his long sleep, Konstantinos Palaiologos would reclaim the city. That prophecy had become a legend, and, although nobody really believed in it these days, it was a lovely story learnt by legions of kids at schools across “Greekdom”.
    And there was a small band of archaeologists that both feared and hoped that there was something of great power hidden with the body of the Emperor; something that could be beneficial and devastating in equal measure. They believed that the prophecy was hiding a secret that could unlock a bright future for the nation that found it.
    Giorgos was chipping away at a piece of rock when his next hit echoed hollow around the cave. The chisel had hit something solid, something metallic. He threw the chisel away and, excited, began to dig frantically with his bare hands. He then pointed his torch, and, lo and behold, his excitement evaporated as quickly as it appeared. He cursed under his breath. He was staring at a rusting piece of worthless tin. Another dead end, another disappointment.
    Maybe he was wasting his time. Maybe he should just give it all up and go back to the cushy job he had been offered at the University of Athens; an open-ended offer they said. They wanted him that badly.
    Giorgos Markantaskis had always wanted to be an archaeologist for as long as he or anyone could remember, since he was a small boy. When other boys his age were playing football or being cruel to ants and other creatures, he was busy devouring book after book on any subject.
    His dream vacation was staking out archaeological sites, stalking archaeological expeditions, practically living on site with them and becoming a de facto and honorary member of the team and exploring every stone, every corner, dreaming that a secret would be revealed when he lifted the next stone, that maybe the next shovelful of soil would reveal a cave with treasure, not just something of incalculable archaeological but of little real value.
    What he sought was to discover a phenomenon of global magnitude; he could not wait to make a name for himself and to make it early on. He did not allow any seeds of doubt to cross his mind, any ‘he should be so lucky, only one archaeologist in three generations strikes a huge discovery’ thoughts to derail him from his purpose.
    He would relish spending most of his holidays sweating on excavation sites instead of lying idle on the beach like his schoolmates and other his age, warmed by the sun followed by successive jumps into the sea to cool down; bliss for others, but not for him.
    His obsession with the quest for the tomb of the last Emperor of Constantinople had cost him his marriage and his child, with only his mother supporting him through all the good and the difficult times, through the peak and the trough; he stubbornly battled on regardless, a lone warrior against the world. He had his youth and his beliefs on his side. And he never lacked confidence, some would say arrogance.
    But enough of the past. He had no time to waste dwelling on the past, on what might have been, because he had no regrets. You were only given one shot at life and you had to make the most of it.
    Giorgos leaned against the cave wall to rest. The dig into his past had sapped his energy. He closed his eyes in a desperate last-ditch attempt to let his frustration wash over him. The hard work of the last few months and the exhaustion so far suppressed caught up with him and as he began to fall into a muchneeded sleep, his knees buckled and gave way and he began to gradually slumber down to the ground.
    He never reached the cool floor of the cave. He heard a roar and a crushing of rock on rock and he jumped upright. He thought he was in a crazy nightmarish warp of a dream. The wall behind him was actually moving. He lost his balance, blinded by dust falling from the ceiling and shaken by the quaking ground. And he fell back into what looked like another chamber. He got up and dusted himself.
    As his eyes started to adjust to the dim light, he picked up his torch and pointed it at the walls and the ceiling. The light caught something luminous at what looked like the far end of the chamber. He immediately turned the torch to that direction and froze on the spot. His feet were nailed to the floor; his legs had turned to jelly. He could not move. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his free hand. In front of him was a sarcophagus.
    He went closer. He could just about make out colourful images and iconography interspersed with inscriptions. Like a man possessed he began to run the light of the torch along the length and breadth of this stunning object. With his torch he was violating an object that had lain undisturbed and in peace for a very very long time. He felt humbled by the discovery. Along the whole surface were depictions he could recognise from the New Testament. They were in the Byzantine style.
    And then he noticed it; repeated after every few episodes, and with a large one on the lid, was the double-headed eagle, symbol and royal insignia of the Roman Emperors of Constantinople. He hungrily started to read the inscriptions between the vivid drawings and then, carved on the stone in Greek, one word jumped out at him and almost blinded him: “Palaiologos”. The last royal dynasty.
    Could this be real? Could this be the last resting place of the last Emperor? No, it just could not be. But then what else could it be? Could it be another member of the Imperial family? Could it be, perhaps, that the sarcophagus destined for the entombment of a royal body had been used by someone else?
    Could Giorgos have been right all along? Could the illustrious but elusive figure from the past have made his final home here? Could Giorgos have finally found what he had sought for so long? The doubts were now taking shape, putting down firm roots inside his mind and unless he put a stop to it would outgrow the confines of his brain and become a monster.
    But how could it be here? It was lost, was it not? At this moment that he had dreamed for as long as he could remember, his eyes refused to believe the, at first glance, irrefutable evidence accosting them. He was suddenly doubting himself and his research.
    But in an instant the doubts were gone and the child was back, a child in a candy store. He just had to look inside the sarcophagus, but he did not dare to do it on his own. He was afraid and was making up excuses for not exploring further. Besides, it didn’t look as if he could lift the lid on his own.
    He needed help. He did not want to risk damaging the contents, which had, most probably, not been disturbed or exposed to the air for centuries. Even this stale air could be fatal.
    He then had an inspiration. They could create a sterile environment right here instead of risking damage to the sarcophagus and its contents by attempting to move it and open it off site.
    Giorgos retraced his steps and went in search of the others. He found them near the mouth of the cave. Sotiris was facing in Giorgos’ direction and was the first to see him. He stood up, but waited for Giorgos to come closer and said nothing. He thought he could see a slight difference in the way Giorgos carried himself, but he could not quite put his finger on what it meant.
    The others had their backs to Giorgos, but they sensed the shift of excitement in the air at the same time as noticing Sotiris’ reaction and turned towards Giorgos too. Sotiris saw Giorgos first, but Katia was the first to speak.
    ‘Hey, Giorgos, where have you been? We were just debating whether to send a search party. We began to suspect that this lovely fresh air hypnotised you into the hundred-year sleep.’
    Katia tried to make herself heard above the din of the excavation work that combined with the echo in the cave was deafening. Katia was a cheeky twenty-four-year-old. A brilliant academic and archaeologist who had fought tooth-and-nail to be a member of this team and who, when selected, became its youngest member.
    ‘I have you to thank for not ending up like sleeping beauty. Aren’t I lucky to have the canary you gave me? It is an adorable pet, a great companion in times of loneliness. I would have rather preferred a different birthday present though. What I could not decide at the time was whether you were encouraging me on my quest, along the line of the illustrious men who discovered the Egyptian tombs or making fun of me.’
    Giorgos appeared angry, but his eyes told another story; he could hardly contain his amusement.
    ‘I would never do that to you. I volunteered for this expedition, remember? I wouldn’t be part of this team if I didn’t have faith in you and agreed with your theories. I knew you’d like your gift. The guy at the shop did say that it could converse in three languages, that it had an unparalleled library of knowledge and a fascinating range of interests. There you are. The perfect companion. You should be thanking me sincerely not diminishing my concern with distasteful irony.’
    Giorgos broke into a loud hearty laugh that spread like an epidemic amongst the others, and bounced off the walls of the cave like gunshot.
    After the last echo had died out, Giorgos remembered what he came out for and his face became serious. The others noticed the sudden change in his demeanour and were worried, but they also recalled their first instinct when they saw Giorgos return from the depths of the cave. Sotiris was the first to speak.
    ‘OK, either somebody died or you have found something. I can read that look. Come on, don’t keep us in suspense. What have you found?’
    ‘I need to know how quickly we can set up a sterile environment.’
    ‘My God, you have found something. Come on show us, lead the way.’
    Giorgos simply nodded and turned to walk towards the interior of the cave. The rest of the team took out and switched on their torches and followed him into the chamber. Silence reigned as they gazed upon the extraordinary find. Suddenly the chamber exploded in a flurry of voices as they all, furiously, fought to examine and interpret the sarcophagus and regale each other with their respective analysis.
    Without the rest realising, Giorgos made his way out of the chamber and only stopped when he emerged into the daylight. He stood just outside the cave’s entrance and taking out the satellite phone he dialled a mobile number straight from memory.
    Halfway around the world in New York, it was coming up to eight o’clock in the morning. It took only a few rings to rouse a very sleepy James Calvell, deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum and one of the best-connected men in the art world. James had had a rough night. They’d had a theft from the museum’s Cyprus collection, which was not even on display, but languishing in storage, in the basements of the Fifth Avenue beast.
    ‘Yes?’ answered an unmistakably angry and drowsy James.
    Giorgos was taken aback and almost hung up. He knew James could be abrupt on a good day, but he sounded exceptionally so. Obviously he had just woken him up. This was surprising as he should have been up and running by now and at his desk at the Museum; unless he had caught him in a stranger’s bed or even in his own after a wild night out which would be typical of James’ adventurous side.
    ‘It’s Giorgos.’
    Judging by the fact that they had not spoken in months, James knew it was serious. He shook the last remnants of his sleep and sat up in bed. He knew about Giorgos’ involvement in the Cappadocia expedition.
    ‘What have you found?’
    ‘I don’t want to say anything yet, but it could be significant. I need a favour. I need the latest dating equipment.’
    That was code for a makeshift laboratory to provide sterile conditions.
    ‘I’ll see what I can do. There’s a plane leaving New York tomorrow carrying stuff for a special exhibition at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. I’ll arrange to load on board a package with all the gear you’ll need. You should have it by the end of the week. In the meantime I will call our man at the Topkapi in Istanbul and ask him to help you in any way he can.’
    ‘Thanks, Jamie, I owe you one.’
    You bet. You are coming bungee jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge next time you’re in the Big Apple.’
    Giorgos knew he could not get out of this one. The favour he just asked was a big one. ‘It’s a date.’
    Giorgos hung up and went to join the others.
    He was disheartened to see that nobody had noticed his absence. He thought he could smell the excitement hanging in the thin air around them.

    James came through for Giorgos. Giorgos was in no doubt he would. The equipment arrived at the site in Cappadocia earlier than expected. He knew he could always rely on James. The two of them went way back. James was one of those rare guys who had the integrity, street-smart and contacts that allowed him to exercise influence disproportionate to his position, in pulling together huge resources in the pursue of a project.
    The makeshift laboratory was quickly set up and the team started the painstaking job of shifting through the chamber for further clues whilst waiting for some extra specialist equipment.
    However, the opening of the sarcophagus was not to be. The funding was suddenly and inexplicably pulled and the chamber and the neighbouring cave were sealed.
    Giorgos and his team, crashed, returned to Athens.
    The archaeological expedition became but a faded memory.

    It was a few months later that Iraklios learned about the expedition and its abrupt end. He regretted not knowing about it earlier, because he would have liked to step in with the necessary funding. He knew what was inside that sarcophagus and he knew it was preordained that it would come to light by a young obsessive archaeologist. The information had been handed down the generations from Eleni, the head of their clan during the fall of Constantinople, to reside with him for now.
    He wondered whether this Giorgos could be the archaeologist who was destined to uncover the lost tomb. He certainly had the guts to risk professional suicide by going against the widely held opinion of the archaeological community. And yet, being the last guardian of the location of the last Byzantine Emperor’s tomb, Iraklios was surprised that the opening of the sealed chamber did not cause the death of those present at the scene.
    He knew about the fearsome power protecting the tomb and the terrible events that took place there in 1453 A.D. Had he been allowed to have got involved with the expedition before it was shut down he would not have allowed the opening of the tomb to proceed unless measures had been taken to protect the archaeological team from near certain death that would befall anyone who attempted to open it. Iraklios would not have revealed the secret of the tomb and its fearsome power, but he would, nevertheless, have protected those involved.
    He was prepared to risk any lives even if he may have had to reveal part of that carefully kept secret. Iraklios suspected that the lack of an explosion or death only meant one thing; that the last Emperor’s body was not there anymore. This begged a number of questions; where it was, who moved it, when and why.

CHAPTER 5

    Monastery of Pantokrator
    Mount Athos, Northern Greece
    Present day
    Mount Athos appeared suspended from the black sky. It was almost sunrise, but the ominous clouds pushing down on the Holy Mountain kept at bay any threat of sunlight getting through. The gloominess brought out the Mountain in all its brooding and divine glory.
    Women were not allowed to step within the boundaries of the semi-autonomous territory of the Holy Mountain, but Elli was an exception. The privilege or special dispensation was granted a long time ago and had been repeatedly renewed by the governing body of the Holy Mountain and had never been withdrawn.
    Elli had, after a gruelling journey, just arrived at the Monastery of Pantokrator. The monastery’s library was not one of the biggest of the monasteries on the Athos Peninsula, but it was one of the most valuable, containing three thousand rare ancient manuscripts. It was very fortunately spared intact when a terrible fire engulfed the monastery one hundred and fifty-four years ago.
    Elli was here to see Aggelos, the curator of the monastery’s library and treasures. She wanted to talk to him about her search for the Likureian icons. The monasteries of the Holy Mountain had been the depository of treasures, manuscripts and relics since the fall of Constantinople and their priceless collections were vast.
    If there was anyone who could help her, that was Aggelos. His prodigious study had given him unparalleled knowledge. Elli had great hopes that somewhere amongst those ancient manuscripts lay the information she sought. A young monk she had met before called Sotirios came to meet her.
    ‘Mrs Elli, welcome. It is good to see you again.’
    ‘It is good to be here again, Sotirios. I believe Aggelos is expecting me. Could you please take me to him?’
    ‘I’m afraid Aggelos is outside the monastery in voluntary isolation.’ Elli tried to hide her annoyance, but Sotirios caught the slight frown. ‘But he will be returning to the monastery tomorrow. Until then please allow us to offer you food and bed for the night in our humble lodgings.’
    ‘You are very kind. Thank you.’
    ‘You must be very tired after your long journey. Please allow me to show you to your room.’
    Sotirios led Elli through dimly lit corridors to a spacious room reserved for guests of the monastery. The view of the sea and the islands in the distance was breathtaking. The room was sparsely furnished, but comfortable. Strangely, the silence was deafening for someone used to the barrage of sounds of daily life.
    Elli forgot what it was like to be in an environment of almost absolute silence and it was a welcome respite from her hectic schedule. Sotirios paused at the door on his way out.
    ‘Please let us know if you need anything. I assume you would prefer to dine here.’ Elli nodded. ‘I will arrange for food to be brought to you.’
    ‘Thank you, Sotirios.’
    Sotirios closed the door gently behind him and Elli was alone and feeling relaxed but more claustrophobic than ever. She could not wait to meet with Aggelos and get off this anachronistic rock however charming and peaceful it might be.
    She looked out of the tiny window at the sea and the distant land beyond and could not avoid being dragged into reflections on God and religion, the foundation and life-long sole mission of this revered place, and what God and religion meant to her, if anything at all.
    Elli had never cared much for the worship of God. She was a pragmatist, but understood that pragmatism and religion were not necessarily irreconcilable. The key was knowledge. She had devoted, though, a part of her life in studying and understanding Orthodox Christianity and the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of monastic life on Mount Athos, other branches of Christianity and many others of the world’s religions. Because of its relative isolation, the Holy Mountain was a special place.

    Within twelve hours she was on her way back home to Cyprus armed with a piece of the puzzle. She knew she had to find the Likureian icons, but where to start? She wondered about her family’s archives and whether they contained something useful, a clue perhaps. The archives were extensive, but they had been combed through in minute detail over the years and she doubted whether they could yield anything further. Unless there was something hidden.
    There were gaps in the story, especially pertaining to the journey of her ancestor Michael to Constantinople in 1453 A.D. and the reason behind it. And, of course, the events preceding her family’s escape from a burning Smyrna in 1922 A.D., away from the Turkish troops, and their finding of refuge in Cyprus.
    She knew there were secret compartments and passageways in her house, the product of two not unjustifiably paranoid ancestors who had barely got their family out of Smyrna alive. Antonios Symitzis and his sister Zoe planned for every eventuality they could think of and organised their lives in a way that, if anything happened in Cyprus, they could get out easily and quickly.
    As with the family’s sojourn in Smyrna, they and their ancestors had always taken precautions to protect their family and their assets, by simply not keeping all of their eggs in one basket. They had to leave a life, in a rush and thankfully alive, twice before. Smyrna in 1922 A.D. was the second time. Constantinople in 1453 A.D., as it fell to the Ottomans, was the first.
    As luck would have it, a long lost chronicle of her ancestor Michael Symitzis surfaced from the depths of the Symitzis archives. She hoped for a clue on the fate of the Likureian icons. She would not be disappointed. She sat in her study and began to read Michael’s account of his visit to Constantinople on 28 ^th May 1453 A.D., the eve of the fall of the City to the Ottomans.

CHAPTER 6

    Constantinople
    28th May 1453 A.D.
    (Eve of the Fall)
    The huge walls loomed on the horizon like a dark cloud descending to earth. The city was Constantinople, the capital of an empire that was built in the name of God and was once more in its history defended in the name of God.
    It was pretentious to even call what was left an empire when only the city remained. However, at this time God would not be knocking on this particular door. The writing was on the wall.
    Here was I, Michael Symitzis, riding at top speed to the, by all accounts, doomed city that had decided to make a final stand against the Ottomans led by the fearsome and ruthless Sultan Mehmed II and, if not defy, then delay fate.
    The city was asleep. I could not shake the feeling that I was being watched by thousands of eyes, and maybe I was, but was deemed too insignificant to be stopped. The city was on heightened alert, sniffing the enemy’s next assault on the walls.
    The Ottoman had surrounded the city and blocked all traffic to and fro. They were now lying in wait, and on a signal from their exulted leader, ready to pounce. The Ottoman was spread along the entire length of the city’s West and only landbound side, the Great Theodosian Walls, first built by the Emperor of the same name in the fourth century A.D. and reinforced and rebuilt over the centuries.
    On the city’s sea-bound North side was the Golden Horn, one of the world’s greatest natural harbours, and the city’s jewel and gateway to the world’s trade, but recently closed to all sea-bound traffic by a great chain or ‘boom’ across its gaping mouth. On the city’s water-bound East and South sides, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara respectively had already changed their colours to those dictated by the Ottoman fleet. The city was surrounded on all sides.
    The city’s legendary defences would normally have inspired terror in the hearts and minds of any enemy imprudently considering an opportunistic attack. The city was considered impregnable and countless attempts over the last one thousand years from Arabs to Seltzouk Turks to scale its walls and capture its riches had failed.
    The fall of 1204 A.D. to the crusaders was a blip, an aberration, and not the result of a proper siege. The crusader ships bound for the ‘Holy Land’ would not even had entered the waters of the Aegean let alone approach the city had it not been for the invitation and warm welcome into the city as a result of rivalry for the throne. Easy spoils were impossible to resist.
    On my way to the city I had come across masses of people fleeing the besieged city and stopped to talk to them. It was like pulling teeth. It was like trying to talk to the walking dead, sporting the fashionable look of the lost souls of Hades. It was eight weeks now since the siege had begun.
    The Ottoman blockade of Constantinople now in place had one consequence, beneficial in one sense, sad in another. It stopped any more people from leaving the city. There were now more defenders, but that meant that there were also more people at risk of losing their lives not just defending the city, but in the aftermath of its fall.
    The mass exodus from Constantinople had begun months ago as rumours were swirling that the Ottoman army was approaching the city on all sides. Many were in no mood to wait and get caught naked in the middle of that particular carnage.
    A caravan of people with their few precious belongings stretched for miles from the city and heading west, as far away from the advancing Ottoman armies and the centre of the Ottoman Empire as they could.
    It was a sad spectacle. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked around. All forlorn faces stared dead ahead with the fear of death in their eyes. Their eyes betrayed the fact that they had witnessed death too. Luck was with them as it had not rained for weeks and progress was easier through the rough terrain.
    The advancing Ottoman armies simply watched, indifferent to this sad human column. It was the Sultan’s orders that dictated that they should be left undisturbed. Nobody was to be harmed or looted; mostly that was because there was nothing worth taking there.
    The city was the prize. No distractions would let them deviate from this single purpose. And there was another reason. The more people left the city the fewer would be there to defend it. Of course, depending on what those people were carrying, the less would be the loot when the city fell. So the Ottomans would stop and check people’s belongings, but would otherwise leave them in peace with no harm or physical violence befalling them.
    The Ottoman’s indifference to this mass of rudderless human specimens was not enough incentive to those still in the city to flout their sense of duty and their posts and flee. The exodus declined to a mere trickle and then it abruptly ceased.
    The air was heavy and it was difficult to breathe. But then my nostrils protested and flared up; the culprit was a putrid smell hanging in the air, the stink of rotting flesh, the leftovers of the most recent battle.
    The two sides had engaged and had drawn blood. The city still seemed from afar to have remained untouched. The Ottomans could taste blood and were taking small bites and retreating, wearing down the city’s defenders to break their spirit.
    Inside the city they knew their days were numbered. They resorted to prayer to a God that, surely, would not desert them in their dourest hour. But even as they prayed and hoped for salvation, they felt the flesh falling away, until for some only their bones were left and unable to stand on their own two feet and eaten away by hunger, they came crashing down, sinking into the sand and becoming one with their beloved soil.
    Maybe those were the lucky ones, the ones not to have to suffer the ravishing and humiliation of the rape of the city or their imprisonment away from their homes. The city’s defenders felt as if a bird of prey kept lunging at them, biting chunks off them. They were waiting for the final assault that would spell their doom, the end of one thousand years of glorious history and the dawn of a new chapter for the East.
    God, today though, was nowhere to be found. God forgot or decided not to show up for work on this inauspicious day and to take a long-overdue and well-deserved rest from the exciting entertainment of watching people’s squabbles. And yet the defenders prayed. They prayed that God did not crave their company just yet.
    I wiped my forehead with the back of my sleeve. The humid air was weighing me down. I felt as if I was going to melt; clothes, flesh, bones, horse and all, and seep into the ground. My horse was suffering too. I could feel it through her fur that hang limp from her glorious form. But she would not fail me. She never had before.
    I had a mission to complete. History would not be forgiving if I failed. I made a final push towards the city careful to avoid the Ottoman blockade. The darkness offered me good cover. It had been a long time since I last saw the Emperor and I wondered how I would be received, in view of past conflicts between the Order of Vlacharnae and successive Imperial dynasties. I ached for a warm welcome.
    The horse sensed my urgency and accelerated at my command with no further prodding. I saw the Western Gates growing ever closer and I was blinded at times by the reflection of the moonlight on the metal that gleamed and led my way like a beacon. Upon reaching the towering Western Gate complex, I suddenly felt tiny and overwhelmed by the walls rising high above me.
    I looked up for signs of the guards on the posts above the gates. Nothing, not even the normal gleam of light emanating from a torch. I had to gain entry to the city. I called for the gates to open. But the gates remained steadfastly closed and the city shut to me; so close and yet so far out of reach. I did not want to camp outside for the night and wait till morning. I had to find another way in.
    Then I suddenly caught a glimpse of a faint light coming from some point near the walls at ground level. Was it friend or foe? I decided to take a chance. I reluctantly went closer. I nearly missed the shadow silhouetted against the walls and almost merging with the shadows around it.
    But then I smelled its foul breath and its radiating warmth hit me like a slap even in the heat around me. I could just about make out the silhouette of a person. I wondered whether it was an illusion, a play of the shadows thrown by the moonlight. I blinked, in case my eyes were deceiving me.
    Yet there it was; a hooded figure was standing in front of me. I tried to say something. I thought I said something, but as my ears registered nothing, I soon realised that it was all in my head and any words I wanted to say died on my lips, my vocal chords shuddering to a grinding halt; or had the hooded figure magically removed them?
    And then, as suddenly as I saw the figure, a voice came out of that dark blotch against the sky blocking my way.
    ‘My name is Ioannis. We have been expecting you. His Majesty has sent me to escort you to the palace. Please, follow me.’
    I could not see his face and did not know whether I could trust him, but his voice had authority and, involuntarily, I instantly became his slave and would follow him anywhere like a dutiful lamb. I was tired from my long journey and following this stranger seemed an attractive and easy option to my predicament of how to enter the city.
    Ioannis touched a stone on the walls and a doorway appeared. Beyond it opened a pitch-black chasm. Ioannis lit a torch and went in. He was immediately swallowed by the darkness. I hesitated. Then I saw Ioannis stop in his tracks and half-turn to me.
    I obeyed his call. I passed under the doorway and into the eerie space beyond. The torch was throwing sparks of light and shadows and half-illuminated the space, and once my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw a tunnel leading away from me and disappearing into the far darkness with no hint as to its length.
    I knew this tunnel was only one of many. The builders of this city’s defences must have really provided for every eventuality. I wished I had the time to explore this great city’s closely-guarded secrets. Secrets that had prevented its fall for more than a thousand years. Secrets that a selected few kept close to their chest. And, no doubt, there must have been other secrets that had been forgotten over time.
    The long tunnel led into the city’s grandest underground reservoir, the Basilica Cistern. Walking through the forest of giant columns I felt I was an intruder to the home of hundreds of forms frozen in time and stone. At the far end of that huge space, we came face to face with a wall and no obvious way out.
    Ioannis then pointed to stairs I had not noticed before that rose up and I followed. We soon came to a door which Ioannis quickly unlocked with a key he had hidden in an inside pocket.
    We emerged in a large square. After the coolness of the Basilica Cistern, the heat that hit us even at this hour knocked the wind out of my lungs and I had to take a second to steady myself and get accustomed to the stifling air of the city before we could proceed.
    Of course during my recovery time, I could sense, in the darkness, my guide’s amusement at my inability to adjust straight away. It did not take long, however, for my guide’s amusement to turn to impatience and I could smell his annoyance and his silent instruction to rush me along.
    In front of us, the magnificent, imposing and forbidding mass of Ayia Sofia rose to the sky topped with its huge dome that seemed to float in mid-air. The square was empty, implying that the city had already been deserted. Yet the air was not devoid of signs of human existence. I could smell the foul breath of an overcrowded besieged cauldron slowly simmering with the faint perfume of near eruption.
    A distant chant reached me and I turned towards the great church. Faint lights blinked through the many windows. I could see in my mind’s eye a full to bursting church pulsating with the desperate prayer of numerous souls carried upwards and threatening to smash the giant dome to smithereens in their despair to reach the heavens and God’s seat of power.
    If you looked closer, you could see the sweaty vapour rising from every pore of the steaming home of God on earth. If the faithful did not exit soon they would be cooked alive.
    I wondered why we had made such a long detour from the Western Walls and the Vlachernae Quarter of the city where the Palace of Vlachernae stood. I had no time to waste. I had to meet with the Emperor. Where was this man taking me? Was I to meet a fate of death by traitors, by my sworn enemies? Was I being led to a trap? Could I trust this stranger who purported to have been sent by the Emperor to lead me to him?
    My guide had not uttered a single word. I dared not question him, as the slightest murmur could carry far in the stillness of the night. There was danger lurking in the shadows and I saw my guide’s eyes dart in all directions, searching for ghosts, alert at the tiniest movement and sound.
    Though suspicious, I kept my own counsel and resisted the impulse to break the silence. My questions stayed on my lips and, as I sensed my companion’s pace progressively quickening, I increased my pace to keep up.
    We walked briskly across the faintly-lit square and through the deceptively deserted city, turning through twisting lanes and alleys that made me feel disorientated and queasy.
    I could not say how long we had travelled, but we seemed to be going around in circles and when Ioannis stopped we were almost back where we started, but on the far side of the outer perimeter of the courtyard of Ayia Sophia on the point where it touched the forbidding dark wilderness of what used to be the acropolis of the ancient Megareian colony of Byzantium.
    Was my guide trying to shake off possible stalkers? Ioannis looked around and then in quick long strides entered the wilderness and suddenly disappeared through a thickset of brambles.
    For a brief moment I was not sure whether I actually saw him, whether he had really existed or whether he was just an apparition, a figment of my imagination, my mind twisted by the stale air floating above the city and pressing down with its weight stifling all beneath it. I could hear nothing and I stood still and listened for any sound. I waited, but when he did not come out, I decided to take the plunge into the unknown.
    The adventure was a short one and within seconds, I emerged into a cave. All around the cave was lit by what seemed like hundreds of torches. There was rich decoration on the walls and the ceiling was covered in frescoes depicting scenes from ancient Greece.
    Ioannis was standing in front of an icon of Panagia or the Virgin Mary, silently praying. He suddenly turned and let the hood drop back to reveal his face. The cloak fell from his shoulders to the ground. I froze. I knew I had to kneel, but my legs would not obey me. Ioannis patiently waited. I recovered my speech.
    ‘Your Majesty, I am at your service.’ I paused, not yet trusting myself to continue.
    There was the distant sound of running water and birdsong to break the silence.
    ‘It’s good to see you, Michael. Forgive me for the charade, but these are dangerous times and I suspect the Sultan has many ears amongst us. The odds are increasing against us with every passing day. It is becoming more difficult to inspire the people to defend their city. They seem to have grown more devout and helpless. They’ve put their lives in God’s and the Virgin Mary’s hands and believe that there will be a miracle. The Ottoman’s knock on our door is becoming louder and louder and instead of spurring them into action it paralyses them and has turned the brains of most of them to mash. I am running out of ideas.’
    The Emperor seemed friendly enough. It seemed that my mission would be easier than expected. I truly believed at that moment that the Emperor had already come around to our way of thinking and no longer saw the Order as a threat.
    It seemed such a relief, after centuries of suspicion and intrigue, with the members of the Order constantly looking behind their backs for the Imperial spies, at the same time as they were alert for any threat from the Ruinands against themselves and the against the Imperial family.
    And yet Constantinople was important to them. Its fate was the key to the future. They had to watch for the dynasty; which was a thankless task as every dynasty fought them and tried to trip them at every turn. Successive emperors had been too blinkered to see that the Order was by no means not only not a threat but also a staunch ally.
    And what those emperors chose to be blind to was the fact that, had it wished, the Order could easily have taken the reins of power in Constantinople. However, its mission was clear and its members were good and decent people of exceptional integrity and fortitude.
    It was a sad show of the intricacies and machinations of the exulted and privileged courtiers surrounding the Imperial family, not just the members of the Imperial family itself, a clear and unfortunate case of paranoia plague, accelerating the empire’s suicidal collision with history.
    The clock was ticking the final countdown to the city’s midnight hour of its last day.
    Michael had no time to waste. He came straight to the point. ‘Your Majesty, I’ve come for the child.’
    ‘The child is gone.’
    ‘What do you mean ‘gone’?’
    ‘Taken, kidnapped, abducted, dead or alive. Who knows?’
    I could not believe my ears. How could he sound so flippant? Where was the desperation, the panic for the loss of his flesh and blood and heir?
    ‘Please tell me what happened.’
    ‘The child disappeared from its crib on the 4 ^th May.’
    ‘And why have we not heard of this? Why have you not asked for our help? How could you have kept us in the dark about this when all we’ve ever done was to fight for this family? In spite of your family’s hatred of us, you should not have allowed it to cloud your judgement. Forgive my impertinence, but you are being flippant about this matter. You have forgotten the most important thing here. The empire is almost gone and the city too, but the child is the hope for the future; that we may still have time to save. But we need to act quickly, even if I fear we may already be too late, however much I hope that that is not the case.’
    I could not understand it. If he did not care for his child, which in itself was strange, could he not want to ensure the continuation of his bloodline and its right to the legacy of an empire under a different form or re-establishment?
    The doubts about the success of my mission and the Emperor’s ear and allegiance had fleeted back to gnaw at my heart. The future was not secure, as I had hoped it would be.
    I, the appointed conduit of the Order to help an Emperor, if not to save the city then under a veil of secrecy so as to avoid draining the defenders’ moral, to complete the final preparations to save what we could, at the same time as defending the city to the end, suddenly realised that my remit had just expanded; I had to instil some sense into whom I had found to my surprise to be an increasingly deluded Emperor, a person transformed and unrecognisable.
    I knew I was close to failing. I had to try to turn the situation around. I had to find out more about this disappearance of the child and heir.
    As I was ready to resume my questioning, the Emperor beat me to it. ‘You are only a boy. What do you know of the life of an Emperor?’
    It seemed as if the Emperor was deliberately trying to rub me the wrong way for whatever reason, perhaps for his amusement. ‘Your Majesty, forgive me, but there does not seem to have been made much progress in the transfer of the treasures of the city to the chosen secure locations. We cannot risk leaving all of these behind; these manuscripts, these valuable works of art, many much older than the City itself have been safeguarded for over a thousand years. We cannot let the efforts of our predecessors so unceremoniously and recklessly go to waste. We have to think of the future generations and their heritage, their and the world’s rightful legacy.’
    ‘What use are they to us now? Maybe the Ottomans will make good use of them now to go with their new acquisition. They belong with the city after all. How can they be wrestled away from their home and be denied their rightful place?’
    I could not believe I was hearing this nonsense coming out of the Emperor’s mouth. I could not believe I was witnessing this defeatist attitude.
    My uneasiness was growing. ‘But, if we leave them here they will be looted, melted and destroyed. You know what will happen to the city once it falls. Chaos will ensue and even the Sultan will not be able to stop it for at least a few days.’
    ‘Michael, since the crusader looting in 1204 not much has been left to whisk away. The last two hundred and fifty years have not left behind enough to be proud of. Compare with all that was lost back then
    … well… it does not matter anymore.’
    A sense of foreboding was spreading its tentacles across my skin like a plague.
    ‘Your Majesty, the legacy of the last two hundred and fifty years is itself at least worth saving.’
    There was a brief silence as both men dwelt on the critical events that shaped the history of this city and empire.
    The Emperor was the first to speak, and, in so doing, destroying our brief reverie in a puff of smoke; a dream ruined.
    ‘I have been thinking of seeking refuge in Venice. The Doge has offered his help. Of course I shall be taking my family with me and a lot of the city’s treasures.’
    ‘But your Majesty, Venice is the Empire’s sworn enemy. It was the Venetians, after all, that, opportunistic as they were, used the invitation for involvement in the Empire’s succession matters in 1204 to take the city, loot it and eliminate their most fearsome competitor for the trading routes of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. And being traders through and through, with liquid money running in their veins for blood, the Venetians would only be an ally for profit, nothing else. Once in Venice you will be under the Doge’s control and effectively a prisoner. And as for any treasures taken there, you will never see them again.’
    ‘I have received assurances and there is no other way. We are surrounded. There is no hope. The Venetian navy will help us to get out of the city.’
    ‘If you and your family had acted earlier instead of being consumed by your petty squabbles and rivalries, we would not be in this desperate situation we find ourselves now.’
    I knew I was really pushing the boundaries of the Emperor’s reverence and patience and was aware that I could be condemned in an instant for being offensive to the face of the Emperor, but it had to be said. There was too much at stake.
    I had a very strong hunch that all was not right with the Emperor. My suspicions were growing. This smelled very very wrong. I had to get further reaction to confirm my suspicions. I decided to reveal the other main reason that had brought me there.
    ‘Your Majesty, there is something else that brings me here. We’re on the trail of one of the two missing Likureian icons. Word has reached us that the icon is being touted around for sale. We are trying to pinpoint its exact location. I would like to pay a visit to the Royal Workshops and speak to the craftsmen. I need information about the icon’s construction to verify its authenticity once it comes into our possession. I would be grateful if you could arrange this visit for later today.’
    The Emperor knew that the icon had been taken together with the child twenty-five days earlier, but decided against revealing the fact and playing along with the charade.
    The Emperor’s brows rose and his eyes opened wide for the briefest moment, but I saw them. I saw the greed, the ‘ducat’ signs. I saw that I had piqued his interest and had his full attention.
    ‘That can be easily arranged. Now, tell me more about the information you already have. How did you find out? And where is it? Not in the city, surely?’
    ‘Yes, we believe the icon may already be here in the city’.
    The Emperor’s eyes were changing colours like a chameleon.
    ‘Here? How can you be sure of that? My dear Michael, we must go and find it at once.’
    ‘Your Majesty, before I go on… let me say something. Recovering those icons would not be enough. There is something that may be of interest to you. Wouldn’t you want to be remembered as the hero who liberated our people from the catastrophes that befell them throughout at least part of their history? You yourself have always said that “we have an obligation to our people, not only in the present, but for our future generations”, have you not? Well, this is your chance. You have to stay and fight. Be our people’s hero. Let history judge you on that. There is no greater honour, no greater glory. Think of your place in history, your legacy. If you flee now, you will go down as a coward.’
    ‘Michael, the icon… where is it?’
    ‘The icon when not properly handled causes unfortunate consequences and even mayhem. We have information of unexplained phenomena occurring in quick succession, which seems too much like the icon’s signature to be a coincidence. We have narrowed the relevant area to…’
    There was a commotion outside. Have we been discovered? Or has something serious occurred and the Emperor’s presence was called for? The Emperor looked nervous and worried.
    ‘Only one person knew I would be here with instructions to interrupt me in an emergency.’
    Valerian, the Emperor’s most trusted adviser appeared as if out of thin air.
    Your Majesty, the Ottoman army is on the move.’
    ‘My dear Michael, there is no future here for us anymore, as you so eloquently said so yourself, but we do have time to make a life elsewhere and salvage all that we can. I suggest you be on your way now.’ Another man materialised next to us. ‘Vlassis here will take you to the palace. You’ll find food and drink in the kitchens. We will continue this conversation in the morning. This meeting is over.’
    The palace backed onto the Western Walls and the target of the Ottoman assault. He wants me killed, I thought.
    And with an almost imperceptible wave of the Emperor’s arm, Vlassis came forward and beckoned me to follow him.
    It was pointless to insist in trying to convince him of the error of his ways and to further criticise his miscalculated course of action. That boat sailed early on in this conversation. And I would not dare to tell him to give careful thought to what I said. He appeared in no mood to change his position.
    Any further attempt to get through to him was doomed and might even rile him so much as to cost me my life. I had no doubt that I had achieved that fatal accolade, judging by his sending me to the most vulnerable location of the city slap bang next to the Western Walls. And to ensure that I would not be deviating from the course he set for me and escaping my fate, he assigned me an escort no less.
    What an honour. What merciful act to send me on my way to my final destination. Another clue that something was not quite right with the Emperor. Fat chance, though. He should have known me better than believing he could dispose of me so easily. If he thought I would simply roll away and die, he was very much mistaken.
    I only wished that I could say that I would be leaving confident that the correct measures were being taken. What a shame. The Emperor had shown he was in no giving mood, but there was something else I had to try to obtain before I left. The window was closing for the last chance to achieve it and I had the thankless task to request it as the currently appointed ambassador of the Order.
    That was why I could not leave like this, not yet. I owed as much to the Order. I did not make any attempt to move. The Emperor, who was already on his way out, sensed my unwillingness to leave and, mildly annoyed, turned to stare at me.
    ‘Why are you still here? Whatever it is you want to say, say it quickly and be gone.’
    I was still silent wondering how to bring up what was on my mind.
    ‘Well?’ The Emperor was losing his patience.
    ‘Your Majesty, I will not ask for an explanation for the treatment that the Order has suffered in the hands of the Court over many centuries, even though all we ever wanted was to protect you, the Imperial family, and never craved your power for ourselves. We don’t want it. We are not power hungry. However, we have against all odds and the Court’s resistance managed to save members of your family many a time. In these dark hours, and you know as well as I do that you don’t stand a chance against the Ottomans, there is a last act that you should perform.
    ‘You owe it to the Order to issue a decree legalising it. With the City about to be lost, it would really not matter very much in practice. However, it would be a symbolic gesture. What would you have to lose? In fact you will only gain blind loyalty and love in the truest sense, not just service as a result of self-inflicted duty. Make your last act of government count and give satisfaction to a group of people who deserve it and who have been shamefully treated for so long. I beg you, your Majesty, this is the moment to show some degree of contrition which would be much admired. The fact that you did this… in the face of such adversity… Just think, your Majesty, the honour. And, do not forget that with the Empire practically non-existent, what have you got left? The City and a few acres around it. No… ignore that… the few acres around it are being treaded on by the Ottomans. So that only leaves the City. How long do you think you can hold it for? Once the City is gone and you are dead, you will not care, but think of your legacy. Mend the bridges with the Order. You may not agree, but you would not want to go to your grave with that weighing on your conscience and, if you survive the siege, you will need the Order before long and more than ever.’
    ‘No, I will not. They will give their lives for the Imperial line anyway.’
    ‘But it would make their job easier. Reward their loyalty with this act. They deserve it. And let me assure you that the Order would not continue to pander to your petty jealousies and irrational fear. They are not your slaves. The patience of its members is wearing thin. The Order is not your enemy here. It never has been a threat to this throne nor has it ever done anything or shown any signs that it had set its sights on your power, that its intentions were anything other than honourable and altruistic.’
    ‘They will do it anyway. They have taken the oath of the Order and they could not break it. Why should I bother to do anything about it then? Now leave.’
    ‘But…’ I stopped and bowed my head to a man that did not deserve it. I only did it, though, out of respect for what he represented, not just an institution and an empire; his was the last face of a thousand-year old glorious history. Yet I was eaten inside by the injustice of it all and by doubt, by the suspicion that this man before me was not be the Emperor, was not the person I thought I knew.
    I was amazed that the Emperor had allowed me to go on for so long. He almost tried to stop me a few times, but, abruptly and surprisingly, changed his mind. I found that strange.
    I was angry and astounded at the Emperor’s spite. I had put a simple request to him. The act would cost him nothing. He had nothing to lose. Then why? Why? How could he, even at this hour, be so unbowed and unmoved?
    I could see, though, that there was nothing more I could achieve here. There would be another time of reckoning, but this was not it, anymore. I bowed to his Majesty, the “Emperor and defiant and unchallenged master” of a severely butchered empire, and allowed myself to be escorted out.

    Once Michael was gone, a figure appeared out of the shadows.
    ‘My dear Ibrahim, you have done well. Now let’s discuss the latest instructions from the Sultan.’

CHAPTER 7

    Constantinople
    28th May 1453 A.D.
    (Eve of the Fall)
    Our journey through the city was uneventful except for the occasional group of soldiers rushing to the Western Walls or the odd person carrying supplies to the defenders; the flow of traffic was all westbound.
    The supplicants were already ensconced in Ayia Sophia in the Eastern part of the city. Otherwise the streets were deserted. My visit to the palace kitchens was brief. I was just too pre-occupied to eat much. So I went to my room.
    As soon as I closed the door what had been looking me in the eye suddenly hit me. If there were so many inconsistencies in the Emperor’s behaviour, it was because I did not meet with the Emperor himself, but with a different person.
    And if that was true then we were all in danger and the city had already been lost some time ago; the siege was a simple formality and a smokescreen. The betrayal had already decided the outcome.
    Yet what was disturbing was that the ‘Emperor’ I met was so believable. He could have fooled anybody. And he knew so much, so many of our most guarded secrets.
    This could jeopardise everything. The future of the Order itself could hang in the balance. If we had already been infiltrated, it could all be over in a flash. I had to act fast.
    I closed my eyes, focused my mind and invited my mother to join me. She materialised before me like a hologram. She hugged me close and quickly released me. She stared at me with that piercing look of hers and waited. I experienced an involuntary tremble rush through my entire body.
    ‘Mother, my mission has failed. But the worst is that — and I know you won’t like this — the child is missing.’
    ‘What do you mean missing?’
    It’s at times like this that I admired my mother. You never knew when she was upset. But you would know when she was angry. She would show little emotion and without wasting time dwelling on how or why something happened or on any ‘what ifs’, would always turn her mind to the practicalities and the solution.
    ‘The Emperor did not seem to know or had even sent a search party or taken any attempt to find out. And apparently it all happened a few weeks ago. When I asked him why we were not informed and why they did not ask for our help, he simply dismissed it as unimportant and left me in no doubt that he was not expecting us to be of much help in any case. And he made his charitable feelings towards us clear when he added as an afterthought that the matter of the child was none of our business. He did not seem to care. His whole attitude was very lackadaisical.’
    ‘The Emperor I know is hard and still harbours strong feelings against the Order, but he’s no fool and has a heart. Michael, come out with it, what’s on your mind?’
    ‘I could not chase away the feeling that he was an altogether different person. Not everything he said was wrong. But he slipped often enough. Mother, he knew too many of our secrets which you would expect of the Emperor. Yet I do not believe that he was the Emperor. I think we are in great danger. We need to warn the others.’
    ‘We will deal with the so-called ‘Emperor’ later. We need to concentrate on the child. Nothing else matters now. That child is everything. It has to be found and taken to a safe place. Now… what about Mark? Is he still alive? He has not shown any signs of life and the battle was two days ago.’
    ‘When I last saw him he was shaken and injured, but alive.’
    ‘When was that?’
    ‘At the battle scene. It was when we realised we had no chance and decided to get out of there to fight other battles. As we went our separate ways, he said he had a mission to complete.’
    ‘That must be the little errand I sent him on. We will hear from him before long. And the others?’
    ‘The others are gone, mother. Mark and I are the only ones that got out alive.’
    ‘Now let’s go back to your ‘fortuitous’ meeting with the Emperor.’ My mother could never resist a little irony.
    ‘I did plead the Order’s case for his ancestors’ redemption as one final decent act of power, but he was unmoved and spiteful.’
    ‘That does not sound like the Emperor at all. One thing I’m certain of is that you did not meet with the real Emperor. There have been many fine occupants of the reins of power. Yet there were many of his predecessors that ascended the transcontinental double-eagled throne that were greedy and vain, and murdered without compunction to gain power. But Konstantinos Palaiologos is different. I truly pity him. It was a great shame that he ascended the throne at the end of the life of an empire, for which, despite all his great abilities and determination, he could do nothing. Such a waste.’
    ‘Mother, would that person consider, let alone put into words openly, in front of witnesses, fleeing the city, and to Venice of all places?’
    ‘He said that to you? Flee to the city’s rival and mortal enemy and sworn adversary? If it had not been for all the other things you told me about your meeting with him, I would think it a joke. But if he’s not the Emperor, it starts to make sense. But then again, would he have betrayed himself so easily. I wish I could say that I need to think about this, but, I’m afraid, we don’t have time for such luxury.
    ‘Michael, we both know that the Emperor would never flee from his duty to his people and his city. As regards Venice, he would have preferred death than to surrender to the charms of the lion’s mouth. As you well know the Venetians did not waste any time taking advantage and using an excuse to raid and loot the city in 1204. They have smelled blood again, an opportunity. He must have promised them a lot. The problem is it looks as if it may already be too late for even them to intervene, not to help the city, but to even manage to get him out and especially their booty. Even for them it would be an impossible task to break through the Ottoman naval blockade.
    ‘I wonder whether we have the firepower to spirit away many of the treasures that he has so recklessly and arrogantly promised in exchange or simply failed to get out of the city to hiding on time. Maybe he’s taken them out already. Real Emperor or not, they both have the incentive and the wish to do that for their own different reasons and it is the result that matters. Michael, there is only one way we can be sure who we are faced with and we need to act quickly before any more damage is done. We need to test the blood of the Emperor. You need to get me a sample.’
    ‘But how?’
    ‘Tonight, whilst he’s asleep.’
    ‘I don’t think he will be getting much sleep tonight. He was already talking about going to the battlements to prepare and rally his defenders.’
    ‘You’ll need to find a way. In the meantime, we cannot sit tight waiting to know before we can act. We need to hedge our bets and take certain measures. I have to go now. I will contact you later. Goodbye, son.’
    ‘Till later, mother.’
    As suddenly as she appeared, Eleni vanished, as if she was never there. I briefly wondered whether I had just had a dream.
    What I did not know was that I would not see the Emperor again. Events would throw our plans off kilter.
    I had always wondered why my mother had never told me who my father was. I had sometimes wondered whether I had been adopted, as I was very often at cross-purposes with my mother. However, I could also see the striking similarities in our character and the family resemblance in our looks.

CHAPTER 8

    Constantinople
    29th May 1453 A.D.
    (The Day of the Fall)
    Dawn was breaking over the dome of Ayia Sofia and the first rays of the sun were starting to throw an incandescent light on the Patriarchate and the bell towers of the churches scattered around the city.
    The harbour was waking up and the first ships were ploughing the waters of the Bosphorus heading for the harbour of the Golden Horn. It seemed like another normal day in the city that took your breath away.
    The streets were waking up with the first signs of life. Or rather that was the idyllic view on a normal day, before the siege, before the heavy chain or boom was put in place to close the entry to the harbour of the Golden Horn and prevent the Ottoman fleet from entering the city’s heart, from bringing forward the seemingly inevitable and finishing the job once and for all.
    Inside the Vlachernae Palace, all was being prepared for the Emperor’s audience with his ministers and advisors and a selected number of prominent citizens. The Emperor was in readiness to rally his troops and his citizens.
    The distinction between ruler and ruled was now blurred and waning further. On everybody’s mind was the Ottoman, on everybody’s lips was one word, their eyes directed involuntarily to the heavens and the direction of the painted dome with the depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ hugging the world.
    All present had only one question. When would the city fall, not how.
    Rising above the murmur of raised, burning, anguished concerned voices, was the serene and calming sound of the trickling water from the fountain in the middle of the Great Hall. But on this day the serene surroundings, their potency diminished, failed to inspire and beguile.
    Outside the walls the normal activity was as if suspended in time. The fields were deserted. All the city’s gates were hermetically closed. All available defenders were manning the battlements. And those defenders were few and severely diminished in number through hunger and the disease that was spreading like wildfire through the crowded city.
    Everybody who could fight was armed. Everybody else was assisting with the organisation of the city’s defences and the supply of any help to the defenders on the walls.
    Every church and chapel and religious spot was teaming with people praying to their God. Ayia Sofia, the city’s great Cathedral, was packed to the rafters with people trying to reach God with the prayers and hope of a thousand years. The air inside the great church was thick with the breathing of so many, mixed with the heady smoke of the incense burners.
    The view from the walls chilled the blood and spread terror through the heart. As far as the eye could see, the fields had lost their normal sunburned colour; they had turned black. The Ottoman armies looked like a dark cloud that had descended on earth and had choked the life out of every living thing. The Ottoman had fanned out far and wide in its blockade of the city.
    The mighty canons were in place ready to direct their firepower at the centre of the Western land walls or Mesoteichion, between the St. Romanus Gate and the Gate of Charisius. That was the weakest part of the walls where the ground descended towards the valley of the Lycus stream, making this part of the walls lower than the rest of the walls.
    The walls were thick, but could they withstand the vicious and relentless onslaught about to be unleashed at them?

    The walls of every city had a weakness and so it was with Constantinople. Particular attention had been given to the defence of that weak spot. Unlike the rest of the land walls, which were of triple-thickness, at the Vlachernae Quarter, on the North-Western side, there was only one single wall, and it was here close to the Palace of Vlachernae that the Ottoman cannons were concentrating their firepower and where they would break through.
    A small gate on the Vlachernae walls called Kerkoporta was the culprit. It had accidentally been left open after a sortie by a band of the city’s defenders. Some Ottomans went through, but were repelled and the small gate was closed. However, a small number of Ottomans were trapped inside, between the outer and inner walls.
    Unfortunately for the defenders, this small Ottoman group had the canny idea to raise the Ottoman standard on the tower next to the gate. Some of the defenders saw that as a sign that the Ottomans had got through and that the Vlacharnae Quarter had fallen to the enemy.
    The news spread through the city like wildfire and demoralised many. Others were heartened and enraged by it, their determination bolstered, and it became the impetus for a final push to repel the enemy within. They fought like lions, but to no avail.
    The bombardment rained relentless on the city. Stone after stone was dislodged from its many-a-century-old position. Chunk upon chunk of wall was collapsing. Every hit slashed another wound. The wounds were multiplying and they were getting deeper until one final hit brought a huge section of the Western Walls near the Vlachernae Quarter crushing down.
    A powerful gust of stale air rushed out and hit the Ottomans with tremendous force. It took them aback and the Ottoman rush paused, but only for a moment.
    A gust of dust and debris burst through and blinded the defenders within. The mouth had widened considerably and its appetite for the Ottoman troops entering the city was insatiable.
    Nothing could stop the flood of Ottomans rushing into the city through the breach. Wave after wave of Ottomans was sweeping through, thirsty for victory, hungry for killing and looting and raping, hungry for their rightful reward.
    They had no fear for death itself, for there was reward in death as well, perhaps for them the biggest reward was in heaven.
    Fires were breaking across the city. Screams pierced the night air. The sound of sword against sword, gun against gun, echoed all around and was getting louder as it spread through the city’s streets.
    Panic reigned everywhere. You could smell the fear, the sweat, the smoke and the already rotting bodies. It choked the air out of you.
    The city had been breached. The city was being violated. Its reputation of inviolability and impregnability shattered in one fell swoop. The curtain fell on the Empire that had been ruled from this city for more than a thousand years.
    A new chapter was beginning. The Sultan ordered a halt to the looting after three days. The Ottomans obeyed their master and stopped, but they also saw the sense in his message: ‘do not destroy what is now ours’.
    The Sultan lost no time in installing himself in the Vlachernae Palace and making the city the capital of his Empire. The Sultan, finally relieved to be able to finally put a halt to the relentless campaigns and conquests of the last few hundred years, set into motion the next part of his ambitious plans; the consolidation of his sprawling Empire.
    Amongst the confusion of the battle, the Emperor’s fate would become one of the world’s greatest and longest-running mysteries.
    When some of the elite Ottoman Yenitsari troops went through the breach on the wall of the Vlachernae Quarter, they opened the Adrianople Gate, and it was then that thousands of Ottoman troops started to stream into the city like an unstoppable flattening avalanche.
    The Emperor, without any hesitation, relinquished his Imperial regalia and threw himself into the fighting to repel the incoming waves together with the remaining defenders of the city. If there were a body somewhere, it would be impossible to locate, let alone identify, amongst the thousands of dead.
    The Sultan could not allow for any doubt surrounding the death of the Emperor to remain. That would be dangerous for, as a symbol of resistance, the hope that the Emperor could still be alive and could still return to lead a new charge against the new rule would give hope to the Sultan’s newly-conquered subjects and ammunition to his rivals lurking in the background and craving the throne; and it would be an excuse to any foreign powers to interfere and unite against him and his Empire.
    Such a situation would become a gangrene of doubt against the Sultan’s legitimate claim on the throne of the Roman Empire, as rightful successor of the Emperors of Constantinople.
    The Sultan had taken the title of Roman Emperor, in addition to his other titles. He emphasised his descent from the Imperial family of Constantinople and the Imperial blood running in his veins, as one of his ancestors had married a Byzantine princess.
    The Sultan devised a neat and final solution to this problem. The story goes that the news was spread that the last Emperor was killed and that his head was presented to the Sultan who impaled it on the walls for all to see, as a sign of the ultimate humiliation of the Byzantine Empire, the final proof of his great victory and as a message to the remaining defenders to take away their faith, to sap their strength and the hope, which they were still clinging on, that they could still win, with the Emperor as the symbol of their struggle and as their leader.
    The Sultan was certain that with the dead Emperor being paraded publicly and with such brutal fanfare, his new Byzantine subjects would lose heart and the will to fight and would finally submit to his rule; any resistance would be quashed and would die a silent death with not even as much as a whimper.
    But amidst rumours that the Emperor had removed his Imperial regalia and others saying that the so-called body of the Emperor when found had no Imperial signs or regalia, to irrefutably confirm the Emperor’s death, a huge cloud weighed on the truth of the Emperor’s fate.
    And as the prophecy goes, “he will rise again and free us…”

CHAPTER 9

    Constantinople
    29th May 1453 A.D.
    (The Day of the Fall)
    The Emperor never asked to see me that day to find out about the Likureian icon. No doubt his mind was otherwise engaged. I hoped he was inspiring fire into the hearts of the defenders.
    I dared not leave my room for fear of being accidentally and forcibly recruited to the suicidal numbers on the walls. I could not put my life in danger like that. Not here. Not for this lost battle.
    I heard the chaos running rampant outside and knew in my bones the enemy was close. The palace would not be spared. I had to get out, but could not risk using my powers for fear of being detected by any Ruinand spies in the city.
    I had to do it on foot. I had to hurry, if I was to get out of there alive. I packed my things and ran out of the room, all my senses on high alert.
    I did not know of any secret passages leading away from the palace. I had to reach the Basilica Cistern, which meant venturing into the streets of a city overrun by Ottomans running riot.
    I had to disguise myself as an Ottoman. There was a good chance I would encounter Greeks, but they should not present a risk as they would be running away, trying to save themselves, though they could still probably stop to fight if cornered. I needed Ottoman attire. I did not want to have to kill to get it from a soldier.
    I remembered the satirical play put on only last night at the palace. One of those costumes would, hopefully, help me look the part. Desperation and fear was fertile ground to inspire humour.
    And you could not deny that a little humour could go a long way to alleviating the fear, to at least give temporary respite from it. That was the way to go; down with the ship, in style, flying the flag of defiance to the bitter end.
    Nothing was more courageous than to laugh at adversity and certain death. I had no doubt that there would not have been any time to destroy the costumes. And I knew where to look.
    I ran down the grand staircase, turned right, and, through a small door, I found the stairs leading down to the cellars and storage rooms. At the bottom of the stairs, in half-darkness, I stopped for a moment and felt my way around, attempting to smell the spice room.
    My nostrils captured the aroma and I started to run in the direction my nose was pulling me, as if by a leash around my throat. I turned the corner and found the door I had been looking for.
    I feared it would be locked, and I tried it cautiously. It did not resist to my push and gave way, which was surprising, but I had no time to stop and think about it. I would face whatever, if anything, was on the other side. But, thankfully, there was nobody there.
    I found the chest with the costumes from the previous night’s play. I rummaged through it like a madman. My fingers touched what I had been looking for: the linen bag. I allowed my fingers to wander and feel inside it. It all seemed to be there.
    I changed quickly and put my normal clothes into the linen bag, tied it and threw it over my shoulder. I knew I would also need to hold a weapon to carry off the disguise, and I took hold of the sword that was inside the bag. It was not real, but it looked the part and it had a shining blade that in the chaos and semidarkness outside should fool all but the most audacious man who dared to challenge me and threaten me with a death sentence.
    I went out of the room and back the way I came. As I started climbing the stairs, I heard a distant noise. I stood and listened. I could hear gurgling water. I turned back down and followed the sound to a crumbling door breaking the seemingly solid wall.
    I was not sure whether it was the Lycus stream, part of the city’s water system or sewer water, but I did not care. I kicked it in. The gap was wide enough to go through. I did not hesitate. I threw myself into the rushing torrent.
    I rode the foaming water and suddenly found myself in a huge cavern. There was a ray of light coming from a gap in the ceiling. But it was too high and I could not reach it. I could not afford to wait for the water to rise. There should be another way out of here.
    My feet touched something that felt like a step, and I cautiously planted my feet on it. I then felt further up and there was another step, and then slowly a staircase was revealed to me. I climbed it and came to a barred opening blocking my way, seemingly fixed and locked.
    I could see a door behind it. The metal on the barred opening appeared rusted and the surrounding frame had started to chip away. I pulled the bar and easily wrenched it off. Now for the door. Luckily it was unlocked. I opened it slowly and took a peek outside.
    Strangely, the street was totally deserted. I could see fires in the distance. I walked to the end of the street and looked around the corner. Ayia Sophia was only a short walk away. The distance was short, but the leap would feel long through the fire and the lion’s den.
    I could now hear the sounds of battle, looting and rape. I could see the glow from the fires spreading across the city. I held my sword firmly in my left hand and plunged into the burning streets.
    My destination was the gardens on the hills spreading North-East of the old Imperial Palace, the hills where the acropolis of ancient Byzantium used to be.
    I hardly met with any resistance as I briskly made my way to my temporary refuge. I did not stop running until I had reached the deserted area of scrubland, magnificent ancient trees and caves.
    This was one of the few pristine and untouched areas in the densely populated city, where buildings were for the most part packed close together, stubbornly jostling for space, vying to inhale the smallest breath of fresh air, their impatience rising, and then ebbing away, sliding down the blessed and cursed uneven gradient of the city all the way into the waters of the Bosphorus and its murky depths.
    There, away from the hustle and bustle of the great city, it was difficult to accept that you were in the centre of the greatest city on earth.
    Only when I stopped and let myself fall, exhausted, to the ground, did I realise that I was soaking wet, water mixed with sweat dripping from every surface and every pore, my clothes and my hair, and forming shining paddles at my feet.
    I felt as if I had been dragged backwards through a hedge. I tried to recover from my close brush with death. I sat down under a great plane tree and tried to remember how to breathe normally again and find some semblance of calmness, before I did what I urgently had to do: talk to my mother.
    She appeared before me, as impressive as ever, her larger-than-life presence filling every nook and cranny of the rocks and the motionless vegetation around me and invading every pore of my skin.
    Her voice sliced through the air like a blade. Her voice was a booming echo filling my brain, with copious blood rushing to engage the intruder, and almost giving me a paralysing seizure.
    ‘Finally, our sick lady has succumbed to her fate. It was sad to see her at her sickbed fading away. But history will take its course and we cannot change that. We should not change it at any case. Michael, there is much to do, but we must move with extreme caution. The identities and secrets of the members of the Order may have been compromised and it will be difficult to know whom to trust. It is imperative to find that child and the fate of the real Emperor. Have you found the Likureian icon?’
    ‘No, I did not get the chance to even properly conduct a search for it. Mother, have you heard anything from Mark?’
    ‘Not yet. I will let you know when I do.’
    And with those final words, she was gone.

    Before I could be on my way I had a strange vision.
    There was a castle and a beautiful garden next to an old harbour and a child was trying to climb an ancient olive tree and kept failing to get a grip, and kept falling down, but persisted and kept scratching the trunk and pulling the branches.
    A short distance away, a woman, most likely the child’s mother, was smiling, full of pride at her child’s exploits and persistence, her eyes twinkling in amusement, a matching pair of two flawless emeralds, reflecting the sun’s rays and the surrounding landscape in a myriad colours.
    Her mind was plotting her child’s future. I was surprised to be privy to her thoughts. The boy kept calling his mother to join him, to help him. From somewhere I heard a male voice calling the woman’s name and a blurred figure started to appear into this picture of blissful oblivion to the horrors of the world.
    I was fully absorbed by the scene and smiling with them. But then I was forcibly dragged out of that dream when the landscape suddenly grew dark, and a ferocious wind ripped through the castle, the harbour, the child and the mother, turning everything into rubble, piles of ash, the entire scene stained with purple splashes falling from the sky, indistinguishable fragments of stone, soil, plant, flesh and bone, all swiftly turning to dust and scattered far away by a terrible twister, as if they had never existed.
    Even though I was inside this vision I remembered myself feeling crashed by the scene of utter devastation; the air was blown out of my lungs. I collapsed to the ground and cried.
    Soon after I was transported to a different scene. I saw figures, alternating between dressed in dark sinister hooded cloaks and then into dancing figures, magnificently dressed in vibrant attire and decked in glittering jewels, accompanied by a gloriously hypnotising hymn- singing, interspersed with images of what appeared like barbarian battle-dancing around a roaring fire, and an idol which I could not quite make out. I felt drawn in by this tune that was ringing in my mind, long after the vision ceased.
    And then again I was abruptly and brutally taken into the middle of a furious battle with arrows and swords going right through me, as if I was not really there, but it, nevertheless, felt very real and the noises and battle cries were deafening and terrifying and I automatically brought my palms to my ears.
    I tried to run to the sidelines of the chaos around me, but my feet were dragging ever so slowly, as if fighting through snow or sand or a bog, and then I caught someone’s eye and that person seemed to have momentarily ceased fighting, as if paralysed on the spot.
    He stared right through me or at me, I wasn’t sure, but he seemed to have recognised me. And it started to trigger a memory in me, but I could not quite place it, a name…, just give me a name, that face… I tried again and again, but when I thought I had got it, it slipped away from me, and, at that moment, I saw that person being speared right through like a goat about to be roasted, and I let out a terrible cry which nobody could hear, as nobody present turned to me, a cry that changed nothing around me.
    As suddenly as it appeared the vision disappeared and I was suddenly brought back to reality with a thud. I found myself drenched in sweat back in Constantinople. I felt confused by the riot of images that assaulted me.
    I thought about that person I saw who seemed to be the only one to recognise me, but could not understand what happened, what it all meant. I tried to remember the woman’s name in the first scene, but it eluded me. After a while I gave up.
    I strained my ears to hear the sounds of battle, but, strangely, could hear nothing. Had the Ottomans got bored of the looting and destroying and raping or was there simply nothing left to rape, loot or destroy? Whatever the case might be, I had to get out of there.
    We had to find the child, which was as much ours and the Order’s as the Emperor’s and the mother’s that bore it, but whose identity and fate was unknown.

    A piece of paper fell from the book that Elli was reading. She bent down and picked it up. It was three pages folded together. She unfolded them. It was a handwritten note with the date of 21 ^st December 1922 A.D. written on the top right-hand corner. She had seen the handwriting before, but could not remember where. Her curiosity piqued, she began to read.

CHAPTER 10

    Smyrna, Asia Minor
    July 1921 A.D.
    Smyrna was one of the wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean. Its port was a constant hive of activity with cargo travelling between East and West. Trading was the blood that ran through the city’s veins and was at the root of its success.
    It was the Greeks that formed the majority of the city’s population and dominated its economic, cultural and political life.
    Smyrna’s commercial and cultural life rivalled Alexandria’s, which also boasted a powerful and dominant Greek community amongst its many thriving foreign communities. Greek, Italian, Jewish, French diaspora; they were all there.
    However, Smyrna’s residents were oblivious or chose to ignore the ever-increasing dark clouds for an impending doom. This would come a few months later in 1922; an event that would lead Smyrna to be burned to the ground by the troops of Kemal Ataturk.
    All of that excitement, though, was still to come. Life continued to roll along its normal buzzing rhythms, with trade and business, glorious balls and performances by world-renowned sopranos, the most wonderful fairs and celebrations and religious festivals, all forming part of a charmed life; a life that would prove short lived. It would only amount to a few decades of flourishing culture; just like the Golden Age of Athens in the first half of the 5 ^th century B.C.
    On this day the sky was clear of clouds. The sun drenched the city in a stifling heat. Zozo was sitting on the edge of the waterfront gazing at the glorious riot of colours and flags of the world’s trading ships and fishing and military vessels dotted around the harbour.
    Nearby, children were playing. Three of those were her brothers, Iakovos and Spyros and her sister Eleonora. Zozo was the eldest and her father’s favourite. Zozo’s father was Antonios Symitzis, one of the most prominent businessmen in the city.
    The family originally hailed from Constantinople, what was throughout most of the Middle Ages the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, the Queen of Cities or as was known in Greek: Vasilevousa.
    The family left the city amid the ensuing chaos, after it fell to the Ottomans in 1453 A.D. They found refuge in Smyrna, already a part of the Ottoman Empire, the first stop of the last ship that left Constantinople, the fallen city which was the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire that had been left standing until the fall that wiped it out.
    It was there in Smyrna that the Symitzis ancestors settled and flourished with every subsequent generation adding to the family’s wealth, prestige and privilege. But Constantinople was their home and occupying a central place in their hearts, the vacuum left by its loss too big to fill.
    They were part of a species that was becoming extinct in its native home due to the occasional persecutions by erstwhile mobs fired up by formerly unassuming but suddenly inspiring Ottoman figures proclaiming a hypocritically patriotic zeal mixed with a dose of religious fervour and intolerance.
    Greeks were from time to time blamed for certain catastrophes, a convenient way for certain Ottoman rulers to direct the people’s anger away from themselves and their autocratic rule.
    However, many Sultans were enlightened rulers who not only allowed their subjects, including the Greeks, to carry on with their lives as before, as long as they were paying their taxes, just as the Persians did two thousand years earlier, but bestowed certain commercial privileges on them.
    As a result of this policy of benign rule, many of the occupied peoples, especially Greeks, came to dominate the commercial life of the Ottoman Empire. That domination was at the heart of the Greeks becoming targets in 1922 when the overstepping of the Greek King’s responsibility to his people, following his surrender to his very own selfish motives, brought the intervention of foreign powers on Kemal Ataturk’s side, thus condemning the Greeks for their arrogance and intransigence.
    The prelude to the catastrophe of 1922 was the Greek King’s greed and misplaced ambitious vision. The end of the First World War brought territorial gains for Greece, which was on the side of the Allies, against the Ottoman Empire, which was on the side of Germany.
    During the war the Greek King was at loggerheads with the Prime Minister over which of the sides to ally Greece to. The King was a Germanophile and, naturally, wished Greece to ally herself with Germany. But the Prime Minister was an anglophile and could not let that happen.
    The two most powerful political leaders of Greece agreed to disagree and compromised by keeping Greece neutral and out of the war altogether. But the Allies needed Greece on their side for its strategic position.
    They decided to take the Greeks’ decision for them. They landed troops in Thessaloniki in 1916 and their action forced Greece’s hand and sealed the issue once and for all. Greece exited the safety of neutrality for the hand of the Allies.
    But for the Greek King those gains that came after the end of the war were not enough. He carried delusions of Byzantine glory and grandeur. Against the advice of his then Prime Minister Venizelos, the King took steps to make those deluded dreams a reality.
    He landed troops in Smyrna to what would later prove a misguided hero’s and liberator’s welcome and started a campaign of further conquest on a march to Ankara and beyond.
    The King was, by his own hand alone, fooled into believing that he would have the support of the foreign great powers. How wrong that assumption proved to be. What arrogant wishful thinking.
    The result was defeat, the loss of everything that was gained from the First World War and about a million refugees bound for the welcoming embrace of the mother country, Greece. What shattered idea that hoped-for warm welcome proved to be. But that’s another story.
    Kemal Ataturk was an inspirational figure and a very capable military mind. He used that anger against the Greeks that had been brewing for generations into firing up a potent force bent on punishment. There would be no prisoners this time.
    It was death or nothing. The Greeks knew it; they knew that they had no chance, because the foreign powers would not deign to help them even at this desperate hour and with Smyrna in flames.
    The foreign ships in the harbour sat idle, turning a deaf ear to the calls for help. That was the indictment against the greed of the King. But all that was still months away.
    Zozo was nineteen years old, a bright, generous and independent girl with big plans for herself, her family and her people. Zozo loved her father. Antonios had been a good father to her and her brothers and sister. He had done a good job out of very difficult circumstances. Their mother had died suddenly soon after the birth of her youngest child.
    But Antonios was not alone in this task. He shared the burden of the children’s upbringing with Manto, his housekeeper, who became the mother the children had for only a short time. Manto was about the same age as their mother and she fell into the role naturally.
    It was a pleasure to see them grow and to observe with amusement and interest their individual personalities coming out. Antonios had no doubt about their good character. He saw evidence of it every day and that gave him enormous satisfaction. But he had made sure of that good character from the beginning. He was certain in his heart that would not change with time, as they grew up and matured.
    But Zozo was his favourite. He saw so much of himself in her. She was becoming very important to him. She certainly was a fast learner. She absorbed like a sponge.
    Even as a little girl she would sneak into his office at work or his study at home, sometimes sitting under the desk, other times hiding behind a curtain or under a chair, and listen, hungry to witness everything revolving around her father’s life. She hung onto his and his guests’ every word.
    Zozo had already shown her abilities to her father who was constantly testing her and grooming her to succeed him. Even at this early age she was being involved in many of his ventures and charities. She had shown creativity and brilliance and had been turning her hand to new commercial initiatives, be it in business or for charity.
    It was for the promise Zozo showed that Antonios was considering whether the time was right for initiating her into the Order of Vlachernae.
    Zozo was looking at the ships dotted around the harbour when a blinding light caught her attention.
    Standing apart from the other naval vessels in the harbour was an impressive yacht with its purple and gold sails reflecting the sunlight and appearing like a shining beacon or a lighthouse, even in the daylight visible from a great distance. Those were the colours of the House of Vendis, a prominent Greek family from Alexandria.
    Zozo saw a launch speeding away from the yacht coming towards the shore. Inside the launch, unable to sit down, Kostas Vendis was standing proud, like the head of an invading force looking at his prize, at the city spreading in front of him, anxious to get to his meeting with Antonios; a crucial meeting for the fate of the Order of Vlachernae and their respective and partly shared business interests.
    Kostas Vendis was one of those people who was constantly underestimated, because he was short and stocky and had a gentle, innocent face, but one that belied the steely determination and sharpness of mind that lay underneath that calm veneer. His enormous presence was impossible to ignore. You underestimated him at your peril.
    Kostas was a master of understatement. His uncanny ability to second-guess and outwit his rivals was second to none; combined with his ability to move seemingly immovable obstacles and make things happen proved to be an unbeatable combination, an indispensible ally. Kostas was only thirty-two years old, but he had incredible wealth and power, the gilded legacy of generations of brilliant ancestors.
    Zozo saw the launch reach the waterfront. Her father expected her to be at the meeting. She had to get back. She got up and started to gather her things. She hated to stop the children from their games. They seemed to be having fun. Their laugh and teasing rang far and loud.
    ‘Come on, it’s time to go back.’
    None of the children made any attempt to gather their things and pleaded with her to let them stay.
    ‘Please, Zozo. Can’t we stay a bit longer?’
    ‘We’ll be back tomorrow. I promise.’
    The children lowered their eyes, and, reluctantly, began to carelessly throw their things in their bags, disappointment disfiguring their normally carefree faces.

    Nikitas knocked on the door of the Symitzis house in the St. George Quarter of the city near the harbour. He was looking forward to the wide smile and hug of Mrs Manto, Antonios’ housekeeper, nanny, cook and a multitude of other things, too numerous to name.
    The door opened and Mrs Manto upon seeing Nikitas could not contain her excitement, her clothes evidently straining and ready to burst at the seams. A huge smile broke across her face and she squeezed him in a big hug and held him there for a while.
    She had raised him, and his two brothers, Manuel and Stephanos, and they were all three like sons to her. It was tough times then when their mother, Zoe, was striving to survive and establish herself in a maledominated world.
    Zoe was the matriarch of the family, another strong woman in a long line of strong women at the helm of the Symitzis clan. Besieged by a weakened but still powerful Sultan sitting in Constantinople and distributing rough and unpredictable justice through his loyal advisors, and carefully sidestepping attempts by other ambitious members of the Pallanians to trip her, spurred as they were by their often ancient traditions and perceptions frozen in stone, her life was full of constant excitement. But she stood strong and coped with it all with remarkable determination and grace.
    She was a fiercely loyal person to her family and those around her who she thought deserved it. She was a fearsome businesswoman of great intelligence and pragmatism who always carried herself with an innate elegance and quiet but steely confidence.
    She had to combine the roles of head of the Symitzis family businesses, head of the Order of Vlachernae and mother during the few free precious minutes left to her.
    She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams and the low expectations of many of her conservative rival contemporaries who, initially, saw her as a nuisance, an upstart, just for being a woman, but who were soon relieved of any such delusions.
    They started to have a growing respect, if not love or fondness for her, helped, no doubt, by the fact that they were fearful of her power. Even they were also soon to succumb to her power, be added to her list of, if not to the extreme of being hard-lined ardent fans, then at least admirers, and accept her as their leader.
    However, even during all that upheaval and the constant challenges to her authority (always easily stamped out with common sense and a dose of necessary ruthlessness), she spent time with her sons who did not grow to resent her for her flying visits and often assumed indifference. They all adored her and respected her and looked up to her throughout their lives.
    But Smyrna and her brother Antonios’ home was the safest place for them to call home, at least in their early years. Later they would not have a home at all. The places of their campaigns and travels would each be their temporary home.
    Mrs Manto had as big a place in Nikitas’ heart as his biological mother, Zoe. He remembered her sitting him down on the floor or on her lap telling him stories of extraordinary adventures. Mrs Manto released Nikitas, stood back and took a long hard look at him, admiring the man he had become, her love for him animating her face and emanating a mother’s warmth.
    ‘My dear boy, I have pourekia for you in the kitchen, fresh out of the oven. Antonios is out in the garden tending to his precious roses. You can take him some pourekia and have a chat before Kostas arrives. His yacht has been spotted in the harbour.’
    Nikitas lost no time and gave his feet wings on his way to the kitchen. The intoxicating smell of the freshly-baked pourekia was already pulling him by the nose. Mrs Manto followed and observed him hungrily gobble down a few pourekia, smiling to herself.
    He then rushed for a glass of water before he put a few in a small plate and made his way back to the entrance hall, all the while his thoughts turning to the indomitable and irreplaceable Mrs Manto.
    Mrs Manto was a treasure. She exuded such warmth, drama and excitement that you could not help but be swept away into that particular rollercoaster. How could anyone dare ignore her, and not succumb to her vocal, but, more often than not, silent demand for attention, a demand which was not the result of arrogance or vanity but of the best intention, as she always had the best interests of those she cared for at heart. She filled any room she entered with her presence, an effect born of the impression of a permanently animated appearance, of perpetual motion, even when she was standing still, her eyes contantly watchful, missing nothing.
    She had strong opinions about everything and would immediately take charge. It was not an arrogant thing with her. She was decisive and never dithered. She would never shy away from responsibility and it was a result of her loyalty and willingness to resolve any issue troubling her family.
    When she was present, others involuntarily deferred to her, a dominance born of her strong character as well as her actual physical presence. She was a generously-built woman with strong arms from all the manual work she had undertaken throughout her hard life. The air her bulk displaced choked the breath out of you. Funnily, it made you think that you had done something wrong. But she soon after filled your lungs to bursting with love and warmth.
    She was big in stature and big at heart. Her heart was a big enough place not only for her family but the world at large.
    Mrs Manto had a strong maternal instinct. She watched like a hawk over the people she loved, over her family. When necessary she would bare claws and teeth to protect them, like a tigress with her cubs. She had dedicated her life to looking after this family, spoiling her dear ones rotten.
    There was proper tough love there though. They would fight a losing battle against her obstinacy and immovability. But her advice would always without fail be sound.
    Yet her loved ones would not admit it to her face; how could they endanger her soul and massage her ego, how could they resist the temptation to make her perspire a little, just for the fun of it? But she would never be fooled. She always saw through these pitiable little schemes.
    She was a master of dry wit. Complements would receive a smile and with a raised eyebrow would be instantly demolished by a self-deprecating comment. Any expectation of her being puffed up by sweet words would fall on deaf ears and soon deflate. She had seen too much in her life to be taken in by the magic of such words.

    Nikitas walked across the entrance hall and out onto the patio, hungrily and contentedly munching on a delicious poureki. God, that woman was a miracle-worker. He wanted to plant a million kisses on those precious hands that had given them all so much over the years.
    He stood on the steps leading down the patio to the garden and let himself drown in the riot of colours and smells besieging his senses. He was paralysed on the spot feasting on this vision of paradise on earth. He had no wish to let this dreamlike state go. He closed his eyes to prolong the good feeling.
    The disc of the sun was high above in the clear blue sky, shining bright and hot, and drenching all below in a vibrant hew that brought to life even the dullest of flower and leaf, the humblest of petal and grass.
    He saw Antonios engrossed in his roses. Nikitas broke his reverie and started to walk towards Antonios.
    Suddenly, as if sensing something, Antonios got up and came face to face with a vision he had not seen for some time. He stood there for a moment in disbelief. “It must be a mirage, an illusion. I’ve been standing in the sun for far too long”, he thought out loud, but got no reply.
    Nikitas waited. Antonios shifted focus, but the vision was still there. He wondered whether this was the first sign of the onset of senility or cataracts, the cursed or blessed gift of old age.
    His face broke into a smile and he gathered Nikitas tightly into his arms and then released him.
    ‘Nikitas, how long have you been standing there? Have you been spying on me? Come and have a look. Tell me what you think. You know, I planted these after you last left and just look at them now. They’ve only just began blooming, as if to welcome you back home.’
    ‘You’ve always been a magician of nature. I don’t think they just did it by themselves.’
    ‘Lazy people find mystery and complexity where there is none. Now, tell me. How’s your mother and how is her Alexandrian journey going?’
    ‘She’s well. She’s pleased with progress. And Alexandria is one of her favourite cities. She’s thrilled to have been able to combine business with pleasure. She’ll be back next week. She sends her love. Antonios, why are you still wasting your time on those roses? You know as well as I do that soon this city and your beloved roses will turn to ashes. You should get out whilst there’s time. I wish I could say you should warn others, but I don’t think that’s feasible. They’ll think you are mad and try to lock you up.’
    ‘Don’t worry. Everything has been arranged. We will be out in time.’
    Displaced for a second time, Antonios thought. Forever condemned to be nomads. And we are again at the same juncture. Another place. Another home. For how long, he wondered, this time.
    ‘I will not ask where you will be going, because the fewer people know the better. Antonios, you know you cannot take the children with you. You have to take this opportunity and split the family to confuse the scent for our enemies.’
    ‘Yes.’ Antonios had another reason for wanting to go his own way. The protection of the explosive information he had in his possession and for which he was the last guardian. He had to be careful not to end up taking that secret to a premature grave.

    Here the account, the echo of almost ninety years ago, stopped abruptly. The page looked as if it had been violently torn. Elli felt disappointed at the fatally wounded account. She turned to the next page. What she did not know was that the missing part was hidden well away in the possession of her brother Iraklios.
    Across town, Iraklios was by a weird coincidence staring at that torn page. The Cappadocian discovery had triggered the memory and led him back to re-read the document away from prying eyes. His memory somehow was not enough and wanted to be shaken into revealing its solid form, in words at least.

CHAPTER 11

    Sultan’s Palace
    Edirne (Adrianoupolis), Eastern Thrace
    24th April 1453 A.D.
    The roses were blooming. The fragrant air wafted through the open windows and intoxicated anyone who cared enough to dare and open his nostrils to the world around him.
    The Sultan was walking through the enchanting gardens, singing to himself, saying little prayers and contemplating and praising himself on his achievements so far at his tender age. Then his mind travelled back to his gardens that he adored and was immensely proud of.
    He paused, looked to the sky and spoke out aloud, “Babylon be damned. These will last for a thousand years and they will be moved to our new capital, soon, yes, very very soon”.
    The location was Adrianoupolis or Edirne in Turkish, capital of the Ottoman Empire since 1326 A.D. when it was taken from the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire. Before that, Bursa was capital from 1299 until 1326 A.D. when Osman I moved it to Edirne.
    The glorious sun scattered its rays around in a crazy dance from rose petal to petal. The dizzying beauty of the play of light briefly distracted the Sultan from his thoughts.
    The Sultan was Mehmed II, and he was twenty-one years old, as young almost as Alexander the Great when he embarked on his great campaign of conquest of the Persian Empire. And like Alexander the Great before him, about one thousand eight hundred years later his aim was the conquest of another empire. He was a man of naked ambition, a man in a hurry who did not suffer fools gladly. In that he had a lot in common with Alexander who was his idol and with the Emperor who was now his prisoner.
    The Sultan wanted Constantinople for himself. He wanted to crash that empire that stood alone against him, resisting his loving embrace, a fly in his eye, the city that was cherished as the Eastern civilisation’s cradle and shining light, treated by its keepers as its owners, as being theirs by divine right.
    Why hadn’t he taken the city by now? That was because he needed something. Or was it that he was superstitious and believed that the city had to be taken on a particular date, the one that was ordained. He went along with the mullahs, because it suited him.
    The Empire of Constantinople was built on the same premise. All wars were fought in the name of God. All was justified in the name of God. And when something went wrong that was punishment from God. God could do no wrong.
    But then again the strong belief in God was what sustained the Empire in its glorious and dark days. It was an impetus for a flourishing culture for the arts and for glorious architecture.
    The Sultan felt that his long campaign, his life’s work, was almost at an end. Soon it would be time to start consolidating his Empire and organising its administration.
    The only thing marring his undoubtedly upcoming victory was the disappearance of the child, the heir and a future constant threat.
    He was quite pleased with his favourite pet in its gilded cage. It was time for his new pet to have the pleasure of his visit and a snack.
    He walked along the azalea path down to the summer hut. But hut it was not. It was a magnificent two-storey building with twenty-two rooms, that gave the impression that it was floating on the glorious gardens surrounding it, and it seemed as if it was about to fly away.
    He went up the steps leading from the rose garden and entered the mosaic hall of the eleven fountains. He crossed the hall, went under an arch and entered a brightly lit room full of birdsong from the seventy-two nightingales set in cages around the room.
    In the middle was a large gilded cage and inside was a man looking surprising clean and healthy and pensive, considering his confined condition. The Sultan treated his hostage with respect.
    ‘Ah. Inshalla may you live for a hundred years my dear.’
    Konstantinos spat in his face through the rails. He would be no-one’s toy. He had to escape and get back to the City that needed him. Or could he possibly do more good by staying there inside the Sultan’s grasp, the lion’s den?
    ‘If you are going to kill me, do it quickly.’
    ‘Oh, no. That would be too easy a way out for you. I have plans for you. You are destined for my harem. And you will be a fine addition.’
    ‘I will rather die than be butchered to become a eunuch.’
    ‘You misunderstand me. That would be a waste for such a fine specimen of masculinity. No, you will be kept alive for my pleasure. I see many joyful nights ahead for us.’
    ‘I will kill you.’
    ‘You are hardly in a position to threaten me. You will be kept chained. Even like that you will be more than capable of giving me great pleasure, perhaps starting from tonight, in preparation for my final assault on your city. Our first night together will be my first gift to you, a great honour. My taking of your city will be my second. The third will be your joy of living in your city as my prisoner.’
    And with those final words, the Sultan left.

CHAPTER 12

    Edirne (Adrianoupolis), Eastern Thrace
    21st May 1453 A.D.
    The Sultan’s fascination with the last Emperor did not last long. He was bored with him now. He had served his purpose. He could not afford to take the risk of the Emperor becoming a martyr, his tomb a shrine when discovered, his worship a cult. He had to be disposed of. The Sultan called for his most trusted adviser.
    ‘Mohammed, our honoured guest has overstayed his welcome. I want him killed and dismembered into as many pieces as possible. And then I want you to send out riders to the four corners of the earth to scatter his parts. Report to me when it’s done.’
    ‘Yes, your Majesty.’
    The adviser bowed and left. The Sultan felt a momentary sadness, but it passed, overrun by his ruthlessness.
    There was another man in the shadows who overheard this exchange. To the Sultan’s court he was Beyezit. But his real name was Julian and his loyalty was to his Emperor, not the Sultan. He had to help the Emperor escape. Mohammed, however, had suspected Beyezit for some time now and had him watched.
    On the road out of Edirne they were ambushed. Beyezit was killed on the spot. The Emperor, too, was killed and was dismembered. Mohammed supervised the act himself.
    But the riders were followed, by an unlikely figure, a Pallanian. He was the one who painstakingly gathered the scattered pieces of the Emperor’s body and took them to the Order of Vlachaernae who arranged for his body to be properly buried in a secret place, away from prying eyes and people. Cappadocia was the ideal place.

CHAPTER 13

    Cappadocia, Asia Minor
    June 1453 A.D. (After the fall of Constantinople)
    A small procession was almost at its final destination: the rugged cave landscape of Cappadocia. Four rode out in front. Another four were following on foot carrying a non-descript chest. Inside it was a body or rather the parts that once formed a body.
    Their simple black monastic cloaks belied the vibrant colours decorating their garments underneath. All eight cloaked figures were members of the Order of Vlachernae.
    The body they carried had the power to defy and make history. It was the key to the future.
    Within weeks they arrived in Cappadocia. The chest carrying the body was buried with the full rites and honours becoming of a member of the Imperial family. But, having sealed the tomb and as they were ready to leave, they were ambushed by a group of Ruinands.
    The Vlachernaeans were outnumbered and they all fell, except one that survived, but was left for dead. However, as the Ruinands attempted to break their way through and enter the cave, a blinding light emanated from the sealed entrance and all Ruinands were suddenly on fire, one by one becoming burning embers and then disappearing in little columns of ash.
    And then all was dark once more. The awesome power that vanquished them was locked inside the tomb until the day that the chosen one would be allowed to enter undisturbed.

    Elli picked up the story after the missing part that, unbeknownst to her, her brother Iraklios was reading at the same time.

CHAPTER 14

    Smyrna, Asia Minor
    July 1921 A.D.
    Kostas Vendis paused at the gate. He had no doubt in his mind that Antonios would dismiss his plan off hand, without giving it due consideration. It was risky and it could cost them everything, even their lives. But it was a risk worth taking: all or nothing.
    How could a risk-taker like Antonios resist such a prospect, such odds? He knew he had a damn good chance to persuade him and the others. And he would also benefit out of that plan of course.
    Kostas composed himself, put on his inscrutable mask and went through the gate. He climbed the steps to the front entrance and knocked gently on the door.
    He had hardly pulled back his hand when the door opened, as if by itself. He tried to hide his surprise, but Mrs Manto was standing before him, filling his whole field of vision, and she would not be fooled.
    ‘My dear Kostas. You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. I can’t have changed that much since you last saw me. I assure you I do not have a sixth sense. I just happened to be passing by the hall on my way to the library. But let’s not stand here on the doorstep. Come in, come in. Mr Antonios is in the garden with young Nikitas. They should be back inside any moment now. You can wait for them in the library.’
    Kostas was anxious to see Antonios and was about to decline the invitation when he realised that it was an order wrapped as an invitation. He realised Antonios wanted a private moment alone with Nikitas and decided to obey Mrs Manto’s thinly veiled order. Mrs Manto was watching him. She caught the momentary doubt in his face and raised an eyebrow.
    ‘Mrs Manto. It’s a pleasure to see you again. I would be happy to wait for them in the library.’
    ‘For a moment there I thought you looked torn between an invitation to hell or paradise.’
    Kostas laughed, embarrassed to have been caught out and came clean.
    ‘I was disappointed. The garden seemed a much better prospect on such a hot day.’
    Mrs Manto lost no time in taking him into her arms and squeezing him tight. Kostas squeezed back and planted a kiss on each cheek. You could not but be swept into Mrs Manto’s strong maternal embrace. She was after all their de-facto mother.
    He could not start to imagine what she had seen in her lifetime. Officially she was supposed to be fifty-six years old. However, he knew that she was much older than that even though she did not look it. Unlike Antonios Symitzis, she was not a fully-fledged member of the Order of Vlachernae, but an honorary one, and still bound by the vow to protect the Order’s ancient secrets.
    Kostas heard voices coming from the back of the house. He saw Antonios and Nikitas entering the hall and let go of Mrs Manto. Deciding to humour Antonios, he stood at attention with his nose on its way to touch the ceiling and saluted. Antonios smiled and played along.
    ‘Aha, caught red-handed. So you are the object of Mrs Manto’s desires, the accomplice in this clandestine affair. I’ve been patiently waiting for her to come clean for far too long, but to no avail. I would not dare to interfere in her life, of course, but I did wonder who she had been sneaking out to meet for weeks.’
    Kostas laughed and rushed to greet Antonios.
    Antonios held both Kostas’ hands in his and then hugged him. He feigned anger but there was a twinkle in his eye.
    ‘It’s hard to let her go, isn’t it? Join the club. One hug and you are hooked and comforted, recovered and restored.’
    ‘My friend, I could not agree more.’
    Antonios became serious and there was urgency in his voice.
    ‘Now let us go inside. We have much to discuss.’
    They had hardly sat down when Mrs Manto came into the library and set down a tray with coffee, sweets, bread, olives, meats, fruit, honey and dates, all straight from Amaltheia’s horn of plenty.
    ‘I want to see empty bowls. Eat up.’
    ‘Mrs Manto, please let everyone know we don’t want to be disturbed for whatever reason, unless, of course, the house is on fire.’
    ‘Yes, sir.’
    Mrs Manto left quickly and closed the door quietly behind her.
    Kostas broke the silence.
    ‘Antonios, I suspect we are not here to discuss the forthcoming destruction of this city. We all know we can do nothing to prevent that. So, why are we here?’
    ‘Before I go into that, tell me whether we have any news of further Ruinand incursions into our territory. I am aware they have been distancing themselves from actual warfare and are using different tactics to expand their influence and hit us where it would hurt most, business. Our influence with the Ottoman authorities is strong, but in view of what is coming in a few months, we will lose an important cornerstone of our operations. Kostas, how is progress on the establishing of Cyprus as the base of our sphere of influence and the transfer of our operations?’
    ‘It’s going according to plan, but it’s expensive, especially since it has to be carried out in such secrecy. And it is personally costing me money. I am very stretched financially at the moment and I would like to know how long I would need to keep this up. I have been trying to anticipate any attempts at sabotage by the Ruinands, but I do not have a full picture of their operations and plans yet. Our attempts at infiltrating them have not had the desired result.’
    The wheels of Antonios’ mind were already turning, formulating a plan. He chose his words carefully.
    ‘Kostas, I believe you should continue courting the British authorities in Cyprus and gaining favour with them. We will need to be allowed to carry out our activities from the island undisturbed. At the moment it is the only safe haven in the Eastern Mediterranean. Now, about the main reason I called you both here today. I have still not been successful in locating any of the descendants of the last Emperor. We still do not know what happened to the child. Let’s hope Manuel has good news for us. I’m expecting him soon. And I had a talk with Zoe. There is the matter of locating the exact burial place of the last Emperor. You will know about the prophecies. Well, we may have good reason to believe that they are indeed true.’
    ‘Antonios, I do not come without a gift of good news. One of the pair of the Likureian icons has resurfaced.’
    ‘Where is it?’
    ‘I have it in my possession.’
    ‘But how? They have both been lost for centuries.’
    ‘It was by accident. I don’t know whether the icons have a way of finding their way into their intended keepers, but I was as surprised as you were. I did not realise it at first. I had bought an icon for my collection when my six-year-old son found himself playing with it and as he was handling it, he must have pressed some hidden button; the icon fell like an outer shell revealing the Likureian icon beneath.’
    ‘But how do you know it is authentic?’
    ‘Well, let’s put it like this. Since I acquired it, strange things have been happening around me. There is no other explanation. It cannot be a coincidence. You know as well as I do the notoriety of the icon to cause such things.’
    There was an almighty commotion in the hall and Manuel burst into the library. A deathly silence descended on the room, all eyes on Manuel. The only sound came from the clock in the hall and some birdsong outside. They all waited for Manuel to speak. Kostas even forgot the business proposal he had for Antonios.
    ‘The lead was a dead end. The man thought he was getting a reward for information. I do not know where he may have got that idea. He started his story well enough, but soon I realised he kept contradicting himself and saw through his lies. Fairytales the lot of them. He made his first mistake when he began throwing secondhand accounts that at first glance seemed convincing. I bet he was hoping to create a smokescreen and impress me with his historical knowledge and slow authoritative voice. Anyway, having just about avoided being blinded by his desire for his fifteen minutes of fame, three hours more like it, I could not confirm or otherwise ease my suspicions. We are back where we started. We don’t know what happened to the real Emperor and where he’s buried.’
    ‘Slow down. What suspicions are you talking about? And why did you say “the real Emperor”? What are you not telling us?’
    ‘I heard rumours that during the siege of Constantinople, before the fall, people had seen the Emperor in two places at the same time. I don’t know how much credence to give to those rumours though.’
    ‘How can that be?’ interjected Kostas. ‘Surely people must have been confused amongst all that hellish mess of the battle.’
    ‘I also heard that the person people saw was not wearing Imperial regalia.’
    Manuel’s words echoed his anxiety, but also allowed for hope.
    ‘Is it possible that the real Emperor may have come back, if he were away in the first place?’
    Manuel and Nikitas looked at each other and there were dark clouds in their eyes. With their minds they spoke to each other and they knew what they had to do. They knew they had to leave immediately.

    It was later in the afternoon, near dusk, that Manuel was strolling along the promenade, when he suddenly stopped and looked back, but saw nothing. He thought he saw a face he had seen before, but could not identify. And then it hit him. It was his brother, Stephanos, he was sure of it. But what was Stephanos doing here? He was supposed to be on a mission to Alexandria in Egypt. He was definitely up to something.

    A few metres behind him, Stephanos was climbing aboard a ship anchored just outside the harbour. He had spent the day visiting his favourite places, which he could never resist when he was in Smyrna, one of his favourite cities. He loitered around the harbour, spent a couple of hours wandering around the city’s famous central market taking in the intoxicating smells of spices and food; he was tempting fate, he was taking a risk of being recognised, but he could not care less.
    He filled his belly and every nook and cranny of his olfactory senses. He satisfied his love of touching and tasting the numerous fares on offer in the richly coloured stalls stacked up with the delicacies of the world. Now he was ready to face a different kind of experience.
    Entering the city’s central baths, he felt a sense of tranquillity wash over him. After relaxing in the rich steam and breathing in the mixture of aromatic herbs and spicy sweat, he washed, dressed carefully and left this temporary refuge.
    It was on his way to the harbour that he saw Manuel. He recoiled at the thought of it. He could not be sure whether Manuel had recognised him. For a brief moment he saw Manuel hesitate, slow his pace and look back. Stephanos just had enough time to dive into an alley and hide. He saw Manuel walking away and he then knew he was in the clear.
    He arrived at the harbour and boarded the small boat that would take him to the flagship of a fleet owned by a man that many people knew by name, but nobody would have recognised, had he walked amongst them, as nobody had ever seen him.
    His host was a powerful man. And this powerful man was a bitter commercial rival of Antonios. And Stephanos had met him before.

    At that point the account of events from 1921 A.D. ended. Elli fell into deep thought immersed in the past she still could not shake. Reality could wait for a while.

CHAPTER 15

    New York
    Present day
    It was an August morning in New York, unusually rainy for this time of the year, under an overcast sky that, combined with the rising heat, stifled the city. John Halland woke up with a start and sat up in bed. His dream was still very vivid in his mind and it was unlike anything he had experienced before.
    He dreamt he was in a strange place that reminded him too much of Cappadocia in Turkey that he had visited only two years earlier. He dreamt he was walking in an underground cave, when he was suddenly snatched, a hood placed over his head, and led to a place that smelled of damp and rotting corpses.
    He could then remember hearing some voices he could not make out, then seeing a plaque with an indecipherable inscription and then being placed in a sarcophagus, the lid safely fastened into place and all going dark. He was entombed and he was having difficulty breathing and he was falling in and out of consciousness and drowning and then a vacuum, silence.
    As a final act, a face flashed before his eyes, a face he thought he recognised, and then a voice and something he could just about remember… He could almost touch it, but it was not meant to be.
    Whatever it was it kept slipping further and further away, like sand through his fingers, and then he was awake and it was gone. But he was glad he was saved, that he was alive.
    He was in his bed. The bedroom was quiet and dark with the curtains drawn and the blinds secured. It took him a while to recover. A part of his brain was dismissing it, but another was drawing him to it, as the nightmare’s vividness kept bugging him.
    He looked at the clock. It was time to get ready and go to work. Damn, he had overslept again. And damn, he had no time to go for a jog. Again. He fumbled for the lightswitch, then rubbed his eyes, threw off the bedcovers and jumped out of bed like a spring or as if someone had set him on fire.
    He sprinted to the bathroom, probably breaking the hundred-metre record in the process, from where he emerged five minutes later, showered and shaved and he started to get dressed like a maniac.
    It was as if he was a space shuttle and the ten-second countdown to launch had began or as if he was trapped under the space shuttle, desperate to escape, but fighting a losing battle against the countdown to the launch that would vaporise him. He was running against the clock and any remnant of his dream flew from his mind. It was later that month that he would remember his dream.
    He was running severely late. Within fifteen minutes he was out of the door, down the uneven steps. He cursed. He had to have those steps fixed. They were a challenge and a death trap if you were half asleep or very drunk.
    He ran the short distance to the subway without breaking a sweat. He had to thank his intense fitness regime and his crazy climbing expeditions to far-flung placesfor that. That was something he had in common with his boss, James Calvell. Once he was inside the train he relaxed for the first time since waking up. It was only six stops.
    Arriving at the Metropolitan Museum, he was greeted by the guard and was waived through.

    Later in the day, John was busy restoring a Byzantine icon, part of the Metropolitan Museum’s famed collection, when suddenly a small piece of wood popped out, revealing a secret compartment. Inside was a ring bearing a seal.
    He studied the ring. It could not be anything but the Imperial seal, and the style was typical of the Palaiologos dynasty. It appeared to have some traces of blood on it.
    He picked up the phone.
    ‘James, it’s John. You know I’ve been restoring this Byzantine icon. Well, I’ve found something. I think you’d better have a look at it.’
    ‘Come right up.’
    A few minutes later John Halland was sitting opposite James Calvell. Between them, James’ desk was the temporary stage for the presentation of an item that, most probably, had not seen the light of day for a very long time.
    John was observing James studying the ring and the icon that had been the ring’s secret home. John half-smiled to himself. James’s fascination with the two items was written all over his face.
    He looked up at John in time to catch John’s expression in the split second before John’s miserable attempt at changing it. James was amused, but chose not to comment. The two men exchanged a knowing look indicating they were, probably, thinking along the same lines. James took the plunge.
    ‘I think we should speak with Giorgos in Athens. It’s his specialist field and I bet he’d be very interested in seeing this too.’ John nodded in agreement.
    James dialled Giorgos’ Athens number. While waiting for Giorgos to answer, James’ mind wandered to his old friend. They had been at university together and had been like brothers ever since. Although they ended up separated by an ocean and a continent, their bond remained strong.
    They had shared dangerous experiences, climbing peaks and rock faces around the world that would have defeated lesser men. And they had saved each other’s lives too numerous times to count during those risky expeditions.
    Theirs was a bond without petty jealousies or squabbles. Any chinks or scratches inflicted on each other’s armour quickly healed, as they were the result of humour or honesty.
    James greatly admired this archaeologist who he knew was worth twenty times all of his rival archaeologists put together. He was glad that Giorgos was down to earth and did not share the pretensions that many of his rivals had adopted, behaving as they did with an academic arrogance that was not justified by their lack of vision and achievement out on the field and on the ground, and with no intention of belittling activity outside fieldwork, the real frontier of archaeological endeavour.
    Giorgos had thick skin, which stood him in good stead, as he very often was the target of rival archaeologists’ unfair criticism and mockery. The seasoned and upstanding members of the archaeological establishment somehow could not resist the impulse to rush to deride him, his work and his opinions, without even properly analysing his findings, a reaction, James had no doubt, born of jealousy for this upstart who threatened to upstage them at every turn, and perhaps permanently stand above them, if he made that great discovery he was so obsessed about.
    Those knee-jerk reactions and attacks on Giorgos was proof, if any was needed, that his rivals were genuinely afraid of his brilliant mind and relentless pursuit of his theories, which were always backed by meticulous research.
    James was devastated and helpless to intervene when Giorgos had to abandon the Cappadocian expedition and return to Athens, resigning himself to a cushy desk job, a mundane life of hard graft teaching at the University, day in day out.
    He had since then pestered him not to give up or give into the lazy routine of the daily life he led lately. He was much too talented to waste himself like that. Just because an expedition went wrong due to no fault of his, it was unacceptable for him to give up his life-long dream.
    He only wished that Giorgos would chew this one up to experience and move on. Being young and ambitious meant he still had not acquired the cynicism that came with age and kept seasoned archaeologists sane. Then again, how many archaeologists of a certain age and experience had he met who had lost their mind waiting for the big discovery that never came?
    He had noticed his spark snuffed out, nothing left to ignite his ever present adrenaline rush, that signature infectious energy gone up in smoke, a defeated man, aged beyond his years.
    He could not remember the last time he heard warmth in Giorgos’ voice, the last time he heard that laugh that could melt anyone he met. He now hoped that Giorgos had kept the small flame of his dream alive.
    Finally the phone was picked up eight thousand kilometres away. James felt a clutch at his heart as he immediately detected the mechanical note in his friend’s voice.
    James decided to avoid pleasantries. The only way to drag Giorgos out of his slumber and trigger his interest was to get straight to the point.
    ‘Giorgos, it’s James.’
    ‘Hi, James. How’s your entombment in that most famed of institutions?’
    ‘Keeping me young and fresh, thank you very much dear Giorgos.’
    ‘The air is thin there, my friend. You should get out whilst there’s still time and you are still young. There’s hope for you yet, but running out of its hourglass faster than you think.’
    James laughed. He would not let Giorgos get away with that. ‘Look who’s talking. I’m following your glorious example.’
    ‘Have you considered that I may actually enjoy what I’m doing?’ Giorgos sounded defensive and he knew it. And he had no doubt that James had picked up on it and would punish him for it.
    ‘Yes, I’m sure you are; going through the motions and whiling away the time filling young minds with your knowledge and wisdom and pandering to an ungrateful and sclerotic academic bureaucracy instead of being out there chasing your dreams, trusting your instincts and taking chances on your brilliant theories and at the same time raising two fingers to the sceptical and conservative rival archaeologists mocking you for your wild and bizarre ideas. If it were not for archaeologists, both trained professionals and amateurs, following through on their wild goose-chases, many of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time would never have seen the light of day. Giorgos, you are lying to yourself and you know it.’
    James finished, fixed his eyes on Giorgos and waited. He hoped that something of what he had just said would get through to Giorgos. It was time for him to come to his senses.
    As soon as the words about enjoying his work left Giorgos’ mouth, he knew they sounded hollow. He did not need James’ outburst to starkly show him his grim and sad situation for what it was.
    Who was he trying to fool? James was right. He had seen through Giorgos’ words, which were more full of self-denial and delusion than fact. Hell, he didn’t believe them himself.
    However much he had tried, Giorgos simply could not bring himself to show passion and optimism for his current job. There was no denying the fact that he was in a professional and personal dead end, his life put on hold, frozen until the Great Ice Age passed, which left what? Another few thousand years to go, which in his case, being human, as things stood, with no end of the mundane in sight, meant for the rest of his life.
    His friend’s silence since his outburst was telling. James was clearly waiting for him to come clean, and briefly roll in his last bout of self-pity and constructive introspection, before recovering spectacularly, the real Giorgos reborn.
    ‘When are you going to follow your dreams instead of preaching to the unconverted?’
    Giorgos’ question was so unexpected when it came that James was suddenly lost for words, a rare occurrence indeed. For a brief moment he felt disappointed that he had failed to wake his friend from his one-hundred-year sleep, but when he saw the amusement in Giorgos’ eyes he realised that he had broken through the shell that Giorgos had so diligently built around him since the failure of the Cappadocian expedition. The question was pure Giorgos taking his revenge by throwing James’ own words back at him.
    James directed his steely gaze at Giorgos in a fake reprimand. ‘I am actually enjoying my job which is more than I can say about you. You seem content to allow yourself to slowly waste away.’ James paused. He was a disciple of the school of tough love for those about whom he cared deeply. ‘Anyway, I didn’t call you to exchange commiserations. I found something that may interest you. Do you still believe your Palaiologos theory has legs? I think I’ve got something that may help you prove it.’
    ‘I doubt it could be anything that important.’
    Whatever hint of excitement James believed he had engendered in Giorgos was well past its expiry date. Whatever flame James thought he had lit, seemed to have been just as quickly snuffed out.
    To James’ chagrin, the resigned-to-his-mundanefate Giorgos’ was still there. What would it take to get him to snap out of it, damn it? James was losing patience with his friend, but he believed he held an ace up his sleeve and couldn’t wait to play it.
    ‘Well, I’m no expert on Byzantine history, that’s your field, but I’d like to think that I’ve gleaned something from you, that something’s stuck, and even with my limited knowledge I can tell this is big.’
    Giorgos was intrigued. ‘I should’ve known this was no courtesy call. Come on, don’t torture me. What have you found?’
    ‘I’ve got John Halland here with me. You remember him, our specialist icon restorer. I think he’d better explain. I’ll put him on speakerphone.’ James pressed the button.
    ‘Hi, Giorgos.’
    ‘Hi John. What have you got for me?’
    ‘I found a ring inside a hidden compartment in an icon I was restoring. The ring carries what looks like the Byzantine double-headed eagle. From historical accounts I’ve read, it is a match for the Imperial ring worn by the Palaiologos dynasty.’
    ‘Could it be a fake?’
    ‘No, I took the liberty of dating it. It is at least about six hundred years old. I know about your interest in the last Emperor, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos. I would be venturing into speculative territory, but it is possible that it could be his. Chronologically and design-wise, at least, it fits. But I cannot find further proof. Maybe together we could crack it.’
    ‘You want me to come over.’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Let me see it. Get onto skype.’
    ‘James is connecting as we speak.’
    Giorgos accepted the invitation and they were connected. James was stunned by how haggard Giorgos looked, a lot worse than he had expected. He chastised himself for his disappointment. He should not expect a complete change overnight.
    He was comforted by the thought that he had at least got Giorgos hooked on something other than his self-inflicted misery and that was a start. He said nothing and hid his worry for another time, when they would be alone together.
    John held the ring in front of the laptop’s camera lens. Giorgos gasped and for a few seconds was rendered speechless.
    ‘John, show me the icon.’ Giorgos studied the icon. ‘Look at the bottom right-hand corner. That looks like a figure of an Emperor. Is there any inscription to give us a clue as to his identity?’
    ‘No. But I’ve only just started the cleaning of the icon. It will be another two days before anything that maybe there is revealed.’
    ‘Perfect. It will take me a day to wrap up things here and fly over.’
    ‘James came in front of the lens.
    ‘Giorgos, it’s all been arranged already. I’ve booked you on tomorrow’s 6.20 American Airlines evening flight to New York. Your ticket will be waiting for you at their desk at Athens Venizelos International Airport.’
    ‘Mr Calvell, how dare you assume that, because you want me to, and assuming I could, I would drop everything at a moment’s notice and travel halfway around the world just to give you an expert opinion? Should I feel flattered and humbled that there is no other suitable expert in the whole of the United States?’
    It was a cheap shot, but Giorgos was only feigning hurt. Inside he was beaming and the smile breaking across his face was proof of that.
    James couldn’t be happier. ‘There’s just too much love between us. What did you think? That I would let you stew and wallow in self-pity for the rest of your life? God knows I’ve tried everything I could think of to get you out of your stupor. My efforts went unrewarded, but my prayers seem to have been answered. This could be the breakthrough you have been waiting for. Look at this as your lucky break, the chance that you should not let get away.’
    Giorgos was very glad for this life-changer that James had thrown his way. ‘You rascal. You know me better than I know myself. Thanks, James. I owe you one. See you tomorrow.’
    Even after the skype connection was severed James continued looking at the display for a little while longer, smiling to himself, a glorious sense of achievement rippling through his whole body. He was happy for the transformational effect his phone call had had on his friend.
    When he looked up at John Halland he saw from his amused expression that he knew what had just happened and shared his feeling of elation for a job well done.

    It only took Giorgos a phone call to take five days leave from his job and fifteen minutes to pack when he got home that evening. He would be going to the airport straight from work the next day.

CHAPTER 16

    New York
    Present day
    It was just after two a.m. on a moonless New York night. The city’s strikingly-lit skyline was advertising its wares to all and sundry, engrossed in its frenetic rhythmic dance.
    The Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue was asleep, journeying from dreams to nightmare and back, dreaming wild dreams, dreams that took it through each of the periods represented in its gilded belly. A figure was moving silently through its dark and veiled venerable halls.
    The Museum’s sophisticated security system was no match for such a skilled predator. It responded to the touch of the exquisite figure cajoling it and dug deeper into its dreams. The figure slowed its pace as it was approaching its destination, deep inside the bowels of the building.
    The figure found what it sought. It could not resist the impulse to briefly admire, under the sparse light of its torch, the object the beauty of which overcame immovability and screamed its presence. The figure chided itself for resigning itself to its weakness for beauty.
    With a deft movement, the glass case was violated and the object of its affection was in its hands. There was not the slightest blink from the lasers that the figure could see with its thermal vision.
    The figure took the time to savour the moment and the texture of the object, and, caressing its back, the figure removed a panel and checked inside. Hidden in one corner was a piece of paper folded numerous times.
    The figure took it out, unfolded it and, concentrating the light on it, examined it and read its contents. It smiled in the dark, a smile wasted with no witness.
    She would be pleased, the figure thought to itself.
    And then in an instant the figure was gone. It disappeared as silently and as quickly as it appeared. The ghostly figure was consumed by the night, blending with it as if it never existed as a corporeal being.
    In a flash it landed on the soft ground of the bog of Marathon, near Athens, and was then carried underwater, deeper and deeper, until it reached the underground city, its own personal refuge and secret base of the Ruinands’ power.

CHAPTER 17

    New York
    Present day
    Giorgos landed at New York’s JFK Airport and took a cab straight to the Metropolitan Museum where James and John were expecting him.
    Within half an hour he was seated in the office of a nervous, angry and clearly ruffled James. John looked positively despondent. Giorgos immediately forgot the usual pleasantries and anything else he was planning to say.
    ‘What’s happened? You both seem to be wearing the latest in fashionable funereal expressions. Has somebody died?’
    ‘The ring and the icon were stolen sometime between 8 o’clock last night and 7 this morning.’ James was crestfallen.
    ‘But how? How the hell could it have been taken under your own nose like that?’
    ‘I’m sorry Giorgos. However, all is not lost. I have taken precautions.’
    ‘You’ve taken photos of it.’
    ‘No, it’s better than that.’
    ‘Come on, James, don’t keep me in suspense.’ Daggers were shooting out of Giorgos’ eyes.
    James put up his hands as if in a gesture of surrender. He could never resist the temptation of winding up Giorgos who right now looked positively livid and murderous, foaming at the mouth and fuming with anger. James saw a jerk of a movement from Giorgos who looked as if he was about to hit him and decided to stop playing games.
    ‘I’ve had them both copied.’
    ‘But how? In two days?’
    ‘It wasn’t easy, but john here is a master of his craft.’
    ‘Let me see them, please.’
    ‘No, you don’t understand. It’s better than that. I’ve got the originals.’
    Giorgos’ jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly.
    ‘Smart guy. Show me.’
    James went around to his desk, put a finger under it and pressed a button. The fireplace revolved, revealing a secret passage.
    ‘Follow me.’
    ‘Of all the…’

    Once back in James Calvell’s office, Giorgos was very excited.
    ‘That is Konstantinos XI Palaiologos on the icon as we suspected. You know what this means. That ring could have been his. It could of course have been taken from his body during the looting that followed the fall of Constantinople. But how did it end up in here? Can you imagine the journey it must have had? This is big.’
    Giorgos was a child again. James could see it and smiled. Welcome back to the land of the living, Giorgos, he said to himself. John was smiling too. He could see now what James meant when he talked about Giorgos’ infectious enthusiasm for his passion that was his work.
    He could see the Giorgos that James had told him so much about. John had only met Giorgos briefly once before, but through James he knew more about Giorgos that an introduction could ever merit. Giorgos was impatient and fidgeting. He turned to James.
    ‘James, do you know how the museum came by this icon? That may give us a clue as to its history and tracing its source may provide us with useful information relating to my search.’
    ‘Well, I did a quick check and it appears to have been a donation by a collector who wished to remain anonymous. And apparently it was a very obscure and minor item and certainly not a very valuable piece which, considering that the thief could have had his pick of any number of very valuable, small and easily transportable pieces, makes the interest in this particular item all the more intriguing. Nothing else was taken. The thief knew exactly what he wanted, where to find it and how to get it.
    ‘The whole theft was completed within thirty minutes which is the time between rounds that it takes the guard to pass by the restoration room, where the icon was kept overnight. The guard has stated that he saw and heard nothing and we have to believe him, assuming, of course, that he was doing his job properly and was not snoozing somewhere, oblivious to anything going on around him. Interestingly, none of the security systems was tripped. We only found out about the theft this morning when John went into the particular restoration room.’
    Giorgos’ fertile brain was back, working at full throttle. ‘We need to get someone who’s a whiz with computers to take this further and follow the trail.’
    James was on the same wavelength. ‘A hacker. I know just the guy. I’ve known him for a few years now and I’ve used him before. He’s your man.’
    ‘Great. That’s settled then.’ Giorgos rubbed his palms together with glee at the appetising prospect of following through the discovery and its implications. He could not wait to get stuck in, grab the baton and run with it to its logical and, hopefully, as envisaged conclusion.
    Silence descended before James stirred.
    ‘There was another theft, a few months ago. It was an artefact from the museum’s Cypriot collection. I had not thought about it before now, but I believe that the two thefts could be connected.’
    ‘What was taken on that occasion?’
    ‘Oh, it was a Byzantine icon depicting the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora. It was a valuable icon, but it seemed insignificant at the time, as it was such a minor item in the museum’s collection and not on display. We have so little display space and so many works that we have to be very selective. I don’t know, not just when, but, if, any of the works we have in storage, apart from a selected few, will ever see the light of day whether exhibited permanently here at the museum or as part of a touring exhibition.
    ‘Anyway, the theft was never reported, and as we had no leads, the case was closed. The icon was taken from the museum’s storage vaults deep underground. Security down there is not as tight as it is in the exhibition halls and the displays above ground, apart from the basement restoration rooms which are also well protected and monitored. And I’m afraid we do not have any security footage of the thief.’
    ‘Why do you think the thefts may be connected?’ Giorgos asked.
    ‘Well, when I checked about the other icon that contained the ring, I thought I would do a background check on the other one that was stolen as well. And guess what. Both icons were donated at the same time by the same anonymous person.’
    ‘We urgently need to put a name and face to that person. And assuming that they are still alive, warn them that their life may be in danger. We need to get whatever information they may be able to provide us with soon, in case whoever is after these icons gets to them.’
    ‘I agree. I’ll get that hacker guy onto it right away. Now, Giorgos, when are you going back to Athens?’
    ‘Well, I would need to be back at work in three days.’
    ‘Would…?’
    ‘You know what? Now things have changed. I need to study that icon and the ring, so I’ll stick around for a while. I’ll call the University and get a few more days off. They owe me plenty already, anyway, and I’m not missing this opportunity. It’s what I’ve been waiting for for some time now, since…’
    Giorgos paused, almost becoming too emotional, and there was only the slightest hint of the great struggle taking place inside him to hide his emotions. He fell deep in thought.
    None of the other two men dared break the silence and invade Giorgos’ thoughts that seemed before their eyes to transform from emotional strife to inspired flow.
    When Giorgos looked up at James and continued his eyes were shining brighter than the Northern Star. ‘I will need to get funding.’
    ‘Funding? You mean…?’
    ‘Yes, I’m going back to the dig in Cappadocia. I want to restart the excavation. This discovery changes everything.’
    ‘I’ll make a few phone calls and see if I can help you with that, but it may take some time which I gather you cannot afford. I can see you are in a rush to get back and I agree with you that it should be sooner rather than later.’
    The thefts were a sign. Giorgos was now more determined than ever. He knew he was onto something. He knew continuing with this project could be dangerous, but when had that stopped him before? James beat him to it and put Giorgos’ thoughts into words.
    ‘It’s going to be dangerous.’
    ‘I know. If somebody goes to all that trouble to steal something so specific and not the most valuable item in your treasure trove of a place here, then what this person is after is worth risking jail or death for. We are going ahead with the project. Now I’m more sure of it than ever.’
    James got out three small glasses and a bottle of rum. He poured them all a drink and raising his glass, proposed a toast.
    ‘To the bitter end.’
    ‘To the bitter end.’ Echoed the others.

    James’ first call was to Iraklios Symitzis. They had known each other for a few years now and James was aware of Iraklios’ interest in all matters pertaining to Byzantine history. James was also aware of the Symitzis’ family’s prominent private art collection and their huge financial support of archaeological expeditions and of museums and galleries housing Byzantine and Greek related collections.
    He only wished he had thought of contacting them before now and bringing to their attention Giorgos’ Cappadocian expedition back when his funding had dried up. Unfortunately at the time James was caught up in too many projects that came all at once, almost drowning him, and clouding his mind.

    Iraklios knocked on the door of Elli’s office. She called him inside and gestured to him to sit and wait until she ended her phone call. Five minutes later she gave him her full attention.
    ‘What’s on your mind?’
    ‘I received a call from the deputy director of the Metropolitan. It is a request for funding for an archaeological expedition in Cappadocia led by a young archaeologist from Athens. One of my reasons for wanting to fund this is that I would like to control the information flowing out of the expedition, away from the world’s critical eye. I thought this expedition may interest you.’
    ‘Why’s that? What’s so special about this expedition to make it stand out from so many others?’
    ‘Apparently they already found something there last year, a chapel dating from 1453 and a sarcophagus which appears to be Byzantine with Imperial insignia.’
    ‘Has it been dated? And what was inside?’
    ‘Their funding dried up and they had to stop any further examination. The sarcophagus remained unopened and the tomb sealed. I only wish we knew about it then. I would have stepped in and paid for them to continue.’
    ‘Iraklios, what do you think they will find? Do you know more about this than you’ve told me so far?
    ‘I need to tell you a story that I’ve guarded for many years, a story entrusted to me by our mother.’
    ‘Whatever it is, why was I not told?’
    ‘I don’t know, but it’s time for you to know. It goes back to the fall of Constantinople on 29 ^th May 1453.’

CHAPTER 18

    Athens, Greece
    Present day
    When Giorgos got back to Athens, a letter was waiting for him. It was from James Calvell. He had found a sponsor for the expedition who wished to remain anonymous.
    Giorgos was elated. His apartment could not contain his excitement. He immediately went out to breathe some fresh air and think.
    He could not believe he had got another chance. He had a lot to do. He swiftly spurred into action. He had a major expedition to organise, permits to obtain from the Turkish authorities and make arrangements to get a sabbatical and, possibly eventually, leave his job at the University.
    He thought he had forgotten what organising an expedition felt like, but it was a great feeling.
    He felt like a kid again, dreaming about great excavations and great discoveries and treasures to be found. It was as if a memory, something deep inside him, had been awakened.
    He became a pre-programmed machine that was switched on. He didn’t even have to really think of what to do, because it came to him naturally, like riding a bike. He liked this Giorgos who had been hibernating for so long, but no more.
    The old team was back in business again. Everyone was stunned when he called them and they all accepted his offer on the spot. How could they resist this chance of a lifetime? He half-expected that would be their reaction, but still he was prepared with an arsenal of weapons — guile, charm and brains — but, eventually, none was required to be deployed. That was a very pleasant surprise.
    They landed in Istanbul and took a train to Cappadocia. They set up the sterile laboratory and got down to work. They were back home at last. However, this time they had the money to pay for tight security on the site as well. It was a good start.

    When they opened the sarcophagus they came face to face with an embalmed woman’s naked mutilated body. They were horrified. Their faces became white masks and they felt guilty that they were desecrating this body, disturbing its sleep. In silence they mourned the dead person released from its home.
    Eventually they carefully lifted the body and below it uncovered a plaque with indecipherable writing on it.

    The new discovery changed everything. This excavation indeed seemed bigger than he had imagined. Giorgos took indefinite leave from his job at the University in Athens. He would need to spend a lot more time on their dig in Cappadocia. Who knew what else they would discover, where this discovery would lead them?
    It was an exciting prospect and Giorgos relished the challenge. He could feel there was more, a lot more, to this story and prepared himself to be surprised further.

CHAPTER 19

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Katerina was standing on the balcony overlooking the old harbour. She was lost in thought. She felt the tremor alright. If she had wanted a ride like that, she would have gone to the theme park down the road or into the washing machine for a few minutes.
    The shake lasted for only a couple of minutes, but it was strong and it felt longer than that. Looking out at the city it was not a pretty sight. Her gaze kept turning to the great church of Ayia Napa that for those couple of minutes stirred as if some mysterious mischievous force had breathed life into it, as if it was put inside a giant blender by some cook eager to show his culinary skills.
    She was suddenly frightened for her family and for anyone that may have fallen victim to the earthquake’s angry force. She tried to call her loved ones, but the lines were down.
    She could not stay there. She had to find out that they were alright. And she wanted to go out and see what she could do to help others.

    The hit was devastating. It spread across the island like a set up of dominoes had been triggered, like a ‘Mexican wave’. It was as if a dark blanket had in a couple of minutes being thrown over the island and being pressed down until everything under it was crushed.
    Whole sections of towns flattened in the quake’s wake, whole villages wiped out, countless lives shattered. A toothless army of empty shells and empty eyes. A nameless army of ghosts, an army of the living dead, inhabiting temporary camps with no personal belongings or mementoes, no soul, a sea of memories being the only barrier between them and insanity.
    Katerina was the daughter of Andros Markantaskis, a businessman and amateur archaeologist. Her brother, Giorgos, had got the archaeology bug and, when not based in Athens, was off on one dig or other.
    The Markantaskis family immediately put their considerable financial resources in the service of their fellow citizens. They became part of a huge effort to mobilise the country in the relief effort. Katerina and her mother hit the ground running to contribute in this effort, organising medical care and food preparation and caring for the orphan children and the widowed and all those who had lost loved ones.
    All around them were acts of extreme bravery and extraordinary humanity. At least it was a relief to see that in times of crisis, amidst all the chaos and the upheaval, people knew where their heart lay, what really mattered and tried to keep some perspective and help others to do so too. It was not easy.
    Elli lost no time in mobilising her own family and the resources of the Valchern Corporation to help her people and her country recover from the disaster that befell them.
    It was during one of Katerina’s visits to one of the camps that she met Aristo. She did not notice any feelings stirring in her then. She was just too exhausted from all the backbreaking work to bother with joy and any thoughts of personal fulfilment had been pushed from her mind.
    There was simply too much to do. She caught up on sleep at all times, whether leaning on a wall, sitting in a chair or lying under a tree. The unbearable heat made the work of the volunteers harder. The camps were a miserable place, with ashen, empty faces wherever you looked, the cries of babies, the weeping and screaming of men and women often breaking through an ominous silence, and the dust, that seemingly harmless dust that had become a curse and that had enveloped everything and everyone, draining the life out of them, eating them alive and once finished spitting them out.
    Yet there were happy cries of children playing with whatever was at hand, oblivious to the unfolding tragedy around them. Katerina and her mother cried often in their private moments. They could hardly speak to each other when this tear-filled face-melting glory took over.

    It was a few months later that Katerina and Aristo started to pay attention to their feelings for each other. Aristo knew he was hooked the moment he first saw her in her dirty overalls sweeping the floor in the camp.
    He knew she was special before he had even spoken to her. When a semblance of normality returned to their lives, he asked her out to dinner and surprisingly she accepted straight away.

    Katerina had good teachers, a mother and father that set a great example for her and her brother to follow. Katerina’s mother, Anna, was an industrious and indomitable woman. Her cool, inscrutable exterior belied her passion for life, for creativity, for business and for caring and helping others. She gave a lot of herself and was devoted to any one of the many projects she had going at any one time.
    In the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 by Kemal’s armies, her family, the Paresterises, had lost everything, one of the most prominent families in Smyrna reduced to poverty. On top of that, loved ones were killed and others disappeared and were still missing, their fate unknown.
    It was a tragedy she would never forget, was not allowed to forget by her grandmother who happily regaled her with stories of the charmed life of Smyrna. Even though she had never seen it, through her grandmother’s stories, through her grandmother’s eyes, she felt she knew the city intimately, as if she had lived there. The city or the snapshot of it in 1922 became part of her.
    Her mother tried on the one hand to shield her as much as she could from the harsh realities of life, but she also taught her how she could cope outside her privileged environment, so that by being aware of her position she would help those who were less privileged.
    Her journey to learn to hug those in need with a vengeance started at home, then the next house, then down the road, then down the slope and into the world and the mixed up humanity of the world below.
    Her mother gave her the unique perspective of the value of life. She opened Katerina’s eyes to the real world and its possibilities and the value of being creative in work and outside it; those were, certainly, not bad values to accompany you in life. Not for her the idleness of many of her class who led a spoiled life from mighty fake towers and gilded prisons above the humid crowd.
    Her mother felt a slight pinch of guilt at setting such a burden of her family’s history on Katerina’s shoulders, with a little help from her own mother, but that history was important if Katerina’s generation were not to waste the future.
    Katerina had the ruthlessness required in business and compassion to remain a member of the human race, a member of the society, and not the charmed circle, she was born into. She only wished the new generation had the guts to rise above the vortex of mediocrity and self-interest that characterised the majority of the political elite in Greece and in Cyprus, which had led to devastating consequences throughout the history of these two countries the fate of which was inextricably linked to each other; this feeling was shared by both mother and daughter.
    It was the defeatist attitude that Katerina fiercely hated and wanted to change. Katerina was determined to be a protagonist in doing her bit. She was made of steel, but still wore her big heart on her sleeve and opened it up to others with confidence and strength but with humility.
    Katerina felt that the next few months and years would challenge the endurance of her and her loved ones. She had an impending sense of doom, a fear that events would hit them like a maelstrom and, as if in tandem with the mayhem around them, shatter the picture of an otherwise idyllic family life and dispel any illusions of a peaceful life filled with the welcome boredom of routine, and the occasional exhilaration.

CHAPTER 20

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Aristo had decided that it was time for his mother and Katerina to meet. Today was the big day that he was to introduce her to his mother. It would be Katerina’s first visit to the famous mansion on the peak and a meeting with the legendary Elli Symitzis. The meeting was arranged three days earlier to slot into Elli’s hectic schedule.
    Aristo and Katerina were now standing outside his mother’s home, the house in which Aristo grew up in, the house that was firmly lodged in the deepest regions of his heart. Katerina was rooted to the spot enthralled by the house she had heard so much about. None of what she had heard did the house justice and that was just the outside first impression.
    Aristo could see she was deeply moved. He felt invisible fingers clutching at his heart and he involuntarily felt protective of her. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. He was amused but not surprised by her reaction. Katerina turned to him.
    ‘I’ve always dreamed of coming here and seeing this house. It’s beautiful. I’m really glad I’m here.’
    The light was fading fast and the city’s night face was coming alive like little stars switched on by an invisible higher force. They went straight to the veranda. Elli stood up and went to greet them.
    ‘I’m very glad to meet you at last.’
    ‘Mrs Symitzis, it’s an honour.’
    ‘Katerina, please. I’m not the Archbishop. And please call me Elli.’
    ‘OK, Elli. It’s a pleasure.’
    ‘That’s better. Come and join me.’ Elli said and, with Katerina and Aristo following close behind, walked back towards the table and chairs set on the best vantage point of the verandah and enjoying an uninterrupted view of the sea and the city below, a veritable West-South-East feast and, so as not to offend any direction of the compass, if you looked to the North you could just about make out in the distance the Troodos mountain range standing tall and proud.
    They all sat down and there was a short but comfortable silence as they all admired the view. As if on cue, Mrs Manto appeared with a very respectable spread, fit for a regiment. Aristo looked at his mother and smiled. She smiled back. Katerina noticed and her face joined in.
    With Mrs Manto setting the table and chatting away, Aristo turned to Katerina and with a quick look at Mrs Manto could not resist enlightening Katerina on Mrs Manto’s wily and bossy but generous ways.
    ‘Mrs Manto has been feeding us since we were kids. You’ve seen nothing yet. It’s amazing half the animal and plant kingdoms are not extinct. She believes that everybody’s malnourished and needs fattening up. It’s a miracle we are not able to roll down the hill to the beach by now.’
    Mrs Manto paused from her task and reached to pull Aristo’s ear.
    ‘Aristo, I’m constantly amazed by your talent of finding new ways to show your affection. You know how much I adore you too, you scoundrel.’
    Aristo just laughed and the others laughed too. Elli broke the spell.
    ‘Thank you, Mrs Manto.’
    ‘The tea is getting cold. I know, I know.’ Mrs Manto’s face pretended to be stern, but you could not miss the twinkle and warm smile in her eyes.
    ‘Mrs Manto, I’ve always known you are not just a pretty face.’
    ‘Thanks, it’s sweet to be appreciated.’
    Mrs Manto smiled at them and started to walk away, but half-turning she declared in a voice that tolerated no objection.
    ‘Remember I want to see empty plates.’
    Elli turned to Katerina.
    ‘I can never tire of all this mothering. I’ve had enough time to get used to it and get hooked. I’ve known her all my life and, my dear Katerina, I will not lie to you, that’s a long time. Don’t be fooled by this.’ She touched her hair. ‘It all comes out of a bottle. I’ve never had plastic surgery, though. This is my real and pure face and neck. Thank you, God, for small mercies; there are some decent genes somewhere in there. Now my dear, tell me a little about you.’
    Katerina smiled at Elli. ‘Elli, I’m sure you know everything about me and my family already.’
    ‘Too true.’ Elli half-turned to Aristo, still smiling at Katerina. ‘Aristo, she’s smart and beautiful. An unbeatable combination.’ She caught the looks Katerina and Aristo gave each other. They were in love. It was a good match. She had planned it, but it happened anyway. It saved her the trouble. And Aristo was happy. She couldn’t want anything more for her son. She could not be happier.
    ‘Elli, your house is magnificent. The moment you arrive you can almost hear its seductive call, the invitation to fall in its arms and to be hugged tight. Of course that is only partly due to the house itself, which, even from a brief acquaintance, shows the love and care that has been lavished on it. But it’s your warm welcome that makes all the difference. Thank you for the kindness you’ve shown to me. As you’ve just met me, I’m touched and overwhelmed.’
    ‘Thank you. I like you already.’ Elli declared, looking around the table and then at Katerina, an amused smile forming at her mouth, colouring her face and pulling at her eyes, transforming them into pools of liquid warmth for the young woman sitting opposite her.
    Elli was not easily impressed, but she was a good judge of character and could see Katerina was sincere. But most important was that Katerina was her son’s choice and that was what mattered. Elli had already decided that Katerina would be welcomed into the family. She was already beginning to be taken in by Katerina.
    She wondered whether Katerina could see in her eyes the open invitation into her heart. Then again Elli could be a foolishly sentimental woman. And yet she wanted to know more about this charming and intriguing woman who seemed to have captured her son’s heart.
    ‘This house certainly has a very special place in all our hearts. It’s part of us and yet it will most probably still be here long after we are gone, to, hopefully, nourish and shelter generations to come.’
    Katerina wanted to know more about the house. ‘How long has this house stood here?’
    ‘For about eighty years now.’
    ‘In a strange way it looks as if it was built yesterday. It must have been so much ahead of its time.’ Katerina’s comment brought a huge smile to Elli’s face. Katerina was left in no doubt of Elli’s pride in this very special house.
    ‘It certainly was. But, modern though it was when it was built, as you might imagine it has been renovated a few times throughout the years.’
    Katerina shifted in her seat and her scarf came slightly undone revealing the area just above her breasts. Elli did a double-take. She didn’t want to be seen to stare, so she averted her eyes. But her mind was on the pendant hanging on Katerina’s neck. Could it really be the pendant? Could it be the real thing?
    ‘Would you excuse me for a moment?’ Elli said in a relaxed manner and, smiling warmly to hide her shock, she, slowly, got up and went inside and straight to the library. She called Iraklios.
    ‘Iraklios, that story you told me the other day… I think the pendant with the cross attached to it has just cropped up.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘You won’t believe it, but it’s hanging around the neck of Aristo’s girlfriend.’
    ‘Katerina?’
    ‘Yes.’ Elli paused. She missed nothing. Iraklios just gave himself away; the name and his tone were clear signs of his betrayal, she thought amused. ‘Iraklios, you have met her already, haven’t you?’
    ‘I confess that yes. Aristo wanted my opinion. The three of us had lunch a couple of weeks ago.’
    ‘I will not pretend to be offended that you met her before me. The two of you have always been as thick as thieves.’ Elli paused and when she continued she feigned hurt. ‘But I do feel a little bit hurt at this blatant act of betrayal. Though, I think, I’ll get over it.’ Elli became serious. ‘Did you not notice the pendant back then?’
    ‘She was wearing a high neckline dress at the time and a scarf over it, so no, I didn’t see anything.’
    ‘If you saw it, would you recognise it?’
    ‘I believe that I would.’
    ‘I think you should come over straight away.’
    ‘I’ll be there in about half an hour.’

    Elli went back outside and joined the others. They were talking about Katerina’s recent tour of the Far East on a buying trip for her father’s company when Iraklios appeared.
    ‘Hello everyone.’
    Elli had not warned them, so it was a surprise. Iraklios greeted them all, but saved special affection for Katerina, hopefully soon to be the new member of the family.
    ‘My dear, it’s very good to see you again. My day looks brighter already.’
    Katerina smiled and thanked him. Elli could not resist teasing him and threw a scathing remark in his direction.
    ‘Iraklios, sit down. You’ve embarrassed us all already. Katerina may not be used to your killer charm, but we know you and like us she will learn not to be susceptible to your compliments. Yet I may be underestimating her. I think she can see through you too.’
    Katerina reached across the table and touched Elli’s arm affectionately in a placating gesture. ‘It’s alright Elli. No-one can refute a compliment, especially one given with such warmth. We all like to think we are appreciated and a little sweetness does not go amiss.’ She turned to Iraklios. ‘I’m flattered, sir. Thank you again.’
    ‘Spoken like a true beauty. Unaware of her impact on all around her. Humility is not always necessary, my dear.’ His eye caught the food on the table. ‘You haven’t touched a thing. Mrs Manto will have your heads on a platter.’ He took a plate and started to help himself, piling food on it. ‘Let me help you with this to save you from a harsh sentence.’ Then he sat down and gave an imperceptible nod to Elli. It was the signal to get onto the subject preoccupying them.
    ‘Katerina, I’ll be honest with you. I asked Iraklios to come. It was not a chance visit. I’ll tell you why. Earlier when your scarf slipped I could not help but notice the pendant with the attached cross hanging around your neck. May we see it up close, please?’
    ‘Yes, of course.’ Katerina acquiesced, an expression of puzzlement on her face. She moved her hands to undo the clasp.
    ‘Aristo, could you help her, please?’ Aristo had beaten her to it already and having undone the clasp, placed the pendant on the table.
    ‘Mother, uncle, what is all this about?’
    ‘We will explain in a while.’ Elli said as she took the pendant in her palm and stared at it, before handing it to Iraklios. He studied it carefully for a while in silence. The others did not break that silence and waited. Elli prodded Iraklios.
    ‘Iraklios?’
    ‘I believe this is the cross.’
    Aristo became impatient. ‘Would you please tell us what’s going on?’
    Elli nodded and looked at Iraklios.
    ‘Katerina, how did you come by this cross?’
    ‘It was given to me by my grandmother when I was twelve. Why?’
    ‘Did she tell you how she came to have it?’
    ‘She said it was her grandmother’s, and her grandmother’s grandmother’s before her and so on, that it had been a family tradition for the cross to be handed down from grandmother to granddaughter at the age of twelve and it has been so for many generations going back a few hundred years.’
    ‘Do you know exactly for how long?’
    ‘Not exactly Would you like to talk to my grandmother?’
    ‘Yes, we would. I would be grateful if you could arrange it.’
    Aristo joined in. ‘But, Iraklios, won’t you tell us what it’s for? Why is the cross so important?’
    ‘That cross is not a usual cross. Look at it carefully.’
    ‘It looks valuable, but otherwise I don’t see anything special about it.’
    ‘If it is what we believe it is, that cross has a story. That cross was a gift to each newborn heir to the throne of Constantinople and we have evidence in historical accounts that shows drawings of that same cross.’
    Katerina looked puzzled. ‘But couldn’t anyone who had seen those drawings or the cross itself have reproduced the design?’
    ‘It is possible, I suppose, and that’s why we need to speak with your grandmother. She may be able to shed light on this matter. But for verification we will need the cross to be examined by an expert, an archaeologist who specialises in this period and more specifically the Palaiologos dynasty and the last Emperor.’
    Elli knew the answer. The thought passed through Katerina’s mind as well, but at that moment did not properly register. ‘Katerina, I think your brother would be the right person to examine the cross and confirm this.’
    ‘Giorgos?’ Katerina was still confused. ‘Yes, of course. You are right. But would he not have mentioned something about it all these years? After all I have been wearing it in full view for sixteen years.’ Katerina said, her tone pregnant with doubts, and a strange feeling of guilt she couldn’t shake, as if she did something wrong and she had to fix it.
    She looked at Elli with eyes full of unanswered questions, hoping for a satisfactory explanation, for help to extricate herself from her predicament.
    Elli saw Katerina’s suddenly furrowed brow and felt a bit uneasy for worrying this lovely young woman sitting opposite her, only a few minutes earlier relaxed and nonchalant making pleasant conversation. She wanted to try and put Katerina’s mind at some rest at least.
    ‘It is possible that he never paid real attention. He must have seen it just for what it was, a cross, a gift from your grandmother, a family heirloom. Like when we don’t notice something that is under our nose, perhaps it was the same with this and the thought never crossed his mind.’
    ‘But he’s always been extraordinarily observant and inquisitive. He would have asked to study it closely.’
    ‘Not necessarily. He must have become so accustomed to the sight of it that his curiosity was not aroused.’
    ‘It sounds plausible. I’ll call him and arrange a meeting. But Elli and Iraklios, you are not interested in it solely for its historical significance.’
    Iraklios explained. ‘No. If it is what we believe it is, it could be the one worn by the last heir at the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Almost four weeks before the fall of the city, the heir, a child of three years old at the time, was kidnapped from the Palace of Vlachernae. He was never found, nor was a body ever discovered. Nobody ever found out what happened to him. And he was, probably, wearing this cross when he disappeared.’

    At the same time, at his apartment in Athens, Giorgos was on the phone to James Calvell in New York.
    ‘Giorgos, I’ve got the information we wanted.’
    ‘Already?’
    ‘I told you the guy was a genius.’
    ‘Well?’
    ‘I think he may have made a mistake. I’ll ask him to run the program again. It must have a bug or something.’
    ‘James, don’t play games. Just tell me. Come out with it.’
    ‘Giorgos, the donor of both icons was Ariana Paresteris.’
    ‘What? But that’s my grandmother’s name. It can’t be. It must be a coincidence.’
    ‘Giorgos, I’ve asked him to dig deeper. There’s no doubt. It was your grandmother.’
    ‘But how? It can’t be. It just can’t.’
    ‘Why not? Why do you find it so hard to believe?’
    ‘I don’t know. I guess I’m just surprised, that’s all.’
    ‘What will you do now?’
    ‘I need to speak to her. I need to see her. I need to know. Now. James, thank you. I have to go. I’ll call you in a couple of days.’
    ‘Alright. Call me, if you need anything else. I’ll help you with this.’
    ‘Yes, I know. I will call you in a couple of days when I will know more. I’ve got a feeling there’s more to this story. James, I just had a thought. The icon, the Imperial ring. Do you think all this may be connected to my project?’
    ‘It’s very possible.’
    ‘My God, do you know what this means? James, I have to go. You are a good friend. Speak to you later.’

    Giorgos was on the first flight out of Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. He landed at Larnaca International Airport shortly after seven in the evening and took a taxi straight to Limassol and his grandmother’s house.
    It was just before nine o’clock at night when Giorgos found himself knocking on his grandmother’s front door. She opened the door herself and, hiding her initial surprise, her face opened up with a huge smile for her grandson. She pulled him into the entrance hall and into her arms and they exchanged kisses.
    ‘My darling Giorgos. It’s so good to see you. When did you get back to Cyprus? And what are you doing here at this time?’
    ‘I arrived in Larnaca less than two hours ago and I’m back for good, or, at least, until the next project. And do I need a reason to visit my grandmother?’
    ‘You certainly don’t. You don’t need to give advance notice either. It’s just that I was not expecting you, that’s all.’
    ‘I’m not interrupting anything, am I?’
    ‘No, not at all. Come in. Go to the sitting room. I’ll ask Alina to prepare some coffee for us. I’ll only be a moment.’
    Giorgos walked towards the sitting room and Ariana Paresteris turned to the direction of the kitchen where she found Alina busy preparing the marinade for the lamb that would be the following day’s centrepiece for lunch. Alina looked up as Ariana entered the kitchen.
    ‘Mrs Ariana, I thought I heard Giorgos’ voice. I thought he was still in Athens. I didn’t know he was back. Is everything alright?’
    ‘Yes. And it seems he may back for good. I know it’s late, but you know his crazy schedule. If he can spare a moment for his grandmother he will use it to visit me irrespective of the time and, perhaps, crossing a couple of continents in the process. And I am glad for that. You know how much I love him. He’s very precious to me. We’ll be in the sitting room. Alina, bring us some coffee, would you?’
    ‘Yes, Mrs Ariana.’
    ‘Thank you.’
    Ariana left the kitchen and walked back to the entrance hall and from there to the sitting room. Upon entering she noticed Giorgos’ worried and pensive expression before he looked up and smiled at her giving her his full attention.
    She walked briskly to the sofa facing Giorgos and sat down. She did not want to allow him the opportunity to hesitate as she sensed that he was debating with himself how to broach a difficult subject.
    She decided to save time and to make it easy for him so she avoided further pleasantries and went straight for the jugular. Seated in the late evening coolness of the sitting room, Ariana turned to her grandson.
    ‘I raised you and I know you as if you were my own child. Something’s troubling you.’
    ‘Yes. You know about my project, don’t you?’
    ‘Your quest for the last Emperor’s tomb, yes.’
    ‘We found something in Cappadocia.’
    ‘Not the tomb? But why have you not told me before? Why has it not been on the news?’
    ‘We found a sarcophagus and a well-preserved body, but we don’t know yet for sure. But that’s not why I’m here. Do you remember James Calvell?’
    ‘You were together at university. I remember you being inseparable, practically Siamese twins back then. He’s the deputy director of the Metropolitan in New York, isn’t he?’
    ‘Yes, he is. A few weeks ago he found something or rather an expert restorer of Byzantine icons came by a hidden compartment in an icon. Inside he found a ring.’
    Ariana blinked. Her face was ashen.
    ‘You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?’
    ‘I do. It’s about my donation isn’t it?’
    ‘Yes. You donated two icons, right?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘One of them was stolen a few weeks ago. There was an attempt to steal the other one as well.’ Ariana’s face was suddenly mapped with enough lines to compete with the surface of the moon, her jaw almost dropped to the floor. ‘But thankfully, James had the foresight to ask John, the restorer, to produce good copies, which John did in record time, and which were put there in place of the originals. The originals were placed in a safe place. We still have them. They are at the Metropolitan under very sophisticated lock and key. But I’ll tell you about that later. Grandma, why haven’t you ever told us about this? Especially me. You know about my obsession with the last Emperor.’
    ‘Because it is a long and very sad story. It’s something about our past that was regrettable and shameful and my ancestors and I thought we could protect you from it. But, obviously, we were wrong. The truth would have come out eventually. It always has a habit of outing itself, in spite of even the most elaborate precautions.’
    Ariana looked at the far wall lost in thought, then down at her lap and then she raised her head, looked deep into her grandson’s eyes and began her story. ‘It’s something that happened in 1453 in Constantinople, a few weeks before the city fell to the Ottomans of Mehmed II. The last Emperor had a child. The mother died at birth. That child was a son and he was the heir to the throne of Byzantium. Of course it was not expected that he would ever ascend to the throne. Only a blind and deluded person could not see that the Empire was finished, that it was only a matter of a very short time before the city fell to the Ottomans.
    ‘However, that child was doted on and protected as if he was the most precious thing in the world. And he was precious. He was the son of an Emperor after all, part of a proud line, going back through different dynasties and generations all the way back to Constantine I, the Great, and, more specifically, one of the sons of Theodosius the Great who upon his death presided over the split of the Roman Empire to the Eastern and the Western Empires respectively. On 4 ^th May 1453, the child and heir was kidnapped from the Palace of Vlachernae. He was never found. However, the icon and ring that were stolen with the child found their way to my ancestor, Sotirios Vendis.’

    The doorbell rang. Alina opened the door and was surprised by the illustrious group standing in front of her. There was Elli, Iraklios, Katerina and Aristo. Alina recognised Katerina and greeted her.
    ‘Katerina, it is good to see you. And Mr Aristo, it’s a great pleasure.’
    ‘Alina, it’s good to see you too. This is Elli, Aristo’s mother and this is Iraklios, Aristo’s uncle.’ Elli and Iraklios politely greeted Alina. ‘We’d like to speak with my grandmother, please.’
    ‘Yes, of course. Please wait here.’ Alina walked to the sitting room and knocked on the door. Ariana called her in.
    ‘Alina, what is it?’
    ‘Mrs Ariana, Katerina and Mr Aristo are in the hall. Aristo’s mother and his uncle are with them as well. They want to see you.’
    ‘Please show them in.’ Alina went back to the hall. Ariana turned to Giorgos.
    ‘Quite a gathering. It must be important. I wonder whether it has something to do with Katerina and Aristo. Do I hear the bells of upcoming nuptials? So much excitement and all in one night. What a treat for an old woman. And to think I was only looking forward to a quiet evening in front of the television watching my favourite and mostly depressing soaps.’ Giorgos laughed and Ariana laughed with him too. ‘We’ll finish the story later.’

    There was a knock on the door and Ariana called them in. As the door opened, Ariana and Giorgos rose and smiled warmly to the incoming crowd. Introductions were made and Ariana asked them all to sit down. Katerina was surprised to find Giorgos there.
    ‘Hi, brother. This is a coincidence. We were just talking about you.’
    ‘Oh? What about?’
    ‘We’ll explain soon enough.’
    There was a brief silence, as they all seemed to defer to Elli. She looked at Ariana.
    ‘We do apologise for barging in like this and at such a late hour. However, there is something we want to talk to you about. We wanted Giorgos’ opinion on something too. So finding you both here is very convenient.’
    Nobody interrupted. They all waited. You could taste the tension in the room. Not just because of the new arrivals, but there was something else hanging in the air already, something was going on before they arrived. Elli felt it. And so did the others. Ariana and Elli sized up each other as people in powerful positions do.
    They both were matriarchs of their clans, with long histories. What those eyes had seen. A respectful understanding passed between the two women as only between such two great women could.
    ‘Ariana, I want to ask you about Katerina’s cross. We think we recognise it, but we are not sure.’ Elli paused. Ariana waited. ‘We believe that cross is identical to the one given to the newborn heirs of the Byzantine Imperial family. It could be a copy of course, but it could also be an original.’ Elli looked at Katerina.
    ‘Grandy, I’ve told Elli about the tradition regarding this cross.’
    Elli continued. ‘Ariana, we know the cross is very old. We don’t know how old it is or whether it is a genuine Imperial cross. That’s where Giorgos comes in. We hoped that he may be able to verify its authenticity.’
    Giorgos, who until now had been sitting like the others in silence, made a move to take the cross from his sister who had already unclasped it. His mind was already processing what his grandmother had told him and even though the story was not finished, he was subconsciously already connecting the dots. Ariana did not let him complete the process.
    ‘That will not be necessary. That is indeed the Imperial cross.’
    Ten pairs of eyes turned to her in shock. They were all thinking of what had not yet been said. Their minds were travelling in all sorts of weird directions and assumptions.
    Elli dreaded the truth. Was Katerina’s family descended from the child or from the child’s nanny who may have stolen the cross? Is that how they knew about the icon and the ring and came to have the cross? Or, and this was the most outrageous possibility, were they connected with the kidnapping somehow, maybe through the nanny who may have assisted with that, or… was it possible… were they descended from the kidnapper? She did not utter any of this speculation, but like the others she waited. Ariana continued.
    ‘My family name is Vendis. My ancestor was Sotirios Vendis who lived in Constantinople in 1453.’
    Now that had not come up in the check on Katerina’s family that Elli had carried out. And there was the matter of her ancestor’s, Eleni’s, son, Michael, having married the daughter of a Sotirios Vendis, Leyla. That certainly was not a coincidence. The two families were distantly related.
    What other secrets were hiding in their past? Elli thought she knew everything. The inner circle of the Order of Vlachernae and all that.
    Ariana continued. ‘The Vendis family was one of the most prominent in Constantinople. Sotirios Vendis was the head of the family and part of the Emperor’s inner circle. About a month before the city’s fall, he started to observe a change in the last Emperor’s behaviour. It was subtle, but he had known the Emperor well and for a long time and he was one of very few who could see it. He began to become concerned. The Emperor’s behaviour in public was credible — nobody seemed to have noticed anything different or strange — but in private he was becoming increasingly erratic, a different person. And it was not just the expected different persona of a public figure like the Emperor.
    ‘My ancestor knew him personally, so he could be confident of knowing the Emperor’s private side, life in his most private moments. And he decided to take action. He arranged for the taking of the child from the palace and for him to be taken to a safe place until at least he could see the situation had changed and it was probably safe to return, if at all. This is what became known as the kidnapping. He wanted to protect the
    child. The kidnapping took place on 4 th May 1453.’
    Elli remembered rumours about the identity of the last Emperor before the siege, rumours she heard from her family, stories that were handed down the generations of the Symitzis family.
    Ariana, your ancestor was perplexed by the change in the Emperor’s behaviour, wondered maybe it was the tense built-up leading to the siege. But my ancestor and head of our clan and the Valchern business at the time suspected otherwise. My ancestor, Eleni’s son, Michael, visited Constantinople on 28 ^th May 1453, on the eve of the final battle and fall of the city. Michael met with the Emperor and had an extensive audience with him in secret. Michael asked him about the disappearance of the child and about the city. He was surprised with the Emperor’s total indifference to the plight of the child, his own son, and about his not initiating a search for the child. And he was surprised that the Emperor was seriously considering fleeing to Venice with many of his treasures. And Michael believed he was not joking.
    ‘At the time he thought the Emperor was out of his mind. It was totally out of character for him, one of the bravest people he had ever met, to take the coward’s way out. Eleni and Michael suspected that it was not the Emperor that he had met, but an impostor. I know it may sound crazy, but with everything we’ve heard so far, maybe it was not such a crazy suggestion after all.’
    Ariana resumed her story. ‘Eventually the items that were stolen with the child found their way to my ancestor and that’s how they came to be in our family.’
    Katerina could not hold it any longer. ‘What happened to the child Gran? You said the items came to be in our ancestor’s possession, presumably bought by him. But you said nothing about the child being taken to Sotirios Vendis as well.’
    Before Ariana could reply Elli interjected. ‘Ariana, you said items. So it was not only the cross. What else was there?’
    ‘Giorgos had been here for some time before you arrived. I was telling him a story. Strangely enough it was a long story related to what we have just been talking about.’
    Katerina turned to her brother. ‘Giorgos, why are you here?’ Giorgos proceeded to explain and repeated what his grandmother had told him. Elli was stunned. She couldn’t speak for a while. Then she found her voice.
    ‘Ariana, there’s more to this story, isn’t there?’
    Ariana did not hesitate. She nodded, her eyes formed an iron-cast connection with the expectant eyes fixed on her and when she spoke her voice was clear and strong. ‘Yes. Those are the famed Likureian icons. The second one came to my family in Smyrna in 1922. It was my ancestor, Kostas Vendis, who found it by accident. The two icons relate to the legend of the last Emperor. They are the ones that are supposed to wake him from his sleep.’
    Katerina shook her head in disbelief. ‘Surely that’s not true, is it?’
    Elli intervened. ‘Actually, we believe that it may not be that implausible and, though we should not take it literally, there may be some grain of truth in the legend.’
    Katerina tensed. ‘Do you mean to say that…?’
    Elli gently cut her off. ‘Yes. There is a lot more on this that you don’t know. And some of it will seem fiction, but, in view of what has been revealed today, it is time for that to come out too, as it seems to be connected with the rest.’
    Katerina remembered her earlier question. ‘Gran, what happened to the child?’
    Ariana’s memory needed no jump-start. She had replayed the story in her mind too many times over the years to forget a single detail. Even though it all happened more than five hundred years ago, almost five hundred years before she was even born, it was such a big part of her life that she felt as if she had just lived that story a few moments earlier. Her account of the fateful events of that distant day was clear and precise.
    ‘When the kidnapper encountered a group of riders, he panicked and he could not risk the child making a noise and betraying him. So he left it there in the forest and ran away. But as luck would have it, the kidnapper did not go far. Two men working for my ancestor, and enjoying his complete trust, were on their way back to the city when they had an unfortunate encounter with the kidnapper when they bumped into him sleeping in the forest. They knew about their master’s plan. They tied the kidnapper and dragged him back to Constantinople to face their master’s judgment. The kidnapper stupidly demanded part of his promised reward for his trouble, claiming that the child was stolen from him. But of course my ancestor knew the scoundrel before him was lying and was outraged. He had no doubt that the kidnapper deserted the child either at the first sign of trouble or just because its cries or just its presence was proving tiresome and had probably decided that nothing like that was worth the reward promised to him or any reward for that matter.
    ‘Sotirios Vendis led a search party and dragged the kidnapper with him to show him the place where he last saw the child. But they found no child, nothing, however long and hard they searched the surrounding areas. They returned to the city where not only did the kidnapper not collect his reward, but my ancestor had the kidnapper put to death and retained the items the kidnapper had kept after he deserted the child to the predators of the forest and a fate of certain death. The items have been part of this family’s heirlooms ever since, at least until I donated the two icons to the Metropolitan. I thought that would be the safest place for them. That was, of course, after I had their true depictions concealed with others to hide their true importance and prevent their theft. Obviously, I was not that successful as their true identity had been discovered by those people who attempted to steal them.’
    Elli had a sudden thought. ‘Giorgos, what was it that you found in the tomb in Cappadocia?’
    Giorgos turned to Elli, surprised at the unexpected timing of the question. ‘We found a sarcophagus bearing depictions of Byzantine art and Imperial insignia. Inside we found the mutilated naked body of a woman, surprisingly well preserved.’
    Elli remembered the dream that had been troubling her lately. ‘Lately I’ve been having this strange dream about a woman’s mutilated body, and a woman and child that seem to be saying something to me, something I cannot remember, who then disappear screaming. Considering what you have found it could not be a coincidence.’
    ‘It sounds like it.’
    ‘Giorgos, have you been able to make any progress in identifying the remains?’
    ‘Not yet. But I would guess it must have been an important woman, if she were buried in a sarcophagus bearing Imperial insignia. It can’t have been a random use of the sarcophagus. Do you think she may have had a connection to the last Emperor? We did see the name Palaiologos on an inscription we found inside the sarcophagus under the body, but the rest was in a language we didn’t understand.’
    Katerina still did not have an answer to her question. ‘But we still don’t know what happened to the child. He may have lived. He may have been found and raised by another family. If that’s the case, God only knows who his descendants are. It would be interesting to find out. And now hearing of your dream, Elli, do you think that your dream is somehow related to the child, that there is something that you need to do?’
    It was as if Katerina had turned on the light switch and had indicated the elephant in the room, the obvious that had been staring them all in the face, but that nobody had consciously dared to acknowledge.
    Each of the assembled group mourned for the child, in their own way, but while wondering about his fate and the possible connection of Elli’s dream with it, felt hopeful as well for the child’s survival.
    Someone had to put flesh and bones on Katerina’s theory and take it to its logical conclusion. Elli put the situation into perspective.
    ‘It seems to me that we need to pull our resources together and not keep anything from each other. These are the things we need to do. One, we need to locate the stolen Likureian icon. Two, we need to know whether there was indeed an impostor on the throne during those last few weeks, although it will be very difficult after all this time. Three, we need to find out what happened to the child. Four, we need to assist Giorgos with his search for the tomb of the last Emperor. There is a possibility that the search for the child’s fate could be connected to the tomb in Cappadocia and the search for the last Emperor’s final resting place. Five, when I was recently in Mount Athos in Greece, a monk, the librarian at the Monastery of Pantokrator showed me a very old manuscript called the Book of the Pallanians which relates to the legend of the last Emperor and something called the Temple of Wisdom, whatever that is, but there are unfortunately some missing pages. It looks as if someone ripped them out. We need to find them.
    ‘And there is something else. Carrying out these missions will be dangerous. We are dealing with a powerful enemy, called the Ruinands. Legend and stories handed down in my family has it that there has been a long war between the Ruinands and the Pallanians who eventually became the Order of Vlachernae. It seems that it has fallen upon me to end this drawn out war. I will need your help. The Book of the Pallanians will be our guide. But please be prepared and forewarned. We are embarking on a mission, a journey that will test your scepticism regarding belief in supernatural events. Iraklios and I are the current keepers of the secrets of our family going back to Eleni and her sons in the 15 ^th century A.D.
    ‘That was, as far as we know, the last time, apart from now, that the war between the Pallanians and the Ruinands was taking place. Since then neither the Pallanians nor the Ruinands have been involved in active warfare. But things have changed. We have seen a few events that tell us that the war has started again. The ancient rivalry between the two groups has been reawakened and this time it’s going to be the final reckoning. We really need to finish this now, once and for all. We will be assisted in our mission by powers that we can use, not born of magic, but technology. These powers are temporary and they only allow us to use certain devices to catch glimpses of the past by travelling back in time for short periods. It is a technology we cannot abuse as it has side effects, and possibly future consequences, if improperly used. We can only use these devices for so long, otherwise they will kill us. But we have no other way of defeating the Ruinands. However, these powers will not be a substitute for using our brains. The source of these powers is one of my family’s best-guarded secrets, which I will not reveal just yet. It’s better if you don’t have this information for your own safety and for the purposes of our mission of course, in the event that you are captured by the Ruinands. Once the mission is completed, we will put those powers to sleep permanently.’

    Ariana turned to her granddaughter.
    ‘Katerina, open the cross around your neck.’
    ‘It opens? It has always looked perfectly solid to me.’
    Katerina looked down as if she had not seen it before, surprised at the thought that this simple cross that had graced her neck since she were twelve was hiding a secret. She was almost afraid to touch it, as if it had suddenly come to life, pulsating like a beating heart, as if it would leave burns on her skin.
    She unclasped it and almost dropped it on the floor, as if it had suddenly become too hot to handle, a glowing inferno on her skin, burning through all the way to her heart that felt like breaking and that would never mend. She suddenly felt very upset about the child that was lost all those years ago.
    Inside the cross was a chip the size and shape of a coin, but thicker, with a glowing amber stone in the middle of one of the facets. Elli continued.
    ‘Katerina, as the current holder of the cross, you will need to carry out this part of the mission. Today it is the twelfth of September. What you need to do has to be done on the fourteenth of September. You need to go to Constantinople. Once you arrive go and see old Dimitris who will help you with the task. You will need to go to the Ayia Sophia Church. You will have to stand on the Eastern side of the gallery and hold the chip when the sun is setting. As the light goes through the windows of the dome and hits the Eastern side, you will then see an inscription that will appear on the mosaic next to you. You will need to repeat this at dawn when a different inscription shall appear. Dimitris will help you interpret the inscriptions.’ Elli turned to Aristo. ‘Aristo you are to accompany Katerina to Constantinople.’
    The next day Elli arranged for the booking of two seats on the flight to Constantinople via Athens.

CHAPTER 21

    Constantinople (Istanbul)
    Present day
    It was still daylight. The plane was ten minutes from landing in Constantinople and the city came into view. It spread beneath them in all its glory and both Katerina and Aristo held their breath as the familiar monuments jumped up at them seeking their attention and worship, most important and most beautiful amongst them the Church of Ayia Sophia.
    Their heart skipped a beat. They landed in the city of dreams in a thin veil of thorny rain. They checked into the Pera Hotel, in the former European Quarter of the City, on the Northern shores of the Golden Horn.
    Selected members of the Order of Vlachernae were covertly watching their every step, ready to intervene, if required. Katerina and Aristo found old Dimitris’ house in the shadow of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Fanari district.
    But three other men not of the Order were also watching their movements.
    Katerina was about to knock on the door when she noticed that it was open. Katerina and Aristo cautiously stepped inside. It was dark inside as all the shutters of the windows were closed and no lights were on. There was only faint light streaming in through the gaps in the shutters.
    Aristo tried a switch, but nothing. Upon entering the small sitting room, their eyes, that had started to adjust to the gloom, caught sight of a bundle near the fireplace and they approached for a closer look. It was the lifeless body of an old man. Katerina heard a noise coming from the far corner of the room and turned. She saw two eyes looking back at her. She went closer and peering into the semi-darkness, saw that it was a boy of about ten years old.
    ‘Aristo, over here.’
    A voice broke through the eerie silence. ‘Please don’t hurt me. I’ve done nothing wrong. I won’t say anything. I promise.’
    ‘We won’t harm you.’ Katerina said gently. They saw the boy’s shoulders starting to relax and the tension dissipating. ‘What’s your name?’
    ‘Marios.’
    ‘I am Katerina and this is Aristo.’ They both smiled kindly to the boy and he visibly relaxed. Katerina indicated the body. ‘Marios, is that Dimitris?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘What happened?’
    ‘I help him with things. He sent me to get some bread. I came back and I was giving him his change when there was a gentle knock on the door. We had no reason to suspect anything was wrong, so I went to open the door. I hadn’t finished asking them what they wanted, when they pushed their way in and shoved me to the floor. They then went for Dimitris and strangled him.’
    Aristo wondered why they had let the boy live as he had seen them and could identify them. He could be a potential witness. Aristo’s unuttered question was answered next.
    ‘I crawled into the corner behind that chair and tried to stay as still and as quiet as I could. They must’ve forgotten about me. They searched the place, and left annoyed and cursing.’
    ‘Did they say anything before they killed Dimitris or after?
    ‘They got Dimitris by his shirt collar and shook him several times, saying “Where is it? Where is it?” Dimitris kept saying “I don’t know what you are talking about”, but they didn’t believe him. Then they got angry and killed him.’
    ‘Do you have a home, somewhere to go to? Your family must be worried about you.’
    ‘I live here. Dimitris was my grandfather. He taught me how to survive. I will be fine. Don’t worry about me. Please, no more questions. Listen. He asked me to give you a message. He said he was expecting two people called Aristo and Katerina and that if anything happened to him, I was to find you and tell you. He told me before… before… they…’ and he broke into tears, whimpering like a frightened animal.
    Katerina kneeled and wrapping her arms around him, held him close for the tears to subside. He put his head in her bosom and she felt him trembling. When the tears had dried up, he gently gestured for her to release him. And he gave them Dimitris’ message.
    Katerina and Aristo tried to absorb what the boy just told them, but they struggled and it was a while before they regained their composure.

CHAPTER 22

    Constantinople (Istanbul)
    Present day
    The sun was shining. The giver of life moulded nature’s vibrant colours, its buoyant rays fun-jumping from molecule to molecule, from time rift to time rift, bringing each one to life, shifting the fabric of time and space, our lives and this earth’s that we call home which are but a moment in the fabric that is the universe.
    But the rust-coloured leaves had started to fall signalling the advent of autumn. They knew their short life had come to an end as part of the cycle of life. The soil’s hunger was demanding to be sated, was calling for the required sacrifice. The leaves had decided to enjoy the ride, their last glorious descend and go out with a bang, oblivious to breaking human and other animal hearts.
    They played their favourite game of hide and seek, skating on the air molecules as if on the first fresh snow. Their message was loud and clear. There would be no return to the jolly lazy days of summer, till the owners of the sad eyes mesmerised by their light dance survived the harshness of the winter days and the cosiness of the nights in front of a roaring fire.
    September was rushing in unencumbered by the wild expectations of summer brutally crashing them, leaving emotional ruins in its wake. Suddenly thunderclap broke out.
    The clouds grew goose bumps and shivered, and chattered and murmured and gossiped amongst themselves and pushed and bumped into each other, challenging each other into their eternal game. But the clouds soon tired of their demanding display and disappeared to have their daily rest.
    It was the fourteenth of September, the day of the Holy Cross. Katerina and Aristo were crossing the Ayia Sophia Square, oblivious to the occupying armies of tourists pillaging and desecrating the area’s treasures with photos, and with the excuse of enhancing their experience touching everything to extinction.
    The day was perfect, sunny but cool. Katerina and Aristo blended in with a crowd of Greek tourists who were entering the great Church. They stayed with them for a while, and then discreetly slipped away and climbed the stairs to the next level, all the time checking whether anyone suspicious-looking was following them.
    Their eyes were involuntarily drawn to the weightless dome, the beauty of which raised the eyes to the heavens with the spirit in tow, as intended. They knew it weighed a good few tonnes and were amazed at the achievement of the original architects, but especially the architect that came a few decades later and who was responsible for adapting the design, so that it would hold the dome from then on. It had worked beautifully for over fourteen centuries and counting, with a bit of maintenance of course.
    While waiting for the right time, they admired the church, Emperor Justinian’s greatest work, still standing proud after one thousand four hundred and sixty-five years to be exact, with all the earthquakes that had hit this area and the passage of time and pollution and all sorts of abuse, including the millions of people that had crossed its threshold over its lifetime.
    They heard a sound coming from the other side of the wall, like an echo. They were startled, and were instantly drawn away from their reverie. They tried to pinpoint the source of the sound, which felt as if it was getting closer and closer. The sudden hollering almost incapacitated them and they both fell to their knees on the floor, capping their ears and begging for salvation from the fiendish nightmare.
    At that moment the sun dipped into the sea. But a single ray escaped, as if not quite ready for the dive just yet, shot through the window and straight onto the Eastern wall, and as if it had a grievance, started to bore a hole trying to uncover what was underneath.
    Suddenly a monstrous creature appeared in front of them with the face and torso of a human and below the waist the body of a serpent. Aristo saw the mark of the Ruinands. A Ruinand in costume. In its hand was a dagger, the likes of which Katerina had never seen before, spitting fire, and with the fiery tongues licking and singing her hair. Katerina was terrified and in great agony. But she could not move.
    ‘Katerina. That’s a Ruinand. The whole serpent thing is a disguise. Beneath it is a human being. They certainly like to dress up.’
    She was frozen to the spot, her feet growing numb. A glowing amber ball came out of what appeared to be the Ruinand’s gaping mouth and landed where she was kneeling only a moment before. She struggled with her mind to send orders to her body through congealing blood and nerves that seemed to have been congested and unresponsive, like lifeless, atrophying limbs hardening and turning to stone. But somehow she found the strength to move but only slightly, yet that was enough, thank God.
    When she recovered her composure, and feeling brave, she shouted to Aristo. ‘It’s all an act. There’s nothing to worry about then.’
    Aristo dispelled any ideas of complacency Katerina may have acquired in the last few moments following her lucky escape. ‘It’s not a masked ball. They are as dangerous as hell. They undergo a rigorous military-style training regime before they are let loose out on an innocent world. Watch out.’
    The Ruinand was coming at them with relentless intensity and power. They successfully evaded possibly fatal after fatal blow, but they began to grow tired and Katerina came close to giving up. Aristo could not shield Katerina from all the blows. But she was tough herself and knew how to fight. She was struggling though to hold her own.
    She stood there with burn after burn marking her delicate body, and gradually losing hope and trust in her strength and stamina against this enemy. Katerina’s spirit was packing for the journey to the other world. Another blow would finish her off. Her eyes, shining brightly, stared into the heartless vacant eyes of their attacker.
    ‘Katerina, just go and watch what’s going on with the wall. I’ll try and keep the bastard occupied.’ Katerina lost no time, started to move further down the gallery. Meanwhile, the lonely ray was continuing its work.
    Gathering the last vestiges of what strength was left to her, she yanked the cross from her neck, opened it, took out the chip and held it into the ray. The chip began to heat up and burn her hand, but she held steadfast.
    She gazed at the wall, which was slowly revealing golden letters that were burned onto the cool stone, and she read and memorised, as the letters disappeared as fast as they appeared.
    “The tears run from the tropical depth to the middle sea and the land cries and the general takes the ancient throne for centuries now vacant, the one-man democratic city shines in agony and pleasure in equal measure, the place where three philosophers meet, and the golden statue absorbs and consumes the liquid of life around it, but spits it out, unsatisfied, and runs to the glowing horn by the sea, on a golden lamb upon which rides the brother of the matriarch and the matriarch herself… but then changes course for the city that carries the name of the gift to the baby Jesus, now totally destroyed, but chosen to join them all… But beware…”
    There it ended and the wall again went cold, from fire to ice in the blink of an eye. Then she turned towards the fight and she saw Aristo struggling to hold the beast. She had an inspiration.
    ‘Aristo what’s their weak spot?’
    They were human after all. Aristo tried for the groin, but failed. There was too much at stake here including Katerina’s life. Aristo gathered his remaining strength. He took off his shirt and then his belt. He covered the belt and used it as a lasso. He swung it and trapped the fiery dagger and pulled hard whilst at the same time Katerina did not stand idle.
    She had already quietly positioned herself to Aristo’s right and the moment the belt made contact with the dagger she brought the metal pole down on the Ruinand’s wrist. The Ruinand released the dagger and it clattered to the floor. Aristo then noticed the scaffolding behind the Ruinand and to his right and tried to push him towards it. He signalled to Katerina and looked at the scaffolding.
    She realised his intention and she immediately moved into the shadows and started to loosen the ropes holding a metal platform on the side of the scaffolding. At the moment that the Ruinand was below the platform she let go and the metal platform crashed into the Ruinand and flattened him. The disfigured creature screeched and wailed and howled for a while and then suddenly any sign of movement ceased. Aristo and Katerina waited with baited breath, not daring to move.
    After a couple of minutes they went closer, but still nothing. Suddenly there was a noise like the burning of paper and dry wood. The Ruinand had suddenly consumed itself and disappeared in a mountain of ash and salt that remained scattered on the ground, accumulated in tiny neat piles at their feet. A sudden burst of wind simply blew the remains away into the ether.
    Aristo turned to Katerina and his eyes asked the question before he spoke it.
    ‘Did you get it?’
    ‘It was moving too fast. I’m sorry, Aristo.’
    For a moment Aristo was ready to shout at her, but saw the beginnings of a smile on her face and held back. Katerina was relieved to see that he realised she was teasing him. She took her mobile phone out of her pocket and held it in his face. His eyes widened in complicit surprise and then admiration.
    ‘It was lucky I charged it last night and, as a last minute thought, threw it in my pocket on our way out of the hotel room.’
    ‘You are not just a pretty face. Well done. Let’s go. I need a coffee.’

CHAPTER 23

    Constantinople (Istanbul)
    Present day
    Exhausted, they left Ayia Sophia for a deserved rest before the next part of their task early the next day. They speculated on the inscription, but decided to wait and see the second part on the next day at dawn.
    As they exited the church, it was dark and chilly, and they sought a cosy place for refuge. They walked towards the Topkapi and the neighbourhood next to the Golden Horn and they sat at a coffee shop in one of the best-preserved pedestrianized alleys of the Old City. They called over the owner and ordered a strong Turkish coffee each and tried to regain their strength.
    ‘What on earth was that thing?’
    ‘That was a Murtif, the helper, one of the most dangerous of the Ruinand fighters.’
    ‘If that’s the helper, I don’t think I want to see one of the Ruinands themselves and what they are capable of, but I’m afraid I will have to before too soon, won’t I?’
    ‘I’m afraid so. We are on a course with no return to complete this mission and encountering Ruinands at some point is inevitable.’
    ‘We are very closely watched. We have to be even more careful. That was a close call. The only way they could have known where we were is if they had followed us. They are very good at blending in with the shadows.’
    Privately Aristo knew they must have been watched by members of the Order and wondered why they had not intervened to help them. Had they been incapacitated or even killed by Ruinands or was there another reason, a traitor in their midst, perhaps?
    A comfortable silence descended and they both breathed in the life of the street and were briefly envious of a simple life. In their minds they let themselves be transported to their beloved place, be it Limassol or Athens or Constantinople or even Mount Ellothon, Aristo’s mother’s private island retreat and the Order’s secret base and refuge, a magical place.
    Lost in his thoughts, Aristo almost didn’t, at first, notice the person that walked briskly past them, but it registered in the corner of his eye. Three seconds later, when it had sunk in, he did a double-take. Was that Iraklios passing by? It couldn’t have been him surely, could it? He let the thought go and turned to Katerina.
    ‘Let’s go back to the hotel and get a rest. Remember we need it and we need to get up early tomorrow morning and be at the church before dawn.’
    They paid the bill and left. It was a pleasant barmy evening. They decided to walk the short distance to the Pera Quarter.

CHAPTER 24

    Constantinople (Istanbul)
    Present day
    The next morning just before dawn, as they were making their way back to the church, a cool breeze suddenly rode through the tree-lined street, and a flock of birds took flight, rising into the sky as a black cloud carrying the sound of screaming flutter.
    A crow flying above came too close, as if making a dive for them and Katerina’s superstition reared its ugly head. She shivered. That was an ominous sign, she thought.
    As they approached the church they noticed a crowd gathering on the square, outside the open gates leading to the church courtyard and waiting to go inside. Katerina and Aristo remembered that they had been told at the hotel about this.
    It was one of those very rare days that Ayia Sophia was opening very early before dawn. They could not waste time and they decided to use another way into the church.
    They tactfully circumvented the waiting group and quietly passed through the gates into the courtyard without being noticed and walked slowly round the Northern side of Ayia Sophia searching for a way in.
    They had reached the North-Eastern corner of the church without incident when they noticed a small door recessed into the wall. They breathed a sigh of relief when they found it unlocked.
    Entering the cool environs of the church, they were thankful to escape the rising heat and humidity outside. They made their way to the anointed place as the previous day and stood there calmly waiting whilst they pretended to be admiring the architecture and made the occasional remark.
    That relaxed posture contrasted with the rife anticipation running rampant within. To anyone passing by the face they projected was one of serious but dumb tourists.
    Katerina had already opened the cross and was holding the chip in her palm.
    Aristo saw it was time and hissed. ‘OK. Now.’
    Katerina held the chip up high as the first ray came through and the chip caught the light again throwing it in all directions. Nobody else seemed to have noticed. Thankfully they were alone up there in the Eastern gallery. The group they saw waiting outside was already inside the church and their ears rang with the echo of the group members’ chatter as they admired the huge dome.
    The ray got to work and began to create a mesmerising painting of such vibrancy that Aristo and Katerina thought they could step into it. The figures in it looked as if they would turn and speak to them and touch them.
    To their surprise, a voice called to them, inviting them into that magic scene. Instinctively they looked back to see if anyone was watching and were relieved to see no-one. They recovered quickly, as they realised they might be running out of time.
    They found themselves on what Aristo thought looked like Mount Ellothon, but it was not. It was a strange place, beautiful one time and ugly the next. In front of them stood what looked like a building made out of crystal and tanzanite, shining very bright and almost blinding them.
    All around them nightingales were singing, interspersed with the ear-splitting cries of crows and the gentle sounds of owls. And then they saw it. An inscription on the side of the building:
    “The king is asleep and waiting to be awakened. His eternal partner and mother of his child is lying dismembered. Their child is lost. They dream of reunification with each other and with their beloved child.”
    As Aristo and Katerina stood there the scene was surrendering layer after layer, like an animal shedding its skin in fast motion, revealing underneath the most wondrous images they had ever seen; they were like three-dimensional, holographic reels moving across the sky. It was mesmerising, hypnotic. They forgot their reality outside.

    The sun shone brightly when they exited the church. It felt as if they had been away for hours, but a quick glance at the watch told them that it had only been about thirty minutes. They searched for shade to sit and talk about what they had just witnessed, all the while checking surreptitiously in all directions for anything suspicious. Aristo was first to recover.
    ‘Am I still dreaming or are we back? I still feel as if I am partly in that scene and partly in our reality. It’s very disconcerting.’
    ‘I am trying to get that scene out of my mind as well, but I can’t.’
    Katerina was still dazed from her experience. It just felt so real. She could still feel the dew on her cheeks and the heat of the sun on her face. Her hair felt as if they had been burnt at the tips by a non-existent fire and were still smoking. Was there a part of the scene that had fire in it and which they had forgotten? And on top of that they couldn’t make sense of what they saw. Katerina turned to Aristo to say something, but it stayed on her lips and she stopped and stared at Aristo.
    Small plumes of smoke were rising from his hair too. She wanted to turn away from his face, but couldn’t help staring. His face was drenched in sweat, a strange sweat the likes of which she had never seen before. It was as if Aristo’s face was melting from some sort of acid attack.
    Aristo’s eyes had flames in them. The whole scene that they had just witnessed was there in his eyes, but it was a reverse reflection. The whole scene was on fire, and the edifice they saw was crumbling in an almighty heap of ash and dust and dark smoke.
    And then it erupted into beautiful fireworks that lit up the sky. And there were faces there, tortured faces burnished on her memory as if by hot iron, faces that she could not forget, would not forget, would not be allowed to forget.
    She could see those faces becoming her worst nightmares when she would be surrendering herself to the arms of Orpheus for a much needed rest at the end of the day, but also behind her eyes when she would be awake, during the darkest night and the brightest day for a long time to come. Aristo’s face suddenly turned a bright purple and he collapsed onto the baking-hot pavement.
    ‘I feel… I feel…’ Aristo could not say it.
    ‘My God, Aristo, what’s wrong?’
    ‘What’s happening to me? My eyes… my eyes… they’re burning. I cannot see… Katerina, help me. Get me some water, please.’
    She looked around her and spotted the working fountain. She ran like a possessed madwoman, and came back with her now damp scarf. She busied herself with cooling Aristo’s face. She kept rushing back and forth to the fountain. In a surreal way, Aristo felt he was experiencing this torment both as himself and at the same time outside himself as a bystander witnessing the scene.
    A part of him could hear and feel Katerina trying desperately to give him some relief and the other part was watching her do so. Had he died and his soul had been released or had his soul split and a part of it floated above his tortured body?
    He was soaking wet in sweat and water. The sweat came out in huge waves, unrelenting, as if from an inexhaustible source. It kept gushing up to the surface of his skin, and running down his face and his body, a relentless torrent, like a mighty river bursting its banks and setting a route straight for its delta and the mighty ocean its waters yearned to call home.
    His skin then started to come out in bright red pimples and fistulas. Passers-by spared him one look and, terrified, quickened their step, almost breaking into a run, to get away from this ‘thing’ that appeared to have some kind of terrible plague, from this unidentified creature that escaped from a long bygone era, the Jurassic, perhaps. The passers-by feared contagion. They could not get away from Aristo and Katerina fast enough.
    Katerina drenched Aristo’s face repeatedly, but any relief was short-lived. He kept bringing his hands to his face to shade his eyes, as if from a vision that was being branded on his eyes, a terrible vision that would not go away, until he understood. Otherwise there would be no respite and no salvation.
    Slowly Katerina noticed Aristo calming down. The panic was gone. The pain was lessening. His face was already shedding its blistery layers and was returning to normal.
    After a while she knew the nightmare had passed. He was coming round. They were both a bit bashed and bruised, but alive and all the visible horrific injuries and unexplained phenomena were gone. Only some superficial signs of their ordeal remained to give a healthy glow and colour to their skin. Aristo got up.
    ‘I think we’ve done all we could here for the moment. We need to talk to Giorgos about the passage we got. Maybe he has some ideas. Let’s avoid calls and emails, though. You never know. Both may be closely monitored. Only the company’s network and the ones at our homes are safe to be used for access. Let’s get back to Limassol.’

CHAPTER 25

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Katerina and Aristo landed at Larnaca International Airport at four in the afternoon on the same day. A car was waiting for them outside. They had called Giorgos on his mobile on their way to Limassol. They arranged to meet at Elli’s house, so that she could be there as well. An hour later they were sitting in the library of Elli’s house.
    ‘I can see from the bruises you are both sporting that it wasn’t straightforward.’ Elli said, looking at Katerina and Aristo. Her cool exterior belied her shock at their appearance. Aristo sensed his mother’s worry.
    ‘No, it wasn’t. It looks worse than it actually is. We had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of one of the Ruinand helpers, a Muftir. We dispatched him with only a slight difficulty. Mother, we are very closely watched. We have to increase our security measures. We took extreme precautions and still they were there at the exact time that the inscription began to appear. They knew. Mother, I suspect we may have a spy, an insider.’
    ‘Surely, you are not suspecting anyone who attended the meeting at Ariana’s.’
    ‘No, but there must be someone else who has access to us and the company, someone working for us, perhaps. We need to have our offices and homes checked for bugs and from now on we need to be careful what we say and where.’
    ‘Aristo, let’s adjourn for a while and have the house checked. If it is bugged and they are listening right now, they will probably know we are onto them. But we cannot change that now.’ Elli picked up her secure mobile and called her security chief.
    ‘Andreas, I’ve got a job for you. I want the following checked for bugs: the Valchern building and my home, the homes of Aristo, Iraklios, Katerina, Ariana, that’s Katerina’s grandmother, the home of Katerina’s parents and Vasilis’. I want it to be done today, as soon as possible. I’ll call them and tell them to expect you. I want you to do it discreetly and I want you to start from my house. Shall I expect you in the next half hour?’
    ‘Yes, Mrs Symitzis. No problem.’
    ‘Excellent. See you then.’ Elli hung up. She turned to the assembled group.
    ‘Let me arrange for some coffee, tea and a snack. Whatever rubbish you’ve had on the plane you must be famished. Mrs Manto.’ Mrs Manto was at the door within five seconds.
    ‘Could you please arrange for coffee, tea and snacks?’
    ‘Of course, it will be a pleasure.’
    ‘Could you please leave them outside on the veranda? We’ll be in the garden for a short stroll. Thanks, Mrs Manto.’
    Mrs Manto took a look at Aristo and Katerina. ‘My goodness you must have not eaten a single thing for the last two days. You seem to have lost weight. You need fattening up. I’ll see what I can do.’ With that she was off to the kitchen. Aristo started to laugh.
    ‘We know what snack means to Mrs Manto. Thank God you didn’t say a meal, mother. That would’ve been scary, like something out of the kitchens of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace.’
    Elli decided to round them all up to continue their discussion outside. ‘Come on everybody. Let’s continue our discussion in the garden until the house has been checked. I’m be fairly sure there will be no bugs there, especially next to the fountains and my little weir.’
    They all got up and went together into the garden. Once they reached the safe spot, Elli stopped and the others did, too.

    Within the hour the house had been checked for bugs and given the all-clear. Elli led them all back inside and into the library.
    ‘Aristo, what have you got?’ Elli pressed a button and the blinds came down bathing them in almost total darkness apart from a few of subtle lights on the walls.
    Aristo connected Katerina’s mobile to the projector and pressed play. The wall opposite them came to life with the video clip from Ayia Sophia. After it ended, Aristo turned to Giorgos.
    ‘Giorgos we need your help here. It clearly refers to a place. Any ideas?’
    Giorgos was silent for a while, deep in thought.
    ‘I was thinking about that as I was watching it. I would guess that the place referred to is Athens. You see during the time of Pericles, only in name was Athens a democracy. In reality it was the rule of one man, Pericles.’
    Elli was reading from the Book of the Pallanians and she looked up. ‘I believe Giorgos is right. It makes sense. In this book it says that the next test will be a philosophical one, a series of dialogues.’
    Giorgos, excited, started to speak. ‘Yes, it must be Athens then. And it says in the passage “where the three philosophers meet”. The only place I can think of that fits that description is the ancient cemetery of Keramikos where the tombs of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates are located next to one another. These must be the three philosophers it refers to.’
    Katerina, silent till now, looked at her brother. ‘You are a genius. We should go there now. What are we waiting for?’
    Giorgos raised a quizzical brow. ‘We?’
    ‘Yes, we. I’m coming with you.’
    ‘I think you are getting a taste for adventures.’
    Katerina smiled. ‘I certainly am.’
    They all looked at Elli.
    Yes. Aristo and Giorgos, you should go there and see where that leads us.’
    ‘Katerina interrupted. ‘Not me? Elli, please.’
    ‘No, I want you to stay here. I’ve got something else in mind for you. Aristo, I know your bag is packed, but you’ll need to refresh its contents. Giorgos, go and pack. I’ll arrange for tickets for you both on tomorrow morning’s flight to Athens. We’ll discuss the second part of the inscription another time. Think about it and we’ll meet later. I want to hear your thoughts on it. But first let’s go and enjoy Mrs Manto’s spread. She will be offended if we don’t. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a bite. I haven’t eaten anything all day.’

CHAPTER 26

    Athens, Greece
    Present day
    Under the fiery Mediterranean sun, in a quiet corner of the Athenian archaeological trail, Giorgos and Aristo were on their way to the ancient Keramikos cemetery and the tombs of the three philosophers, Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.
    They reached the spot and stood there looking at the three tombs in awe of the small space that they occupied compared to their occupants’ impact on the world.
    Aristo remembered his mother’s exact words. “My son, according to the Book of the Pallanians, this is the ancient language of the Pallanians who were numerous and flourished before they were crushed in the great last battle that destroyed the temple of knowledge and wisdom and had to go underground. But a selected few kept the flame of their culture and knowledge alive over the centuries. Plato was a member and so were Aristotle, Socrates and Pericles.
    “Through that special implant in your palm you now have the ability to read this long-forgotten language. But to understand it you don’t just read it. You use your mind, you feel its meaning, it gets into your head and speaks to you. There are always multiple meanings underneath. Each one of us sees something different. What you do is this: you close your mind to all outside influences and corporeal things, you place your hand on the inscription and trace the words with your fingers. Just feel the words speaking to you.”
    Aristo had a vision of his mother being a crazy medium goading him on to feel and see spirits and dead people and talk to them. Aristo immediately dismissed the idea from his mind.
    ‘Giorgos, I think this is the time to use one of those powers my mother told us about. There must be something on these tombs that we are supposed to find out. Let’s start from Plato’s. It is the first one here. But he was in a way the one that blazed the way. Socrates was his teacher, but left nothing in writing. All we know about Socrates, his philosophy and his methods, comes from what Plato wrote. There is no other proof that Socrates said any of those things himself.
    ‘There are some people who say he was Plato’s invention at least as far as his philosophy, his ideas and his dialectic method are concerned. A person with that name did exist at that time in Athens.’ Aristo paused. ‘And to complete the great trio of ancient Greek philosophers, and appearing as a roughly seamless generational succession, was Aristotle who was Plato’s student.’
    Giorgos was sceptical, but kept silent and simply nodded. Aristo put his hand first on Plato’s tomb. Nothing happened and he was about to give up when suddenly strange characters began to appear.
    Aristo, look. It’s working.’
    ‘I will tell you what it says.
    ‘You don’t need to. It’s in Greek. I can read it perfectly.’
    ‘What are you talking about? What Greek? Are you having me on?’
    ‘No, I’m not. Shall I tell you what it says?’
    ‘Go on then.’ Aristo expected Giorgos to say some invented gibberish and he half-closed his ears to him. And then Giorgos started talking. And Aristo caught words that he had just seen, but which were not in Greek when he saw them. He turned to look at Giorgos.
    ‘How is this possible?’
    ‘Some of that power must have rubbed off on me, eh?
    ‘Undoubtedly. The ability to read and understand the Pallanian language appears to manifest itself in different ways to different people. Anyway, let’s not waste time. Let’s finish it.’
    Once the inscription ended Aristo turned to Giorgos.
    ‘What do you think? Does it look familiar to you?’
    ‘I’ve seen this pattern before. Of course. It’s related to Plato. Socrates was Plato’s greatest teacher. The pupil immortalised the teacher’s words. It’s a dialogue. It’s a Socratic dialogue. It’s the Socratic or dialectic method, as it is otherwise known. It seems unfinished, though I recognise the dialogue from Plato’s writings and I remember it differently.’
    ‘So maybe it’s for us to complete the dialogue using the principles of the Socratic method. Let’s see what’s missing.’
    Giorgos had an inspiration. ‘It’s interesting. Seeing the flow of the argument it seems that it starts as one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues in the “Republic”, but it later changes protagonists by dropping the original ones in favour of Plato and Aristotle who join in to battle it out with Socrates. This dialogue would be out of place in the “Republic” as it seems to deal with more than one subject. I can actually count seven subjects, some of Plato’s originals and some new ones.’
    Giorgos paused and Aristo who was deep in thought picked up the thread of the analysis of the inscription.
    ‘It seems here that Plato and Aristotle find common ground between them and with Socrates too. If I remember correctly, Socrates was the first of the Greeks who, in an unorthodox deviation from the strictly pagan environment of the time, was proclaiming the revolutionary, for the Greeks, idea of the one God. Giorgos, where did you say that Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s school, the Lyceum, used to be?’
    ‘I didn’t, but since you ask, they were not far from here. Both schools co-existed peacefully for quite some time. Plato’s Academy lasted, in one form or another and with periods during which it was closed, between 387 B.C. and 529 A.D. when its latest iteration was closed down by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, because he wanted to stop the teaching of anything Hellenistic and non-Christian.’
    Aristo was intrigued. ‘The Justinian of Ayia Sophia fame?’
    ‘The very same.’
    ‘Yes, but, Giorgos, it’s odd though that such an enlightened Emperor would do that. Yet it was still a time of Christian fanaticism. It all started with Emperor Theodosius about a hundred and fifty years earlier, when he started the persecution of pagans and the destruction of their temples, libraries, and not only what offended, but anything that differed, anything that was not related to Christianity. He was the one who replaced one perceived sacrilege with another, as is the way of the victor. Theodosius the Great. The Christian Fanatic. And he was also the one who prohibited the staging of the Olympic Games, as it was considered a pagan festival.’
    Aristo finished and looked at Giorgos. When nothing came from Giorgos he was baffled. He was about to say something about Giorgos being distracted and not having listened to what he was saying when he saw Giorgos’ face lit up. He knew Giorgos had a brainwave and he waited for him to speak.
    Giorgos was trying to grasp something in what Aristo just said. He knew it was important that he remembered. He thought hard and then he got it. ‘Wait a minute. Did you just say libraries? Would that have included the Great Library of Alexandria?’
    ‘Yes, that is the most widely-held view. Contrary to popular belief and what’s depicted in films, the library was not destroyed by accident in 48 B.C. when under Julius Caesar’s orders the Romans set the Egyptian fleet in the harbour on fire with the proximity of the ships to the city being responsible for the burning down of the Great Library.’
    It was then that Aristo saw them; three ghosts, the three philosophers themselves, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were having a very intense discussion and they seemed to be oblivious to Aristo and Giorgos. Unbeknownst to the three philosophers, or so he thought, Aristo stood there and listened. He was surprised that he could follow their arguments.
    The three philosophers suddenly paused and turned to look at Aristo. They smiled and then quickly returned to their discussion as if nothing had happened. Aristo wondered whether the three wise men had been checking on his and Giorgos’ progress.
    As quickly as they appeared they were gone, the discussion remaining unfinished, with Aristo trying desperately to pull together the strands of the argument and fill in the gaps in the dialogue on the tomb. Listening in on the three philosophers helped to steer his reasoning in the right direction, or so he hoped.
    Aristo turned to look at the tombs and then back at Giorgos. ‘I think I know where the dialogue is heading. The dialectic discussion seems to be reconciling Christianity with secularism in a symbiotic co-existing relationship, feeding from each other and adjusting to each other, removing the contradictions and inconsistencies, and resolving the conflicts and fatal flaws in each other. So this could not have been written by Plato at all, even if we had briefly hoped to have found one of his lost works.’
    Giorgos wondered how Aristo came up with this inspiration. But before he could think more about that, his brain took him on another direction. He was staring at the tomb when he suddenly got excited and was insistently indicating at the inscription on the tomb.
    ‘Wait a minute. Look at the corner here. It’s so small you can almost miss it. It’s Arabic isn’t it?’
    Aristo leaned closer and took some time to study the writing that Giorgos had indicated. He straightened up and looked at Giorgos.
    ‘It looks like it. It’s only a short paragraph, but it seems to be talking about Plato’s ideas and Islam. Now the only philosopher I know who attempted to write about that was Ibn Rushd, real full name Abu I-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, more commonly known as Averroes. I recognise his style of writing here. He basically singlehandedly rehabilitated Plato after Aristotle’s dominance for centuries as “The Phiosopher”. He also had a profound influence on the use of the metaphysics part of Aristotle’s principles, like teleology and what developed as Aristotelianism, on Christianity, both Eastern Orthodox theology and the Catholic dogma of the Vatican.
    ‘Aristotelianism still influences Christian theology, especially scholastic Catholic theology. Plato’s rehabilitation also stemmed from the Renaissance started by Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. He was the one who brought from Constantinople and the East, manuscripts with Plato’s teachings in Greek, had them translated and used for what came to be called his Renaissance. It is said that many of the manuscripts, both scrolls and parchments, of the libraries of Alexandria — the one at the Serapium temple, the one at the Cesarion temple and possibly the Great Library or Museion, which was most probably the Royal Library — were taken to Constantinople after 330 A.D. to enrich the new city and new capital of the Roman Empire.
    ‘So this means that it is possible that many of these manuscripts are either still hidden there in Constantinople or in Italy’s libraries, from Venice to the Vatican. Great parts of the collections of those places are seldom seen, have never been seen or at least have not been seen for centuries. Very few people are allowed to see even small parts of those collections. These people are mostly scholars and then they can view such items only after special permission, which is very rarely granted.
    ‘There is also a possibility that many of these manuscripts were sent to the monasteries of Mount Athos for protection, either before the Ottoman siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. or afterwards, on the exodus of brilliant minds, people, artefacts and knowledge to the West — Venice, the rest of Italy and then the rest of Europe. It is possible that what was destroyed in 48 B.C. was either the Museion or Royal Library or just a number of scrolls destined for the library and stored temporarily at the port after just having being delivered.’
    At that moment Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, still engrossed in their discussion, became visible to both Aristo and Giorgos. Giorgos was speechless. He looked at Aristo in wonderment. He was mystified when Aristo seemed to be unfazed by their surprise visitors.
    Aristo tried to interrupt the three philosophers to talk to them and to put some order in the proceedings. However, something strange was happening. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were merging into each other and then separating and merging again and this continued, all the time pressing ahead with their arguments and not pacified in the least.
    Aristo’s ears wandered again and he tried to eavesdrop on the conversation raging before him. His earlier suspicion was confirmed. The three philosophers were re-enacting the dialogue on the tomb, covering subjects that they could not possibly have known about back then, in their time. The wheels in Aristo’s brain were turning ever faster and he allowed himself a smile.
    The solution was staring him in the eye and had invaded his brain through his compliant ears. He knew at that moment that he and Giorgos had also re-enacted the dialogue without realising and had cracked the riddle of the missing part.
    Aristo felt very excited and relieved. While at first he felt self-conscious to be in the presence of the three great men, he now felt uncowered and courageous and confident to stand next to them, not exactly on the same level, but quite a bit below their dazzling brilliance and achievement.
    It was just so sad that so much of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works had not survived through the brutal history of centuries of conquest, pillaging and more recently the glorious cultural movement that was Christian fanaticism and its attack on anything non-Christian, a glorious cultural revolution brought to new heights by the later dawn of the age of darkness and of the Holy Inquisition. Yet if the three great men chose to test him further, he felt he would not melt under their interrogating gaze and relentless questioning.
    Plato suddenly turned to Aristo.
    ‘My dear Aristo, your ancestor, Michael, was making naughty use of his powers to travel through time and change history, even though it was expressly forbidden. I really don’t know what got over him that one time, but what I would call his Syracusan adventure had unpredictable ramifications. It has changed history. It has shaped me differently too, as my invitation and brief stay there did not take place. Hardened by different experiences, I, though, did, indeed, found my school but earlier than I would otherwise have had.
    ‘Your ancestor took the arbitrary decision to sacrifice Syracuse for a greater glory for Athens, but that comes with a price, because Athens becomes a rival for both Macedon and Constantinople and, therefore, damages your ancestor’s and your family’s treasured city of cities and changes everything. And it’s changed my life too.
    ‘Aristo, your ancestor should not have been playing games with history. I cannot forgive your ancestor and because of him your family for that. Your ancestor and your family have deprived me of my Syracusan experiences. An event that has had wider ramifications. And it has changed my teachings at the Academy. You will have to make up for it until you’ve seen how your ancestor changed things.
    ‘However much your ancestor may have wanted for Athens to win, you have to remember that just because we see Athens today only for its great cultural achievement as the good power and Sparta for its sole obsession with physical fitness and military prowess as the evil empire out to destroy Athens that was the light, it doesn’t mean that that’s how it was seen back then. To the rest of Greece, Athens was a cruel Imperial power with ruthless ambitions of expansion. Its treatment of wayward former allies was brutal to the extreme.
    ‘So maybe the rest of Greece saw it as justice that Athens got its comeuppance, the punishment it deserved. Pericles may be pleased with the change, but we do need to change things back. You need to speak to your mother to get the culprit, Michael, to go back and fix it.’
    ‘I know nothing about this, but Michael is dead. How can he go back to fix things? What you are asking is impossible.’
    ‘It is not impossible. Your mother will know how to do that.’
    ‘OK, I will pass on the request. But I don’t see how wise it would be to change what you propose. Such a change will have wider ramifications to the events that have taken place since then. It will sound like a vicious circular argument here, but what would change again if we do this? Who will not have existed? What would not have occurred?’
    Plato smiled as if to a child. But his smile was enigmatic and hiding, Aristo had no doubt, a lot more information than he was prepared to admit to. ‘We will say no more. What we have demanded has to be done to restore the balance, the true tracks that history should have travelled on. Now, my dear friend, let us turn to the solution to the dialogue.’
    ‘Just a second. It’s not a mathematical problem. How can it have only one solution?’
    ‘We will not accuse you of not being smart, but you are taking the joke a bit too far. However, in the case of the incomplete dialogue on the tomb there is only one solution. Your reasoning and your analysis were impressive. You have successfully re-enacted the missing part of the dialogue. Now to receive your reward you must give us the solution.’
    Aristo looked down, collected his thoughts and lifting his head, he looked the ringleader and head examiner, Plato, in the eye and, measuring his words, he spoke slowly.
    ‘Many of the ideas propounded by the ancient philosophers were not incompatible with Christianity or religion in general or the state as a secular entity. Socrates who questioned everything and challenged everyone’s views also spoke of the one God. It took until Muslim scholars and the Renaissance to rehabilitate ancient philosophers, of the ancient world and achievements, and to realise the value and relevance of the philosophers’ work in building and organising a society and influencing many aspects of life in a society, something that could roughly be described as a marriage of science and religion for the common good, or in some cases, through architecture, art and the refinement of religious dogma, to serve naked ambition and greed.
    ‘If only that had been realised earlier, instead of being on a mission to destroy anything remotely pagan or produced before the advent of Christianity, before a dark age in some respects, all that time would not have been wasted. That is the common ground of your philosophies and religion.’
    Plato, Socrates and Aristotle smiled their approval. Nothing further needed to be said.
    When Aristo next spoke his voice betrayed his disappointment at the end of the current encounter with the three philosophers, but it also carried his hope for a future one. ‘Another time, I would very much enjoy the challenge of a dialogue with you all, when things calm down.’
    ‘Things will never calm down. Life is like that. You could stay here a bit longer. A short delay in your mission before you leave for your next destination would not be a matter of life or death. It has been a while since we have had such stimulating company. Don’t try to fob us off so easily. We were not born yesterday, you know.’
    ‘I wouldn’t dare to accuse you of such a thing. But I must, respectfully, decline the invitation at this time.’
    ‘It has been a pleasure conversing with you.’ The three philosophers said in unison holding up their arms in an obvious gesture of complete surrender, in a show of respect for the two bright and talented individuals standing tall and supremely self-confident before them.
    The philosophers began to sing from the same hymn-sheet, speaking all at the same time. Aristo was becoming increasingly excited, but also annoyed as he was finding it difficult to follow the three philosophers’ intense discussion. His face reflected his confusion and conflicted emotions.
    He must have changed a hundred different colour combinations in ten seconds. He could not shake the sneaking feeling that the reason he could still see them was because they had something more to say to him.
    Aristo prayed that they would hurry, but chose not to interrupt them, out of respect for their achievement, their great age and the fact that they had gone to all this effort to help him after all. The philosophers did not seem to have been overcome by any particular desire to climb on their horses for the next target of their fun and games. If there is a God, please rush them along.
    His silent pleading appeared to have worked, be it with the help of God or another higher power or just plain common sense. The intensity of their discussion was slowly dying down. Their voices and sharp rebukes of each other’s arguments began to lose their edge. Their spirited discourse began to fade away.
    Plato became Aristotle who became Socrates, separate but merged into one, a triad, but not a religious one, a fearsome triumph and accumulation of wisdom and knowledge. The transformational and changing light spoke with one voice and with none.
    ‘Aristo, despite our certain differences, Socrates and Aristotle and me, each speak with one voice. As one, our voice is strong, because of the common thread through our beliefs, which is enough to suppress our conflicts. Always question what you encounter. And take away a lesson that will help you in your future endeavours and it is this: There is an inscription at the Oracle in Delphi: “Do nothing in excess”. Or “Always look to the mean”. That is another thread of the common ground between our philosophies and religious, especially Christian, theology that you correctly expounded upon earlier.
    ‘Temperance is the virtue that is the mean to control emotions, courage is the mean when seeking honour and wisdom is the mean when seeking knowledge. In extreme situations such as the one you have the honour and pleasure to encounter and be involved in, and when you have to save someone from danger or from one’s self or from harming someone else, exceeding the mean is not only allowed but required for an honourable life. Be a worthy successor to us, to those that preceded us and to those that followed and who held and expanded the dream of Alexander the Great and of Ptolemy I.
    ‘You need the knowledge Ptolemy has acquired. You will find answers in his greatest treasure. But we cannot let you go without gifts for solving our riddle. Before you go to your next destination, there is something at each of our homes to help you on your journey three keys to the three greatest Greek cities to wake him and give him life with the blood of his lost child.’
    ‘To wake who?’ Aristo shouted. But the three philosophers had already left. Aristo then brought himself and Giorgos back to earth. ‘So Alexandria is the next stop. Ptolemy I’s greatest treasure was his library which no longer exists.’
    ‘No, Aristo, that’s not strictly true. There is a new one, its modern successor, the Bibliotheca Alexandria, founded in 2003 A.D.’
    ‘You are right. Then that is where we must go next. But we need to collect those gifts, those keys from the three philosophers’ homes first. What do you think they meant with that?’
    ‘My guess would be that “their homes” is a term for where they practised their art. For Plato it would be his Academy, for Aristotle his Lyceum and for Socrates that would be the Agora, the market of ancient Athens where he spent most of his life rubbing everyone the wrong way, or at least that’s how many saw it, being as they were humiliated by Socrates’ mind and his deployment of the dialectic method, to lead them to contradict themselves.’
    ‘Great. Let’s do it.’

    Giorgos and Aristo left Keramikos and went to the site of Plato’s Academy first, but they found nothing and nothing happened there. They were about to give up when they caught glimpse of a man who looked like Plato, strangely dressed in Athenian attire of the 5 ^th century B.C. The man was beckoning them over.
    They hesitated, but he became insistent and they decided that they had nothing to lose. They cautiously followed him. He led them to a quiet spot where he put in Aristo’s hand a strange object in the shape of a square with rounded edges and a hole in the middle, elaborately decorated with strange characters that looked Pallanian, the whole thing made of a metal-like object neither Aristo nor Giorgos could recognise.
    Then the man disappeared into thin air and another man materialised next to him who looked like Aristotle. He led Giorgos and Aristo to the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum where he gave them a similar-looking object and the same story continued with him vanishing and a man looking like Socrates appearing and leading them to the ancient agora where he gave them another similar object after which he also disappeared into thin air.
    Giorgos and Aristo then went back to the hotel where they packed and got the first flight to Alexandria. They arrived there just before five in the afternoon and checked into their hotel. They dropped their luggage in the room and, within five minutes, were out of the door and on their way to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina located on the coastal road connecting the Western and oldest part of the city with the more recent Eastern end of the bay near the former summer palace of the former King of Egypt, Farouk.
    They found the library easily. Its design was distinctive and from reflecting the sunlight, visible from far away. Its roof was a half-disc on its side at an angle, all made of glass panels. They had seen pictures of it on the internet, but it was their first time seeing it in the flesh, in all its glory. Its impact on the observer was awe-inspiring silence. It looked like an alien saucer that was about to fly away.
    The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new library, was the modern aspiring successor to the Ptolemies’ legendary Library of Alexandria, one of the ancient world’s seven wonders. The new library was founded in 2003 A.D. and it was a glorious testament to the achievements of modern Egyptians with the ambition to rival and probably match their illustrious ancestors.
    Giorgos and Aristo went straight for the front entrance looking forward to the glorious interior. However, the moment they passed inside they just stood there in total confusion. For instead of the interior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, they were standing at a high point out in the open looking down at an Alexandria of long ago.
    Neither of them tried to understand what just happened, but took it in their stride as part of this crazy mission. They did have some warning from Aristo’s mother to expect the unexpected. She didn’t say, though, the unexpected may involve some form of time travel. They looked at their clothes, which had changed too. Giorgos laughed.
    ‘That’s a mighty attire you are sporting there.’
    ‘Don’t laugh. You are no better fashion model yourself. Giorgos, tell me, do you know what year it is?’
    ‘Well, judging by the progress on the unfinished Pharos or Lighthouse, it must be between 290 and 275 B.C. and by the way, that’s a chiton you are wearing and, if I’m not mistaken, we are dressed as Athenians.’
    ‘You? Mistaken? Surely not.’

CHAPTER 27

    Alexandria, Egypt 287 B.C.

    Alexandria shone brightly, flaunting its glory and supremacy over other cities. The great harbour was buzzing with the activity of one of the gateways to the goods of the world from the depths of Africa to the deserts of Arabia and the lands of the Hindus beyond and the Mediterranean Sea up to Carthage and further afield to the gates of Hercules, the mouth of this historic sea and its exit to the unknown.
    A few metres above sea level, in the distance, overlooking the harbour and the city below, Ptolemy was standing on the balcony of his palace with his arms stretched wide, surveying and attempting in his mind’s eye to encompass his domain as the master that he was of all that he surveyed and that extended beyond his embrace in every direction, even including the sea of which he was the undeniable, and at least in this period in time, unchallenged overseer, the undisputed ruler in the Eastern Mediterranean, up to the coast of Asia Minor, including the island of Cyprus and all the way North to Crete and West up to the seas overlooking Cyrene and the strategic island of Melite (present-day Malta) and its smaller satellite isles or, more correctly, rocks.
    Sicily though evaded him and he craved it for no apparent good reason. He could not deny to himself that its position was strategic. And he smiled at his achievement in only a few miserable years. He was proud of the strength and wealth that was his Egypt.
    For he was Ptolemy I Soter, the King and Pharaoh of all of Egypt, the successor to all the Pharaohs and their glorious dynasties that came before him; such an exalted heritage and such weight on his shoulders. He knew he was worthy of such inheritance and history and achievement.
    And let’s not forget that he was also successor to Alexander, yes, the one and only, the Great, the general of generals, that great strategist, the founder of this great city, whose tomb had pride of place in Ptolemy’s capital, shielding inside his sacred and now divine body.
    Alexander had become a god and he was worshipped and embraced as such in the whole of the Egyptian lands, within boundaries that enclosed a vast expanse, Alexander the divinity, worshipped as one of the greatest of the pantheon of Ptolemaic gods that encompassed Greek and Egyptian deities and honoured and loved them all.
    Ptolemy turned to his visitor who had been patiently waiting a few steps behind. ‘My dear Hieronymus, our work at the Library has only just begun and may my successors prove worthy and keep my dream alive and expand it.’
    A royal servant interrupted.
    ‘Your Majesty, Demetrius of Phaleron is waiting to see you.’
    ‘How long has he been waiting for? By the gods, Antinas, you have no respect for old age. Bring him here. Have you at least offered him a seat to rest his old bones, some water or wine, perhaps?’
    Antinas lowered his head and bowed to his king so low that he almost prostrated himself on the floor. Ptolemy was about to dismiss him when he heard a familiar voice.
    ‘Ptolemy. Your servant has not seen me before? He deserves a good whipping. I’m not getting any younger, you know. It’s not a secret that your ambitious library project is keeping me busy.’
    ‘I knew you were the right person for the job. It must be torture to leave your now primary home, is it not?’
    ‘It is indeed. It is indeed. May your ambition for it keep expanding together with its size, so as to keep me fit and sustain my soul.’
    ‘Well, you have always been fit. But some fresh air will not make you ill, let alone kill you. Demetrius, I have a mission for you. I hear some canny souls in Pergamon are attempting to bypass my ban on the export of papyrus by experimenting with a new material made of animal hides. I want to know what progress they have made.’
    ‘I will not ask whether your source is reliable.’ Demetrius saw Ptolemy’s thunderous expression, eyes shooting fire and shut up.
    ‘You’ve never questioned my information before. How dare you do so now?’
    Demetrius was aware he had overstepped the mark and putting familiarity to one side, deployed a respectful tone suitable to the great king before him. ‘My king my intention was not to doubt you. Please forgive me.’ He could not help himself. He had to say it. But Ptolemy caught his thought before it was transformed into words.
    ‘You think it improbable, don’t you?’ ‘No, my Great King. I will go personally’ ‘First, do not patronise me, Demetrius. Drop the formalities. We’ve known each other for far too long. And though I would trust you with my life, you are to remain here. You are too valuable to me. I want you to send someone else that you can trust, but who is also expendable. The journey is perilous.’
    ‘As you wish. I believe I have someone in mind.’
    ‘Good.’ Ptolemy turned to look at his beloved city deep in thought. That was Demetrius’ cue to leave.
    Demetrius bowed gently and walked away. Now, with that out of the way, Ptolemy needed to tend to two well-travelled visitors who had just landed in their midst from afar. He waited and when Demetrius was out of earshot he turned his attention to Hieronymus.
    ‘My dear Hieronymus, how is progress at the Pharos? Will I see my lighthouse finished, do you think, before I die? I have passed by in disguise and I did not like what I saw. Construction appears to have slowed lately. Work should have been even faster as I get older. I’m not getting any younger, you know. Maybe I should pay the site a visit, undisguised, to speed things up.’
    Ptolemy paused and extended his arm towards the city before them. Hieronymus next to him was looking at his feet, deep in thought.
    ‘Hieronymus, feast your eyes. Do not ignore the feast before you at your feet. Isn’t it a spectacle? My creation in only a few years, out of nothing. Alexander may have planted the foundation stone, but it was I that gave it life and the nutrition to grow. And it has grown, beyond my expectations and wildest dreams. The greatest city on earth.’

    Giorgos and Aristo were not far behind. But they had taken a detour. Aristo could never resist markets and the market by the harbour called to him like a flower to a bee.
    Giorgos saw Aristo veering off course at every turn and soon after every attempt to correct his deviation, or so it seemed, from their intended destination when relief at such an apparent success quickly turned to annoyance. ‘Come on, Aristo, let’s go. Why are you going that way?’
    ‘I want to see that stall over there. Oh, and that one… Yes, I’ll have two of that… and… look at that… look at those pancakes and the honey… yes, two of those… and I have to get some of that.’
    ‘What’s got into you? You are behaving like an impetuous child. You sound as if you have regressed to the age of ten. Come on, leave that, we have to go.’
    Aristo winked conspiratorially at Giorgos to remind him about such a thing as a sense of humour. ‘Hold your horses. How often do get the chance to be here? It’s never happened before and it’s not likely to happen again. Oh, what is that smell? Let me just see that stall over there. It will be the last one, I promise.’
    Giorgos rolled his eyes to the heavens. But Aristo pretended to relent feigning disappointment. He was really playing with Giorgos after all. What Aristo was really looking for was for valuable manuscripts and he found a contact from whom he bought two with coins that he had found inside a small pocket in his chiton.
    That would be their passport as visitors into the Great Library. Ptolemy, determined to make his Library the greatest in the world, decreed that every visitor to the city was obliged to leave behind a manuscript for the Library’s collection.
    Giorgos and Aristo reached the great Library where, as visitors from Athens, and bringing with them the ultimately desirable gift to Ptolemy, two rare manuscripts, they expected to gain favour with the King and entry into the inner parts of the Library.
    After a short meeting with Ptolemy, they were led on an honorary tour of the Library they had so generously endowed, and about which they had heard so much and were dying to see for themselves.
    During the tour Giorgos and Aristo noticed that the building was unusually quiet for this time of the day. They asked their guide who simply smiled and looked away as if he did not understand their question.
    As they were passing by shelf after shelf choked full and brimming to its lips with papyrus scrolls, their eyes caught a glimpse of something that looked unlike any of the expected contents of the collection, not a scroll but something shiny. It was only a brief glimpse that stared them in the eye and sent the light through their eyelids and burned their skin, as if rushing to brand itself, its memory upon them.
    They both screamed, but their scream died inside their vocal chords that went on strike and never left their locked lips. Their guide seemed to be oblivious to their predicament and impervious to their reactions. He kept walking and smiling to himself. His lips seemed to be moving of their own volition, but nothing came out. His arms were glued to his sides, the movement of his hips was awkward and his walk unsteady.
    Their guide then stopped in the great hall of the Library. He briefly looked around the numerous shelves extending as far as the eye could see, furiously searching for something. His stare seemed to settle on a point on the opposite wall, as if he could not see anything else in that magnificent space, as if his life depended on it. He was transfixed, but his face retained its mask of gentle expression, occasionally blighted by colour in his cheeks or knocked into the shape of a crooked smile.
    Giorgos and Aristo’s eyes followed the guide’s gaze and settled on a strange small statue in a niche at eye level, above a shelf that seemed to hold a collection of strange manuscripts different from the others. They went close to study this little creation. It just did not fit in this exalted space.
    They looked around at the statues having pride of place in their little heavily adorned niches near the ceiling. They seemed to have a theme, except for the small statue, which at closer inspection turned out to be a bust.
    ‘It looks Byzantine. What is it doing here?’
    ‘That’s what I would like to know.’
    ‘Aristo, the face looks familiar…’ Giorgos stopped and turned around as if in search of something. ‘Wait a minute. Where’s the guide? He seems to have just vanished into thin air. He was standing right there only a moment ago. And another thing, I cannot hear birdsong or the running water.’ He stared at the fountain. ‘Aristo it looks as if time has stopped, but we are still conscious and moving. What’s going on?’
    Without warning the bust’s features became distorted and it came alive and started to speak. At the same time another voice rose behind them. They turned and they saw the guide standing before them again. Where had he disappeared to earlier?
    The guide suddenly stopped talking. A huge smile broke on his face, which turned into a malevolent laugh that echoed around the hollowed space, building in volume and intensity to a high crescendo. The walls and the shelves were resonating.
    Aristo felt his own body resonating. He looked over at Giorgos. He too seemed to be resonating and at the same frequency, like a suspension bridge tossed about by an earthquake. They both hit the ground at the same time, writhing in agony, covering their ears, holding their heads in their hands and shaking their head from side to side, in a vain attempt to banish this torture. The ordeal stopped as suddenly as it began.
    Giorgos was surprised to discover he could still hear his voice; that he even had a voice to hear in the first place. He was relieved his ears had not been smashed to pieces together with his brain, which he would expect had turned to mash. But thankfully it hadn’t as it was not gibberish that came out of his mouth. ‘I don’t think I can take any more of this. First a burning light, now this. That’s a high cost to pay for this mission.’
    ‘Well, Giorgos, you know what they say. No pain, no gain.’
    ‘I don’t think when they said it that they had this in mind. Anyway… that bust… that face… does it look familiar to you?’
    Aristo stared at it and thought for a while. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
    ‘Doesn’t it look like the face of the last Byzantine Emperor, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos?’
    ‘It could be.’
    As they were looking at it, the bust left its niche and flew around the hall touching different parts of the building as it went. They looked up and followed its progress.
    There, close to the roof, they could see words appear and disappear across the four corners of the hall, place-names in shining crystal letters as if made from gleaming diamonds: “Constantinople”, “Athens”, “Alexandria” and on the fourth wall, instead of a place-name, the following inscription appeared: “Save the places that cure the soul.”
    They remembered the inscription above the entrance to the Library: “The place that cures the soul.”
    ‘Giorgos, which are the places that cure the soul?’
    ‘It’s the libraries, isn’t it? This is supposed to be the biggest library at this time and for a few centuries to come. You remember about Ptolemy’s ban on the export of papyrus. That continued with his successors. Well, that was the reason for the enlightened rulers of Pergamon in Asia Minor to experiment with the development of a new writing material. And what they came up with was parchment made from treated animal hides. That was what came to be called pergamene in Greek, from the name of the place where it was invented, Pergamon. This would, in the next few decades, lead to Pergamon possessing a great library, second only to Alexandria with an estimated two hundred thousand manuscripts to Alexandria’s estimated seven hundred thousand. I think that in Pergamon may lie something to help us with our quest.’
    Aristo raised a hand to shush Giorgos. ‘Just a minute. Didn’t Mark Anthony gift the Pergamon Library collection to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt sometime between 43 and 31 B.C.? And didn’t you say earlier that it was rumoured that the Alexandrian collection was moved by Emperor Constantine to his new capital, Constantinople? Shouldn’t we try to find something there? Wouldn’t that be easier?’
    Giorgos shook his head. ‘No, it wouldn’t. That is a rumour. No real evidence has ever been found to support that rumour. It’s just speculation. Any trail has gone cold long ago and it would be impossible to find out the truth. We wouldn’t know where to start. Anyway, how are we going to get to Pergamon while it was still a great cultural centre? It would have to be around 133 B.C.’
    ‘Maybe we don’t have to. We could go through the same transformation as with Alexandria. What looks almost certain is that we need to get there.’
    Suddenly, the bust, that had still been flying around the hall, stopped to rest on a table in front of Giorgos and Aristo. The table was heavily laden with scrolls. And then the bust started to move with lightning speed from scroll to scroll and seemed to be writing in each scroll and once it was done it bound them into one manuscript, looked at them and bowed and then landed next to the manuscript and stopped moving.

    Giorgos and Aristo walked to the table. Aristo picked up the manuscript, but whatever was written there was incomprehensible. Then he had an inspiration. He passed his palm over the characters and, before their eyes, the words formed in the air. Then the words were transformed into still and then moving pictures and a series of places unfolded. They saw Athens and Alexandria, Constantinople and Cappadocia.
    The last image was so incomplete as to stump them both. Then straight lines shot upwards from each place and where the lines met stood an enthralling structure, a glittering vision of transparent crystal, shooting sparks one moment and sitting benevolent the next. Aristo remembered his experience in Ayia Sophia on the second day. The fifth line infusing energy into the structure seemed to be coming from somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.
    Flocks of glorious eagles and falcons glared at the structure, and then back at Aristo. He looked deep into their eyes, and, in pairs, they interlocked into one symbol, a flock of double-headed eagles with the falcons holding them two-abreast and they were marching supported by the falcons that emitted the most wonderful eerie sounds.
    Giorgos suddenly became very animated, as if he had been bitten by a wasp.
    Aristo, look.’
    As the images flew passed their eyes and the slide-show came to an end, there was a commotion at the other end of the hall and an influx of soldiers burst through. They crossed the large space to where Giorgos and Aristo stood within seconds. At the head of the illustrious invading force was none other than Ptolemy himself.
    ‘Greetings again, honoured guests. Thank you for the manuscripts. You’ve made a good choice. They will take their treasured place in this collection. Before I leave you, I will give you some help with your quest. The answer you seek, the missing piece will not be found where you expect it. The place will seem insignificant, not a centre of magnificent work and scientific excellence, but when you take the right measurements, it will make sense to you and you will see that it could not have been anywhere else. And you will feast on the temple of god and knowledge where the two meet. Find the bridge that binds all that hold this world together.’
    Giorgos addressed their host.
    ‘That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a tasty dish. A feast of religion and science and knowledge, all thrown together in the pot and stirred. That would make a hell of a soup, full of contrasting flavours, bitter sworn enemies and combatants, locked in a fight for dominance of taste, leaving a bitter aftertaste. If they don’t kill you, then they definitely will make one very ill indeed.’ At that he fell silent.
    In the meantime, Aristo was thinking about the bridge that seemed to be the key to progress in their mission.
    ‘Giorgos, you should put pen to paper. You have a way with words, a talent you should nurture.’ Aristo paused. ‘I’ve been thinking about that bridge. Listen and tell me whether I’m going down the wrong path. There is a common thread going through all of this. His Majesty, here, was the pupil of Aristotle and so was Demetrius of Phaleron who helps his Majesty to organise the Library. I suspect that his Majesty, in his cunning wisdom to protect his treasures, has devised a simple system to foil the most resourceful intruder. But he would not have deviated far from Aristotle. Yet he would need to use as basis of this a solid foundation and the closest to that would be Plato, Aristotle’s teacher and, for a certain period, his contemporary, in the sense that their schools co-existed as civilised rivals for quite a few years. The influence of both was very pronounced in mathematics and, by extension, science.’
    Giorgos was thinking along the same lines with the heavy taste and smell of Ptolemy’s question still hanging in the air and clogging the wheels of their brains. Giorgos spurred them on a healthy discourse.
    ‘Philosophy asks the questions that mathematics and science tries or is used to solve. When his Majesty asked the mathematician Euclid for an easy way to understand his seminal work, the “Elements”, Euclid is purported to have answered: “There is no royal way or shortcut to geometry”.’
    King Ptolemy nodded and smiled at the memory and at these resourceful young men before him. He interrupted them.
    ‘If only you two decided to stay permanently here in Alexandria…’ Ptolemy let the thought fade away and you could see his brain giving birth to ideas for projects used to build a great vision of the future with Aristo’s and Giorgos’ role in fulfilling his ambitions clearly set out. ‘I can think of a few things in which to channel your brains.’
    Aristo smiled at him. ‘Your Majesty, however attractive that offer may sound, we will regretfully decline. May I request that you do not provide us with any further interruptions, so that we can give you your answer and complete this mission.’
    Ptolemy was amused. ‘Brains and respectful insolence. An unbeatable combination. Now, I really will be very sorry to see you leave.’
    Aristo ignored him. They were wasting time. ‘You know, Giorgos, above the entrance to Plato’s Academy it is said that you could see the inscription: “Anyone not versed in geometry may not enter.” The understanding of the Elements together with what followed based on them in the fields of mathematics and science can explain the events in our world, what makes it turn and change.’
    Giorgos was on the same wavelength, his and Aristo’s minds acting as one, joined in a friendly pingpong match.
    ‘Descartes followed along similar veins by firmly setting mathematics, more specifically numbers, as the basis of philosophy and theorising about the world. Faith provides succour and comfort and it has its uses. However, it is not enough. It’s there to justify where something cannot be explained with logic and scientific means. They call them the mysteries because they cannot explain them and expect people to believe them. But enlightened people seek more, seek knowledge and seek reasoning and explanation an trustification, which is what leads to understanding and comprehension of all that is happening around us. Religion is what we cannot explain, is a means to brainwashing the meek, but it can also be a force for good where it encourages and teaches people to be generous and good and respectful to their fellow human beings, to their neighbours.’
    ‘But what Plato, Aristotle and Euclid and Descartes all teach us is to question, always to question and seek higher knowledge and that is what serves humanity better and leads to the greater achievement, exploration, experimentation and then invention and creativity. Because art is also part of this circle of curiosity and the succour of the soul and the mind.’
    ‘And yet what we have found so far in respect of the last Emperor is next to a church or a mosque, both religious establishments. So science and religion do go hand in hand as a force for good, a force for bringing people together, even if it, sometimes, draws them apart.’
    Ptolemy raised his arms to silence them.
    ‘Well done. You have found the bridge and you are now ready to cross it. Farewell.’
    Based on his earlier offer extended to them, Aristo really expected he would try to detain them, but apparently he misjudged him. Nevertheless, they should be cautious.
    ‘Giorgos, don’t drop your guard. We are not out of the woods yet. Let’s get that manuscript and get out of here.’
    King Ptolemy I Soter, Pharaoh of Egypt, or rather his ghost, was gone, but only next door to his palace to join his physical self, who, during this episode, had continued to converse with Hieronymus and a new guest, Eliagos, from a place called Smyrna, fresh from a meeting with Stephanos, a dangerous deployment of time-hopping.
    ‘Eliagos, I have a gift for you. Our conniving friends next door are smarter than I expected. But right now they are vulnerable, because by solving my riddle, they believe that they are out of danger. They are simply too precious to let them get away, don’t you think?’
    Ptolemy’s face turned into a mask of mirth and sardonic pleasure.

    The air went cold and foul, and Giorgos and Aristo started to find it hard to breathe. There were sounds of running feet coming from the other end of the hall and approaching quickly. Aristo looked at Giorgos.
    ‘I think we have overstayed our welcome.’
    Aristo didn’t know how he knew, but something directed his hand to touch the bust with the likeness of the Emperor.
    They found themselves underwater surrounded by ruins, columns, statues, huge blocks of marble, a forgotten underwater ghost city. Aristo indicated upwards. They both desperately needed air. They broke through the surface of the Alexandrian bay blue sea.
    They emerged on a beach, near the port and the old quarter of Alexandria of the present day.
    ‘Aristo, judging from the location, I think those ruins underwater must be what’s left of the Royal Quarter of the Ptolemies. Looking at the city, we are clearly in modern times, but I can’t tell whether it’s the same time and year we left.’
    ‘Let’s find out before we do anything else. At least it’s good to see we are back into our normal clothes.’
    And then they saw it in front of them. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
    ‘At least now we know it’s sometime after 2003 when the Library opened its doors.’
    They saw lots of places with the current date. They breathed a sigh of relief. They seemed to be back in their own time and probably at the time they were about to enter the Library before forcibly evicted to another era. They again went through the front entrance, silently hoping for the real thing this time.
    Yet, with only the slightest hint of hesitation, they entered, once more, the venerated space. A space suffering with split personality disorder, a space that played on two time dimensions; conventional library by day that doubled as a portal to other days and lives of others by night.

CHAPTER 28

    Alexandria, Egypt
    Present day
    Once through the door, a huge space that resembled a cavern opened up in front of them. In contrast to the bombardment by noise running rampant outside, the library was a different solar system, with the merest of hushed sounds, not near enough to register on the Alexandrian decibel scale.
    Giorgos and Aristo hadn’t even spent two minutes in silent awe of the hungry-to-share-knowledge beast that sucked them in, when Aristo’s mother, Elli, materialised in front of them.
    ‘Mother. How did you…?’
    ‘I wanted to be the first to hear what you’ve seen. And I see a familiar bulge in your side pocket. Is that a gift for me?’
    Aristo had totally forgotten about the manuscript he obtained in an Alexandria of another age. Well, it was an eventful trip after all, to say the least. He patted the outside of the pocket she indicated and then put his hand inside and brought it out. He handed it to her with a flourish. ‘A gift from Ptolemy with his respects to the queen of his heart.’
    Elli took the manuscript and smiled at her son’s joke. ‘Have you studied this?’
    ‘We’ve had no time. We had to get out of there in a hurry. I think Ptolemy had decided to keep us. He had praised our intelligence earlier and wished we could have stayed there in his service. I initially thought he was joking, but then I sensed his cold intent. That’s why I could not be more surprised when he left without even a backward glance. Nevertheless, I remained uneasy. I was alerted to the first sign of danger when we heard what sounded like lots of feet on a purposeful and synchronised walkabout. That was not the sound of relaxed visitors. The sound of those feet declared its intent and left no doubt of its deadly precision and efficiency in dealing with tiresome intruders.
    ‘It was not an empty threat, an attempt to frighten us. The danger was not the figment of a hyperactive imagination. What was facing us was a real danger, a declaration of war. I knew what was coming was an effective sentence as slaves of the exalted almighty Ptolemy, unquestionable and unchallenged ruler of all Egypt and its dominions. My suspicions were confirmed when we saw at the far end of the cavernous main hall of the library a bunch of Ptolemy’s men approaching. We knew they were coming for us.’ Giorgos and Aristo then proceeded to tell her about their adventure.
    ‘I’m glad you are safe.’ Elli pointed at the manuscript with her forefinger. ‘Do you know what this is?’ Giorgos and Aristo both shook their heads. She continued without waiting for a response. ‘I wonder why Ptolemy let this slip through his fingers. Maybe he didn’t know its significance. Then again maybe he did and it was a rouse to lull us all into a false sense of arrogance, of complacency that comes with easy success, hoping that we would become careless and expose a weakness he could exploit.
    ‘Or, perhaps, he wanted us not to believe that he would let such a precious object go unless it was a fake and pay it no notice. Another possibility is simply that if he let it go then it is indeed a fake.’ Elli realised she was thinking aloud. She paused and shook off the speculation. ‘Anyway, these, I believe, may be the missing seven pages of the Book of the Pallanians.’ Both Giorgos and Aristo went to stand next to her to have a look. ‘Of course, to confirm my suspicion, I will need to take it to someone who would know.’
    ‘Where will you find such a person? Aren’t practically all Pallanians or anyone who would know dead?’
    ‘We will need to go and see Aggelos.’ Elli said with a sense of urgency.
    ‘Who is Aggelos?’
    ‘He’s a monk. More specifically the curator and keeper of the library and treasures of the Monastery of Pantokrator.’
    ‘On Mount Athos.’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Then let’s go there now.’
    ‘No. Aristo, you need to go to the site of ancient Pergamon in Asia Minor. From what you’ve told me, it seems that there is something waiting for us there. Katerina will be going with you. I have a feeling she will be of help to you there.’
    ‘What about Giorgos?’
    Elli turned to Giorgos. ‘Giorgos, I want you to go back to Limassol. I want you to investigate the possibility of an impostor placed on the throne of Byzantium at the time of the fall to the Ottomans in 1453. If it proves to be true, I want to know who perpetrated such an audacious act and why. And I want you to gather all that you found in the tomb in Cappadocia. I want us to have a talk about that in the next few days. Aristo, we are all going back to Limassol and you will, immediately, leave with Katerina for Pergamon.’ She turned back to the manuscript and after a while she indicated on the page. ‘Do you recognise this passage?’ Both Giorgos and Aristo looked at what she was pointing. Aristo recognised it instantly.
    ‘If I remember it correctly, it’s word by word the passage that Katerina and I saw in Ayia Sophia in Constantinople.’
    “The tears run from the tropical depth to the middle sea, and the land cries and the general takes the ancient throne for centuries now vacant, the one-man democratic city shines in agony and pleasure in equal measure, and the golden statue absorbs and consumes the liquid of life around it, but spits it out, unsatisfied, and runs to the glowing horn by the sea, on a golden lamb upon which rides the brother of the matriarch and the matriarch herself… but then changes course for the city that carries the name of the gift to the baby Jesus, now totally destroyed, but chosen to join them all… But beware…”
    Giorgos did not take long to figure out the meaning of the cryptic passage.
    ‘I know what it means. The first part is Alexandria. The tears is the Nile flowing into the Mediterranean and the general is Ptolemy that becomes pharaoh after a hiatus of a few hundred years of Egypt being under Persian control with no longer a pharaonic dynasty ruling it. The second refers to Athens. In name a democracy, but in practice with Pericles it was the rule of the one man. The golden statue is the great statue of the goddess Athena on the Acropolis that could be seen for miles around. The third is Constantinople. The horn refers to the Golden Horn, the city’s natural safe harbour. The brother and the sister riding the golden lamb refers to the legend of Elli and the golden lamb that led to the legend of the golden fleece. The matriarch of the Symitzis family is Elli, which matches the name of the girl in the legend. A coincidence? Probably but unlikely. But how does it all tie in together? Is there something we must do or find at these places? Do they have something in common?’
    They all read further down the manuscript. Giorgos was becoming increasingly excited.
    ‘Do you remember the three keys we got in Athens and what Plato said?’
    Aristo nodded. ‘Yes, the keys to the three greatest Greek cities, to wake him with the blood of his lost child. The three cities: Alexandria, Athens and Constantinople. And the fourth must be Smyrna, the one that was totally destroyed in 1922. There must be in the first three cities a place where the keys must be inserted. About Smyrna, I don’t know. Smyrna was one of the gifts of the three wise men to baby Jesus. Perhaps I’m going on a wide tangent here. The passage said that Smyrna joins them. If you put the four cities on a map, I believe they roughly form a cross. Perhaps the cross is the Jesus connection. Get me a map. If you draw lines from each city and join them, I want to see where the lines meet.’
    Aristo got the map and drew the lines. It’s an irregular parallelogram. The centre of it is here… That looks like…’ Elli completed for him. ‘No, I thought it might be Mount Ellothon, but it’s not.’ Aristo continued. ‘Or if we draw a line from Constantinople to Alexandria and another from Athens to Smyrna… or… the centre is… No, it doesn’t work either. It doesn’t make sense, even though it could be a lovely coincidence. What if there is a fifth location? Giorgos, do you remember what we saw in Alexandria? The panel that was supposed to have a name but was empty and we saw those images instead with a fifth line leading to somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean? But the line did not meet its final point of call, its destination. There must be a fifth location which, I would venture to speculate, could be the location of the last Emperor’s tomb.’
    Giorgos shook his head. ‘Yes, but without a clue… without further information…’ Giorgos looked again at the passage. ‘But look. There is more. This here completes the passage: “… the power unleashed, beware that that is unleashed…it can only be controlled by the one”.’
    ‘The one…’ all three of them repeated almost in unison, phrasing it as a question. And then they continued together as if in awe and deep contemplation, ‘… the power…’
    ‘That must have something to do with the revival of the last Emperor. That is what the Ruinands want. They must think it would give them the weapon to defeat us at last. We must not let them. We must beat them in this race.’
    But they had forgotten that there was a traitor in their midst, an operative in the pay of the Ruinands.

CHAPTER 29

    Pergamon, Asia Minor
    (Modern-day Turkey)
    Present day
    One moment they were walking between ruins, and the next the whole landscape had been transformed and Aristo was standing with Katerina admiring the gleaming roofs and buildings of the acropolis of Pergamon.
    Its greatest treasure was the vast, painstakingly accumulated and jealously guarded collection of manuscripts written on parchment or pergamene, the sturdy material the city invented and gave its name, a material borne out of necessity, when the Ptolemies of Alexandria in Egypt banned the export of papyrus. The ban led to a severe shortage of writing material, rare and expensive as it was already, a problem compounded by the fact that Egypt was the only source of the stuff.
    Aristo and Katerina passed through the entrance to the acropolis without incident. At the entrance to the Library, they noticed a plaque attached to the wall. They asked the old man standing by the entrance what that plaque was for and what it said, but he looked at them with a blank expression, raising his eyebrows, and shaking his head he walked away, no doubt feeling sorry for these mad people.
    Aristo nudged Katerina.
    ‘We should move on.’
    Katerina, though, did not budge. She was staring at the back of the old man who was briskly moving away. As if he knew her eyes were on him, the old man turned and he was close enough for Katerina to see an expression of recognition beginning to cloud his face. She had the feeling the old man knew something. She thought she imagined it, but he winked at her and, without a backwards glance, hurried in the opposite direction.
    Aristo was impatient. ‘Katerina, come on. Let’s go inside.’
    Katerina hesitated. ‘No, Aristo. We can do that later. I think we are meant to follow that old man. Come on, he’s about to get away, although I believe he means for us to follow him.’
    Aristo relented. He knew that stubborn side of Katerina, but he also trusted her gut instinct, which was right more often than not. She wouldn’t change her mind. He grabbed her by the hand and they almost broke into a run after the old man who disappeared around a corner.
    ‘Come on, we are going to lose him.’
    As they were running, Katerina remembered something and turned to Aristo. ‘Aristo, about that plaque… I think I know what it says. It will sound weird and you probably will not believe me. Do you remember the language Giorgos and I made up as children? The writing on that plaque looks to have been written in that language. What are the odds of that? It can’t be a coincidence. Or then again perhaps we did not invent that coded language after all. Maybe we saw it somewhere and it subconsciously registered in a part of our brain until we dredged it up to encode our inner-most thoughts and feelings from prying eyes.’
    ‘Yes, but we are not going back now.’
    ‘No, of course not.’ Katerina said impatiently, annoyed, Aristo had no doubt, that he might have thought her capable of such stupid impetuousness and short attention span.
    They saw the old man disappearing behind a lowhung wall sprayed with a wild bougainvillea. They rushed to it and cut through a group of people who ignored them as if they could not see them at all, but not before they saw a member of the group turning and briefly looking at them with intense interest.
    Aristo smiled and shook his head, as if to chase the thought away. Katerina’s paranoia was rubbing off, Aristo told himself as a private joke. He wouldn’t dare voice it out loud.
    They went round the wall in time to see the old man suddenly stopping, sitting down, lighting a fire and beckoning them over, not to roast chestnuts or meats as there were none around to be seen, but, they gathered, to talk. But he then, suddenly, got up and more swiftly than they expected, moved away.
    Aristo and Katerina didn’t see it, but the member of the group they had just passed, discreetly distanced himself from the rest of his apparent companions, and, with raw purpose, headed down the street.
    Aristo and Katerina reached a strikingly beautiful courtyard and the noise of the street died behind their footsteps. They then saw the slightest glimpse of a cloak dart through a door at the far end of the courtyard and they chased after it. The room they entered blinded them.
    In the hushed silence, they saw in the centre of the room a sphere, suspended in mid-air, vibrating violently and shining brightly, and emitting a deathly purplish colour, smattered with gold and a ghostly white, that drew their stare inside its depths and then threw it on the walls and the space beyond, into the far doorway ahead and the next room opening up beyond it.
    The whole spectacle presented an unashamedly irresistible invitation. It unfolded before them intending to impress and to seduce. Subtlety was not a language it spoke. It was drawing them in with a trick and a tickle of the senses, the smell of glorious food and an earthy smell with a smattering of a glorious floral perfume announcing what was to come, and then snatching it away before they could get closer and properly drink in its delight.
    And where there was nothing before, the smells began to grow flesh and bones, and take the shape of trees and plants and flowers, an enchanting forest and an otherworldly sunken garden filled with birdsong.
    The scene was changing and the contents of the next room were approaching fast, still vague shapes and forms, but were running away the moment Aristo and Katerina thought they could make them out, as if they were playing hide and seek with them, challenging them to try and tease their secrets out of them.
    Aristo and Katerina wanted to see what came after that room, and then the room after that, but they steeled themselves. They had the feeling that it was a trick to hypnotise them, to make them drunk and vulnerable and that was dangerous. They closed their eyes and fought their curiosity.
    When they started to breathe normally again and opened their eyes, they saw that they had managed to snap out of the spell that had engulfed them in its guiles and a universal dreamworld without the harshness of reality. They had to get back to the task at hand. The old man was nowhere to be seen.
    Katerina pulled at Aristo’s sleeve indicating the sphere, which had stopped vibrating and had begun to turn slower, its surface covered with images, like a film.
    They saw Elli, Aristo’s mother, stirring a large pot with both hands, then stopping and dipping her hands into the mixture and taking them out almost instantly. She then held her hands with the palms upturned, and out of each hand appeared a different representation of the Earth and she exclaimed in slight pain as if she was going into labour. The two Earths were coming closer and closer. Aristo and Katerina saw flashing dots, all in the Eastern Mediterranean. Then the dots became bubbles that began to expand outside the spheres in three-dimensional guise. They could almost touch and smell Cappadocia, Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, Smyrna, Pergamon.
    A strange thought entered Aristo’s brain. The two spheres were parallel universes. The dots on each sphere were in seemingly identical locations. In his mind’s eye Aristo saw his mother owning or controlling those sites, and manipulating what was happening in them and moving things from one place to its soulmate in the parallel Earth, like moving pawns on a giant chess set. As exciting as that sounded, Aristo dismissed the thought as outrageous.
    ‘Aristo, those are all the places that relate to the last Emperor, the Likureian icons or places that we have been to as part of this quest. Pergamon where we are now is the last one. I wonder whether…’
    Aristo completed her thought. ‘… our next destination will appear.’
    But instead of a dot appearing, as they expected, on any of the spheres and showing them their next destination, a series of images appeared. Their high expectations of a clear message started to rapidly deflate till they shattered. It would not be as easy as they had hoped after all.
    They tried to make sense of the images. There were two boys playing who then began to grow into young men and continued to grow older. Whilst they were holding hands till then and standing on what looked like somewhere in the Southern Peloponnese in Greece, they suddenly let go of each other and started to walk away. One briefly wore a crown whilst in the Peloponnese, before taking it off and leaving it behind. He then entered what looked like Constantinople and put on a new crown.
    The other stayed in the Peloponnese and walked a short distance, coming to a stop in the Evrotas valley with the mighty mountain of Taygetos rising above it like a lonely sentinel. He picked up the crown left behind by the other man and set in on his head. There the image suddenly vanished.
    ‘Aristo, that’s where Sparta is isn’t it?’
    ‘Yes, it is. Let’s think about this. We saw two children holding hands and playing together. Let’s assume that they were brothers. Do they remind you of anything?’ Aristo paused and they both racked their brains, looking around for inspiration. It was Katerina that solved the riddle.
    ‘Aristo, I know. I know what it’s trying to tell us. It’s plausible. It fits. The two brothers are the last Emperor, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos, and his brother. The location there in the Peloponnese is not Sparta. It’s Mystras, just outside Sparta. When Constantinople was ransacked in 1204 A.D. by the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, who were “graciously” invited to intervene in a Byzantine dispute over the succession to the throne, and were not paid for their trouble, the Byzantine Empire was divided into independent Latin fiefdoms. But amidst that swathe of Latin fiefdoms, three islands of Byzantine tradition remained. Those were the Empire of Trapezounta on the Black Sea, in North-Eastern Asia Minor, the Despotato of Epirus in Northern Greece and the Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor, from where Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos launched his campaign that eventually resulted in the retaking of Constantinople in 1261 A.D. The Despotato of Morias or Mystras, with Mystras as its capital, was created in 1261 A.D. when territory was captured from William II Villehardouin, Prince of Achaea, in the Peloponnese. It later became a province of the reconstructed Byzantine Empire and, from 1380 A.D. onwards, it became a tradition for the sons of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos to become Despots, with both the last Byzantine Emperor and his brother, Demetrios, having held that position. The Despotato remained a Byzantine stronghold even after the fall of Constantinople, but it eventually succumbed to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1460 A.D.
    ‘The important thing is that the last Emperor was born in Mystras and was ruler or Despot of Mystras before becoming Emperor and that he was succeeded by his brother. Mystras is the place that is common to them both. I think that’s our next destination. Mystras, the city of churches, now ruined with only some of its surviving, almost intact churches in use, but with many visitors treading its paths and feasting on its ruins and the view of the surrounding landscape.’
    ‘I believe that you are right. Your theory is sound. We have to give it a shot. Let’s not be tempted to explore the sequence of rooms and their intriguing spectacles opening up before us that appears endless. It must be a trick to distract us from our mission. Let’s go.’
    Katerina felt there was something significant she had to remember, that they had to do before they left, and then it came to her. ‘Aristo, let’s check the tablet outside the Library on our way back. It may be important.’

    Aristo and Katerina returned to the Library, but the tablet was no longer there. However, high up above the entrance there were glowing letters that Aristo could not understand, but had a strange feeling that Katerina could. And right on cue she delivered.
    ‘Aristo, I can read it. It’s written in my make-up language. It says: “For you who enters with purity of soul and having seen the sphere, the crystal temple of knowledge that is partly here and partly elsewhere, is yours”.’

CHAPTER 30

    Mystras, outskirts of Sparta
    Peloponnese, Greece
    Present Day
    Mystras. Spreading its tentacles across the face of a hill outside the modern town of Sparta (itself a small provincial town these days, its past glories long gone) were the ruins of the long-ago thriving city-state. A popular tourist destination for those who ventured into the romantic idea that was Sparta and Mystras.
    Yet one felt something stir in them when walking through the ruined arches and the few surviving, and in some cases still used, churches and former monasteries.
    Mystras held its mysteries and secrets well. Aristo and Katerina had no way of knowing that they were riding into the mouth of a horror that would be soon unleashed.
    They used Elli’s private jet this time. From Pergamon they drove to the nearest airfield where the jet was waiting for them. They landed at a small airfield near Sparta and drove to Mystras.
    The place was deserted as they entered through the main gate of the lower city, coming to rest in the square with the ruin of the Despot’s palace throwing an ominous shadow over them, giving them a brief glimpse into what was at one time a glorious, vibrant, powerful and very wealthy stronghold with a Byzantine heart.
    It was in Mystras that the last Emperor was crowned Emperor of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. It was the first time that an Emperor was crowned outside Constantinople, outside the church of Ayia Sophia in Constantinople, a shocking break with the tradition of centuries. There was no proper ceremony. No Patriarch was there to perform the deed and invest the last Emperor with the crown and the power and the heritage of centuries of Imperial glory and Empire.
    The last Emperor, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos never did have a choice. It was a thankless task, a worthless position, but somebody had to do it, somebody had to steer City and Empire, the tiny territories that still proudly carried the name of an Empire in its dying hours, somebody to lower the curtain on a glorious history and switch off the lights.
    But of course the spirit of that long and proud tradition could never be crushed. Its people would spread it to the West and the rest of the world, an infusion of knowledge and enlightenment to inspire and form the basis for the Renaissance that followed soon after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D.
    There was no competing claim to the Emperor’s right to the mighty throne. Nobody else craved the empty trappings of glory and power and prestige and wealth of a non-existent empire, a fool’s gold, a luckless game with the odds stacked against the holder of that office.
    Aristo stood with Katerina in the square, unsure what to do. The place was deserted. There were no people wandering the meagre ruins, the meandering streets, gaping doorways, hollowed out windows and jugged walls.
    ‘Katerina, don’t you find it strange that today during the busiest tourist season there is nobody else here?’
    And it was then that the Despot’s palace that had lain dormant and forbidding for so long, began to transform and come to life along with the rest of the square and the streets around it, and the transformation was gaining traction and spreading throughout the city.
    Ruins were re-arranging themselves. One could no longer accuse the city of being a ruin. People started to populate the landscape that had become a hive of buzzing activity. The noises of a busy city sifted through the air.
    It seemed that nobody could see Aristo and Katerina. The scene changed and continued changing. The throng of people multiplied and declined at an alarming rate and the scene was now changing at lightning speed.
    Two hundred years of illustrious history flashed before their eyes and then the scene settled. Aristo and Katerina searched for respite from the spectacle. They saw an inn that took their fancy and they quickened their pace, making a dash for its welcoming cosiness.
    Their destination was within reach when Aristo felt a pull at his sleeve. He stopped and Katerina, who had walked ahead, stopped in her tracks and turned back. Aristo found himself looking down at a tiny old man dressed in rags and beckoning him over to a shop of curiosities.
    They followed and upon entering the shop were surrounded by shelves upon shelves of potions and beautiful-smelling mouth-watering food delicacies. The old man had a face marked with a multitude of scars that drew frightening patterns across his face, scars that gave the impression of movement, or was it an illusion?
    ‘I have been expecting you. I have something for you. A gift and a message.’
    The old man handed Aristo what appeared like a package wrapped in a delicate luxuriant cloth. Aristo unwrapped it, but there was nothing inside. He looked suspiciously and with faint anger at the old man.
    ‘Who gave this to you?’
    The old man was silent and without a word rushed to the back of the shop. After a momentary hesitation Aristo and Katerina ran after him, but as they pulled away the thin curtain standing in their way and separating the public face of the shop from its private quarters, they saw nothing but an empty courtyard with a bunch of ruins and nothing else, totally deserted.
    The surreal quality of the moment and the disappearance of the old man allowed a sneaking suspicion to enter their minds. They were tempted to explore further, but defeated the curiosity bug and declined the invitation. They retraced their steps to the front of the shop and the door to the street they used earlier.
    As they exited the shop, they walked into hushed silence and the silent ruins of Mystras. No soul was in sight. Aristo turned to Katerina.
    ‘Where have all the people gone?’
    ‘Aristo, it’s as if we have come out of a dream.’
    They looked back at the entrance to the shop for an explanation, half-suspecting the shop not to be there. Their suspicion was confirmed. There was nothing there but a gaping hole where the door and the window display used to be.
    They appeared to be back to the ruined Mystras of their timeline as it was at the time that they arrived. The old man had said that they were to receive a gift and a message, but neither of the two had yet materialised. Little did they know that a splendid show was about to commence.
    It suddenly went dark. From amongst the ruins, figures appeared, slowly approaching them. They counted one, two, three… seven… eleven and it went on and on until countless numbers of them started to fill the square. At the same time lightning and thunder split the sky and a light rain began to fall. It felt as if the sky was being bled dry.
    In those brief moments of lightning, Aristo and Katerina got a haunting glimpse into the identity of the figures surrounding them. They were wearing the Vlachernaic emblems of dark purple with the double-headed eagle looking as if it was alive and ready to take a sweep at its prey and blight it out of existence. The figures started to speak with one voice.
    ‘We are the Vlachernae. We are Constantinople. We are the Empire. We are the last Emperor. Open your arms and receive what is yours. Find the heir and bring us life.’
    Katerina turned to Aristo confused and worried, wondering what to make of the spectacle before them. ‘Aristo. They are dead aren’t they?’
    ‘I think so.’
    One after another the figures came and stood in front of them and placed small bags at their feet. They then bowed and walked away, disappearing into the ether.
    Suddenly there was a ray of light that lit up the far Eastern corner of the square revealing the entrance to a previously unseen doorway. Aristo and Katerina collected the bags and put them in Aristo’s rucksack and started to make their way to the glowing doorway.
    They had only gone a few metres when another set of figures, dressed in black cloaks with a strange red symbol on their chest, descended on the square and seemed to be fighting an invisible army, the ruthless vein of hatred and vengeance clear in their violent actions. Aristo and Katerina were ignored, as if they were not there.
    Some of the figures detached themselves from the battle and started to make their way towards Aristo and Katerina.
    ‘Let’s make a run for the doorway. Come on. Hurry.’ Aristo grabbed Katerina’s hand and they ran. They reached the doorway as the black-clad figures fell one by one and the purple-and-gold-clad figures they first saw, appeared, and, after a short hand-to-hand combat, defeated the figures pursuing Aristo and Katerina. The purple-and-gold-clad figures then turned to Aristo and Katerina.
    ‘We are the Pallanians, guardians of the temple of knowledge. Those were Ruinands, our mortal enemies. You are now safe.’
    Aristo and Katerina both mouthed a ‘thank you’ and then turned towards the interior of what appeared to be a tunnel leading away from the doorway. They followed the tunnel to a chamber. Their eyes were drawn to the middle of the chamber where like a lone warrior, like the forlorn leftover of a battle, dominating the space and crashing its surrounding setting, was a statue, a defiant look in its strangely life-like eyes.
    The statue appeared to switch between a standing and a reclining pose. When they went closer, the statue settled into the reclining position. It seemed to be breathing, like a man asleep. The veins pulsated. The chest rose and fell.
    ‘Katerina, I have seen this face before. From images we have of the last Emperor, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos, this face does not appear to be his, but there, nevertheless, seems to have a strong resemblance to him. We are in Mystras, so judging by the man’s clothes and the diadem on his head, I would say that this is Demetrios Palaiologos, the brother of the last Emperor and Despot of Mystras or Morias, as it was also called.’
    Without realising that she was speaking in a low voice, as if she wanted to be careful not to disturb the sleeping man, Katerina turned to Aristo. ‘Shall we try and wake him?’
    They whispered in the man’s ear and gently shook him. They then repeated the action more forcefully, but the man remained sleeping. Suddenly, as if out of thin air, a ghost appeared before them. Katerina noticed a resemblance between the ghost and Aristo.
    ‘He looks like a carbon copy of yourself. I wouldn’t be able to tell you apart had it not been for the different clothes.’ Then the ghost spoke.
    ‘Aristo, I am Michael Symitzis, your ancestor. I am here to wake our sleeping beauty there.’ The ghost of Michael Symitzis laughed loudly before the laugh ceased abruptly and he continued. ‘I’ve heard this tune in the palace of Vlachernae in Constantinople and at the Despot’s palace here in Mystras.’ He revealed a cube that began to vibrate and emit birdsong of the most hypnotic beauty that filled the space and echoed against the threadbare walls.
    ‘Who dares wake me?’ The sleeping man, formerly a statue, had a voice and turned to look at them. Recognition mapped the man’s face. The ghost of Michael had disappeared.
    Katerina and Aristo remained silent and waited, still trying to take in what was being enacted before their disbelieving eyes which thought that they were being deceived and were struggling to absorb the strangeness of the scene, what resembled a play with not exactly the most comprehensible plot.
    The now woken man continued. ‘Ah, it’s Aristo and Katerina, isn’t it?
    Katerina was quicker to recover and reply. ‘And you are Demetrios Palaiologos, brother of the last Emperor, Konstantinos XI.’
    ‘I am indeed. I just want to remind you about the inscription that Giorgos found in Cappadocia. That is the purpose of your quest. The unit that has been dismembered needs to be reunited and made whole again before the final rest will come. Inside the bags you will find the keys to places you will need to unlock to take you to your final destination. I mourn for my brother and his family and I don’t want to see them restless any more. Please, help us.’ And with that final word he went back to sleep and then, before their eyes, turned into a lifeless statue once more.
    Then a different ghost appeared.
    ‘I am Zozo. My father was Antonios Symitzis. Before you go I must tell you a story. It happened in 1921 A.D. in Smyrna. It was the day that Kostas Vendis…’
    Here the ghost of Zozo paused as she saw Katerina’s eyes expand in surprise at the mention of that name. She inexplicably nailed Katerina to the spot with a piercing gaze that made Katerina feel uncomfortable, as if she was being intensely probed inside the innermost reaches of her brain. Katerina recovered and fixed the ghost of Zozo with a piercing stare of her own.
    Zozo relented from her challenge, turned away, and assuming a gentle expression, resumed her story. ‘… yes, Katerina, that was your ancestor. He visited my father to show him an object that had recently come to his possession. It was an icon, more specifically one of the pair of Likureian icons, thought lost for centuries, since well before Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.
    ‘I was present during the meeting and I asked to hold the icon and study it. At some point, after the discussion had concluded, Kostas Vendis asked to see my father’s famous garden and they went outside. But I stayed behind. I was lost in my own thoughts admiring the extraordinary artistry of the icon when I heard a noise behind me.
    ‘When I turned, Stephanos, brother of Nikitas and Manuel Symitzis, son of the redoubtable Zoe Symitzis, was standing at the study’s garden door, which only seconds earlier my father and Kostas Vendis used to get outside. I welcomed him and asked him to sit with me. But I knew something was wrong when he didn’t extend his usual warmth nor did he give me a hug. He just kept standing there staring at me.
    ‘I didn’t try to go close to him and the awkwardness of the moment transformed to unease when in the next few seconds we had a staring-down match. Then he made his move. He walked briskly into the room. I was expecting that he would come to me and make up for his earlier reticence. However, he moved to the door of the study leading to the rest of the house, turned the key to lock the door and just stood there.
    ‘Realising the danger I was in, I sought a chance to escape and began to walk towards the door leading into the garden. When I reached it and was starting to feel the, as it turned out, premature relief of being outside, my path was blocked by two huge muscle-bound giants.
    ‘They gave me no time to react. Besides, I didn’t stand a chance to keep them at bay let alone go past them. Even if I were an insect, squeezing past them would only have a high probability, in no way would it have been a certainty. They held me, tied me up and gagged me and one of them picked me up as if I was a rug and weighed no more than a feather.
    ‘Before they left with me over their shoulders they turned to look inside the room. Stephanos was absolutely still when he spoke to them. He didn’t even dare to look me in the eye, which I would expect at least out of courtesy for old times’ sake. Perhaps there was a part of him, a human part that was embarrassed that he had to treat me in such a barbaric and humiliating way. “Give my regards to your master.” Stephanos said. “Tell him I will be joining him later today. I have to do something first.”
    ‘With that the two gigantic men left, but Stephanos stayed behind. He took the icon that I had dropped on the sofa. I know that, because I saw it in his hands later that day. This is what happened next.
    ‘An hour later, Stephanos was boarding a ship and welcomed by the attendant to the powerful Malenca Pasha. Attendant was a soft and unsuitable term. Bodyguard was more appropriate, for he was a sequoia of a man, wholly-built of and bursting at the seams with muscle piled upon layer of muscle, all dressed in black and with a menacing posture, leaving Stephanos in no doubt that he was in for a rough ride, if he put even the slightest foot wrong.
    ‘Stephanos knew he would no doubt have to use all his guile and play his cards right to get what he had come for. If the muscle robot before him was hoping to intimidate him, it was not working, Stephanos said to himself. Stephanos, despite his smaller size compared to his welcoming committee of one that looked as if he had devoured a few of his mates, was immune to fear and intimidation.
    ‘His host was relaxing on deck on a plush divan, a throwback to the Ottoman days of old and out of place in the Smyrna and the Ottoman Empire of 1921 A.D. With an almost imperceptible wave of his right hand, bowls with morsels of food and fruit and jugs of wine magically appeared before him. He motioned for Stephanos to sit down on some cushions next to him, but at a lower level than the divan, unashamedly indicating that Stephanos was beneath him.
    ‘Stephanos obeyed. Being summoned by such an important man as the Malenca Pasha, daring to cross him would be foolhardy at best. Even the slightest hesitation would be a challenge to the Pasha’s authority, a grave personal affront and possibly fatal.
    ‘His host looked at him with contempt while his eyes and the corners of his mouth belied his amusement. “Here comes the messenger. What do you have for me? I hope you have not come empty-handed.”
    ‘Stephanos’ nose twitched in a discreet sign of disgust at the arrogance and greed of the man, and resisted from looking away from the gluttonous specimen lying in front of him. Lying, surely, because he could not move by his own volition, on his own fuel, as he could not be bothered to waste the energy to do so.
    ‘Stephanos wondered whether his host ever stepped on firm ground; most likely the Pasha was always being transported on a glorified stretcher with reinforced suspension and undercarriage. Stephanos knew of the avaricious nature and appetite of the man for food, flesh and disposal of rivals or those he did not like and of anyone who dared cross him or merely cause him displeasure after having crossed his path. Stephanos cautioned himself to be careful.
    ‘The Pasha was studying Stephanos with intense curiosity. Was he trying to guess Stephanos’ thoughts? “I can smell your fear. Why are you still standing? Nobody is allowed to tower above me. Now, come and sit down. I promise I will not harm you, at least not on my home ground and not until you have ceased to have your uses.” The Pasha certainly did not mince his words. Stephanos knew the rare and priceless value of the Pasha’s promises. “Zoe does me an honour. Sending her most faithful and favourite lieutenant, or is it perhaps her second favourite lieutenant? Hmm?”
    ‘Stephanos cursed under his breath. The Pasha certainly knew to hit where it hurt the most. Stephanos had always been sensitive where it came to his brothers. And he was prone to constantly playing the game of rivalry with them for his mother’s affections, admiration and respect. But now was not the place to admit his weakness, his jealousy.
    ‘He would not allow himself to get riled or rise to the Pasha’s petty challenge. He would deny the distasteful specimen of a man, if he could be defined as such, lounging before him, the pleasure of being proven successful in his deliberate attempt to force an extreme reaction that would demean Stephanos in the eyes of those present by exposing his biggest weakness. Stephanos kept quiet.
    ‘“Now, I have been told that my other honoured guest has decided to join us and grace our humble gathering and honour us humble servants with her high and mighty presence. Tasty morsel, isn’t she?” At that moment, I, Zozo Symitzis, proud daughter of Antonios Symitzis, was being brought in on a chair carried by the two giants that abducted me, my hands and feet tied. The Pasha paused and looked at me, smacking his lips at a delicious thought, a lascivious expression distorting his face that looked as if it couldn’t hold its shape together and was sagging fast, surrendering to the will and charms of gravity to the point of melting, if it did not burst first. “We cannot deny her the pleasure of our company, now can we? Now, Stephanos, do you have my other gift?” The Pasha paused and clapped his palms together with glee. “Oh, I am so lucky, twice blessed in one day. Allah must love me so.” But delivery of the Pasha’s second gift, me, Zozo, being the first, would have to wait a bit longer as shuffling, sighing and whistling (surprisingly as such expression of approval was punishable with death which luckily for them the Pasha chose to ignore) interrupted proceedings with the promise of some kind of entertainment organised by the Pasha. The revelation was more exquisite than even the highest expectations of those present.
    ‘Ten pairs of eyes followed me, fully and beguilingly transformed into a jewel, as I was paraded in front of the crew and then put down on the deck next to the Pasha and, as far as I was concerned, too close for comfort. I made no attempt of resistance to the Pasha’s suggestive and blunt caresses which also indicated to those present that I was his and his alone, and none other had any right to look at me in a hungry way let alone touch me. And of course the prohibition to look at me was literal as my face was half-covered. I knew the Pasha was at that moment my master of mercy that held my fate in his hands, the power of life or death over me. Stephanos kept his counsel and said nothing. But the Pasha was evidently becoming excited and the first signs of drooling were visible.
    ‘The Pasha continued to caress my arm ever more intensely and invitingly, which made it all the more impressive that my self-control kept me from flinching away from the Pasha’s reptilian caress and affection. The Pasha’s actions, his open declaration of his intentions, made Stephanos tremble in disgust at the thought that the Pasha was planning to take me there and then before a cheering crowd, oblivious to the disgust and jealousy such an act might provoke. Stephanos had no doubt his horrible suspicion was not far off from what was going on in the Pasha’s mind at that moment. The Pasha broke the strange moment and partly allayed Stephanos worst fears, or, at least, postponed them.
    ‘“Welcome my dear. I trust you are enjoying the refreshing sea foam. And the salty sea air will do wonders for your complexion and that lovely glossy hair. Don’t let any worries enter your pretty little head. And don’t get any funny ideas of escape, now will you?”
    ‘Stephanos had been witnessing this one-way exchange with acute interest. And now he felt his turn had come to speak. He opened his bag and took out a package wrapped in an unadorned white linen cloth. He bowed and extended his hand to the Pasha.
    ‘“Your highness, your gift as promised.”
    ‘The Pasha snatched it impatiently from Stephanos’ hand and rushed to unwrap it excited like a child whose wish had come true. After a few seconds admiring the icon, he looked at Stephanos. “You’ve done well, my dear Stephanos. You have been a great source of joy today. Now, it is time for you to collect your reward.” A subtle click of the fingers and a small bag carried by the Pasha’s attendant was dropped at Stephanos’ feet. Stephanos wanted to open it and look inside, but knew that such a gesture would be a sign of mistrust and an offence to the Pasha, so Stephanos refrained from any movement. He bowed once more and, politely, thanked his host. He made no attempt to stand up and leave, as his host had not yet dismissed him.
    ‘“Will you not open it to check the contents? Let me tell you that it’s over and above what we agreed.”
    ‘“I have no doubt your generosity will be beyond measure.” Stephanos smiled politely and conspiratorially and bowed with the reverence demanded of such an exulted personage as the Malenca Pasha, the holder of several records achieved through his physical appearance and his compulsive consumption of excess.
    ‘The Pasha allowed his vanity and his ego to be massaged. That was his weakness. He was accustomed to worship after all. He relished any attention lavished on him for whatever reason. “It is indeed. And you are not wrong there. It’s quite a bit more than what we agreed, more than your usual fee. But it was worth it.”
    ‘“I am glad to be of service to a great man such as yourself. I remain your humble servant. Just your honouring me with the pleasure of serving you is the greatest gift I could ever expect to receive.”
    ‘“I can see through your flattery and your use of the right words, but it pleases me, nonetheless. Now, enough business. I feel an expanding hole in my stomach, right here.” The Pasha indicated a tiny spot on his gargantuan barrel of a belly. Stephanos had an image of him at an attempt at belly dancing, and smiled inwardly, keeping a straight face, with not the slightest twist, tick or twitch, for the benefit of his host.
    ‘The Pasha could not be held from his meal any longer. “Let’s eat.” He said and swooped down on the food with no delay, even before Stephanos had a chance to see what was there. And before he knew it, more than half of the dishes had vanished into that cavernous cave of a mouth, through an ample and well-practised throat and pharynx, all the way down to his grateful gut, that other cavernous cave above his private parts which would, surely, by now have been absorbed into the folds of his bountiful flesh that hung like an extra attire. Oh, Stephanos just could not imagine it any more. Too descriptive, too gross.
    ‘With the bowls polished by the Pasha, and Stephanos having managed only a few mouthfuls, and as they were relaxing with the Pasha falling asleep and snoring, four men appeared dressed in black with the red Ruinand symbol on their chest.
    ‘Stephanos was stunned, but was too weak to react. He was bemused at his sudden physical weakness. His body failed him, refusing to obey any of his commands. Perhaps something had been put into his food or drink. But how was that likely? The Pasha ate the same food and drank the same drink. Unless the vessels he had used had been coated with some sort of substance. His speculation went no further. His brain was now failing him too. He had run out of time.
    ‘The four Ruinands took him away to their underwater city near Marathon Bay in Greece. They replaced him with a carbon copy of himself ready and trained to play his part in their infiltration of the Order of Vlachernae and the great almighty Symitzis family and their powerful Valchern Corporation.
    ‘And that is how I was forced to become one of the Pasha’s wives. I bore him four children, and was treated like a queen and had a relatively happy life. But the shame never left my heart, nor did the yearning for my family, my home, my second mother, Mrs Manto, who raised me after my mother died too young, soon after having given birth to my youngest brother. I thought about getting away many times and formulated many escape plans, but always changed my mind just before taking the final plunge.
    ‘I was afraid I would bring danger and tragedy to my family. And of course there were my children. I couldn’t take them with me nor could I leave them behind. If I could have found allies who might have helped me I would, but it was a huge risk to even attempt to test the waters and find out who was on my side. The Pasha used my abduction to blackmail my father and use him for his own ends, to commit atrocities against his family, his company, his people.
    ‘Now I’m ashamed for my cowardice, but cannot go back and change the past. If only I could have one day, just one day, with my family… All I had to hang onto were dreams or nightmares; one specifically kept repeating itself. I would be standing in a deserted Smyrna when out of nowhere throngs of people, adults and children waving Greek flags, would appear to block my vision from different directions.
    ‘They would be parading and celebrating independence day and Smyrna would be standing intact as it was back then, when I was there, nineteen years old, but a mere child in all other respects and protected, very protected and naive. I would try to join in the celebrations, but all those present would ignore me as if they could not see me. They would come at me as if to crush me instead, like an insignificant ant, but of course they would pass right through me and continue on their way as if nothing had happened.
    ‘The tragedy of being invisible in my home city and on such a special day as that, compounded with the faint memory of my situation at the time as a captive of the Pasha escaping my subconsciousness and invading my nightmare, would make me feel that I had outlived my usefulness.
    ‘Suddenly the crowds would disappear and people would go back to their normal business and their everyday lives. A tall clock near the harbour in front of me would show the current date as 1981 A.D. But that could only be my wishful thinking, my hope that history had turned out differently or that someone had gone back in time to change it.’
    Then Zozo changed tack, came out of her ruminating, fixed them with a hard stare and suddenly her face brightened like an innocent child’s that hoped for a treat or had an inspiration for further mischief.
    ‘And I ask you, is there someone of you who can do that? Who could do that for me?’
    As she said this she knew it was just a dream and it could not happen. The next moment she seemed to have forgotten all about it and her face would go hard and unblinking as if nothing was said, as if nothing happened, and she would just smile at them.
    She would switch from imploring to a blank expression and a warm welcome and an offering of refreshment and refuge from the burning sun in the shade of her lovely humble home and mansion and monument to her Pasha whom she grew to care for and love with all her heart; or so she now said.
    ‘Aristo, how can my grandmother have had both icons, if one was stolen back then? Unless…’
    ‘Unless a copy was left in its place. We need to talk to Ariana and see whether she can tell us more about the events of that day.’
    Zozo had a last word for them. ‘As you have correctly deduced, the icon is a fake. There’s going to be an auction soon of Byzantine icons. One of them is or hides the real Likureian icon.’ With that she disappeared.
    Aristo and Katerina exited the chamber and followed the tunnel back to the entrance to the square. They stood there, hungrily taking in mouthfuls of fresh air, a relief from the stale air inside.
    They were confronted with a harrowing scene. It was the exceptionally bloody aftermath of a battle, a scene of absolute carnage. They found the Pallanians sitting on the ground apparently asleep. When the Pallannians sensed them, it was their wake-up call and they came out of their slumber, looked at Aristo and Katerina, smiled and disappeared.
    Aristo and Katerina calmly walked to their car, which they had parked outside the entrance to the lower city. They drove off to the direction of the airfield where Elli’s jet was waiting on the tarmac, refuelled and ready to take off.
    There was no doubt about their destination; Limassol in Cyprus and an urgent chat with Elli and Ariana about the icon and the inscription on the tablet found in Cappadocia, catching up with Giorgos on progress with his research and finding out about that auction.

    When they got back to Limassol, Katerina’s grandmother, Ariana, told them that when Antonios Symitzis and Kostas Vendis returned to the study they found the icon on the sofa where Zozo had been sitting before they went out. But of Zozo there was no sign. They thought none of it at the time, but became concerned a couple of hours later when they were about to sit down to dinner.
    Zozo was never late, nor did she ever miss a meal. In fact she would be down early helping Mrs Manto with the setting of the table and with the preparation of the meal, Mrs Manto pretending annoyance at Zozo’s interference and Zozo loving every minute of it, ignoring Mrs Manto’s protestations, and smiling to herself amused at Mrs Manto’s play-acting. They were in reality as thick as thieves. And it had been like that since Zozo was a child running around the house like a whirlwind causing delightful mayhem. The kitchen was a second home to her.
    A search of the house yielded no clue. Nor did discreet enquiries in the city later reveal anything about Zozo’s whereabouts. It was a mystery that haunted them all from that moment onwards and almost cost Mrs Manto her life when she had a sudden heart attack two days later while cooking. She simply collapsed and was found a few minutes later by Antonios. She was lucky not to have sustained head injuries or any other serious injury.
    She recovered quickly, but only physically. She was never the same again. It was just a case of going through the motions. Her heart was broken for her little one and never recovered. Ariana was shocked when told that the treasured for so long icon was most probably stolen on that day and replaced by a perfect copy.

CHAPTER 31

    Constantinople (Istanbul)
    Topkapi Palace Museum
    Present day
    Istanbul was the location and the Topkapi the stage. The gala event had been billed as the biggest charity auction of the century. It was expected to draw the attention of the world’s greatest art collectors. Also in attendance would be the cream of the world’s most powerful people, from ambassadors and the diplomatic corps to royalty and other illustrious figures of the international political scene. And there were others with vested interests.
    The world’s media was in full attendance, on site days before the auction. The eyes of the world were on Istanbul and the Topkapi.
    Elli had sent to the city and the former palace of the Ottoman Sultans members of the Order of Vlachernae ahead of the scheduled viewings. She wanted to monitor the build-up to the auction. If it had not been a charity auction she wouldn’t be present. She was one of the world’s greatest collectors, after all. The mere mention of her name drove up prices. Her presence at an auction drew too much attention and drove prices up even more.
    But her presence at this particular auction was intended to ruffle a few feathers, even if it would have the effect to put the Ruinands on their guard. Her spies had told her that they recognised Ruinands, including a certain Ducesa, under a not very successful disguise, milling about during the series of viewings. That to Elli was a strong sign that there was more than some truth in the tip, courtesy of Mystras.
    The stolen Likureian icon should be one of the objects up for auction. But which one was it? The viewings came and went and the day of the auction arrived and Elli was surprised that there was no attempted theft of any part of the collection. Surely, the Ruinands would have planned to steal the item before the auction. It would have been easier, would it not?
    The main hall was brimming to the beams with people. Their conversations rose as a jumbled murmur to the ceiling, deafening and scaring the silent tiny unseen inhabitants of this revered space that had witnessed, God knows, what secrets.
    Enter stage left, a glamorous woman, cocky, posing and gliding like a peacock, shaking her lovely feathers begging for attention, and all eyes in the hall turned to her. The crowd involuntarily slipped slowly away like a unified beast, moving as one, like the parting of the waves of the Red Sea, opening a corridor to ease her progress.
    Walking a few paces ahead was one of her aides, opening a route for her mistress. Her mistress added a touch of higher class to the proceedings and itched to be heard, as well as to be seen, to be admired for her mellifluous voice as well as for her presence. The impression was one of wonder and jaw-dropping involuntary reverence.
    She dispensed grace and elegance and “hellos” and “how do you dos” and “darlings” and air kisses and cheek brushes in a soft delicate warm voice. The aide took her task very seriously and was bent on achieving it.
    ‘Excuse me, excuse me, coming through.’
    A shrilly voice, definitely not that of an angel, travelled from the right and there suddenly appeared, resplendent in all her magnificence, a stick-thin woman who could have graced the cover of any magazine, and could fit in it with inches to spare and demanding considerable magnification to become visible to the naked eye.
    Eager to share her curiosity and a few tit bits of gossip, she drew to the side of a like-minded creature and uncanny look-alike, which was not surprising as they both belonged to a charmed and exclusive circle of high fashion and high off-the-scale maintenance. She began to chat to her companion in hushed conspiratorial tones. The stick thin woman instantly became the subject of several conversations in the room.
    ‘Who on earth was that? I don’t think I’ve seen her before, although there is something familiar about her. Can you shed any light?’
    ‘Oh, that’s La Ducesa de Mori Astir. You know, the widow of the former French ambassador to the Court of St James and the fourth richest man in France. She’s of course loaded. By passing away he did her the biggest favour, you know, because she really deeply despised him. He popped it only four years after they got married and there were no kids from any of his former three marriages, so she got the lot. And of course she collected from her own previous five marriages very respectable sums, hoarding it all, too much for her to make a dent even with all her spending. And her habit I hear is notorious and deeply ingrained, impossible to shake off, but of course it is unnecessary to do so. Who would want to give up such an exquisite habit or addiction? “Money troubles” is definitely not part of her vocabulary.’
    ‘What’s she doing these days? Surely she doesn’t need to work. Shopping her way through all her millions out of boredom no doubt, but not making much headway as you have so eloquently put it?’
    ‘Oh, she is solely in the pursuit of fun and she has, surprisingly, become an avid and very serious art collector and a very knowledgeable one at that. She gives lectures, you know.’
    ‘Collector, ha! Hoarder you mean. That woman has no taste, absolutely none, none whatsoever. She doesn’t know the first thing about it. She wouldn’t know the difference between Art Nouveau and Art Deco or Regency and Georgian, if it hit her on the head.’
    Aristo and Katerina were accompanying Elli in a show of charitable force. They were enjoying the event, but were on high alert for anything unusual which would be difficult to detect as the tension and excitement in the room was palpable and rising.
    Aristo’s brother, Vasilis, looking very tall and distinguished in his perfectly-and-expensively-tailored suit was quietly talking to a well-known art collector. Aristo could feel Vasilis was up to something, mischief was an irresistible drug for him, and he made an instant decision to watch him closely.
    In the meantime, Aristo and Katerina circulated and mingled with the crowd, and as expected at these events, greeted old friends and acquaintances, business rivals and allies and stroke conversations about inconsequential matters and, of course, art and particularly the auction itself.
    Aristo stole another glance at Vasilis and his companion. The art collector was gesturing wildly, appearing to be explaining something to Vasilis who was listening attentively, and, either found or pretended to find difficult to understand, which infuriated and tested the patience of the art collector whose gestures became increasingly intense, his flailing arms slicing through the air and sent flying to all directions, like a wind indicator gone insane.
    The collector’s pale face was becoming worryingly animated and turning a gradual beetroot red. He appeared close to imploding. He was clearly extremely distressed. Aristo was intrigued. If only he was a dandruff speck on that suit.
    Aristo swallowed hard, but a faint smile of amusement coloured his face. Vasilis was up to his usual games, entertaining himself and relishing the discomfort and confusion his antics caused in others. Childhood memories, long dormant, rushed in and Aristo remembered when they used to come to blows as kids because of Vasilis’ irresistible pull to play pranks and to tease.
    Vasilis’ teasing and pranks were built to last, causing the maximum effect and bringing people to the end of their tether, to the point of almost bursting with the impulse to strangle him. That was until Aristo got the hang of Vasilis’ mischievous nature. In all honesty, back then, Aristo was not much better himself, and he still had not rid himself of the vestiges of plain naughtiness, disguised as adult eccentricity.
    As Aristo was thinking about this, his eyes wandered and settled on the far side of the hall, on a mismatched couple deep in conversation. The man was short and squatty and a monocle graced one eye like a glorified reverse-engineered eye-patch. When the man turned, that one huge eye was disconcerting. How quaint, Aristo thought. 19 ^th century, you have an escapee. Come and claim your own.
    Next to the man, standing at a seemingly impossible over six-foot tall, was a woman dressed in a sari, decked in jewels, and, even from this distance, Aristo could tell they were all very real and very valuable indeed. She exuded a peculiarly intense aura, a mixture of arrogance and raw sexual energy. Despite the distance separating them, Aristo sensed unease and a feeling of dread.
    He was intrigued by that woman. He was rooted to the spot studying her. His feet started to move involuntarily, taking him towards her, entirely trapped by her guiles and dragged into her clutches. Everything was slowly darkening with only her the only light in the room. It was as if Aristo could not see anyone or anything but her.
    She unexpectedly turned and fixed Aristo with a painfully piercing interrogating stare, at the same time charming and full of hatred, a femme fatale. Her stare achieved what Aristo’s will could not and stopped him in his tracks. She continued her discussion without a hitch. But her mouth formed a kiss. Was she mocking Aristo or was she warning him? Aristo did not know what to make of it.
    Soon he would have his answer, as suddenly her face appeared in front of him, almost touching his. Unless Aristo was mistaken her action was a threat. He looked in the direction of where she stood and she was still there talking to her companion as if nothing was happening.
    Could she, in some way, be at two places at the same time? Aristo suddenly felt as if legions of fiery lassos were smacking him on the face and giving him, he didn’t know what degree burns, if that was possible.
    ‘I will crush you in battle. I hope you will be ready and at least put up a good fight, for my entertainment you understand. I like a good challenge.’
    ‘I’ll be ready.’ Aristo said, defiant as always, and made a gesture as if dismissing a fly. ‘It’s a date. I look forward to it.’
    Aristo tried to calm himself. He closed his eyes and breathed hard, taking long deep mouthfuls of air. The darkness and the dizziness began to subside and he was back in the hall again. He wondered how long he had been in that strange trance.
    He surreptitiously looked around, surveying the hall to see, with relief, no change, no panic, nobody staring at him. He realised that he had only been in that state for only a fraction of a second that seemed like an eternity.
    Katerina had witnessed it all, but decided not to interfere and break whatever spell Aristo was temporarily under. She felt the tense moment and feared unpredictable consequences if she had cut the brain duel short.
    ‘Aristo, who is she?’
    ‘She is the Madame Marcquesa de Parmalanski, leader of the Ruinands.’

    The Madame Marcquesa leaned closer to her companion to compensate for the height difference, her voice hushed, barely a whisper.
    ‘I have acquired a strange device, a cube from a member of the Order of Vlachernae. I want to know how it works. I could not power it up. I’ve tried everything I could think of, but it persistently remains a lifeless lump of crystal. I want to know how members of the Order travel in time and whether this cube is the key. And I want to know what kind of fuel it uses, because whatever it is, it’s nothing I or our specialists have seen before. Any ideas?’
    ‘Have you tried taking it to the wise men of the Tower?’
    ‘Those old hacks? Well, no, you know I don’t trust them enough to throw them. They spend their time poring over those ancient texts of theirs. They know nothing of the outside world or progress. They are dangerous recluses, charlatans, not worthy of reverence let alone any measure of respect. How they continue to hold sway over us is beyond me.’
    A fellow Ruinand woman, companion in the ‘league of fine dark warriors’, standing just a few inches behind the Madame Marcquesa and very acute of hearing, flinched at her insolence. How careless and arrogant she is, the Ruinand woman thought. She should be struck down incurring as she did the wrath of the gods.
    If only the sari-woman’s power was not so terrifying, she would have been chewed and unceremoniously spat out, the lurch. The Ruinand woman pondered this image and smiled to herself. The Madame Marcquesa’s companion continued his gentle interrogation to sate his curiosity.
    ‘Tell me, how do you know this icon is the real thing?’
    ‘Well, this icon has been handed down through my family for almost a hundred years.’
    ‘How did you get it?’
    ‘From a certain Malenca Pasha. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?’ The Madame Marcquesa raised her eyebrows in an elegant challenge.
    ‘The name is vaguely familiar.’
    ‘For an avid pupil of history and politics you surprise me.’ The Madame Marcquesa could not resist testing her companion’s short temper.
    Her companion read through her teasing ruse and did not rise to the challenge. ‘You were telling me about the icon’s authenticity.’
    ‘Yes, indeed. I was not absolutely sure. That’s why I had to have the other icon stolen from the Metropolitan. I had to know without any shadow of a doubt before I put my plan into action. And for that the real icon is the key. A dangling carrot, if you like, to trap my enemies. If they fall in my honey-trap then that would end this drawn-out war once and for all, in my favour.’
    ‘So which icon is the one up for auction?’
    ‘The real one of course.’
    ‘But why did you put the real icon up for auction? Aren’t you worried of losing it? Or are you going to pay for something that you had already? Either you are very smart or very stupid.’
    ‘Only you would be allowed to speak to me like that, father.’ Her irony almost formed icy particles in the air between them. ‘If anyone else dared they would have paid with their lives. That was a joke. What do you take me for? Naivety is not part of my vocabulary. But Elli Symitzis with all her power has no way of knowing that at first glance. There is a person who would know, but he has not been seen for years and nobody knows where he is.’ Her companion knew better than to ask and he kept his own counsel. Wise man. ‘I want to see who will bid for it, how far they will go. That will indicate who knows its true value. I do not plan to bid, no.
    ‘But whoever gets it will not have it for long, trust me. That icon will not leave this place in the winner’s hands. I have arranged a unique show for the benefit of all these honourable hypocrites of benefactors. Vultures, the lot of them. Taketh with one hand and giveth with the other. Ruthless in accumulating money and spending it. So generous in giving it away.’
    Her companion saw the irony in her quoted principles, but said nothing. Obviously she was forgetting that one who is not without sin should not cast the first stone.

***

    Everything was caught on camera of course as part of the extreme security measures and it would make interesting viewing for some people later on.
    However, as walls were supposed to have ears, so it was that journalists were circling like discreet vultures ready to pounce, hoping to get snippets of gossip for their scandalous columns that crave to be the first to break great stories, forever seeking the big breakthrough, the highly potent high density seed or subject of a juicy scandal, “I’ objet du scandale”, the explosion of such a news object having the consequences of the equivalent effect of a “Big Bang”, they hope, always hope.
    One of those paparazzi would inadvertently witness and overhear something that at the time would seem insignificant, but that would later come close to costing him his life and have seismic ramifications.
    Against his colleagues’ and his editor’s advice he wrote an article about these extraordinary things he overheard from the conversations in the hall. But nobody believed him. He was ridiculed by colleagues, rivals and the public alike. He ended his days in a mental asylum.

    ‘Dear guests, please take your seats. The auction is about to begin. Firstly, I want to thank all of you who have very generously donated objects for today’s auction.’
    The cornerstone and star of the auction was the Roswell Collection that led a bright spark at Malenks, the famous auction house, to use it to attract other valuable objects and organise one of the biggest events ever to take place in an auction room. Hushed silence fell on the hall.
    Katerina turned to Aristo. ‘Aristo, will your mother be bidding?
    ‘No. But we will soon see who will.’

    ‘Lot 114, the icon of the birth of Christ, with a depiction of Jesus entering the Church of Ayia Sophia, a rare depiction indeed, never before or since painted. The icon is rumoured to have been hanging on the walls of the Imperial Palace of Vlachernae in Constantinople and had been missing since the looting of the city by the fourth crusade in 1204 A.D. It is believed to have ended up in Venice in the Doge’s Palace next to his throne. There is considerable interest in this item. We are starting the bid at eighty thousand US dollars. Do I hear…?’
    The bid price rose to two hundred and fifty thousand… then three hundred thousand… three hundred and fifty thousand… before the gavel came down. An assistant whispered in the auctioneer’s ear.
    ‘Sold to La Ducesa de Mori Astir for six hundred thousand US dollars. Congratulations. I must confess that the price has exceeded our wildest expectations.’
    La Ducesa smiled an enigmatic triumphant smile. Her biggest competitor in this bidding war was a rival Italian art collector who had successfully outbid her numerous times in the past. She was glad to have achieved a one up on him and given him a taste of his own medicine.
    Her weakness of winning made her forget her mission, the reason she was there. It didn’t go through her mind at the time, but her ultimate mistress would be furious when she found out about this serious mishap, caused by having her instructions ignored.

    Suddenly the alarm went off. The security measures were triggered and the steel rails came down trapping everybody inside the hall. The lights went off and all was dark apart from a series of red lights circling the hall just below the ceiling. There were screams and panic. Guests running for the exits suddenly had their escape routes barred by the security rails that blocked any hope of salvation.
    When after a few harrowing minutes the lights came back on, everybody breathed a sigh of relief that became a wave that travelled around the room with lightning speed, taking a life of its own, its power and intensity magnified by the enclosed space and the abnormally high temperatures caused by fear and tension.
    The smell of fear and human sweat was a vicious assault on the nostrils. If predators had been around, they would have fallen on those present like a pack of wolves finding its Shangri-La after a long multi-year search.
    A scream echoed around the room and pierced what little vestige was left of the eardrum membrane of those attending. Everybody present turned as one, like frightened animals, a direct fixed stare with the power to cause the explosion of what was there. The reinforced glass encasing the icon was empty.
    In the underbelly of the museum, footsteps echoed along the dimly lit corridors, but all above ground were oblivious to them. And the footsteps were further distancing themselves from their pursuers — members of the Ruinands and of the Order of Vlachernae and the security guards of the museum and others with vested interests.
    Aristo was in pursuit even before the security bars lifted and the exits opened. As if half expecting it, he looked at the glass case at the exact moment that the would-be thief started to make his move on the icon. Aristo immediately knew what the would-be thief was planning.
    Aristo caught the purposeful movement and he saw the cold gaze fixed on the would-be thief’s target. Aristo began to make his way towards the icon in an attempt to intercept the would-be thief, but he was much further away than the would-be thief was and the crowded hall slowed Aristo’s progress. Aristo was becoming frustrated that he wouldn’t be able to stop the thief in time, but he would damn well try. Aristo’s determined progress was rudely interrupted.
    The alarm sounded and the lights went out. He momentarily lost sight of the thief. But Aristo’s eyes adjusted quickly to the gloom and with a stroke of luck he saw the thief disappear down a secret passage.
    The thief certainly knew his way around the palace. His intimate knowledge of the secret passages seemed to match Aristo’s. Aristo’s lead over the other pursuers was considerable. He had to get to the thief before the thief reached the colonnaded hall and disappeared into the ether. Aristo had to retrieve the icon before it was spirited out. They had to know whether it was the real one.
    The Topkapi was neutral territory for both the Order of Vlachernae and the Ruinands and any unusual powers had no effect here whatsoever. Manual combat would have to be the order of the day. Aristo went down a shortcut hoping to intercept the thief. But he reached a dead end, which strangely was not supposed to be there.
    The icon was smuggled out through secret passages under the palace known only to the Order of Vlachernae. Aristo was surprised that the thief was privy to those secret passages too. Now there was no doubt that there was a traitor inside the Order, and that Aristo had been beaten by that traitor.
    The traitor’s stamp was all over the theft. The thief had been thoroughly briefed. The whole act had been planned meticulously, its execution a masterclass in merciless precision.

    The Ducesa could feel shaking, as if it was an earth-quake. She panicked. It was not a good sign, especially after what happened only a few minutes ago. She was shocked. How could someone fool her like that, her, the master of her craft, the undeniable pinnacle of female power, beauty, charm, craftiness and deviousness?
    She then realised that there was no tremor. It was her phone that was set on vibrating alert. She rummaged through her bag and found it. She saw the caller’s identity. Elli. A violent shudder ran the entire length of her body and clogged her brain with no way out, almost giving her a stroke.
    ‘Hello.’
    She was frightfully posh and normally flaunted it. But not now, not to this person. Her arrogance deserted her. Her tone was one of submission to a power greater than hers.
    ‘I hear you have failed me.’
    ‘I’m sorry.’
    ‘Sorry’s not good enough. I only asked you to do one simple thing; bid to drive up the price to see who’s desperate enough for that item and you could not even do that. I said I wouldn’t mind if you ended up with the icon yourself. That’s the occupational hazard of taking part in a bid with specific instructions like that. You were going really well and then you suddenly stopped. Why? Did you get distracted somehow? And as if that was not enough, you suddenly sprang back to life with a killer bid.
    ‘Haven’t I taught you about the virtue of patience? An auction is like poker in some respects. You need to keep your cool and your nerve and an inscrutable face and keep others guessing about your true intentions and interest, whether genuine or not. You have to learn when appropriate to control this obsession of yours to win at all costs.’ Elli paused. ‘But never mind. It’s done now. Just get out of there.’
    ‘But my cover has not been blown.’
    ‘No, but it may not be safe.
    ‘You know who did it, don’t you?’
    ‘I have my suspicions.’
    ‘Was it someone on your orders? Covering both eventualities, aren’t you?’
    ‘No. I have to go. We will talk soon.’
    ‘You never cease to amaze me, Elli.’ But Elli had already hung up.

CHAPTER 32

    Present day
    The unfortunate journalist’s actions had unintended consequences. The extraordinary story he created from the titbits of information that he gathered at the auction inspired all sorts of conspiracy theories.
    Bodies purporting to be those of the last Emperor began to crop up everywhere. The media went into a frenzy. Archaeologists in digs everywhere, attempting to outdo each other, made outrageous claims to grasp the limelight, their fifteen minutes of fame.
    Bodies were found from Cappadocia and Athens to Trapezounta or Trabson in Northern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Macedonia (Northern Greece). And the number kept rising.
    Which was the real body of the last Emperor? Which was the genuine article? Was it all part of an elaborate hoax or a deliberate attempt to hide the truth? And if it was a hoax, who had it been perpetrated by? Was it by the Greeks, the Ottomans or someone else?
    The obscure journalist followed up the story with a series of articles, commissioned by his paper, that became a wildly successful, albeit short-lived and without-legs, franchise and certainly a temporary and rare godsend for the selling of newspapers as the story was picked up by more and more papers, and then reached the nationals.
    Other journalists claimed of observations or accidental overhearing of conversations at the Topkapi auction. This clouded even further the already murky and severely stirred waters of not only the archaeological world, but also the wider world beyond it, as all this hype travelled around the globe at lightning speed. Only someone living in a cave, cut out from the big mean world outside, would not have been aware of these stories.
    The reports went that there were sinister forces at hand and strange events afoot ready to strike at the stroke of every hour of every day from hereon. Some weird names and stories were dropped in the big pan on the fire and mixed, and craftily and ruthlessly spiked and generously seasoned; “Vlachernae”, “Ruinand”, a cube, body parts, icons, talking statues, powerful artefacts, an irresistible combination. That’s why for a while the story played to the gallery of emotions hovering above with bated breath, to people’s escapism, curiosity and love for the belief in the unreal, the extraordinary and the magical.
    The various publications, blogs, websites and television channels were on fire, too hot to touch. The rumour-mill became accustomed to its new clothes and grew into a publicity blitz. The downside was that all this speculation and fabrication threw a spanner in the works and ground the clogs of serious archaeological endeavour to a halt.
    Then, as if having gone perilously close to the sun in courting glory and with nothing to show for it, apart from selling lots of papers, with no proof accompanying it on its journey, oiling its wheels, providing the tasty dressing for the secret recipe of lasting success, if anything could be that, the story died a premature death, or had simply run its course, its light extinguished on the steps of the demand for the next big thing. Pity the story’s lack of lasting appeal did not allow journalists to get lucrative book deals, although some were noticed for their fiction writing abilities.
    The matter became a joke, the discoveries considered bogus claims. Gradually, even the media lost interest and it became yesterday’s news. Only the conspiracy theorists were left obsessed with seeing clues where none existed.

CHAPTER 33

    Sydney, Australia
    Present day
    Dawn was breaking over the harbour and the buzz of activity was heating up. The CBD (Central Business District) never slept, its army following developments in world markets around the clock.
    It was here that the Fanari Tower stood, almost on the water’s edge, hungry to lick the waves, dying to dive in and conquer the world, as hungry as the company it housed, as ravenous as its captain and his ambition. The Tower was the headquarters of the billionaire Andrew Le Charos’ flagship company, Fanari Enterprises Limited.
    Andrew was standing by the window in his office admiring the view of the glorious Sydney skyline with the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge practically at his feet.
    It was a glorious day and the sun was shining over the magnificent harbour which was already alive with boats criss-crossing the blue waters, heading for Manly, Bondi Beach, the CBD and Darling Harbour, and some venturing out to sea and further afield.
    The phone started ringing. He rushed to his desk and picked it up. He did not speak. He knew the answer before he heard the voice at the other end uttering two sentences:
    ‘It’s done. Package left on late Q flight from Istanbul.’ “Q” stood for Qantas Airways. It was hardly original code, but it would have to do. Andrew had decided not to send his private jet as that would be too conspicuous even in an out of the way airfield outside Istanbul.
    Andrew put down the phone and picked up his other secure line.
    ‘The markets are open for business. Activate project Golden Horn.’
    He could not feel excited just yet until the package had been safely delivered home.
    Andrew wanted that icon badly, but had no way of knowing that it was most probably a fake. He knew Elli was after it too. He had a general idea of what she was up to through his spies and especially his favourite informant, his mole inside the Valchern Corporation. But he needed more information.
    He had no plans to allow Elli to win. He would sabotage her at every possible turn. They had been business rivals for years. They both played on the global stage for the highest stakes and they both hated losing. Not that they often did.
    Andrew was second cousin to Katerina’s father, Andros, and he had been estranged from his extended family for four decades. It was a clash of wills between him and his father that led to him, at twenty-four, going into voluntary exile in Australia, as far away from Cyprus as he could. Finding out that he had been adopted did not help.
    He worked hard and he built one of the country’s biggest fortunes. Life had made him tough, but he was ambitious and ruthless. He was not known for his kindness. He was respected and feared, but not liked. However, up until his mid-forties he was different and he was genuinely charming and devastatingly attractive and cocky.
    When in a chance encounter, as rivals in a bid to take over a company in Australia, he met Elli Symitzis, he was smitten; sparks were flying. They fell in love and got married a few months later. But the honeymoon did not last long. The children, Aristo and Vasilis, were five and three respectively when he began to change. That’s when the fights started, huge terrible rows. And he had started to drink heavily and refused any hand of help or advice offered by Elli and close friends who cared for him deeply.
    Once he beat up Elli badly. That for Elli was the final straw. She would not tolerate physical abuse or mental for that matter. It was then that they decided to end their marriage amicably.
    The divorce was issued a few months later and they went their separate ways with Elli keeping full custody of the children. There were no lasting financial hung-ups, obligations or court orders flowing from the divorce. It was a clean split.
    It all looked so promising at the beginning. They were the perfect couple, the perfect family. But the end should not have been surprising, because nothing can be perfect. Perfection is always an illusion, a deludingly subjective state of affairs or simply happiness or contentment at a particular moment or period in time.
    Andrew wanted nothing to do with his children. The children never knew who their father was. Elli wanted to tell them and pleaded with him, as she thought that it was important for them to know — they were bound to be asked at school or elsewhere — even if he did not want to meet them, let alone have any contact or relationship with them.
    However, he was adamant and dead against it and so whenever the question would pass their lips as was expected of children who would not fail to notice that other children had fathers, she would tell them that he had died. They were young enough for any memories they may have had of him to be suppressed in a dark and isolated part of their brain. It was unlikely that anything would happen, even an even of seismic proportions, to trigger and tease those memories to the surface.
    The identity of their father remained a closely-guarded secret and, surprisingly, whether out of respect for Elli or a, probably, misguided view of the children’s welfare or both, never came out in all this time, around thirty years now and counting, even though there were many people who knew the truth.
    Misguided or not it was the right thing to do, as it was for Elli to be the first to tell them when she had decided that the time was right. But, somehow, it never was the right time. The wall of silence held up, as sturdy as the Great Wall of China that had lasted for centuries and was still going strong.
    Now, almost thirty years on, the children, now adults, only knew him as a rival businessman and crossed paths with him only in business.
    Andrew had decided that a reconciliation with Elli and Andros’ family, albeit a temporary one, or at the very least some kind of relationship, would be useful to his current ambitions. At least having Elli and them on his side, or pretending to do so, would divert their attention and buy himself time for his plan to be put into motion.
    He wanted it all. He would have it all. Everything that Elli had. He was in the process of enlisting the help of shareholders of the Valchern Corporation through the Manoukios-led branch of the family shareholders and of the Madame Marcquesa de Parmalanski, leader of the Ruinands, mortal enemies of Elli’s and of the Order of Vlachernae.

CHAPTER 34

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    ‘Dad, I don’t trust him.’
    Katerina put her glass down on the table with a bang that caused some of the liquid to spill on the marble tabletop and stain it like blood. She looked breathtakingly furious.
    She was sitting with her father, Andros, on the veranda of her parents’ house near the Limassol Nautical Club, one of the very few old houses left next to the sea that had not been replaced by apartment complexes or hotels.
    It was the twilight time, just after dusk and the view of the Bay of Limassol was breathtaking. On the Western end was the leg of Cyprus with the monastery of St. Nicholas and the RAF base at Akrotiri and the Limassol salt marshes, further up the glorious and endless sandy beach of Ladies Mile and the new port and closer to the city the lights of the old port and the Molos reclaimed area, now a recreational space and favourite place for Limassolians to stroll and exercise.
    On the Eastern end twinkled the lights of the tourist area. The dark spot in between was the little eucalyptus forest called Dasoudi where the erosion by the sea over the years was visible. And then behind her she could see the lights of the city climbing up the surrounding hills.
    Limassol had expanded a lot in only twenty years. She still remembered a much smaller city in the eighties with the Churchill Hotel, now the Crowne Plaza, the city’s Eastern boundary and the Amathus Hotel and the ancient site of the city of Amathus being quite a lengthy journey, almost as if going to another town. And there were the lights of the ships dotting the bay. The view never ceased to move her every time. It was as if she saw it for the first time, every time.
    Her mother, Anna, was busy in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. Even though they had help, Anna insisted that she cook as many meals for her family as she could, even against her husband Andros’ reprimands. She knew Andros was tired of telling her to sit and relax. She was not getting any younger, but Anna was playing deaf.
    One minute, she would acquiesce to her husband’s requests, fidgeting all the time from restlessness, but the next minute, having grown tired and impatient, would get up and those hands would get busy on this and that, like a bee with her wings flapping at a rate of ten times a second, with a speed that you could almost lose track of her, as if watching a Formula One race with Anna being the car whizzing past, her hands as if they had a life of their own, as if they were under a spell.
    Andros turned to his daughter.
    ‘Katerina, I agree with you, but he sounded sincere on the phone. He probably means it this time. Andrew Le Charos is a difficult and ruthless man, but he is family, after all. He has requested this meeting and I think you should be the one to go. I think we should give him a chance.’
    ‘After all he’s done to this family and to our business, trying to sabotage us and for some reason Elli as well at every turn?’
    ‘Katerina, remember that that is business. It is a game and Andrew plays it well. So does Elli. In business she can be as ruthless as Andrew. We were close once. He was very different back then. Someone does not change that much. The Andrew I knew or at least a big part of him must still be there, I’m sure.’
    Katerina was like a dog with a bone. She would not let go. She hammered her point in, attempting to reason with her father whom he thought of being too soft and understanding in this particular instance. Perhaps getting older made us see bad things in a softer light. Could it be selective amnesia, she wondered, but could not utter her opinion to her father in this way. She chose a more tactful approach and spoke in a half-conciliatory tone to get her arguments across.
    ‘Maybe the row with his father and his self-exile in Australia changed him and caused an irrevocable breakdown with the family that cannot be mended. Aren’t you at least suspicious of his motives? It’s very sudden after all these years, is it not?’
    ‘I will admit that the thought had crossed my mind. Call me a stupid old man, but I’ve wanted this rapprochement for a very long time. People do have a sudden change of heart brought about by a guilty conscience or loneliness. There may also be business opportunities to come out of this.’
    ‘So it’s always money isn’t it?’
    ‘Katerina, there is nothing wrong with that. We would not be where we are now, if it weren’t for our ancestors taking advantage of opportunities and I have followed that tradition throughout my life. I think Andrew deserves our benefit of the doubt.’
    Katerina could not hide the outrage that had risen like bile in her throat and sought release through her vocal chords lest it choked her.
    ‘Deserves? He has done nothing to deserve anything or earn any drop of pity. If you ask me, Andrew does not give a damn about this family. Why now, after all these years he decides to make contact? I don’t buy it. He’s up to something. He just cannot accept the fact that, first, not only did our family not collapse after he left, but it thrived beyond even his and our wildest expectations. I think for all his money and his power he feels jealous and resentful of us. And second, he simply cannot accept that Elli Symitzis, and especially a woman, is a lot richer and much more powerful than he is, and, on top of that, one of the most powerful business figures in the world and de facto leader of the Greek and Cypriot business communities around the world; and that she’s also the head of the Order of Vlachernae.’
    Andros almost choked. Katerina had inadvertently hit the nail on the head; and she didn’t even know the truth about Andrew and Elli. ‘How do you know this?’
    ‘I have my sources.’
    ‘What sources?’
    ‘Dad, that’s my business. Oh, come on, you know how people like to gossip.’ She paused and her demeanour changed from antagonistic to conciliatory. There was no point fighting her father. She knew she wouldn’t change his mind about this, so she might as well help him and resolve this. And, besides, she could show Andrew up for what he really was and expose his deviousness. The thought made her feel slightly better, but not for long. Suddenly she was gripped by anger that Andrew was playing with her father’s feelings. She vowed that he would pay. But she would not admit this to her father now. ‘Anyway, you are right. We have nothing to lose and maybe everything to gain.’
    ‘Are you mocking me?’
    ‘Dad, I wouldn’t dare.’ She smiled her mischievous smile and winked at her father. ‘I will go.’
    ‘I’ve booked you on the morning Emirates flight via Dubai.’
    She looked at him surprised.
    ‘I had no doubt you would go despite your protestations. You will never change. Sense always prevails with you in the end.’
    ‘Oh, dad, you know me better than I know myself.’ She bowed her head in grudging respect. Her humour had lost none of its caustic sting and effect.

CHAPTER 35

    Sydney, Australia
    Present day
    The sun was rising fast, illuminating the city in a glorious hew of riotous colours, the skyscrapers of the Central Business District and those North of the Harbour Bridge gleaming in the sunlight. Did she imagine it or were they bowing to her, welcoming her?
    She simply adored landing in this city in daylight, which brought it out at its best. The view from the plane window was breathtaking, definitely one of the best views in the world in her book.
    She had always thought that the positioning of the runway at Sydney Airport was deliberate. Trust the Australians to put on a show for visitors on approach for landing, inspiring the feeling of a dream come true. Sydney was one of her favourite cities.
    It was good to be back, even if she did not look forward to her meeting. At least it gave her the excuse to be in this city.
    The car whisked her away, plunging bravely into the heavy morning clogged arteries of the city, heading to the Fanari Tower. She just sat back and relaxed, enjoying the ride, enjoying being bombarded with all the snapshots of rushed and incredibly stressed daily life; mundane routine activities that now seemed so beautiful to her. She was honoured to be a silent witness to them without being watched.
    She knew it would be the same in every city across the world, but this was a special place, her special place. It was a city, a country, rich in stories that shaped the history of this country and continent both, stories to inspire, and entertain and feed the soul, going back all the way to the Aboriginal stories and their Dreamland and their wisdom and traditions.
    She lowered her window. A rush of extraordinarily tempting smells invaded, immediately assaulting her taste buds and triggering involuntary mental salivating. She took it all in like a child arriving for the first time.
    It had been long since she was last here. Well, a month to be precise. Yet even that was too long. That was how much she loved this city. It was the same every time. She never bore of this city, this country.
    Her musings were cut short when the car stopped outside the building that rose one hundred and fifty metres into the sky, its aggressive design showing its mean intentions, and those of its owner, to spear the clouds, to break through and rise higher and higher.
    Inside the glass lobby that rose thirty floors into the innards of the building she could not help but raise her eyes to the crystal chandelier-like sculpture hanging like an ancient stalactite falling towards the lobby, ready to open a hole in the floor and burrow its way to the centre of the earth.
    She stopped herself and lowered her eyes just in time to show to the receptionist a dignified business-like face that had seen it all before.
    The lift whizzed her to the forty-first floor. She knew the entire forty-second floor was her uncle’s penthouse and out of bounds for all but the most trusted members of his inner circle, and selected guests, when it was used as the stage for impressive parties.
    Her uncle was a prolific entertainer and very adept networker who also gave millions to charity and personally got involved in his charity projects around the world. Where he found the time to do all that and at the same time run one of Australia’s largest corporations was beyond her. But then again, although he was a control freak, he had placed brilliant managers in key positions within his organisation who effectively ran the company day to day with terrifying efficiency. His companies basically ran themselves.
    He also did like a flutter on the horses, for no less reason that he owned one of the biggest and greatest horse studs in the country with other offshoots around the world. His horses ran in all the big races not just in Australia, but all over the world, with a winning streak not to be sniffed at.
    Andrew Le Charos’ secretary, Diana, smiled warmly and showed Katerina into the boardroom. Diana came across as a dragon-lady, but weren’t all personal assistants serving powerful and often arrogant men like that? Men with fingers in many pies, constantly on the move, no time for charm unless personal gain was involved.
    Katerina knew what it felt like to be in the shoes of such men and women, having had various demanding roles in her father’s companies. A personal assistant was indispensable. It was a position of trust as they knew almost all your secrets and you spend more time with them than you did with your husband, wife or partner. And that led personal assistants to be protective and even possessive of their bosses.
    The boardroom was deserted and Katerina went to the window to take in mouthfuls of the glorious view of the harbour, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and the Northern suburbs. Her nostrils twitched, taking in the molecules of the smell of sweet-smelling leather wafting from the chairs set in place around the long dark mahogany table.
    Her thoughts turned to the forthcoming meeting. It could be difficult. Andrew was not an easy man to deal with and was extremely astute. He missed nothing and was always out to smell the slightest weakness, fear or hesitation, and exploit it, shamelessly, to his advantage, as he had always done throughout his life.
    He was a stickler for detail. His antennae were wired to the most minute deceit. And he would expose it, take the culprit by the scruff of the neck and let him fall down useless and worn out, not literally, but that was how it felt like when one got on the wrong side of him.
    That was when such a person ended up submitting to Andrew Le Charos’ force of will and leaving with one’s tail between one’s legs. Proper pecking order was established once more. The balance of power in Andrew’s favour was reaffirmed.
    For all of these reasons and then some, he had become insanely successful, against all the odds, despite being an outsider in a foreign country. Did he ever let his guard down? That was doubtful, though Katerina wondered whether he could keep it up non-stop. She had this image of him barking orders growling all the way to his bed at night or at any time. She smiled. She would need her wits with her, she thought.
    At that moment the door flew open and Andrew was standing in the doorway.
    ‘My dear, it has been a long time. It’s good to see you.’
    He went forward to embrace and kiss her on both cheeks. She thought of a tiger, first licking the air and smelling her prey before he went in for the kill. Actually it had not been that long since they last saw each other. It was during her recent trip to Australia. They caught a glimpse of each other from afar at a restaurant. She was in no mood for hypocritical small talk, so she politely acknowledged him with a curt nod and he responded in kind.
    ‘I see you have not touched the drinks tray. What can I get you? Some water, perhaps?’
    ‘I’m fine thank you.’ She turned to the window. ‘I’ve always loved this view.’
    ‘So have I. I know exactly what you mean. It is the top of the hill you know. You can’t get a better view of the city, except from the Sydney Tower or on your approach…’
    ‘… to land at Sydney Airport.’
    ‘You do like to finish my sentences, don’t you? Now, tell me, why were you smiling back there when I came in?’
    ‘Oh. It was nothing. I was only thinking of Diana and how invaluable she must be to you. She certainly is very impressively efficient.’
    She bluffed, but knew she sounded convincing. She could not start the meeting by admitting the truth, now could she?
    To her relief, Andrew believed her and thought the same.
    ‘She sure is. What news of the family in Cyprus?’
    ‘They’re all fine, busy as ever.’
    ‘Will you join an old man for lunch to keep him company and maybe hold me from devouring the whole calf, tail, legs and all, as my darling wife kept telling me, chastising me about my healthy appetite? What’s wrong with a healthy appetite, I ask you? It’s not just survival. It feeds the mind and the soul, too, I’ll have you know.’ He said this last part of the sentence in the Australian brawl. ‘And I’m very proud of this stomach.’ He brought his hand to pat his abdominal area as he said that.
    ‘So, shall I let the cook know there will be two for tea? It truly will be a pleasure to have you.’
    She almost laughed out loud. Him? Chubby? That was something. He did like his silly jokes sometimes. He was as trim and athletic as he had always been, with hardly any loose fat on his person, in fact in much better shape than a lot of the young people she knew.
    And as for the “old man”, that was hardly an accurate description. He was only sixty-two, after all. Why, though, did it always sound as if he was acting a role? She could hardly refuse the invitation, though, and nodded her assent.
    ‘I’d loved to.’ She crossed her fingers in her mind as the words left her lips, hoping she sounded whole-hearted and keen, in contrast to how she really felt. And who knows? She may enjoy it and pick up some gossip.
    Besides her uncle was a very interesting man, a larger than life personality and tremendously entertaining companion. She would not pretend to fit the larger-than-life- category or a level playing field next to someone of her uncle’s calibre. But these days maybe she did in more than one respect.
    Perhaps she was a match for him after all, with less experience but sharp and young and nimble in the bargain too. But first to business and then to feast.
    ‘Excellent. You’ve made an old man very happy.’
    Katerina thought of a snake, a viper. Some snakes very often loved to have prey many times larger than themselves. Large was not a term that could apply to her, which meant that she would probably be a tasty morsel, an appetiser to tease the taste buds in anticipation of the main course. Snakes liked a good meal and to digest it slowly, laughing all the way to the deepest recesses of their digestive system.
    Her uncle was immensely more experienced and a smooth and very effective operator. Katerina thought he was planning to lunch on her and digest her twice in the space of a few hours and then spit out the unsavoury parts, but she would not give him the pleasure. It was a long time ago that she was that young girl running around hiding behind cabinets, chairs and lampposts, safe in the innocent and misguided belief that nobody could see her.
    Andrew on his part knew that he could not underestimate this young woman who had proven to be a formidable businesswoman and at such a young age.
    Andrew picked up the phone, dialled, said a couple of brief words in what she recognised as Mandarin into the phone and then hung up. He made his way to the table, sat down and gestured for her to join him.
    ‘I have been thinking and I have a proposition to make to you and your father. I presume that you are aware under what circumstances I left Cyprus to come here.’ Katerina nodded. ‘I can sense your scepticism, but believe me when I say that my intentions are entirely sincere. Katerina, I am not getting any younger. Andros, Anna, you and Giorgos are all the family I’ve got left. It may seem cold to you now, but try and see it from my perspective. I had been so preoccupied with survival and then initial success which spurs you to build on success after success, that it’s only now that, having achieved so much, I have, upon reflection, realised that it’s not enough, that it was time, if not, strictly speaking, going back to the fold — only a black sheep in the family would say that — at least to mend the bridges and make up for the past, for the lost years gone and lost moments which would be impossible to recapture.
    ‘I want to chase away any leftovers from the bitterness that made me leave what was my home.’ Katerina said nothing. She felt there was more. ‘I plan to visit you in Cyprus soon. I’m planning a tour of the European and Middle Eastern operations to coincide with that.’ Katerina raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘I assure you it’s not the other way round. Seeing your family is the reason I’m going there.’ He paused. ‘Katerina, I can also see a lot of synergies between many of our respective operations. I can open up many markets for you, especially in Asia. You can do the same for me in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation. Both our groups will emerge strengthened from such an alliance or cooperation, if you prefer, for lack of a better term.’
    Katerina still kept silent. The silence lengthened. He had clearly finished his monologue. She was too busy absorbing and processing the information and pondering what she’d just heard to comment. It was simply too much to take in all at once. He became concerned at her silence.
    ‘Will you at least take my sincere offer to your father, mother and brother?’
    ‘I will. That’s why my father sent me here. To hear you out.’
    ‘It sounds as if you did not want to come.’
    ‘I didn’t.’
    ‘I’m glad you did and I mean you personally. Your father always had a soft heart. He’s a good man, your father.’
    ‘A good heart that if you hurt, I promise you, I will pursue you and make you pay with my bare hands.’
    He did not blink or show any sign of concern at her threat. Empty threats were cheap a dozen and rarely carried through to their logical conclusion. He was not angry. His smile showed his amusement. ‘It’s always a pleasure to see your feisty side. I can see your father’s trust in you and place in his companies is justified.’
    Katerina flinched at his charm offensive. But she did not even smile let alone acknowledge his compliment. She wouldn’t give him the pleasure of seeing her blush.
    ‘When do you fly back?’
    ‘I’ve decided to stay for a couple days. I’m leaving on Thursday.’
    ‘Will I have the pleasure of seeing you again before you leave?’
    ‘Don’t push your luck.’ She gave him a sincere smile, though, when she said it.

CHAPTER 36

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    The day after the meeting between Katerina and Andrew, Andros, Katerina’s father, received a special delivery, hand delivered by one of Andrew Le Charos’ most trusted lieutenants. The man said that the plane was flying back to Sydney that very evening and would take any message Andros wanted to send back to Andrew.
    Andros couldn’t help wondering what merited Andrew going to the expense to send a plane. Even though the cost would be lost-down-the-sofa-and-not-missed loose change for him, nobody looked after his money or bargained harder than a billionaire.
    But why didn’t he give the package to Katerina at the meeting? Could it be that he did not want to be seen to have it in his possession and handing it to Katerina? Was it because it would put him or, perhaps, Katerina in danger? Did he really have such noble intentions? What was so sensitive an object as to merit such precautionary measures?
    Andros thanked the man and asked him to wait. He called for refreshment for his guest and went to his study with the package. A letter accompanying it gave instructions for the package to be opened only in the event that Andrew Le Charos could not be reached for a week or was dead.
    Andros pushed a button and part of the wall panelling moved, revealing a huge safe. He locked the package and letter safely away and the panelling went back firmly into place. As he could not open the package the only message he could give to the man was ‘Your wish will be respected’. He went back to the hall, delivered the message and sent the man on his way. The man lost no time and within seconds he was in a car that had been waiting for him outside and was driven away.
    Andros wondered about the contents, but then put any thought of the package at the back of his mind for the time being. Even though he tried to let the matter go for now, in the following weeks it would not be far from his mind.

CHAPTER 37

    Monastery of Pantokrator
    Mount Athos, Northern Greece
    Present day
    Elli was booked onto the next flight to Thessaloniki en route to Ouranoupolis and Mount Athos (the Holy Mountain) and the Monastery of Pantokrator.
    When she arrived in Thessaloniki, she was swiftly whisked through customs, and a car waiting outside picked her up for the two-hour drive to Ouranoupolis, the last frontier, the last town before the semi-autonomous community of the Mount Athos and its twenty monasteries.
    From there, a boat took her around the Athos Peninsula, to its North-Eastern coast and the Monastery of Pantokrator. At the quay, she was met by a monk who led her to the igoumenos or abbot, an old friend. She was of course under disguise, as according to a peculiar and ancient rule of the one-thousand-year-old monastic community there, no woman was ever allowed to step even a toe on the Holy Mountain.
    Once inside the abbot’s private rooms, she removed the hood of her cloak. The abbot had been expecting her and he greeted her warmly and, unusually for the monastic community, embraced her and kissed her on both cheeks.
    The abbot had not always been a monk. He lived a normal life before devoting his life to God. He came from Cyprus. He was the son of a business associate of Elli’s father. He and Elli were the same age and grew up together in the streets of Limassol. They had remained good friends and loyal to each other ever since and looked to stay lifelong friends, till death do them part. The abbot was intrigued when she sent word requesting a permit to be issued, because she needed to speak to him urgently.
    ‘Ellitsa mou, my Ellitsa, kalos ilthes agapi mou, welcome my love.’
    Ellitsa, the diminutive word for Elli, was a way of showing endearment and familiarity.
    ‘Now, tell me, to what do we owe this honour?’
    ‘I need to speak with Aggelos.’
    ‘Well, you are in luck. As it happens Aggelos is in the library right now. He very often sleeps there with his cherished manuscripts for company. He says they make him feel safe and warm and that he can watch over them like a proud father. Though I think it’s the lack of proper ventilation in there that keeps the place warm and that he craves. Come with me.’
    He led her to the library where Aggelos was waiting for them.
    ‘My dear Elli. Twice you honour us with your presence in such a short time. We are surely blessed. Spyros, why have you been hiding her? I heard she arrived here some time ago.’
    Spyros smiled and looked at Elli who wasted no time.
    ‘Aggelos, what do you know about that child that was kidnapped from the Palace of Vlachernae on 4 ^th May 1453?’
    ‘My dear Elli, after you left last time I decided to put some order in the shelf where the Book of the Pallanians, that you took with you when you left, was located. I also wanted to check whether there was anything there that was relevant and significant. Until you came here a month ago, that shelf had probably not been touched for years, so I had no idea what I would find there.
    ‘Well, I did find something interesting. It is a pergamene that was archived near the Book of the Pallanians. It is a letter from Michael and Mark Symitzis to Eleni Symitzis, their mother and your ancestor. You know their story. Mark, undercover as Suleyman, with a group of Ottoman riders was on a reconnaissance mission and Michael was doing the same with a group of members of the Order of Vlachaerne. What it says in the letter is that, on 4 ^th May 1453, the two brothers met by accident in the Forest of Valens outside Constantinople.
    ‘Yes, that was the same day as the disappearance of the child. After Michael and Mark had gone their own ways, Mark heard a child’s cry coming from somewhere nearby. He went to investigate and found a child. There was nothing with the child to indicate where it had come from, any clue as to his identity. To protect the child it was decided not to take it to Constantinople, but to a safe place, as far away from the hot spots of battle as possible.
    ‘Mark took the child to Crete, to the village of Ayia Galini in Southern Crete where it was brought up by a good Greek family. Amidst the uncertainty and confusion of the siege of Constantinople, Mark never got the chance to contact his mother or brother to let them know. Unfortunately, on his way back to Constantinople, Mark was, apparently, ambushed and killed by bandits and never got to tell them about his find and the last chance was lost.
    ‘How this letter, which he must have written before he died, survived and ended here, I don’t know, assuming, by the way, that it is genuine, which by the look of it, it must be. I did a bit more digging and came up with various documents indicating that some of my predecessors at the monastery had been following the boy’s progress. But the trail unfortunately went cold somewhere in the 1890s.’
    ‘Aggelos, does the letter give us the name of that family that took the boy under their wing?’
    ‘It’s Palantis. I don’t know whether it still exists. It could be that it changed due to marriage, if there were no male descendants, or there may be no descendants left at all.’
    ‘I’ll try and find out. I’ll put my people onto it. I know the right person to carry out that kind of research.’

    Later, Elli called Giorgos and explained what she wanted and suggested the computer hacker that James Calvell used recently to find out the identity of the donor of the icons to the Metropolitan. Giorgos said that he’d call James to arrange it.

CHAPTER 38

    Sydney, Australia
    Present day
    It was a magnificent hot day. Atop the Sydney Tower, the restaurant was doing brisk business as usual at lunchtime.
    As it was so close to the Central Business District, it was a favourite spot for the overstressed city boys and girls, the people who wielded the power to make or break companies, cities, countries; the people who everyday handled or played with tens of billions of dollars’ worth in every currency, commodity, stock or other asset class under the sun, a sum many times the GDP of most countries.
    Next to one of the windows overlooking Darling Harbour on one side and the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on the other, were two men, deep in conversation, their amazingly tasty and beautifully decorated dishes untouched, while a wine bottle was sitting in one corner with the remains of a very expensive wine.
    One of them was Andrew Le Charos, the other Jonathan Milos, the head of the security company Gruller Associates, a front organisation for the Madame Marcquesa de Parmalanski, leader of the Ruinands.
    Andrew looked straight into Jonathan’s eyes. ‘I want to see her. I believe we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.’
    ‘What do you have to offer?’
    Andrew was amused. One of the richest and most powerful men in Australia asked what he had to offer. He could not deny that he knew what he was getting himself into. ‘I have information I bet she would give one of her arms to get hold of.’
    Jonathan Milos knew Andrew was joking, but, nevertheless, as a faithful devotee of the Madame Marcquesa, saw that comment as an insult to her face. However, he decided nothing useful could come from making an issue of it and he ignored it, keeping a straight face. ‘No information could carry such a high price.’
    ‘Not even if it had to do with a key secret of the Order of Vlachernae?’
    ‘Ah, the only thing she is interested in is the source of their power to travel in time which they seem to be able to use like turning a tap on and off. You do understand that she has spies already. And your falling out with your family and the great matriarch herself is not exactly a secret. You could not call yourself an insider, a member of an inner circle of trust, so forgive me for seeing the value of any information you may have with scepticism.’
    ‘Things have changed.’
    ‘Oh? How so?’
    ‘I have taken steps for a reconciliation that have been bearing fruit.’
    Jonathan Milos was intrigued. ‘Interesting. But it could not be that easy to regain their trust. And by the time you do that, assuming you succeed, any information you have given us would probably either be information that we have obtained already or it would be too late for us to act on it. And there would also be doubts on the accuracy of such information. Your rehabilitation will not remove any doubts about your intentions and they may use you by feeding you incorrect or dubious information, as a means to test you and trip whoever else you may be in cahoots with.’
    Andrew was insulted even though he agreed with what Jonathan Milos said. His pride and dignity did not allow him to admit let alone bow to the Madame or her minions. He would not even ask Jonathan to at least take the offer to the Madame. He had no doubt that Jonathan Milos had her complete trust and authority to assess the situation and decide on the spot.
    From what Jonathan had said it sounded to Andrew that Jonathan had practically made his decision. His wavering, which was in itself offensive and dangerous, was Jonathan’s way of amusing himself by testing Andrew, trying to trip him, playing with him to see how far Andrew’s patience could go before he had had enough, returned the insult and got up and left.
    Andrew suddenly realised that there was nothing to be gained by such an alliance. He didn’t trust them and would never trust them. And he had no doubt the feeling was mutual. This meant that there would be no guarantee that they would not turn and double-cross him or remove him from the scene once they had got what they wanted. And he didn’t want to have to watch his back on that many fronts.
    He would keep the information for himself. He would have to go it alone. He would not change his mind even if the Madame changed hers and came back seeking an alliance. And he was not concerned that, if that happened, he might make a dangerous enemy of the Madame.
    ‘Mr Milos, thank you for the pleasure of your company. Enjoy the rest of your day.’ Andrew’s formality gave out a clear message, not just a hint, which Jonathan understood.
    Andrew got up and without looking back walked out of the restaurant thanking the Maitre d’ on his way out. When Jonathan asked for the bill he was told that it had already been settled by Mr Le Charos.
    By the time he left the restaurant Andrew had made his decision.

    Once outside, his driver was already holding the door open for him. He got into the car, which left the kerb within seconds on its way to the airport. He pressed a button, lowering the glass partition.
    ‘Thomas, we need to make a stop at the Point Piper house on our way. I’ll only be a few minutes.’

    Half an hour later, the car stopped outside Andrew’s seafront home. Andrew opened the front door and walked briskly through the hall and out into the garden. He saw her standing by the quay before she saw him and he quickened his pace.
    ‘Andrew, it’s exactly one o’clock. Punctuality was always one of your good traits.’
    ‘I haven’t got long. I need to be at the airport in an hour.’
    ‘This won’t take long. I’m sorry for not giving you more notice.’
    ‘I must admit I was surprised when you called. I had no idea you were in Australia. I saw Katerina the other day and she did not mention that you may be visiting.’
    ‘She had no idea. I only decided two days ago.’
    He studied her. ‘How is it that you become more beautiful with age?’
    ‘Andrew, don’t flatter me please.’ She indicated her hair. ‘This is the work of a master craftsman. And please don’t tell me you refuse to see the lines on my face, the legacy of a busy life.’
    ‘Maturity suits you. I have watched you all these years, what you’ve done with the company. Imagine if we had joined forces. But you always wanted to keep the two companies separate. What a pair we would have been. What a dynasty we would have created.’
    ‘We always had a dynasty and a lot more besides. A family. Two great sons. Only you could not see it.’
    ‘Yes, I have followed their path as well with interest. They have done well. You have done well with them, and on your own. You must be proud of them.’
    ‘I am. And you are not?’
    ‘Of course I am. I wish I had them running my companies, especially Aristo. He beats us both hands down.’
    ‘They both have good genes. I think Aristo got the best of both of us. However things ended between us, nobody can deny your business acumen. Your achievements are proof of that.’
    ‘Thank you. You know, there was a time when I felt intimidated by you, by your success, your power, your money.’
    ‘What, you mean you are not anymore? I must be losing my touch. Age can do that to you, you know.’
    ‘My darling Elli, we are not getting any younger…’
    ‘Are you going to bombard me with another marriage proposal?’
    ‘No, I wouldn’t dare. But we had something special, you and I.’
    ‘Had, Andrew, had. A long time ago.’
    ‘I am glad you called and came here. In fact I was going to call you.’
    ‘Yes? Why?’
    ‘Have you spoken with Katerina since she got back?’
    ‘No, I didn’t get the chance. Why? Has something happened?’
    ‘No, it’s nothing to worry about. But it has to do with me and you and Andros’ family.’ He paused. ‘Elli, would you believe me if I told you that I have changed, that I want to have some sort of relationship with you all?’
    ‘Is that why Katerina came to see you? Is it a daily trip of a guilty conscience? How long will it last before you are back to your old ways?’
    ‘Elli, after all I have put you through you would be right not to believe me. But I want this. I really do. I want us all to be a family again, if not like we were back then when we were married, at least the closest thing to what we could have been.’
    ‘So you are ready to tell Aristo and Vasilis that you are their father?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Even with all the cynicism that I see things after all these years, I have been waiting a long time for you to say this.’ Her eyes began to water and her lip quivered. She tried to hold back the tears. Her face betrayed her, though.
    ‘Elli, if I didn’t know better I would say that you are about to cry.’
    ‘Don’t you believe it.’ She smiled through wet eyes. ‘You got me there. I will not pretend otherwise. What excuse could I have? That I have dust in my eyes?’ She paused. ‘Look, Andrew, despite what you may think, I am human and not ashamed to show weakness, where appropriate of course. I will tell you though. You have been lucky.’
    ‘Lucky?’
    ‘Yes, lucky that the truth has not come out in all these years. That nobody even hinted at the truth before Aristo and Vasilis. It was a luxury to go about your business all these years without interruptions, without complications without the tension of a revelation and condemnation by gossip. Now you cannot afford to avoid it any longer, we cannot afford for our children not to know the truth. You have an opportunity to at least go some way to righting the wrong against them. Don’t waste it and don’t delay. The longer we leave it now that you have taken the decision the higher the risk of them finding it out through a third party, even if this has not happened for such a long time.’
    ‘I really want to make it up to them.’ He paused. ‘And Elli, I feel no animosity towards you anymore. I no longer hate you. I have changed.’
    ‘I’m beginning to believe you. How are you going to go about this? Will you be coming to Cyprus?’
    ‘Yes, I am planning a trip in the next few weeks.’
    ‘Excellent. Then we hope to see you then. Now I will tell you what I wanted to talk to you about.’
    ‘It must be important for you to come all the way here.’
    ‘Yes, it merits a private face-to-face discussion.’ She paused. ‘Andrew I have learned that you are behind the purchase of the 10 % stake that the Manoukios branch of the family has in the Valchern Corporation.’ At his hint of a protestation she raised her hand in a gesture for him to stop. ‘You are going to tell me that it’s not true, because your name does not appear on the papers as the registered owner of the shares. But I know that there is a secret agreement between you and Manoukios.’
    ‘There’s no point asking how you know. Your sources of information have always been impressive.’
    ‘Exactly, so why go through the charade of creating this elaborate scheme to cover your identity? Unless it’s because you have seen the articles of the company. Of course, you know that no shareholder can sell even a single share to an outsider, but only to another existing shareholder. And there is no preemption option, so that a shareholder cannot offer his shares to other existing shareholders and, if there is no interest to buy, then that shareholder may go outside to offer to sell. Money must have passed between you. You must have paid them a considerable sum for the use of that stake, haven’t you?’
    ‘Yes, I have. I knew they were looking for a legal exit, a way to monetise that stake than simply receiving dividends which they will still continue to receive. They are the owners of the stake after all.’
    ‘What do you mean you knew? How did you find out when I did not get even the slightest wind of this? That’s very strange behaviour on Manoukios’ part not talking to me first.’
    ‘I don’t know.’ He paused. ‘Elli, I just want to be involved more closely with my family.’
    ‘So it’s simply noble intentions, is it?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘You have a funny way of going about it.’ Elli paused and looked Andrew hard in the eye. ‘To cause trouble, you mean. And here am I almost being convinced that you had changed and sincerely wanted to come back to the fold.’
    ‘I do, Elli, I really do.’
    ‘You have always been a master actor which has not harmed you in business.’
    ‘Elli, this is not acting.’
    ‘The question now is what you mean by “involved” and how you will be using whatever limited power that 10 % stake gives you and how you will be voting that holding. Are you planning to buy more shares? If Manoukios was prepared to make a deal with you, probably there are others eager to release some equity, and “some” is an understatement, some value from stakes that are worth hundreds of millions of US dollars and are locked in.’ She paused. ‘Andrew if you have any plans of attempting to gain control, an idea that, surely, you could not be stupid enough to entertain, I do not need to remind you that I am the 60 % controlling shareholder. I don’t know what you may be hoping to achieve apart from making my job difficult with constant challenges and trying to disrupt the operation of the company with delays; perhaps for a monetary benefit to your own companies?’
    ‘I wouldn’t dare to cause any trouble for you. I have no doubt the eagle-eyed Elli would be watching my every step ready to intervene and crush me, if I put a foot wrong. The last thing I would want would be to incur your wrath. “Hell hath no fury for a woman scorned”, isn’t that right?’
    ‘Andrew, do not patronise me. I would not put it past you to do something like that. You are a ruthless businessman after all. You do have it in you. You have done it before to other companies.’
    ‘Trust you to hold such a low opinion of me when I have expressly been clear about my honourable intentions, me trying to get into your good books again and you insulting me by doubting me.’
    ‘I will put this matter to one side for now. Let’s concentrate on helping you to build up bridges with the family and especially introducing you to your sons who don’t know they have an aspiring father living and breathing in prominence in the business and society circles of Australia.’
    ‘Thank you, Elli, for giving me another chance. I thought after what you’ve said that you would be dead against it now.’
    ‘You disappoint me, Andrew. You should know me better than that.’

    When Elli returned to Limassol, there was a message from Giorgos waiting for her. He had heard from James Calvell in New York. The hacker had a name for the descendant of the abducted child from 1453.
    ‘And he still lives in Crete?’ Elli asked.
    ‘Yes, in Ayia Galini.’
    ‘You do realise we’ll need to go and see him. We will need to carry out a DNA test to confirm that he is indeed descended from the Palaiologos family. My ancestor Michael was the son of the last Emperor, so the Palaiologos blood runs in my family’s veins.’ Elli paused. ‘Giorgos have you made any progress with the identity of the woman’s body you found in Cappadocia?’
    Giorgos shook his head. ‘Not yet. I’ve got no leads at all.’
    ‘Didn’t you find a tablet there as well?
    ‘Yes, under the body.’
    ‘Do you remember what it said?’
    ‘It was illegible. It was in a language with characters I have not seen before.’
    ‘Where is it now?’
    ‘It should be safe.’ Giorgos tried to sound reassuring.
    Elli understood what Giorgos was telling her and was surprised, but could not say that she was not relieved and pleased with his sharp mind. ‘You managed to take it out of the country without permission?’
    ‘Well, that was not difficult. You did finance the expedition after all. Your brother Iraklios must have foreseen that such an involvement would be useful with that. He sent one of the Valchern Corporation’s private jets to get us out.’
    ‘So you brought it to Cyprus?’
    ‘No, we went straight back to Athens, the launching pad for the expedition. The rest of the team were from Greece. The sarcophagus and the tablet were taken to the Symitzis Museum vaults.’
    ‘That was quick thinking on your part. If you had not acted in the way you did the tablet would have been lost to us. Trying to retrieve it now and dealing with the Turkish authorities would have been a night-mare, and that would be assuming it had not been stolen or lost. Due to its value the Turkish authorities would simply not have let it go out of the country for any reason whatsoever.
    ‘Assuming they allowed the tablet to be studied and analysed, they would have insisted for such analysis to take place in Turkey. And there is no way we could have obtained it through underhand measures. Our influence does not extend that far. Giorgos, we need to get the tablet back from Athens and decipher it.
    ‘I want you to go to Athens and bring it back. You can use one of my private jets. I’ll arrange it. Pack your bag. You are leaving tonight. The jet will be waiting for you to bring you back as soon as you retrieve it. There is no time to waste. What’s on it is crucial.’
    ‘No problem. Of course, I’ll go.’
    ‘Good. Let’s adjourn for now. Come straight to see me as soon as you return to Cyprus. Good luck.’

    Giorgos was back in Cyprus and sitting facing Elli within ten hours of their last encounter. He handed the tablet to Elli. Elli caressed it and felt its cool marble surface. A lot of craftsmanship had gone into its creation. She decided to try something. She concentrated and passed her fingers over the inscription.
    She breathed a sigh of relief. It was written in the ancient Pallanian language that she could read with the special implant she had had inserted in her palm, an implant powered by a special fuel only she knew about.
    Giorgos watched her with bated breath on the edge of his seat. When he saw the tension in her face starting to relax he felt relief washing over him together with the coursing of elation through his veins. He was dying to ask Elli what the inscription said, but did not want to interrupt her.
    After a while she looked up, her eyes filled with tears. She had never seen Elli showing so much emotion before. She always saw her as this tough business-woman always in command of herself and everybody around her, always in perfect control of every situation, the rock that everybody, including her family, relied on, especially at times of confusion, distress or hardship. Words struggled to pass her lips, which quivered uncontrollably.
    ‘It is a very sad story. The woman in the tomb looks as if she is the abducted child’s mother. She died soon after as a result of her grief. Her restless soul is still roaming around us seeking her child and will not rest until she is reunited with her child. And she is grieving for her husband and father of the child too. She is looking for his body, his last resting place. The father’s soul is also not at peace and is looking for her. Only by bringing all three of them together will they rest in peace.
    ‘Giorgos, this is what we have to do, now more urgently than ever. That’s what it says here. It sounds similar to the passage Katerina and Aristo saw in Ayia Sophia on the second day.’
    Giorgos had become very excited. His curiosity got the better of him. ‘Is there anything else?’
    Elli stared at him amused and feigned shock at what she pretended to have been a thoughtless question. ‘One tragedy is not enough for you? You want more?’
    Elli’s fake sarcasm went right over Giorgos’ head. ‘I’m sorry. But does it mention any names? The name of the father, perhaps, that of the mother?’
    ‘The mother, the woman in that tomb in Cappadocia, is Eleni Symitzis. The father is Konstantinos XI Palaiologos, last Emperor of Constantinople.’
    Giorgos stared at Elli in disbelieving shock. ‘Eleni Symitzis? Your ancestor?’
    ‘It must be. A DNA test would settle that. There is enough material for a good DNA sample from the woman’s body in Cappadocia, is there not?
    ‘Yes, I believe so.’
    ‘I’ll give you a sample as well for comparison to confirm her identity.’ Elli paused. ‘Giorgos, I need to tell you about a recurring dream I’ve been having for a while now.’ She told him about her gruesome dream with the woman’s body in the tomb and the woman pleading and the child appearing and the screaming. ‘Do you see the similarity with my dream?’
    ‘Elli, how long have you had this dream for?’
    ‘A few months now.’
    ‘Elli, do you think it’s connected to the body we found in Cappadocia and the child?’
    ‘It must be. The dream must have been trying to tell me about this tragedy and what we have to do, but, even though I suspected that its recurrence should mean something important, I did not have enough real evidence till now to take it seriously, let alone to interpret it, to understand its meaning and piece it all together. And, Giorgos, we need to find the last Emperor’s tomb. We will need to compare DNA from the descendant in Crete, the body in Cappadocia and myself.’
    ‘What about DNA from the descendant?’
    ‘We can get a couple of hairs from him and some saliva.’
    ‘OK. Who’s going to Crete?’
    Elli had already made up her mind on the next course of action. ‘I think Katerina would be the best person. It is more likely the man will open up to her than anybody else. I don’t think that even he would be able to resist her charm and air of innocence. I’ll speak to your sister. I’m going to send Aristo with her to protect her.’
    ‘You are not going to give her exactly that as the reason for Aristo going with her, will you? She won’t like it. She may think you don’t believe she’s capable to fend for herself and take care of herself.’
    ‘Of course not. It’s going to be for company, and also that two brains are better than one. But also we have to make her understand that we are in a dangerous game now with deadly and ruthless enemies and we should not be stupidly proud or deludingly complacent. I have no doubt she has enough common sense to see the sense in that.’ Elli paused. ‘Giorgos, your priority now is the location of the real tomb of the last Emperor and of course the real body of the last Emperor. You will not be alone in this. We will all help you with information obtained through the Book of the Pallanians and its tricky-to-interpret pages.’

CHAPTER 39

    Ayia Galini, Southern Crete, Greece
    Present day
    The old man would give nothing away about who he was and where he had come from. He had always worked this barren land like his parents before him and his ancestors before then. But he had lived in a crazier world in what seemed like another lifetime now. He was trying to forget.
    A rickety old car was descending along the narrow road dropping into what looked like a village set for a play on a stage straight out of a Greek theatre. Now, is there a more idyllic and peaceful place in the world? At least there wasn’t one for the people who lived there and those that came to visit.
    Katerina and Aristo stopped and asked for directions. They found the house and parked outside. They got out of the car. Aristo stayed by the car. Katerina tentatively knocked on the front door.
    When the door was pulled open, she was trans-fixed and frozen to the spot. This was not what she had expected. Facing her was a pair of bright blue eyes with a piercing gaze set on an angelic face. This man could not have been more than somewhere in his twenties. She had been expecting an old man.
    ‘I am sorry to have disturbed you. I must have made a mistake. I should go. Goodbye.’
    Katerina turned to leave, but hesitated, as she did not hear the door close. She sensed that the man was still standing there watching her. She had already decided to turn and go back when she heard the man’s voice.
    ‘Please, wait.’
    Katerina was startled by the strength of that deep voice. She turned to face the man, but did not move, and refrained from uttering a word. That deep voice was still echoing in her ears.
    ‘Who are you?’ he asked softly. He could not believe his luck. What was this divine creature doing on his doorstep? Where had she come from? It was clear she was not from these parts. She must have lost her way, he decided, hoping that she had not.
    ‘My name’s Katerina. Is this the house of Konstantinos Palantis?’
    ‘Yes, but he’s not here right now.’
    ‘Do you know when he will be back?’
    ‘I’m not sure, but it would not be long.’
    ‘I think I’d better go and come back later.’
    The man stared deep into her eyes.
    ‘You know, we have met before.’
    Katerina tried to trigger and retrieve the memory, but failed. Maybe he had seen her in a magazine or something and was trying to be friendly.
    ‘I’m sorry, but I cannot remember you. Can you tell me more about it?’
    ‘It was all a long time ago.’ He shook his head as if clearing his mind from the memory and coming back to the present. ‘You must have had a long drive.’ He paused and looked towards the car. Aristo was out of sight at that moment. ‘Have you come alone?’
    For some reason she could not understand she decided to pretend that she had come alone. ‘Yes.’ As soon as she said it she realised that her instinct, a voice inside her, was warning her not to trust the man standing before her, in spite of appearances to the contrary, his angelic face, literally, coming to mind.
    ‘Did you drive all the way from Heraklion today?’
    ‘Yes, but…’ Katerina had to be sure. ‘How do you know Konstantinos Palantis? Do you live here?’ She asked reluctantly, half-embarrassed that she may have offended this young man.
    Iakovos smiled a sweet smile and there was no blushing, not the slightest sign of shadiness, absolutely nothing to fuel her suspicions, but only warmth on his face and gentleness in his voice and those startlingly blue eyes, pools brimming with a warm liquid invitation to his heart, but only he knew that.
    ‘He’s my father. My name’s Iakovos.’ He paused. ‘You can wait for my father inside.’ He stood to one side and held the door open for her. ‘Please, come in.’
    Katerina hesitated for a moment. She could not explain it, but she had now come round to the effect of his charm and felt that she could almost trust this man. She didn’t look back for Aristo, so as not to give a hint to his presence. She still wanted to keep that safety net and not raise suspicion, just in case things did not turn out as expected.
    If things turned nasty, someone would certainly get one hell of a shock. And besides, at this point she would have been revealed as having lied earlier about being alone.
    ‘Thank you.’ Without letting her guard down she allowed herself to relax enough so as not to give her suspicions away and followed Iakovos inside.
    The house was spacious and full of light streaming in through the numerous windows. The rooms were simply but beautifully furnished with selected valuable pieces, strategically and tastefully placed, and Katerina could see that there was wealth here that tried to disguise itself and present the house as a humble abode.
    Iakovos led her into the garden and the most breathtaking view. She was mesmerised and speechless. Iakovos remained silent allowing her to recover her composure. He had seen this reaction before in everybody that came here to this spot and he expected it. He did not want to break the spell.
    The garden blended with the horizon and the sea and the sky and it was as paradise would be imagined. But it wasn’t just the beauty of the garden that overwhelmed her. She was surprised to see that this garden reminded her of something she had seen before.
    It was like having a feeling of deja vu. And then she remembered some old photos of her grandmother’s from Smyrna. This garden was an exact replica of Antonios Symitzis’ glorious and precious garden in Smyrna, which the family had to leave in 1922.
    ‘Would you like some coffee?’ Iakovos interrupted her thoughts and brought her back to the present.
    She wanted to stay there longer to admire the view. ‘I’d love some, thank you.’
    Iakovos went back inside. After a while and as Iakovos was busy in the kitchen, she heard a muffled sound. She thought she had imagined it and held her breath. She tried to pinpoint where it had come from. There was nothing. Her imagination was playing games with her. It must have been tension or was it some sixth sense telling her that something was not quite right there?
    But then she heard it again and it seemed to be coming from the side of the house. She went closer. There it was again. She saw the half-open basement window and stood by it. She looked through the window, but she could see nothing. She tried to open the window, but it would not budge.
    Katerina retraced her steps and went inside the house. She remembered having seen a small door when she came in earlier. She went and stood by the door. There it was that muffled sound again. She tried the handle and it yielded to her touch. Behind the door, a series of steps led down to the basement. She saw a light switch by the door and flicked it on. A faint light from a lonely bulb on the ceiling shed some light to show her the way.
    She started to walk down the stairs. She reached the bottom of the stairs and found herself in a space lit by a couple of small windows. She saw the half-open window she had seen earlier. It was impossible to tell the size of the space in the almost pitch-black she was engulfed in.
    Her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom. She saw she was in a very well equipped cellar. She went closer to the racks and looked at the bottles. She could just about read the labels. The man living in this house was clearly a connoisseur and no doubt very wealthy to afford this kind of exceptional-looking wine.
    Then she heard the same sound and turning she peeked into the gloom. Her eyes were not fooling her. There was someone there. She approached cautiously. A man was in front of her tied up on some pipe. She immediately removed the muffle from his mouth. ‘Who are you?’
    ‘I am Iakovos.’
    ‘But…’ She was about to say that Iakovos was upstairs, but then she realised it was no coincidence. She could feel there was something not quite right with the man upstairs. She remembered that feeling of uneasiness she had when she first saw him, even though he greeted her warmly.
    It was not just sensible caution on her part nor was it paranoia. She looked at this man closely and saw that his resemblance to the man upstairs was uncanny. She suddenly had no doubt that in front of her was the real Iakovos tied up. She began to untie him her hands moving adeptly.
    ‘Whoever you are, just leave me here. Run. Get out of here. That man upstairs calling himself Iakovos is a very dangerous man. I’ve seen what he’s capable of.’
    ‘I’m not leaving without you.’
    What’s your name?’
    ‘Katerina.’
    ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
    ‘Likewise. I would have preferred it under different circumstances, though.’
    The rope was too expertly tied. After a while she got her faithful companion, her Swiss Army knife, out of her handbag and cut him loose. He tried to stand up, but he felt weak and his legs that had been immovable for quite some time would not obey the instructions of his brain and gave way. He fell down onto the chair again. He looked exhausted and thirsty.
    ‘Just give me a minute.’ He gathered all his strength and pushed himself to stand. It clearly used almost all his strength, because he was still quite shaky on his feet. Katerina held his arm to steady him. ‘Thanks.’ He was suddenly determined. ‘OK, let’s go. We cannot afford to stay here any longer. How were you able to go on a tour of the house and come here? What is he doing upstairs?’
    ‘He’s making coffee.’
    ‘That won’t take long. He will be alert for what you are doing. He will get suspicious. He will be wondering where you are. In fact he may be coming down here right now.’ Katerina moved for the stairs out of the cellar. Iakovos grabbed her arm.
    ‘This way. There’s another way out. It’s my house, remember? And he doesn’t know this house the way I do.’
    ‘How long have you been tied up here like this?’
    ‘It was soon after my father left this morning that this guy appeared. He is very well trained in physical combat. I did not stand a chance. He incapacitated me in seconds. What’s the time now?’
    Katerina looked at her watch. ‘It’s 3.25 in the afternoon.’
    ‘So I’ve been like this for about eight hours.’
    ‘Have you seen him before?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘But what does he want? What did he ask you? Have you seen him take anything?’
    ‘I don’t know. Nothing. And no. To answer all your questions.’
    ‘I wonder whether I was the target, whether he knew I was coming here to see you.’ Then Katerina had another thought. ‘Or your father. He may be in danger. Where has he gone?’
    ‘To visit a friend in the next village.’
    ‘We must get out first and go and find him.’ It was then that she thought of Aristo and she got out her mobile phone to warn him.
    ‘What are you doing?’
    ‘I haven’t come alone. My boyfriend Aristo is out-side. I’m going to call him and warn him and maybe he can help.’

    In the meantime, Aristo was becoming concerned that too long a time had lapsed without him having heard from Katerina. They had agreed that she would call him after the introductions and once she started to get a feel for the man they had come here to visit. He cautiously approached the house. He gently tried the handle of the front door. It yielded and he pushed the door slowly open. It was at that exact time that his mobile went off.
    The fake Iakovos was just coming out of the kitchen and he turned at the sound towards the front door. Their eyes met. Aristo saw the cold-blooded look in the other man’s eyes and knew immediately this was no friend and that something was terribly wrong.
    The man put down the tray and glanced quickly out of the window close by into the garden, but could not see the woman anywhere. He started to approach Aristo, his stance menacing. This man was very dangerous. He looked extremely fit and muscled and his posture indicated that he was most probably expertly trained.
    Aristo himself was no slouch. He was very fit himself, a physique and level of fitness borne out of his love for extreme activities and sports and plenty of exercise. He was also well trained in martial arts. He had no doubt he could match the other man in whatever he had to throw at him. Unless the man had a gun. He didn’t know how much of a chance he stood against that.
    They sized up each other and began to slowly walk towards each other. Meanwhile, Katerina and Iakovos had got out of the house and were coming around to the front of the house and the car. There was nobody there.
    Katerina was surprised and initially felt annoyed that Aristo was nowhere to be seen. ‘Where on earth is he?’ Within seconds, though, she became concerned. She knew Aristo must have thought he had waited long enough, and, suspecting that something had gone wrong, had gone to investigate and find her.
    She was about to turn and walk back to the house when she heard horrible noises of a fight coming from the house. There was a lot of smashing and crushing. Katerina knew what was happening and jumped into action. She spoke to Iakovos with a commanding urgency in her voice, even as she grabbed his arm and began walking towards the house, pulling him with her. ‘He must be inside fighting our crazy and lethal friend. Come on, let’s go and help.’
    Iakovos pulled back and forced Katerina to stop dead in her tracks. She released his arm and turned to look at him, anxiety and purpose battling on her face.
    ‘This way.’
    He led her by the side of the house and a small door. Once inside they found themselves in a playroom. Along one wall was a glass case housing antique-looking guns and rifles. Katerina thought he was heading for that case. But he went to the desk and opened the middle draw. The gun his father kept there was gone.
    ‘He’s got a gun. We need to hurry.’
    Iakovos put his finger on a bronze award sitting on the desk and pressed a button. The glass case slid away revealing a small room behind. He went inside and pressed another button. The walls were opening revealing shelf after shelf of sophisticated-looking weaponry Katerina had never seen before. To her it seemed as a veritable feast of what she assumed to be a Special Forces arsenal staring back at her.
    Iakovos chose a small handgun and ammunition and gave Katerina another small handgun. He did not even ask her whether she had handled a gun like that before. Her eyes quizzed his, but she understood and nodded.
    He made sure both guns were loaded and he led Katerina out, the compartments and the glass case sliding back into position behind them. They hurried to the entrance hall where, looking through into the wrecked living room, they saw the two men really beating the hell out of each other. They approached without being heard.
    ‘Katerina stay here and at my signal make noise with this to distract them.’ Iakovos indicated a silver tipped stick. ‘I’m going to get close from behind and hopefully take advantage of the distraction.’
    Iakovos went through another way into the living room and crept up on the man, his namesake. He signalled to Katerina. She hit the stick on the marble floor that vibrated and sent the sound echoing throughout the house. The distraction was enough for their purposes.
    The man, who was at that moment trying to get out the gun he had taken earlier, turned. Iakovos moved forward and went for the man’s throat. But the man had seen him and with a clever manoeuvre got him in front of him, one of the man’s arms around Iakovos’ neck, the other holding the gun and pointing it at his head.
    Aristo stood still. Katerina thought about going to stand beside Aristo, but then decided to stay where she was and tried to create another opportunity. With the man holding a gun to Iakovos head, it was harder now. The gun was most likely loaded, and they couldn’t take the chance that it might not be.
    For a few seconds there was an impasse with nobody daring to move and inflame the situation. If they were hoping that the man would start to get stressed and slip, they were mistaken. He was as calm as if he did this all the time. He was clearly a cold-blooded killer; there was no doubt about that.
    It was not difficult to tell the two men calling themselves Iakovos apart. They knew the man would not hesitate to carry out the death sentence to his hostage; spared earlier, condemned now.
    Katerina remembered something she had seen in the secret gunroom. She retraced her steps. She stood inside the room and looked around. And then she saw it. The stun gun. It was one of the few things she had recognised. She picked it up, removed her shoes and ran.
    The scene had not changed in the living room in those three minutes she was away. They hadn’t seen her return. She saw the open garden door behind the man. She went round and out of a side door and emerged on the veranda at the back of the house.
    She approached the open garden door slowly, held her breath and crept in behind the man. She directed the stun gun at his neck and fired. He didn’t stand a chance. He collapsed in a heap to the floor, almost crushing Iakovos under him. Iakovos was struggling to get free.
    On the way down the man’s finger pressed the trigger and the gun fired. The bullet hit Iakovos on the side of the ribcage and blood began to rush out. Aristo and Katerina moved the man off Iakovos and on the floor next to him.
    Katerina was relieved it was finally all over. She went close to Iakovos lying on the floor, copious blood seeping into the carpet. She took off her scarf and, bending down, held it to the wound. Iakovos was still breathing but fast on his way out of this world. Katerina turned to Aristo.
    ‘Aristo, I saw some rope in a secret room off the study. I’ll go get it. Here, hold this tight to the wound.’
    She came back with the rope and gave it to Aristo. They exchanged places beside Iakovos. Aristo tied up the man’s legs and feet and arms to his side and left him cross-legged on the floor. He stood up and turned to Katerina.
    Her bloodshot eyes were now turning into pools of iridescent hues of aquamarine and turquoise, and she could not hold them in. Wet tears started running down her cheeks and she lowered her head that her long slender swan-like neck looked strained to hold. Then with all the effort her neck could master she looked up, her eyes boring deep holes into Aristo.
    ‘I think I’ve stopped the bleeding but he’s lost a lot of blood already. We need to get him to a hospital.’ Iakovos was losing consciousness. ‘Iakovos, where’s the closest hospital?’
    Iakovos struggled to shake his head and to speak through the haze clouding his mind. ‘It’s just over two hours away. I don’t have that long.’
    Aristo thought hard. ‘There’s a military base twenty minutes from here. And it has a hospital. Just give me a minute.’
    He got out his mobile and dialled a number a very selected few people had access to. A few hundred miles away in Athens, the private line of General Tomasakis rang. He ignored the man sitting opposite him and picked it up.
    Within minutes, a military helicopter was landing on the lawn outside the house. A pair of paramedics emerged with a stretcher and moved quickly towards the house. Aristo was at the door.
    ‘In here. Hurry.’
    Iakovos was given first aid, put on the stretcher and rushed to the helicopter.
    ‘Katerina go with them. I’ll stay here to interrogate our friend and find out who he is and what the hell he’s doing here. And we need to find and warn Iakovos’ father. I hope he’s still alright. He could have been followed as well.’
    ‘OK. I’ll ask Iakovos when he regains consciousness and I’ll call you.’ They kissed and hugged and she turned to walk towards the helicopter. Aristo remembered something and turned.
    ‘Katerina, make sure you get DNA samples from Iakovos for the comparison with ours.’
    ‘Will do. I’ll talk to you later.’
    She walked to the helicopter, which had kept its blades turning. Aristo waited while the helicopter lifted off and flew away and then he went inside the house. He walked straight to the sitting room, but the man was not there.
    How the hell did he manage to untie himself? Was there another intruder previously hidden or, perhaps, someone who arrived here in the last few minutes that they had been busy dealing with Iakovos? Was it that that person had decided that their mission had failed and he was biding his time to intervene and help his associate to get out to fight for another day? Yet they could still be here.
    He had decided to go on a search of the house when he heard a car outside and a door opening. That should be Iakovos’ father and, if the man or men were still there, he might be in danger. Aristo ran to open the front door and without a thought for introductions shouted at the man standing by the car.
    ‘Take cover. There are some people after you.’
    The man stared at him white as a sheet. Aristo could see no fear but defiance in the man’s eyes that were darting in different directions around him. He knew the other man was checking for more unknown attackers or intruders, trying to make sense of the situation and was perhaps looking for a way out.
    Konstantinos Palantis, Iakovos’ father, cursed himself for not having his gun with him. But how could he have known? He had had nothing but peace and tranquillity so far in his life. Those happy days were now, no doubt, behind him.
    ‘What are you talking about? Who are you?’
    ‘Are you Konstantinos Palantis, Iakovos’ father?’
    ‘Yes. Where is my son?’
    ‘We were attacked. He’s in hospital.’
    ‘Where? I have to go to him.’
    ‘Don’t worry. He’s at the nearby military base. He’s well looked after.’
    ‘Military base? But how? Who are you?’
    ‘I’m Aristo Symitzis. I’m a friend.’
    ‘What are you doing here?’
    ‘I came to talk to you about something important.’
    About what? What could we possibly have to talk about? I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before in my life.’
    ‘Look it’s a long story. Not now. Just get here close to me. I’ll cover you. Or on second thought just get back into your car and drive off. Go to somewhere safe.’
    ‘I’m not going anywhere. This is my home. This is unbelievable. I still cannot understand what the hell is going on. I leave for a few hours, I come back and a stranger is giving me this amazing story and tells me to drive off. What would you have done in my place? Would you have believed him? How do I know you are not the one who’s here to harm me? You say you came here to talk to me. But how do I know? Look, just get out of here. You are not welcome here. This is private property. If you are not out of here in two minutes, I’ll call the police.’
    ‘And they won’t be here for at least twenty minutes. And by that time you may be dead and there would be nothing for them to find. And if I am lying and I want to harm you, you don’t have enough time to do anything and the police won’t be here soon enough to do anything about it. And, besides, I would have harmed you by now. So you have no choice but to trust me.’
    Konstantinos Palantis thought about what this man was saying and realised the sense in it. His expression changed and his demeanour indicated to Aristo that he had got through to the man.
    Aristo relaxed but only briefly. They were still in danger. ‘Come on let’s get inside.’
    This was no time to be polite and Aristo went in first with Palantis following behind. At the moment Aristo entered the entrance hall he heard a shot and he turned to see Palantis collapsing to the floor with half of his head torn off and Aristo found himself staring straight into the eyes of the man he had tied and straight into the barrel of the gun he held in his hand. And there was another man behind him.
    Aristo was holding a gun as well, but he knew he did not have enough time to use it. He knew he was a dead man walking.

CHAPTER 40

    Elli’s private island retreat, Mount Ellothon Aegean Sea, Greece
    The scene could not be more contrasting. One of the most powerful women in the world next to one of the most powerful men in Australia. They were sitting at a wooden table that wouldn’t have been out of place in a monastery with its Spartan air and what you would call minimalistic luxury.
    They were luxuriating in the creature comforts of Elli’s compound in the paradise of Mount Ellothon, both pityingly oblivious to their impressive surroundings that were changing as their conversation was developing to show the images of what they were talking about. To the untrained eye it was a surreal roll of film.
    Andrew barely gave it a glance, and yet it kept distracting him and irresistibly drawing him in. He tried to shut it out and concentrated on what Elli was talking about.
    ‘Anyway, it’s good to have you here. You made it at last. I’ll be honest with you. I had my reservations. I know you are a busy man, Andrew, and I didn’t really think that you would bother to make an appearance. You do understand why I wanted you here. I wanted us to have a few days alone before we launched you back into the family bosom.’
    ‘I agree with the wisdom of that decision.’ Andrew paused. When he continued the tone of his voice was soft and nostalgic. ‘Elli, there’s been so much history between us. Why don’t we give it another go and try to recapture the magic of our first years together?’
    Elli was not amused by the wave of nostalgic sentiment that seemed to have overcome Andrew. His sudden show of emotion took her by surprise and, if it was a seductive technique, it was not working. ‘Andrew, there’s been too much water under the bridge for grudges or animosity and for anything more than friendship. I didn’t ask you here to revisit a romantic liaison.’
    ‘Liaison? Is that how you see it now? You could fool me. If my memory serves me right, it didn’t feel like that at the time. It was deeper and more special than a simple romantic affair.’
    Andrew, you know as well as I do that the honeymoon did not last long before the problems and your drinking started. What’s surprising is how we held it together for as long as we did. In retrospect we shouldn’t have let it reach the stage that it did. Every room we were in together became a battleground. Being tired from the constant rows led us to end up hating each other for turning everything into a battle.’ Elli’s tone became gentler. ‘But that’s all in the past. Life is too short for regrets and ‘what ifs’ and journeys into the past. Now, though we are here alone, except for the staff of course, I’m sure we can behave as adults and find something other than a romantic liaison to amuse ourselves. Do you fancy a swim before lunch?’
    ‘I’d love to.’
    ‘Good. I’ve asked Marios to get the boat out.’
    ‘The boat? I was thinking of something simpler, here. What do you have in mind?’
    ‘We will be sailing to Ikaria and having lunch on board. It’s only about an hour to get there.’
    ‘That sounds like a fantastic idea. You never cease to surprise me even after all these years.’
    ‘Well, you haven’t seen me for quite a few, at least not properly. Distant glimpses at various events and meetings don’t count.’

CHAPTER 41

    Valchern Corporation Headquarters Limassol, Cyprus
    Andrew left after a four-day stay to go to Cyprus and Elli planned to enjoy the rest of the week alone in peace. She was dozing by the pool when her mobile rang.
    ‘Hello?’
    ‘Mum, it’s Vasilis. I think you have to get back here. Manoukios has called an extraordinary board meeting.’
    ‘He what? When?’
    ‘Tomorrow at ten o’clock in the morning.’
    ‘He is in a hurry. Do you know why?’
    ‘No, he didn’t say.’
    ‘But he is obliged by law to give warning of the reason of such a meeting. I’ll be back in Limassol tonight. In the meantime try and find out as much as you can.’
    She had been waiting for this for sometime. She was wondering when Manoukios would declare his hand. She had not believed Andrew. She had had a cold feeling about him since their discussion a few days ago. But she didn’t show him anything to indicate that she had been suspicious.
    Let him be lulled into a false sense of security. In the meantime, she had been doing her preparation and had unearthed some interesting information about Manoukios.
    Elli landed at Larnaca International Airport at midnight. A car took her straight to her house in Limassol where she had a meeting with her son Vasilis.
    ‘Vasilis, have you studied the information I have had collected on Manoukios and his family?
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Do you understand what’s going to happen at that meeting tomorrow?’
    ‘Yes. I think Manoukios and the others are going to have a fit.’
    ‘Good. You know, if they do, that would make it easier and spare them the embarrassment that I have in store for them.’

    The set was the boardroom of the Valchern Corporation headquarters in Limassol, Cyprus.
    ‘I call this meeting to order.’ Elli called out to silence those present and let proceedings roll.
    ‘Elli why are we here? Why all this formality? And it’s Sunday of all things. Why the urgency?’
    ‘The impatient Dekon.’ She looked across the table. ‘Maybe Manoukios should tell us. He was the one who called this meeting after all.’
    Manoukios hesitated. He was suddenly afraid of Elli. Up to that moment he felt confident and cocky of having the upper hand, of turning the tables on Elli and her domination of the company that he despised for so long. He could not wait to finally settle the score with her once and for all.
    He felt that with allies like he had now, this was the moment to strike, when she was at her most vulnerable, her moment of weakness, seemingly distracted by other matters, or so he thought. He was determined to press his advantage.
    But Elli had other plans and he did not have the vaguest idea of what was in store for him. Her authoritative manner shocked him. His courage evaporated. His bullying demeanour was surprisingly mute.
    Elli decided to encourage him and perhaps intimidate him a bit more. ‘Well? Are you going to enlighten us?’
    Again silence from the other end of the table.
    ‘No, maybe not.’ Elli paused. ‘Since Manoukios has shockingly lost his tongue, let me tell you. We are here, because one of you has been assisting an outside coup and stirring things.’ Elli paused for effect.
    There were gasps of shock around the table. Dekon expressed everybody’s question apart from the perpetrator who was fidgeting and shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He was so transparent, thought Elli. He was never one to control and hide his feelings. He would be a very bad poker player.
    She would have expected him to clam up and look ashamed. But no, not Manoukios. That would have been too much to ask. Too big a demand on his intelligence and ample common sense. God ran out of brains when he made this one, Elli thought.
    His belligerence raised its ugly head. Instead of staying quiet, he stood up, defiant and defensive, reckless or unaware that Elli held all the cards. He didn’t care if he betrayed himself in the process.
    ‘Why should you be the one to still lead this company? I think it’s time for the chair to move to one of the other clans. You are no longer fit to run the company. I move for a vote of no confidence in you and for your removal from the board.’
    ‘Do you think you have the numbers?’
    ‘I’ll take that chance.’
    ‘Would you like to tell us why?’
    With a smug expression on his face he launched into his indictment. ‘You have been using company funds illegally for a futile personal project or a quest for which the company will obtain no financial gain.’
    There were audible gasps around the table even if some of the other shareholders for whom Manoukios was the spokesperson knew about this. It was still shocking, as it was the first time the authority of the head of the family and the head of the company had been at least openly challenged in a public venue.
    Manoukios was on a roll, or so he and his allies thought. He continued, laughably undaunted, blindingly digging deeper holes for himself as he went along.
    ‘Unless, of course, it is for the pursue of treasure or something valuable in which case it belongs to the company and it should therefore be shared proportionally amongst the shareholders as an extraordinary tax-free dividend. Elli, is it treasure that you crave and are searching for so obsessively?’ There were murmurs and nods of agreement with his last proposal.
    ‘If you actually check your records you will realise that everything was paid for through my own personal funds. That was a cheap shot, Manoukios.’ Elli ignored his other allegations. It was none of his business.
    Elli thought that her mere presence at this meeting and her obvious confidence should have been enough to indicate to him that he, and the person or persons he had allied himself with, had already lost.
    He had played with fire and was about to get burned. He had no idea of the fate Elli had in store for him for such blatant and sloppily organised betrayal. She knew how she would have gone about doing it, if she was planning such a coup, and it would not be like this fool has done it. And it would probably have had a bigger chance of success. So typical of Manoukios not to be properly prepared. His habits during his school years still bedevilled him.
    ‘Manoukios, you always were a greedy fool. Now, shut up and listen. This concerns not only you but all of us. It is not about you, about one person or one family.’ Elli paused. ‘And I will tell you why. It appears you have not done your homework. You have not studied the rules of the company. I am the current 60 % majority shareholder and as such I have absolute control of this company. The rules were created by the founders, so as to prevent future petty challenges causing upheaval by distracting from the company’s management and damaging the company.
    ‘You are on a slippery slope, Manoukios. To continue on this silly course of ignoring the facts and hoping for a miracle is a waste of all our time and it smacks of a vendetta, of a desperate attempt to settle scores. Perhaps you believe you are in a parallel universe where a miracle will override the company rules.’ Elli’s last sentence was phrased as a question. Her words oozed caustic irony.
    Manoukios was still smarting from Elli’s assault, but there was no giving up and no turning back. He had to see this through to the bitter end. He went on a new assault of his own.
    ‘My dearest Elli, I repeat. Why should you and your clan be the one solely deserving of this honoured position? Tell us, please, where it is written that you and your brood are the chosen ones. Because, and I believe I speak for most of us here, I don’t know of any such situation that should continue in perpetuity.’
    Elli almost laughed out loud. Manoukios certainly had a lot of fight still left in him. Playing to the gallery, as they say. Such splendid posturing. She was almost impressed by his performance and sheer stupidity, put on display for all to see.
    He was now well on his way to, expertly and determinedly, dig an even larger hole for himself and taking his allies with him. Well, he would do that literally and very soon, Elli thought. And he didn’t know it yet. Elli calmly and tactfully nudged Manoukios along.
    ‘I think you have not been listening.’
    ‘Yes, I have, and I plan to challenge those rules in court. I’m going to call my lawyer right now.’
    Manoukios began to have the chilling feeling that he had lost the battle. He had to get out and think. With his defiant declaration he was buying himself time before a suspected humiliation at the hands of Elli came. He had to save face before all present.
    He had to leave the room quickly, postpone or, if he was lucky, completely escape the sentence Elli would unilaterally pass on him and execute with ruthless efficiency and no remorse. She would have every right to do that. He was the culpable party after all. However, unbeknownst to him, with his statement his folly was now complete and his fate inescapable.
    He stood as if to leave, but didn’t get very far. Something was slowing him down with every step he took, and was pulling him back. He could sense Elli’s eyes on him. He knew she had more to say.
    He stopped and turned towards those present. His eyes locked on Elli’s. He started to say something, to protest, but whatever he intended to say was cut short prematurely and killed at birth.
    Elli had had enough of his stupidity. ‘Sit down, Manoukios, and shut up.’
    ‘We don’t trust you.’ He said as he sat down, his demeanour one of a scolded child, still defiant but with his protest weakening with every syllable.
    Elli waited until she had everybody’s attention. She could feel their eyes boring down on her. She was enjoying herself. She only hoped that they were enjoying the show as much as she did.
    ‘Manoukios. You have been in Andrew’s pocket for quite some time now, haven’t you? For those who don’t know who I am talking about I am referring to Andrew Le Charos.’ Elli paused. She looked around the table at shocked and in some cases also confused faces. ‘Yes, the Australian shark as he’s otherwise known.’ There were nods of recognition. She continued. ‘You conspired with Andrew to cause trouble not just to me but disruption to the company itself. How much has he paid you Manoukios?’
    ‘You are bluffing. You have no proof of that.’
    ‘I’m not bluffing. And I believe I speak for all of us here when I say that by claiming that I am bluffing, you have confirmed that what I said is true.’
    Manoukios was shaking his head; his face was going red, causing in the others the fear that a stroke or a heart attack was imminent. His whole body began to tremble, he appeared to be shaken by convulsions, he seemed almost on the verge of madness and it made one expect that he would start to break apart and explode at any moment, like a tremor that opens up cracks in the earth. The others were watching him with fascination.
    Elli continued. ‘You can deny it no longer.’
    Manoukios was becoming desperate. He felt he was losing his supporters in the room. He had to do something. He had to say something. But maybe it was already too late.
    ‘You run the company like your personal fiefdom. You take decisions and do whatever you like without consulting the board.’
    ‘You know as well as I do that that is part of my extensive authority according to the company’s rules. I do not have to consult the board and that’s how it has been for hundreds of years.’
    ‘Perhaps it’s time for this to change. Especially since you have abused your position and disgraced this company and caused it irrevocable damage.’
    ‘I suggest that you stop this nonsense before you cause the company and suffer yourself irrevocable damage.’
    ‘Are you threatening me?’
    ‘No, I am not. I don’t have to. You are doing the damage to yourself by seeing enemies where there are none and fighting the shadows. We are not out to get you, you know. You always get so…’ She paused. ‘… defensive.’
    He ignored her. ‘Let’s not lose sight of the ball here. As I was saying, before being rudely interrupted, this woman has harmed this company, this board and, by extension, us. And I provide these as proof.’
    He proceeded to distribute copies of newspapers and various other publications with highlighted stories about Elli, stories with spurious and serious allegations about her professional capacity and role, about mismanagement and abuse of that role and nonsense about her private life. It was unbelievable and cheap.
    Elli had suspected that he might use this material and had no doubt that he had fed all these lies, these fabrications to those publications with the aim of creating a huge scandal and embarrassing her with the ultimate aim of crashing her and forcing her out of the company, the family, society and friends and acquaintances.
    She knew he was the one that instigated this ridiculous but seriously misguided campaign against her in the press and other media. Elli was prepared for that eventuality.
    ‘This nonsense that you have presented so flamboyantly and with such flair before us is already with the lawyers. You and these publications, which stupidly without checking their sources, printed these lies, and any media that have broadcasted any of it, will be sued for libel. You and the people you gave the story too will be receiving court documents in the next few days.’
    ‘But how? What are you saying? Don’t try to wriggle out of this. You know that everything is true.’ As he was saying this he was beginning to lose heart, the passion and confidence in his voice noticeably waning. ‘I spoke to no-one. You should have been more discreet, or rather not have done any of this at all. Ah, Elli you’ve always thought you were better than us. What do you have to say for yourself now?’
    ‘Manoukios, just stop it. That’s enough. If lies is the best you have to throw at me then you are a very small man indeed. I do have evidence that it was you who spoke to the media.’
    He almost went to protest, but thought better of it or caught Elli’s forbidding act of the lifting and widening of the eyes, which effectively shushed him.
    Elli had anticipated his action or saw the flicker of a movement, which was enough to warn her. ‘I have written statements and those who have given those statements are also willing to testify against you.’
    She moved her eyes away from his, indicating the people around the table who were ravenously consuming and voraciously reading the written tosh. ‘Do you think anyone in here believes this rubbish? Oh, you may say they do, because they are, at this moment, very interested in it and can’t get enough of it, but it’s just entertainment for them, the novelty value of new amusement and salacious scandal which is always popular whether it’s true and based on fact or not, as the case may be. But give it a few days and then interest will vanish. The papers themselves will tire of this and they, as well as the public, will move onto the next big thing, the next breaking news.’
    Elli had to get the others away from their voracious reading and she knew how, with something even more interesting.
    ‘Manoukios, did you know that your family, more specifically through your wife’s side was involved in collaboration with the Ottoman Sultan in 1453 in the abduction of the last Emperor and the instalment of an impostor?’
    The others stopped their reading or whatever else they had been distracted with and turned towards her giving her their full attention.
    Manoukios would not take this sitting down. ‘I’m impressed. Such fairytales. You know how to weave a story. If you have not written a book yet, it is such a waste. Someone should rush and sign you on quick.’
    ‘It is not a fairytale. It is true.’ Here Elli bluffed a bit. Although it was her suspicion that that was what happened, and some manuscripts that were found by Aggelos at the library of the Monastery of Pantokrator on Mount Athos did make some reference to such a plot and the said family’s collaboration, she did not yet have confirmation that there was an impostor on the throne at the time.
    ‘But even if you have evidence of that, it was a long time ago. It is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with today’s events and my motion. Don’t think that you can distract from that and pull wool over our eyes. I think you are becoming desperate, because you are guilty and reckless and…’ He was becoming hysterical and was by now shouting. ‘… you should not be here anymore. You should have no right to be here anymore.’
    ‘And you, Manoukios, are trying to divert attention from your breach of your duty to the company and, more specifically, which has legal complications for you, the fact that you have illegally and against the company’s rules pledged your stake to someone outside the family, effectively giving that person control over your stake which you are expressly not allowed to do.
    ‘In addition, because of that, you have abused your position within the company and as a member of the board and you have passed on to an outsider confidential and sensitive information on the company and its activities. I think the lawyers and the courts will have a field day with this case. I believe your position on this board and within the company has become untenable, my dear Manoukios.’
    ‘What are you talking about? All these false accusations and without a shred of evidence.’ He looked around the table. ‘As if further proof was needed that you are insane and unfit to run this company.’
    ‘The evidence is all there, Manoukios, and, furthermore, Andrew Le Charos himself told me all this.’
    ‘He did not. You are bluffing.’
    ‘You should know that I am not. And even if Andrew does not wish to testify if we reach that stage, he can be compelled by law to testify. So, you see, your plot and your dirty practices have been uncovered. And it’s too late to even try to put them back into the box and secure it.’ Elli paused. You have underestimated me, haven’t you, Manoukios? I have had enough of trying to persuade you to come to your senses and drop this personal vendetta against me for your own good and the company’s, but all you’ve always done is put booby traps in my way.’
    She gave a piercing gaze at Manoukios’ so-called allies who had so far kept quiet. They lowered their eyes to their notepads, seemingly embarrassed or uncertain of themselves. They said nothing whether in support of Elli or, interestingly and more crucially, in support of Manoukios. Elli was amused. The traitors could not even manage to stay loyal to their betrayal and seemed to be wavering, standing on the fence, undecided whether switching sides would be more beneficial to them. Even if they had done it now, and wholeheartedly supported Elli, it would have been too late to hide their internal strife. The fact that they were even considering it was the last straw, the nail in the coffin of their betrayal.
    Manoukios’ grand alliance was crumbling before her very eyes or, perhaps, she was misreading the situation. It was their reluctance to expressly denounce Manoukios, their erstwhile ringleader, and firmly and unequivocally pledge their loyalty and allegiance to Elli, that proved to her that they could not be trusted. Because of that she would not give them another chance. It would be pointless, as they had burned their bridges already. If they had betrayed her once, they could do it again. ‘Suit yourselves. Is that how you all feel? Does Manoukios speak for you all?’
    Manoukios’ eyes were darting around in panic and fear gripped him of what else Elli had up her sleeve. He was searching his memories, his actions, his whole life, for anything else incriminating and damaging. He was almost ready to capitulate in shame and accept his fate when he looked around the table at the faces of those present for the answer to Elli’s question.
    He thanked his god and his lucky stars for the panic and uncertainty that forced him to delay his surrender, to conceal his weakness before Elli’s onslaught at the critical time that his fate would be judged by his allies maintaining their support and standing firmly behind him, to rein in the urge to give up and leave this humiliation, to hold back from uttering the words that were rushing to get out as the fruit of his fears.
    He thanked all that he held sacred for keeping him quiet for that bit longer, but long enough not to trip, not to disrupt the feelings of his allies, not to allow them to be intimidated by Elli into submission by being brought back to their senses and changing their minds, forcing his eviction from their loyalties, their minds and their hearts.
    There was a glimpse of hope on his part that he had not lost his support in the meeting. His supporters were still with him. And then he saw what he had hoped but accepted he could no longer expect. He could not believe it. There was strong assent from all the heads of the clans and shareholders present that they agreed with the views he had expressed, apart from Elli’s own immediate family, including Iraklios, who, though he had his own agenda in mind, had decided that there was no need to stir those particular waters right now or to draw attention to himself. He could not allow anything, let alone something as minor as this internal company conflict, to detract from his ultimate goal.
    Manoukios could not believe it but Elli had not managed to sway the minds of his allies, even after having exposed him and his weaknesses for all to see, even after him failing to hold the course and stand firm and stay faithful and strong to his strategy agreed with them before the meeting, even after being made to look like a fool, although he had to concede he had done that all by himself to himself. They agreed with him.
    All those people still agreed with him after all that had transpired at the meeting. They were stupid, he thought to himself, but it did not matter as long as they were his stupid allies and he was glad to have them on his side.
    The time had come for Elli to quash this laughable uprising and bring the matter to a close once and for all. It was time for the trump card. ‘Fine. As you wish. This meeting is over. Go back to your plush and decadent little lives and be comforted by your personal and vested interests. You shall not have them for long.’
    Now Manoukios was really panicked. ‘Are you declaring war on us?’
    ‘Oh, no. That would be too crude, too gentle a word. I’m using a little-known clause in the rules of the company to ostracise you and force the delivery to me of your holdings.’
    ‘You cannot do that. We will take you to court, if you even try. We will sue you for everything you have.’
    Elli turned to Vasilis. ‘Please distribute the relevant documents.’
    Manoukios again. ‘What? What is this? But how…?’
    Elli just smiled and waited while those present around the table read their indictment and sentence all wrapped in one beautifully presented package. They were studying the document and Elli could see their eyes opening wide in disbelief. She had their attention. She pressed her advantage.
    ‘However, I will not be cruel. I propose that the company buys you out. You will tender your shares at a fair value that has been reached by an independent valuation.’ Elli gave copies for distribution. ‘If you accept this valuation and this offer, which is voluntary and very generous, your shares will be purchased at that price and cancelled. This is conditional upon you also signing a document surrendering any rights you may have in law.
    ‘The purpose of this is to avoid any unnecessary trouble in the future. I think you know that anything you may be considering to try has no chance and you will lose. And you will be left with nothing. The offer will not be open indefinitely. You have five minutes. Think it over.’
    It took them a lot less than that. She could see that they had not expected her generosity and they liked it. She could almost see them drooling and licking their lips with their tongue. They had been won over. She had them eating out of her hand. They were nodding like a group of penguins copying each other or a set of dominoes set up in a scheme and now falling.
    Elli had already sold company assets worth around seven billion US dollars, which was the amount needed to fund the buy-out of the other shareholders’20 % stake in the company. She and Iraklios together held a combined 80 % stake. She had the authority to sell those assets, even up to such a large amount, according to the company’s explicit and very detailed rules.
    She was not obliged by the company’s rules to obtain the board’s approval, nor was she obliged to notify them of the sale, before or after. That is why she was able to do it in secret and well in advance of the meeting. She was quite surprised, though, that none of them even got a whiff of such large sales. Some gossip should have reached their ears. It showed how detached they were from the business world at the very least and, perhaps, the world at large.
    It was as if they lived in an extremely protective cocoon. But as she thought that, Elli knew that she was so feared and respected that nobody would dare to say anything or allow anything to leak about those transactions. The vow of confidentiality was sacred and would be respected. It was not just a matter of a reciprocal ‘my word is my bond’ pact.
    And even if the buyers were publicly-listed companies, they could not reveal the deals until after this particular meeting. It was all included in the contracts with draconian penalty clauses and a whole array of legal consequences that would have come raining down on them, if they stepped out of line and breached them. And none of those transactions required the approval of the purchasing companies’ shareholders.
    Nobody could afford to find themselves on the wrong side of Elli. Let them think or speculate that Valchern may be in trouble. It didn’t matter. As a private company it was not at the mercy of the markets and, furthermore, it was cash rich with ample resources and did not need any credit or loans from any banks that may be reluctant to lend, acting on rumours of financial difficulty, rumours which could though be easily crushed by access to the company’s accounts. And she had engineered a blanket on the media too.
    But Manoukios would have none of it. He was not yet convinced. He had to fight his corner. That was exactly what he was, cornered. And those who are cornered become desperate. They don’t think things through and just lunge out and make mistakes. He had to win his rapidly waning support back. He had to make one last desperate effort.
    ‘With what money?’
    ‘The money is there. And let me remind you that you have no choice. You and your conspirators went against the company rules, against the best interests of the company and that is a punishable offence. I believe that the sentence or penalty, as you may prefer, is appropriate and it is within the power accorded to me by the rules to impose.’
    Manoukios was standing alone and isolated now and he knew it. He finally realised that he had been defeated. He said nothing more and sat down looking at his notepad. He could not believe he had lost. He had been confident it had all been meticulously organised.
    How could he have underestimated Elli so much? Maybe he was getting too old, losing his touch. If Elli had heard his internal debate she would have commented: “What touch? You never had any to begin with.”
    As it dawned on the other shareholders, and hitherto supporters of Manoukios, that Elli would not be bluffing and could indeed do what she declared and held all the cards, they started to bicker amongst themselves, blaming Manoukios and each other. As a result of this split jury in their mind, they had been outmanoeuvred, had been rendered unable to agree to take any decisive action. Their precariously-and-loosely-held-together pact had proved to be very short-lived indeed. Now, with them out of action for quite a while, Elli was free to pursue her plans for the company.

CHAPTER 42

    Constantinople (Istanbul)
    Present day
    The private jet, a converted Boeing 767, landed in Istanbul’s airport in heavy rain and strong gusts of wind. Elli was not scared in the least. Not for her the flimsy light-as-feather smaller private jets. She saw the sense in a properly-sized plane, a necessary luxury.
    In a weird way the discretion of the treatment she always expected and received guaranteed her the desired anonymity. In no time, she was in a limousine on its way to the Ayia Sophia Square.
    She was dropped off at one of the minor entry points to the great church. She went in, down some stairs, then up through another flight of stairs, to the spot where only a few days earlier, Katerina and Aristo narrowly escaped certain death.
    There was nobody around. What was about to happen was no sight for untrained eyes. She looked at the image of St. George and closed her eyes. St. George extended his arm and grabbing it, she was pulled into another picture that was inside the depiction on the wall and which was the Emperor Justinian in 537 A.D. standing next to his great church.
    Justinian took her by the hand and let her inside the church where she saw the two keys hanging from the huge chandelier above the central space of the church. Justinian lowered the chandelier and gave her the keys.

    Within minutes she was outside Ayia Sophia and standing before the entrance to the Topkapi, which gleamed in the sunlight that broke through the clouds, all guns blazing.
    Her destination was a section of the former Ottoman palace that housed important manuscripts, an extension of the Topkapi’s famous and very valuable library.
    She saw the glass case as she stood by the entrance and walked to it briskly. She stood there staring at an Ottoman manuscript, which provided the detail on the Sultan’s ownership and wealth. There was nobody around. She inserted one of the keys. She heard a click and at that moment the room disappeared to the outside world.
    A Ruinand pair following her didn’t know what hit them. They were locked out, if you could call it that. But how could the room have disappeared? Ahead of them the corridor continued and disappeared in the distance with no end in sight, no obstacle in its way. They walked the distance to make sure and they went right through where the room was supposed to be.
    They looked at each other furious with themselves. They should have followed her inside even if they, no doubt, would have given away their presence. Their mistress, the Marcquesa, would have them suffer a slow and painful death for this fiasco.
    Once the room was off public radar, the glass case flew open. Elli carefully and gently pushed the manuscript to one side to get to a hidden compartment underneath. She inserted the second key and opened it. Inside was an even older parchment than the manuscript resting above it, signed by not one but many Sultans, Kings, bishops and archbishops throughout history.
    In there it was safe and invisible, in full public view, but in reality hidden from anyone but her who only knew of its existence. Public display guaranteed the object’s safety from intrusion by prying eyes well trained in the art of sightseeing.
    On the parchment was a list of sites that she personally owned. The sites were mining deposits of an element called kalbendium that fuelled the time travel devices she used. Only she knew of the element’s existence which was mined, extracted by specially designed machines and processed in top secret facilities using top secret unique technology in a protected sterile environment.
    Kalbendium was calm and glowing when in a static condition, but volatile when handled and the process converted it into a usable stable form. Its volatility precluded the use of humans in its extraction. Maintaining secrecy was another reason. All the names of her predecessors who had owned and controlled those deposits were written by hand at the bottom of the parchment during the initiation process once each new head of the company and the family was appointed after the death of the previous occupant of the post whose duty was to groom his successor.
    One day Aristo’s name will be added to this list. Satisfied, she returned the parchment to its place and locked the compartment. She then put the Ottoman manuscript on top and locked the glass case. She put the keys in her handbag and calmly but purposefully walked out of the room, pretending to be looking at various exhibits like a visitor on her way out of the Topkapi.
    Elli was now free to look forward to her meeting in a coffee shop, a short twenty-minute walk away, in the shadow of the Egyptian or Misir Bazaar near the Southern end of the Galata Bridge spanning the mouth of what used to be called the Golden Horn.
    The view from there of the Bosphorus and the city’s Asian side was breathtaking and never ceased to excite and move her every time. She loved to walk in her favourite city in her favourite time of the year.
    It was a dazzling day. She made her way to the agreed spot, found a table and sat down to wait for her date. He had been on an errand deep in the Fanari district near the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not very far from where she was sitting.
    He enjoyed visiting old haunts lovingly explored and tirelessly trodden during their frequent visits to the city as children. He saw her before she saw him. He stood behind her and covered her eyes with his hands. She did not even flinch as if expecting it.
    ‘My darling boy. It’s been some time. It’s good to see you.’
    They hugged tightly and looked at each other. Elli’s face brightened by a wide smile. Vasilis studied her. She was still a beautiful “young” woman. She was ageless. To them it was a mother and son reunion. But they were both in disguise. To the rest of the world it was a meeting between a happy couple, a couple very much in love.
    They both knew it wouldn’t be long before the pages of newspapers and magazines from Baku to Los Angeles and Sydney were splashed all over with the gossip of the Ducesa de Mori Astir taking a new lover, a new “beau”. That was a delicious thought that amused them both. The temptation to laugh was irresistible.
    They laughed till their facial muscles met the limit of tolerance of excruciating pain. They stopped, breathless, as if they were drowning in a deep ocean and in a sudden rush came up with an unquenchable thirst for air. With an unsatisfied hunger they both started talking almost at once.
    ‘Mother. Thanks for the holiday.’
    ‘I thought you would enjoy it. Do they suspect you?’
    ‘I don’t think so. They think that we had a fall out and that, full of anger, in my disillusionment with you and feeling betrayed by you, I wished to hurt you by switching sides. And what would be the ideal vehicle of revenge than allying myself with your worst enemy? I’ve planted enough bugs in there to write a book about their lives. The bugs are working perfectly. They should be transmitting everything to your control centre on Mount Ellothon.’
    Vasilis paused and his demeanour took on the excitement of a child’s emerging from a cave of wonders. ‘Mother, you should see their underwater city. Its beauty is beyond what words could describe. I hope we don’t have to destroy it to neutralise their threat once and for all.’
    ‘I think we should be able to avoid that. But we have much work to do. Keep me informed on what they have acquired. We will make sure they only end up with the fake goods. Have you seen the icon?’
    ‘No, not yet.’
    ‘Do you know where it’s held?’
    ‘No, but I’ll try and find out. Mother, you know we cannot underestimate the Madame Marcquesa de Parmalanski. She’s very smart. I’m the one closest to their centre of control and the one most at risk of blowing my cover and endangering our plans. I’ll be careful.’
    ‘Try and find out the whereabouts of the icon. We’ll have a fake one for you ready to make the switch when you do.’
    At that moment a beggar was passing by and he offered Elli a flower out of a bouquet he held in his hand. Another flower he deliberately dropped on the ground. Elli recognised the face even under all those ravishing wrinkles mixed with dirt. His disguise would make a girl in the Sultan’s harem or, more likely, the make-up artist who makes dead bodies look their lovely freshest best, very proud. The beauty counter had sold out, Elli thought. Under all that pile upon pile of make-up with the compliments of the gutter was her brother, Iraklios.
    She smiled, what looked to the world a polite and indifferent smile. But to Iraklios it was the glint in her eye that spoke to him and they understood each other. She gave him some change and he was on his way. She smelled the flower and placed it next to her on the table.
    A few seconds later she deliberately pushed it, so that it fell to the ground and landed next to the other flower and her handbag that was relaxing by her feet. She bent down and pulled a quick switch. She discreetly put the flower that was offered to her in her bag and the other back onto the table. While the flower sat on the table the second ingredient required for its secret to be activated had already been added.
    The heat emitted by the coffee cup combined with the heat of Elli’s breath had a strange invigorating effect on the flower, that otherwise seemed to have been on its last legs, or, to put it correctly, last petals. Now inside Elli’s bag, it was emitting an intoxicating fragrance that apparently only she and her companion could smell. Inside the confines of the bag it transformed into a parchment, a transformation visible only to Elli and Vasilis. To anyone else opening the bag it would still look like a flower.
    The Ruinands who had caught up with Elli and had seen the transformation into the Ducesa were on their way to abduct her and her son. Iraklios was watching the Ruinands himself. He intervened with the flower when he saw the noose tightening around Elli and Vasilis’ neck. He gave them a way out.
    While nothing seemed to have changed at that table, Elli, the Ducesa disguise having melted away, and Vasilis had already been transported to the airfield and Elli’s waiting plane that took them back to Cyprus.

CHAPTER 43

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Elli and Giorgos were sitting in Elli’s living room reviewing their progress so far and discussing their next steps in this quest for the truth.
    ‘Giorgos, I’m leaving for Mount Athos tomorrow.’
    ‘Have you found a lead or are you working on a hunch?’
    ‘I read those seven pages that were missing from the Book of the Pallanians that you and Aristo got from Alexandria. It mentions a book of documents and invoices with no lists, but the sum of payment for the construction of what, from the considerable amount spent, seems to have been a huge building or project. But it does not mention the location or the year. Such an expensive construction must have been made for someone very important.
    ‘I wonder whether it could lead us to the tomb of, perhaps I would dare say, the last Emperor. I know it may be wishful thinking on my part, but there’s no harm in checking it out. There’s another reason for me wanting to go to Mount Athos. The matter of the possible impostor Emperor is bothering me and I want it resolved. I want to ask the abbot or Aggelos whether they know of the existence of any relic that contains parts of that impostor.
    ‘After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, the Sultan had the body of the last Emperor quartered and hung on the city walls to crush any remaining morale or flame of rebellion that the inhabitants of the city may have harboured. Someone, at least, some faithful soul must have stolen a part. And it probably ended in a monastery on Mount Athos, as other relics and treasures did after the fall of the City. Alternatively, there may be a body part in the Topkapi.
    ‘The Sultan must have kept something and it would have been probably transferred there as part of its collection when the Topkapi was first built. If such a body part exists, and assuming we can be sure of its authenticity, we can carry out a DNA test to confirm once and for all whether there was, indeed, an impostor on the throne at that critical time.’
    ‘I will do some digging on the matter of that construction. I will let you know if I find anything. In the meantime, have a good trip.’
    ‘Thank you. I don’t think I’ll be more than a couple of days. I will see you when I get back.’
    ‘It’s a date.’

CHAPTER 44

    Monastery of Pantokrator
    Mount Athos, Northern Greece
    Present day
    Elli arrived at the Monastery of Pantokrator on Mount Athos at dusk. She was led to Spyros the abbot. He was expecting her.
    ‘Elli. Another pleasure. We should arrange for you to have strange adventures more often.’
    ‘It’s good to see you, old friend. As you may have gathered I need something. And before you say it, I know that it looks like I only see you when I need something, but it’s you that chose this monastic life in the most isolated and remote of places. If I came more often people might get suspicious that there was something going on between us and I wouldn’t want to cause any trouble for you.’
    ‘You will never be trouble. I don’t care what they think.’
    ‘Spyros, you know what stories people make up in this place with little excitement but prayer after prayer…’
    Elli paused when she saw Spyros’ mock expression of shock and hurt. She smiled and shook her head, amused, and looking at the floor, hanging her head in mock shame and knowing Spyros’ expression had turned to one of a parent ready to deal with a naughty child, waited for the reprimand that never came.
    She knew Spyros did not see it that way, but did not get offended by such a comment either. They would often have a friendly argument over this that could go on forever with no clear winner emerging. She was in no mood and did not have the time to go into a discussion at that time. She opened her arms in a gesture of surrender. ‘… alright, and plenty of administration and other tasks which I do not want to demean in my estimation. Please don’t misunderstand me, but you know as well as I do that I’m telling the truth.’ Spyros nodded in agreement. ‘Spyros, we’ve never discussed this before, but it relates to the matters we discussed on my two last visits here. It’s about the possibility that an impostor was placed on the throne of Constantinople shortly before the siege and fall of 1453.
    ‘And of course that would mean that we don’t know of the fate of the real Emperor. What happened to him? Was he abducted and imprisoned by the Ottomans? Was he killed? How did he die and when? If such a daring scheme was put into effect, it must have been done on the orders of someone high up in the Ottoman hierarchy, possibly the Sultan.
    ‘Nobody else had anything to gain from that. It could have been carried out with inside help of course in exchange for mercy and preferential treatment after the city fell. We need to conclusively resolve this issue once and for all, if we can.
    ‘Now, tell me, do you know of the existence of a relic containing a part from the body of the man who was killed and presented as the last Emperor, here in this monastery, another monastery on Mount Athos or somewhere else?’
    Spyros didn’t need to think at all. His reply was immediate.
    ‘I do. There’s one here at the monastery.’
    ‘But how can we know that it is an authentic relic? You know the prevalence of fake relics being as they were big business in Byzantine times. With the amount of places that claim to have a piece of the cross, for example, if they are all authentic, it must have been a gigantic cross, probably as tall at least as the Eiffel Tower.’
    ‘The one here at the monastery is accompanied by a parchment containing a letter written by the man who took it from Constantinople, a faithful subject of his Emperor. He came here and became a monk. He took it when the quartered body of the last Emperor was hung from the city’s walls.’
    ‘But how do you know the letter itself is authentic?’
    ‘I knew you would ask me that. It has been dated to 1453.’
    ‘Can I see it?’
    ‘Yes, of course. Now, something else I should mention is that there is another part of the body of the person who was believed to have been the last Emperor.’ Elli raised a questioning eyebrow and looked at him with intense interest. ‘It’s in the personal collection of the Sultans at the Dolmabace Palace in Constantinople. It used to be at the Topkapi. And we know that part to have been part of the Sultan’s collection from 1453, as it is listed in manuscripts cataloguing the collection.
    ‘The history of its listing goes back to 1453. We can assume that it would be authentic as the Sultan would no doubt have kept a memento for himself of whom he paraded by hanging on the walls of the city as the last Emperor.’
    ‘I believe that you may be right. Your reasoning is sound. We can compare the two and with DNA from me or a member of my family as we carry the Emperor’s blood in our veins through Michael, my ancestor Eleni’s son. I’ll arrange it. Thank you, Spyros. But please show me the relic.’
    Spyros led the way with Elli following. When they got to the library, Aggelos was surprised at the request as nobody had asked to see it before.

    A few days later when the body part and the parchment were analysed and dated, they were only found to be about three hundred and twenty years old. The same result was repeated when they managed to get hold of the body part at the Dolmabace Palace. How was it possible that both of them would be dated around the same time? Was it possible that both of them had been stolen? But why? Aggelos had a theory.
    ‘After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the collapse of the predominantly Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Russia took over the mantle of protector of Orthodox Christians and the flourishing monastic communities of Mount Athos. Russian Tsars and Tsarinas, a notable mention reserved here for Catherine the Great, lavished protection and gifts on the Holy Mountain.
    ‘But what is less well known is the fact that they were also siphoning away treasures unchecked. Even amongst those who suspected or even knew, who would dare to offend the protector and line of defence against the Ottomans surrounding Mount Athos and dominating the Eastern Mediterranean?
    ‘We simply don’t know how much has been taken to Russia. It was during those years that Russian monks and monks from other lands came here and boosted numbers of monks to tens of thousands. A Russian monastery was founded wholly paid for by the Tsar as a generous and worthy contribution to the monastic semi-autonomous state.
    ‘Russia is now the most populous and most powerful Orthodox Christian country in the world, even though theoretically and symbolically the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople is the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. In recent times, after the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union and the revival of the power and position of the Church in Russia, Russian Presidents have visited Mount Athos and especially the Russian monastery there.
    ‘There have been rumours of heavy chests being loaded onto helicopters and then boarding private jets in Ouranoupolis, as the closest town outside Mount Athos, on their way to Russia.’
    Spyros took up the thread of Aggelos’ theory. ‘So what you are saying is that those relics could have been taken to Russia and could right now be in the collections of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or the Kremlin in Moscow.’
    ‘Yes, exactly.’
    Elli who had patiently waited for Aggelos to expand his theory intervened. ‘But how do we know where to look? It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack, assuming that these relics are still there, if they were there at all in the first place.’
    Aggelos had the answer. ‘The director at the Hermitage is a good friend of mine.’ He saw Elli’s and Spyros’ surprise and went on to explain. ‘We studied together in St. Petersburg or as it was known back then Leningrad. I’ll call him and ask him if he knows of anything that resembles the relics we are looking for. It may take some time as he would need to go through old inventories.’
    ‘We don’t have much time, but try and get him to do it as soon as he can.’ She paused. ‘There is another reason I’m here. I have found in the Book of Pallanians reference to inventories for the construction of a huge structure. But I don’t know what it is or its location. It’s a long shot, but the original documents may have ended on Mount Athos for safekeeping. And it is possible that they may also have ended up in Russia with the Tsars’ scooping up of any treasure in sight or any that reached their ear.’
    Aggelos nodded. ‘I’ll make some discreet enquiries.’
    ‘I can pay if it would speed things up, for example by more people being allocated to the search relating to the relic and the book of inventories regarding the construction of that structure.’
    ‘Yes, that may certainly help. I will make my enquiries and let you know.’
    ‘Thank you.’

    Aggelos’ enquiries indeed let to a record of such a book having been found at the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos and having been removed and taken to the Hermitage. There was also record of the book having been left at the monastery in 1453 by someone who let drop a comment that was recorded by the monk receiving the item, as it seemed to him to have been unusual.
    The comment was that the book was worth an Emperor’s ransom and should be watched as if it were the monk’s child. That to Elli was a clue, without her imagination leading her astray and jumping to conclusions, that it couldn’t be anything other than a tomb for an Emperor, a last tribute worthy of an Emperor, just like the pyramids in Egypt or other elaborate tombs elsewhere in the world, intended to be lasting memorials to their illustrious occupants, eternal monuments to their name and glory, not just a selfish act but the name kept alive for future generations to remind them of their proud heritage.
    The book was later transferred to the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon. The director also found both relics in the museum’s collection, stored out of sight, after an extensive search. Aggelos immediately called Elli who arranged to fly to St. Petersburg with Giorgos.
    At the back of her mind there was a niggling worry, something that was bothering her. She hadn’t heard from Aristo or Katerina in Crete. She tried both Aristo’s and Katerina’s mobiles, but there was no answer. They both seemed to be switched off or, perhaps, they had no reception where they were. It may be nothing, but she was concerned. She made a note to try and get in contact with them. If her attempt failed she would send someone to Agia Galini in Crete to find out what was going on.

CHAPTER 45

    Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
    Present day
    Elli’s plane landed at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport at a few minutes after two o’clock in the afternoon. It taxied to a quiet corner of the airport reserved for important visitors and stopped.
    A limousine was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. A Customs official was standing by the car. He quickly checked her passport, handed it back and bowed to her. She got into the car and it whisked her through the airport grounds and then through the city’s normally car-clogged and pollution-choked streets, along the river Neva.
    She could see the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace of the Tsars, in the distance, gloriously reflected on the tame waters of the Neva. In the car she remembered the flower that had become a parchment and which had been burning a hole in her bag. She opened her bag and took it out. It felt warm and it was getting warmer. And it was emitting a strange noise.
    It was as if it was some location device that contained a chip, which had homed in on its target and was leading Elli there. It was getting warmer as they approached the Hermitage. It was as if it was showing her the way, its intensity increasing at breakneck speed which was unlike the speed they were supposed to be travelling in this city, notorious for its overpopulation of cars and all matter of fragrant modes of transport.
    Their route along the river was, strangely, car-free and eerily soulless. The main gates swung open as if by magic the moment the car drew up to them. Such scarily efficient and troublesome journey was unheard of in this city. This kind of special treatment could only have been organised under the auspices of the country’s highest echelons of government. The director of the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest museums, was a powerful man.
    The museum was busy. At reception she announced her name and started to say that she had an appointment with the director when a man who had been walking briskly towards her, having recognised her, interrupted her.
    ‘Mrs Symitzis, good afternoon. I am Ivan. The director has sent me to take you to him. Please, follow me.’
    They came outside the director’s office and Ivan gently knocked on the door. A strong deep voice came out clearly from the other side of the door.
    ‘Come in.’
    The office was not a modest affair, as it was not an ordinary place of work, but befitting the director of one of the world’s greatest museums, with his choice of rooms in the former Winter Palace of the Tsars. The room’s impact on the visitor was such that it reminded one of the study of a Tsar or a grand room for public occasions rather than a simple office, with its high ceiling and huge windows and elaborate decoration covering almost every surface. Expensive furniture, objets d’art and paintings littered but did not suffocate the space.
    The director who had already been standing, looking out of the windows, turned and walked around his large desk towards Elli. He took her hand and kissed it and then seeing Elli proceeding to greet him in the traditional Russian way of three alternative kisses on the cheeks followed her lead.
    ‘My dear Mrs Symitzis. I am Alexei Sumarov.’ Elli noticed that he did not offer for the use of his first name, so she decided to preserve the respectful formality of her host and do the same. ‘It is an honour and a great pleasure to have you here. Aggelos has told me a lot about you. But of course he did not need to. Your reputation precedes you. I have read and heard so much about you that I feel very excited to finally make your acquaintance in person. Please, have a sit.’ He indicated a pair of armchairs beside the cold fireplace. ‘Could we offer you some coffee or tea or something else perhaps?’
    Elli noticed that he had been drinking coffee and that there was a second cup in the tray on the table between the armchairs. She thought it polite to join him in a gesture of accepting his local hospitality. Also she did not want to waste time. She wanted to broach the subject that brought her there as soon as possible.
    ‘Coffee would be lovely, thank you.’
    He poured the coffee and asked whether she took milk or sugar. She declined both. ‘Just black, thank you.’
    Once they had settled, or rather sunk, into the supremely comfortable armchairs with their cups, the director jumped straight into the reason she was there. He knew she was a busy woman and understood the urgency of the matter at hand.
    ‘Now, as I said to Aggelos, we have located the relics in question and I can show them to you. I understand that you wish to use DNA samples from them for comparison. I must say that they both seem very well preserved with hairs and flesh still on the bone. It is not normal procedure to handle them in this way and there is a horrifying amount of bureaucracy to deal with for permission to carry out what you propose to do. However, as it is within my discretionary power, I will personally give dispensation for you to proceed immediately. In fact, I have signed the permission and it is there on my desk.’
    ‘Thank you.’
    ‘Aggelos is a very good friend of mine and from what he and the abbot, Spyros, told me about you, I consider you a friend and would extend my help in the same way that I would treat Aggelos. Apologies if I may sound presumptuous. It is not my intention to claim such familiarity with you as I do not wish to in any way cause offence.’
    ‘My dear Mr Sumarov. On the contrary, I am honoured by your warm welcome and for seeing me at such short notice. I know that you are also a very busy man. As Aggelos must have mentioned to you, I am also interested in a certain book containing inventories and information on the construction of a huge project the location of which I am not aware. Have you located such a book?’
    ‘I have. And it actually contains plans, as well, and a lot of other details about that project. I have the relics and the book ready for you to take away.’
    ‘But how?’
    ‘I have signed them off as part of a temporary special exhibition of Byzantine artefacts in Limassol, Cyprus.’
    Elli smiled. She decided that she liked this man already. She would not have hesitated to offer him a position in her organisation, if she knew that there was even a remote chance he might have accepted. ‘Mr Sumarov, you have gone beyond my expectations. This will make my work a lot easier and the result I seek quicker to obtain.’
    ‘I do not want to keep you any longer than is necessary. Please, come with me.’
    Alexei Sumarov led Elli to a room a few metres away from his own. The curtains were drawn and the light was dim. Elli suspected that was so as to protect the items from direct light. The room was empty except for a table against one wall, far from the windows, with some items resting on it that seemed to be covered with velvet cloths. She assumed those would be the items she came here for.
    The director went and stood by the table and she followed. She could feel the parchment becoming very warm inside her bag. The director noticed her bag glowing, which was made all the more pronounced in the dimness of the room.
    ‘Mrs Symitzis. Forgive me, but your bag seems to be glowing in a very peculiar way’ He thought there might have been something dangerous about to catch fire and explode but did not voice his imagination.
    Elli looked at her bag and was stunned. She opened it and saw the parchment inside glowing. She took it out. The light emitted by the parchment was like holding a flame in her hand. It lit their faces in the same shadowy glow as would a fire in a dark place. It was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. They were both briefly lost for words.
    Elli recovered first. ‘I cannot explain it, but it seems that something in this room is causing this item quite some excitement.’
    She thought arousal was a more apt word, but she could not say it in such polite and formal company, such surrounds not appropriate to such honesty, not being devoid of the taboos of carrying one’s self with decorum. She unfurled the parchment and recognised the same Pallanian characters she had seen so many times lately. She traced her fingers on the page and felt the story.
    It told of the imprisonment of an Emperor, his escape and death, his body carried to Cappadocia on a gruelling march being chased by Ruinands. It told of the arrival in Cappadocia, of the construction of a small chapel to take the sarcophagus and the body, of the entombment of the body with proper honours as befitting an Emperor, of the sealing of the tomb, of an attack by Ruinands, of the killing of the bearers of the body except one who survived.
    It told of the Ruinands attempting to open the tomb and a horrifying event killing them all, an event attuned to an asteroid hitting the earth and causing total extinction. It told of Iraklios hearing of the opening of the said tomb a few months earlier and being surprised at the survival of the members of the archaeological expedition, surprise that the latest opening of the tomb was a non-event on the Richter scale stakes, in view of the event that killed the Ruinands that tried to open the tomb around five hundred years earlier.
    That told Iraklios that the body of the Emperor could not have been in that tomb in Cappadocia, but had been moved. Iraklios asked in the parchment for forgiveness for not telling Elli about the secret before, but she would understand as he had vowed to protect the secret and not divulge it to anyone, not even to Elli or his own family.
    However, he confirmed that he did not know of the location of the real tomb. That was too explosive, too dangerous a secret to be passed on. That was the end of the story on the parchment and the overwhelming torrent of words. It was almost a bit too much for Elli to take it all in, in one bite.
    The director had been watching her fascinated and wondering what she was doing, what she was seeing, but he respected her silence and did not break it as she seemed to be in extreme concentration, almost as if in a trance.
    He smiled inwardly at the thought of the spectacle of such an extraordinary and formidable woman as Elli Symitzis, one of the most powerful women in the world, looking like someone high on illicit hard drugs. He kept his observation and thoughts to himself.
    Elli looked up and caught the eye of the director watching her with interest. She did not think it impolite and therefore said nothing. She uncovered the items on the table. At that exact moment the room looked as if it had expanded to ten times its normal size. It suddenly acquired the look of a strange wintry snowy stage and the temperature dropped considerably.
    Both Elli and the director shivered involuntarily. Then it began snowing. It was as if they were in a different dimension, as if they were watching the events unfold behind a mirrored glass or through the eyes of ghosts. Elli turned to the director.
    ‘They didn’t used to call it Winter Palace for nothing. This is magical.’
    ‘I agree. But I don’t think this is what they had in mind when they gave it its name. Mrs Symitzis, do you know what is going on? Could it be connected with that parchment and the relics? There is no rational explanation for this strange event.’
    ‘I’m at a loss to explain it myself.’
    As they stood mesmerised witnesses to the bizarre series of events, they noticed golden footprints on the floor that appeared to be made by someone moving away from them. There was a golden light enveloping them, and rushing with tremendous speed, following the footsteps with its wild tail flowing behind and grabbing Elli and the director like a lasso and pulling them forward.
    The fiery tail then released them and, briefly assuming the figure of a human, beckoned them over, urging them to move quickly. They obeyed hypnotised. The room kept expanding and becoming the museum itself. They were moving through the throngs of people admiring the magnificent artefacts, which they had no time to even catch a glimpse of. The people did not give them a second glance, as if they could not see them, as if nothing strange was happening, as if only Elli and the director could see that light.
    Suddenly they were climbing up the grand staircase, their faces reflected on the huge mirrors and smiling back at them like loyal long-lost friends. The footsteps and the light stopped and disappeared outside the room that used to be the Tsar’s private drawing room, now closed to the public.
    It was then that the room they were in, before their weird experience and whirlwind grand tour began, stopped expanding and retracted to its initial incarnation. Except for one thing. The table was no longer there, but there was a door in its place cut into the wall.
    The director was shaking his head in disbelief. He could not take much more of this kind of excitement at his age. He craved his usual routine, his boring days. A deathly silence descended.
    Elli tried the handle of the newly-appeared door, but it would not budge.
    ‘Mr Sumarov, is there another way into the Tsar’s drawing room?’
    It took Alexei Sumarov a few seconds to respond. He heard Elli’s voice as if coming from far away, through a head swimming in a haze, drowning in a stunned state.
    He managed to clear the fog in his mind and emerge to the surface of reality, eventually, with a twenty-second delay, which Elli considered breaking, but thought better of it and gave the director the opportunity to recover from what would have been a much bigger shock than for her. In her line of business she was used to strange events such as these.
    The director appeared to be his normal self again, apart from a face with a chalky-white pallor, when he eventually replied. ‘There should be a small door to the side leading into the Tsar’s bedroom that should now be locked.’ As soon as he said it the door to the Tsar’s bedroom appeared and they went in. Once inside the Tsar’s bedroom it did not take them long to find the small door leading to the Tsar’s drawing room. It was indeed locked and the director did not have a key.
    But when Elli gently tried the handle, not only did the door open, but it came off as if Elli had used great force to wrench it off its hinges. They entered the drawing room and stood there frozen to the spot.
    In front of them floated what looked like a transparent presence, a ghost, but too close to reality to be a ghost. At this point it was as if time had stopped.
    Elli stared at this apparition that looked so flesh and bone real. Its face contorted as if in anguish, then as if a wave of anger was rising and it was struggling to control it, she saw it becoming livid, its eyes spitting fire.
    Then its face began to change colours at the rate of two a second, its features drawn and redrawn, rearranged into a multitude of expressions of mirth, pity, anger, its brows furrowing and then frowning at the presence of the two people before it. For a few seconds it felt like a face-off between them, but with the first signs of exasperation, Elli started to reflect those emotions of the figure opposite her.
    But then as suddenly as it appeared the spectacle ceased and the figure’s inscrutability returned and remained intact and Elli’s face responded in the same way. The figure started to speak.
    ‘You have won this round. You have “out-expressioned” me. Come this way. Your companion’s memory has been erased. He will not remember anything that his eyes have witnessed. His imagination is another matter. It deceives and inspires. The footprint of its memory cannot be erased. But he can do no harm. At the most he could write a book about it and wonder where those ideas came from.’
    The figure led Elli to an antechamber and the door was firmly closed shut behind her.
    ‘But first, you have a gift for me, don’t you?’
    Elli looked surprised. The figure indicated the parchment. She shook it in the air between them.
    ‘This?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘What does this have to do with what we are here for?’
    ‘Firstly, please put the parchment on the stand in front of the glass plate over there next to those items.’
    Elli turned and saw the plate. The relics and the book on the huge structure were positioned beside it. She walked to them and did as the figure asked.
    For some time nothing happened and Elli started to think the figure was playing with them. She was about to say something and opened her mouth to that effect, but was silenced by a sound coming from the parchment which began to vibrate and then jumped into the air and unfolded layer after layer until the whole of the floor was cluttered with its constituent parts.
    Elli’s eyes opened wide and stayed that way until the seemingly alive parchment had no more tricks to throw at her, its ability to give birth and multiply finally exhausted.
    ‘I had no idea it could be so long. What on earth is going on?’
    The figure smiled and instantly became the likeness of the last Emperor and then the Sultan Mehmed II and kept switching between the two.
    Elli was not impressed by the spectacle, but was becoming rather exasperated. ‘I’m overwhelmed by this exhibition of royalty paying their respects. There really is no need. You are remembered fondly. Now what’s going on? I presume this is not a courtesy visit.’
    In the meantime, part of the parchment flew back onto the plate and started to burn through and become one with the glass which was also melting, revealing a gaping hole underneath, a hole that kept expanding into a passage. The ghost of the Sultan was speaking.
    ‘Elli, follow me.’
    He took her hand and she was shocked that it felt solid and warm.
    The moment they touched the mouth of the passage, they were sucked in and walked easily through it. The passage was expanding as they were walking along and was lighting up to show them the way. Behind them the passage was gradually collapsing in on itself.
    They came onto a rock chamber. Elli shivered. The chill speared right through her bones. A light descended above her head and the chamber turned into the great hall of the Great Palace of Constantinople, the one built by Constantine the Great when he founded Constantinople in 330 A.D.
    The hall was empty apart from a revolving sphere in the middle of the room. It was a representation of the globe, with blinking lights like those of an airstrip at various locations on it. Next to the revolving sphere stood two figures that had their names strapped across their midriff.
    The names were floating, moving forward to meet Elli, then reversing course, as if under chase to return chastised to their owners, repeating the feat over and over again, as if intending to drill the identities of the two missionaries in Elli’s mind, until finally stopping, presumably when they judged that their mission had been accomplished.
    But Elli didn’t need that performance to know who they were. She recognised them instantly from their likeness on icons she had seen, though most saints looked more or less identical, in simple attire and long hair and beards, doing one of a short list of things, like kneeling and praying and supplicating and offering a hand or some other gift, looking enthralled at an adult or baby Jesus Christ, but mostly standing or sitting holding the Bible or a cross, or writing or doing nothing at all, looking wise and ravaged by time, and staring out ahead, piercing you with their gaze, as if posing for a professional photographer and at the same time trying to appear natural and unscripted and oblivious to the one who captures them for posterity or to their future captive audience. They were Methodios and Kyrillos or Cyril, the Byzantine missionaries that brought Christianity to the Russians.
    Elli went closer. The sphere split horizontally in half, one half suspended above the other. In the space between the two halves was a halo and within it there were two icons in a perpetual motion of merging and splitting apart.
    One icon showed the figures of Methodios and Kyrillos. She could not make out the other. She stared in disbelief when suddenly something made touch-down, fitted into place and clicked inside her head.
    ‘Are these what I think they are? They are…, aren’t they?’
    The ghost’s appearance stopped at the likeness of the last Emperor. ‘Indeed, they are. The famed Likureian icons.’
    It was then that the surface of the upper half of the sphere slid back in a semi-circle movement and the book of the story of the construction of the structure appeared floating inside. The book opened up its pages, releasing its secrets and offering them to Elli’s greedy and supplicating eyes for consumption as an appetising course to temporarily sate their demands. Images, inventories and plans flew by.
    The structure was materialising in front of her very eyes. Once it had been completed she stared in awe at the three-dimensional hologram of the structure. Its complexity defied reality and her own imagination. Her brain was still struggling to process it when it disappeared as if in a puff of smoke.
    ‘Remember. Wake me up when the time is right and I’ll show you all that you can achieve.’ With those last words the ghost was gone.
    With a feeling of dizziness, as if thrown around in a washing machine, Elli was back to the normal surroundings, colours and sounds of one of the world’s greatest museums and in the same room she was standing in with the director beside her and the items still covered on the table in front of them.
    In reality time had not moved while she travelled through the strange vision. The director, dazed, was leaning his head from side to side as if to shake off something that bothered him and that he could not remember. Elli, whilst not saying anything about what she had just witnessed, broke the impasse.
    ‘OK, Mr Sumarov, let’s see what we have here.’ The director uncovered the items. Elli allowed him to give her a pair of gloves. She put them on and then began to turn the pages of the book. What she saw was what she remembered seeing in that vision-like experience she just had. She said nothing, but kept turning the pages.
    ‘I would like to study this book further, but I would not want to use any more of your time.’
    The director, as if expecting her to say that, moved to the side of the table and opened up a specially made small chest that Elli had not noticed before. He carefully put the relics and the book inside and then led Elli back to his office where he buzzed for his personal assistant. He gave instructions for the chest to be brought to his office. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door and two well-built security men came in with the chest.
    ‘You are to go with Mrs Symitzis here and only when that chest is in her plane, you are to come back.’
    Although Elli trusted the director, she wanted to make sure that the chest now in the director’s office was the chest she saw a few minutes earlier and that it contained the items she was taking away with her. She phrased her request politely.
    ‘Mr Sumarov, may I please have a quick look at the contents?’
    The director understood and did not take offence. He waived his hand at the men who set the chest down onto the floor and opened it. Elli went close, put on the special gloves, flicked through the book and checked the relics and was satisfied with what she saw. She turned to the director and nodded. He bowed to her and smiled in reply.
    She was already holding her bag with the parchment inside. She thought it had burned, but that only seemed to have happened in the strange experience she had a few minutes earlier. She found the unharmed parchment in her bag when she opened it to check her phone for any message from Aristo or Katerina.
    ‘Mr Sumarov, I am indebted to you for your help. Anytime I can do something for you, please let me know.’ Elli handed him her private number.
    ‘Mrs Symitzis, the honour and pleasure is all mine.’
    Alexei Sumarov stood and led her to the door and all the way to a back entrance leading to a small courtyard where Elli’s car had been instructed to wait for her. The two men placed the chest on the back seat and sat next to it. Elli sat in the front passenger seat. Alexei Sumarov waved her goodbye and went back inside. The car drove off.

    Later analysis back in Cyprus on the body parts contained in the relics and comparisons with the blood of Elli’s family confirmed Iraklios’ story and the truth of the existence of the impostor who was on the throne of Constantinople in 1453 during the siege and the fall of the city to the Ottomans of Sultan Mehmed II.
    The book retrieved, actually borrowed, from the Hermitage revealed that the structure was built in Limassol in Cyprus, but did not refer to the exact location, or provided a description or some indication, at least, of the topography. Elli, through the Valchern Corporation mining division, arranged for geological scans through satellite of the subterranean strata of the city.

    Elli was still concerned that she hadn’t heard from Aristo and Katerina and sent people to Crete to find out what happened to them.

CHAPTER 46

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Giorgos could not wait for the geological scans, but took it upon himself to do some research on the history of the old medieval quarter of Limassol, especially the area around Limassol Castle, the Church of Ayia Napa, the old Turkish Quarter and the old port. He called Katia in Athens.
    Katia had been with him during the expedition in Cappadocia and she was excited to help him with the laborious research. The most promising lead was when Giorgos was going through the book on the construction of the structure.
    He noticed an obscure entry about a tunnel entrance and an existing disused large pipe which was used for access and which was part of a network of pipes and aqueducts that used to carry water from the surrounding hills and nearby mountains North of the city to feed the city’s water system.
    Giorgos checked topographical surveys and unearthed plans that showed a series of catacombs under the Medieval Quarter. A name jumped out of the page. Mount Zalakas near the village of Trimiklini, about a twenty-minute drive North of Limassol. He wondered whether it was just that the water came from that area, it was known for its fresh mountain water after all, or whether that place had further significance.
    He found that there used to be a Byzantine church on the site of the Church of Ayia Napa in Limassol, a church that was knocked down to make way for Ayia Napa at the end of the 19 ^th century. The old church was built around 1453 A.D. and was dedicated to Ayios (Saint) Konstantinos and Ayia (Santa) Eleni. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. Giorgos and Katia tried to locate any plans for the old church or any reference to its construction, some clue as to a connection with something underneath, but they drew a blank. Any such records that may have existed would have disappeared, unless…
    Giorgos remembered the book of the construction of the structure and he combed through it again with Katia for evidence of the construction of the old church. And, sure enough, there it was staring them in the face, details for the construction of a small building with icons and a holy table and frescos. That sounded like a church to them.
    Their only hope of access would be through Limassol Castle about a couple of hundred metres to the West, far enough to hide its connection, if any, but close enough to have provided the access to a possible underground structure. Giorgos and Katia got the plans of the castle and studied them for any unusual previous structures incorporated into it. But the plans of the castle did not indicate anything that resembled what they were looking for.
    They had to get on site. They obtained permission from the Cyprus Department of Antiquities within a couple of days and got down to it. Little did they know that their movements were being watched and there was also that elusive traitor to complicate matters.
    Giorgos and Katia went to Limassol Castle and studied every surface. They found that materials that looked to have come from another, earlier building, had been used in its construction. They were especially intrigued by a whole wall in the lower part of the castle that seemed to have been much older than the castle itself. It seemed to have been hastily built, perhaps to cover something. The wall stared back with naked intent, challenging them.
    They sent bits of the stonework for analysis and it came back as the composition of the particular cement like mortar and stone that the Byzantines used in the construction of the Church of Ayia Sophia in Constantinople. The most interesting part of all was that the wall was dated to the middle of the 15 ^th century, too close to the magic 1453 date to be a coincidence.
    The apparent coincidences were stacking up. That could only mean that they were indeed based on fact and led to the truth. Giorgos and Katerina were starting to believe that they were on the right track.
    Giorgos had brought special tools and carefully started to drill holes in the wall hoping to hit an open space behind it. He started to sweat. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand and then rested it on the stone next to where he had just drilled. The sweat dissolved the dust that had built up and revealed a symbol.
    He stared at it. It reminded him of something. He was sure he had seen it before. And then he remembered. It was the Imperial insignia that was on the Emperor’s ring that was hidden inside the icon that was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He made a mental note to ask James Calvell to send him the two items that were still locked up in James’ secret vault near his office at the museum.
    He looked at the stone again and started to drill a hole. He knew he had hit a vacant space when the echo of the drilling bounced back at him. Katia had gone outside for a quick smoke. Suddenly a part of the stone started to move revealing a small niche.
    He carefully put his hand inside and felt something, a small object. He brought it out. It was a small bust with the likeness of the Emperor. As he was handling it, checking the bottom and the sides for any writing, for a clue, he must have pressed something, because the top opened and a small scroll came out. He was about to unfurl it when he heard Katia’s footsteps and he quickly put it in his pocket to check its contents later.
    He didn’t know why he instinctively did that, but it was too late to reveal it now without betraying himself. If he took it out of his pocket, it would be as good as telling her that he did not trust her. Little did he know that he would later be thankful that he put the scroll in his pocket. He held the bust pretending to be studying it.
    ‘Katia, come over here and have a look at this.’
    Katia examined the bust, her brow furrowing in concentration. However hard she tried, though, she didn’t know what to make of it. She stared at the bust, then at Giorgos and then back at the bust. She seemed as perplexed as he was.
    Giorgos decided to take advantage of the brief silence to throw her further off the scent, hoping that she wouldn’t notice the hole at the top of the bust that hadn’t closed completely after the scroll came out. In addition to that, he couldn’t resist teasing her.
    ‘Now, I don’t want to risk your wrath, but I will express my professional opinion and stake my reputation on it.’
    ‘And we know how little that is.’
    Giorgos made a face at her. ‘Anyway, as I was saying, if you look at the bottom here it seems to spell out the name of the last Emperor, Konstantinos XI Palaiologos. And it does seem to be his likeness, if the frescoes at the only surviving room from the Palace of Vlachernae in Constantinople are to be believed. However, although this thing appears to have Byzantine influences, it appears to be too well crafted to have come from any other place than the Imperial Court’s master craftsmen. And yet I cannot see the seal that you would have expected to see under the base. And…’
    Katia’s impatience got the better of her and she cut him mid-sentence. Her fiery eyes bearing down on him made him feel as if his face and his hair had been cinched by the fire spitting out of them.
    ‘Well, you may have a point there, but remember that the Imperial Workshops became rife with corruption and redolent with the complicity of the Imperial Court during times that money in the Imperial Treasury were scarce.’ Her voice spat irony. ‘Some of these illustrious master craftsmen, as you called them, had a very profitable sideline to make up for the shortfall by selling some of the product coming out of the Imperial Workshops at a lower quality and without the Imperial seal. The spanner in the works is that this bust is of a very high quality.’
    ‘That’s not bad reasoning. I’m impressed.’
    ‘Why would someone erase the Imperial seal? I suppose they would do it, if they wanted to fool you into thinking that it was an insignificant artefact?’
    ‘I guess that could be possible. But why would anyone do that? Unless…’
    Katia went silent, her face reflecting her struggling thoughts. Then her face brightened up, as if divine inspiration just hit her on the head, which wasn’t exactly very often, Giorgos smiled to himself, not without a slight hint of spite.
    He silently reprimanded himself. God, his very pious mother would kill him, if she could have known his dark thoughts. “I did not bring you up to be vengeful”, she would say. “Keep silent and turn the other cheek.”
    Giorgos pressed Katia. ‘Unless, what?’
    Katia looked at him, as if she had forgotten he was there and only just realised, and was annoyed at the intrusion. She wanted him to disappear and she waved her hand, as if he was an annoying fly that was buzzing around her head.
    ‘Unless it was intended that this thing should be passed off deliberately as a fake, because it was meant to be hiding something or be a clue for something.’
    She almost hit the nail on the head, Giorgos thought. He just about managed to keep a straight face and not reveal anything. He believed he had just managed to successfully carry out the deception, when she looked at him as if she could see right through him into his thoughts.
    ‘What is it? You know something, don’t you? My God, you have found something, haven’t you? Giorgos, stop playing games. Now, come out with it. Tell me. Otherwise…’ She took a challenging stance.
    ‘Otherwise what, darling?’
    ‘Otherwise you’ll be sorry.’
    ‘Oh, I’m shaking in my boots.’
    ‘Giorgos…’
    Now she was positively livid. Giorgos kept his cool.
    ‘No, Katia, I have not found anything, if you must know. I really haven’t. Would I have dared to hide anything from you, if I had?’
    Giorgos’ face was a picture of innocence and challenge in equal measure. He was mocking her and she could see it.
    ‘Wouldn’t you? Yes, you would. Of course you would.’ Katia felt she should not believe him, but then had second thoughts and she went silent. ‘Then again, I guess not.’ She did, though, shake her head, as if she could not believe her own words, as if there was still something that bothered her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
    During that silence that descended between them Giorgos contemplated the fiery beauty standing in front him, with both her legs firmly planted on the ground, ready to bore holes in it, and her hands at her side, ready to fight the world.
    Katia was standing there in that pose, staring at him, for what seemed an eternity. It seemed to Giorgos as if she intended her stare and stance to make him blush and shrink under its intense scrutiny and melt and cower down in shame, like a reprimanded naughty child that just broke the neighbour’s window or stole an apple from the neighbour’s orchard.
    He saw it as a challenge for him to confess his undying love and devotion and submission to her, as the ultimate object of his affection and worship and reverence. Wishful thinking on his part, perhaps? Or did she feel the same? Or was it simply that she was obsessed with being adored and worshipped?
    There was a deathly silence, an impasse. They were both just standing there facing each other, weighing up and circling each other, like two sumo wrestlers ready to engage. The tension was rising. Who was going to be the first to break the staring contest? Giorgos decided to stop this futile nonsense. He turned away and looked at the bust.
    ‘I think we should store it in a safe place straight away.’
    He started to make his way to the exit. He made a half-turn and looked back at her, his eyes challenging her, and at the same time mesmerising her.
    Katia could not move. She felt distress at the effect Giorgos was having on her and at her inability to neutralise that effect. She tried in vain to control her feelings and put a lid on them as she had always managed to do with everyone that threatened to get a bit too close to her for comfort; until now that is. If only she could just ignore that she was frustratingly falling in love with him. That was the main reason of her impatience with him. She was annoyed with herself, because she could not understand this feeling that was forcing her to go wobbly at the knees.
    She was afraid, because she was not used to allowing her feelings to roam unprotected like this. She was strong and detached and had, so far, avoided exposing herself to this kind of emotion. That steely “ice queen” veneer had served her well in her professional life, had allowed her to stamp her authority and had earned her respect. She could not risk tainting that reputation. Was this part of her allure? She had never been short of offers and attention. But was that respect enough to solely sustain her?
    She did not want to show Giorgos the slightest sign of weakness. She was tough, uncompromising and rude with him, as if to punish him for feeling like this, as if by making him feel worse, it would make her feel better. What she did not know was that she was deluding herself, as Giorgos knew. For her refusal to admit her feelings and submit to them, having tired of sending out subtle signs to make her see sense, Giorgos had decided to feign indifference.
    He knew that by not acknowledging his infatuation with her, he frustrated her even further. Maybe it was his way of pushing her over the edge to the chasm of reason, so that she would open her eyes and see the truth that was staring her in the face. Making her life a misery by reciprocating her ‘undying love’, as he liked to describe her rough treatment of him, was apt. She deserved it.
    Giorgos had had enough.
    ‘Are you coming or are you planning to stay there like a frozen statue for all eternity to be unearthed by archaeologists in the future who would be wondering who this fair ice maiden was?’
    She made a beeline for him in attacking mode, but he subtly and easily avoided her. Her punch made painful contact with the lovely cool stone of the wall behind him. She winced in pain and holding her injured hand, started to rub it, to comfort it and nurse it back to health.
    She followed him like a wounded puppy, but her posture and her expression showed that she would be forever defiant. They decided to call it a day.

CHAPTER 47

    Limassol Castle, Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Outside the castle, Katia relieved Giorgos of the bust and was very pleased with herself for the effect of her powers of persuasion over Giorgos, oblivious to the fact that Giorgos had already extracted what he wanted and did not need the bust anymore. They waived each other goodbye and went their separate ways. Giorgos couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He couldn’t wait to study the scroll.
    As he made his way to his car, he felt that he was being watched, as if eyes were boring holes in his skull. He turned, but could not see anything suspicious. People were going about their business, buying and selling. Some men were seated at the coffee shop across the road playing backgammon and drinking coffee, strong and thick enough to make the spoon stand at attention. The blacksmith who had been there for decades was putting the finishing touches on his display of wares on the pavement outside his shop.
    As Giorgos was enjoying life’s normal rhythms he heard a muffled scream, but was not sure which direction it came from. Then his eyes fell on Katia’s car. What could she possibly still be doing there? Why hadn’t she left already? She seemed to be in a great hurry to leave. He approached the car ready to make fun of her.
    He was not prepared for what he saw and he stopped dead in his tracks. He almost had a heart attack. She was sitting behind the wheel, but not moving. Her head was at a strange angle, lolled to one side, as if she had nodded off or was searching for something in the glove compartment or tuning the radio. He moved closer, full of dread and apprehension. He called through the open window, but knew he should not expect a reply.
    He then opened the driver’s door and shook her. He began to panic. The blood drained from his face. They were together only a few minutes ago. He stared at her in disbelief seeing nothing. His subconscious programming went into action and like an automaton tried to revive her, hoping against hope that she was still alive.
    Katia was not responding and there was a look of shock plastered on her face, as if she had seen a ghost. He kept shaking her, becoming more violent and desperate with every movement, but his attempts at teasing a reaction out of her proved futile. He started to believe that she might be dead.
    He took her pulse, expecting his worst fears to be confirmed. He couldn’t believe it. There was a faint pulse and he heard the slightest stir of breathing. Relief washed over him like a catharsis. He thought about calling for an ambulance from a phone booth, instead of his mobile, to hide his identity and give himself time to investigate before he had to deal with the police, but decided against it.
    He had nothing to fear, even though there didn’t appear to have been a witness to the incident. It was only the hassle of giving statements and dealing with the police that he dreaded. But he would have to deal with it anyway. He was, after all, the last person to see her before she was attacked.
    He would have to stay and wait for the ambulance and ensure that Katia was in safe hands before he walked off. And there was also the possibility that whoever did this to her might come back to finish the job and silence the only witness.
    Giorgos took out his mobile and dialled the emergency services conveying the urgency of the incident and demanding for an ambulance to be sent immediately. Once he had hung up he remembered the bust and he furiously searched for it in the car, careful not to disturb the scene.
    However, he found nothing. The bust was gone. It was then that he remembered his instinctive gesture of putting the scroll in his pocket and thanked his lucky stars for that involuntary foresight.
    He knew the police would get involved and there would be lots of questions, but he could not desert her and run away and besides, he reminded himself, they might think that he was responsible for whatever had happened to her. So he stayed put.
    When the ambulance arrived and whisked her away, he did not join her inside, and, after talking to the policemen and giving a brief statement, was told the usual stuff, to remain in the city for further questioning, if necessary. Only then was he allowed to leave the scene and go home.
    Home? Would he be safe there? What the hell was going on?
    He got that dreaded sensation of being watched again. Whoever was following him, most probably already knew where he lived, so maybe he could not go back there. And more importantly he had to shake that someone off.
    He wondered whether he should warn his parents or his grandmother, but decided against it. He might worry them unnecessarily. Besides, his first priority was to get out of there fast.
    He stopped at his favourite bakery where he bought a loaf of bread and a couple of croissants. Next stop was the grocer. As he was coming out, he checked up and down the street. When his stare surveyed the opposite side, his eyes fell on a shadow next to a large plane tree. He stared harder.
    As the sun broke through the clouds, light flooded in, and he could just about make the outline of the side of a face with an ugly scar, looking as if it had been crashed. Giorgos’ glance was locked into a battle of wills with the steely eyes piercing back at him, but they were eyes that were empty, as if seeing right through him.
    The expression on that face was blank and dark all at the same time with increasingly reddish fiery blotches. That was not a veiled threat lurking in those eyes. He heeded the warning, but did not move. He needed to think quickly.
    His opponent looked as if he was about to combust, blowing smithereens of body parts and blood splattering and smudging the fading but visible beauty of the surrounding buildings that had withstood the ravages of time, a life thrown on a pavement and laid bare and left for dead, for foot after foot to tread on, a soul squashed like an annoying insect, as if it had never existed.
    Giorgos squeezed his fists. He was angry and fed up with these people tracking his every move. An idea struck him. He knew how to outwit the intruder to his comfortable existence. His fingers had furiously typed three letters, SOS, to his friend Jonas who lived nearby.
    He knew he didn’t have to give Jonas his location. As Jonas spent most of his time in front of his computers, he would be able to act immediately and come to Giorgos’ rescue. Jonas’ sophisticated equipment would, within seconds, pick up Giorgos’ location through his mobile phone via satellite.
    Since Jonas lived close by, he would be on his motorbike and on his way within a minute and with Giorgos within probably just over two minutes after setting off.
    Giorgos was right. Within a couple of minutes he heard a motorbike approaching and he recognised his friend, Jonas. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, but he had to get out of there and Jonas was his only ticket out.
    He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Giorgos shouted at Jonas above the noise of the bike and the hive of activity in the street, and, gesturing wildly, jumped into the road blocking the motorbike’s path. The screeching of brakes stopped the street’s activity and drew the curious and irritated glances of passersby.
    They didn’t usually have such excitement in spite of the din’s annoyance. For a brief moment it was as if time had stopped. But the spell was broken as quickly as it was cast and normal life resumed.
    ‘Giorgos, you rascal, you’ve never valued your life much, have you? What deep shit are you into this time? You cannot keep away from excitement, can you?’
    ‘I need a ride. Can you drop me off at Maria’s?’
    ‘Sure. Hop on.’
    Jonas threw him the spare helmet and they were off. They made their way deeper into the former Turkish Quarter and Jonas stopped in front of an unassuming door stuck on a building that had seen better days. Giorgos hopped off, handed the helmet back to Jonas and thanked him.
    ‘Anytime, mate. Give us a call sometime.’ With that Jonas pulled down the face shield of his helmet and sped off.
    Giorgos made his way to the door and knocked. While waiting for the door to be answered he looked up and down the street checking for his perceived pursuer and registering the absurdity and sadness of his surroundings.
    The drooping house was next to a mosque that the muezzin had not bothered to grace with his presence for years, since 1974 to be exact, when he was deprived of a flock; a flock that deserted him and fled to the Northern Turkish-occupied parts, soon to be followed by the muezzin himself, who belatedly realised the folly of staying behind in a seemingly hostile environment, made so by the political event of the military invasion and occupation and the disruption of a relatively peaceful co-existence between Cypriots of Greek and those of Turkish origin.
    It was also believed that many of those Cypriots of Turkish origin had once been Christian Greeks who changed their faith during the Ottoman occupation between 1571 and 1878, the year the British arrived after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of Russia and Great Britain in the Crimean War. Officially Cyprus remained part of the Ottoman Empire with the British paying nominal rent to the Sublime Porte, the Sultan.
    This charade ended in 1914 when, at the start of the First World War, the Ottomans sided with the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Britain found its excuse and took the opportunity to annex the island as a result. It had been a relatively peaceful co-existence, but like every good marriage it had its explosive moments when the two partners came to blows.
    However, at least that indicated that there were strong feelings there from each side for the other of both love and hate.
    The mosque had been standing a lonely sentinel to what had been and what could have been. Close by, the covered second central market, the smaller of the two old central markets of the city, was almost running out of life and breath as it was near closing time, with the knowledge that it would soon be left bereft of worshippers.
    After what seemed like an eternity, the door was opened and Maria was standing there in all her five-foot-four-inch bohemian-dressed glory. She said nothing, but stepped to one side and let him in.
    Passing the threshold, he stooped low to avoid colliding with the doorframe. He followed Maria into a cool central courtyard surrounded by balconies and lots of pots with aromatic plants covering every corner of the arches surrounding the courtyard on the ground floor.
    The sounds of the city were now only a hushed and distant murmur. Maria needed to ask no questions from this unexpected visitor. She could read the worried lines on his face and… was it that fear that she saw in his eyes?
    ‘Maria, I think I’m in trouble.’
    ‘You? In trouble? No kidding. You’ve never been in trouble in your life. Even at school you would always get me out of trouble and fight anyone who dared to threaten me, but I think it was your excuse to get yourself into trouble. Trouble sticks to you like mud and you enjoy it. Admit it.’
    Though he was in a desperate bind, he played along and smiled weakly, at the same time raising his arms in mock surrender. ‘Guilty as charged.’
    Maria did like a good rant and enjoyed putting up the reprimanding act. It was a role she fell into with ease. It definitely was her maternal instinct that never seemed to sleep but loved overtime, rearing its obsessive head and going into overdrive.
    He decided it was time to stop playing games. He looked at Maria who began to understand the gravity of the situation, but he could see she still had her doubts.
    ‘Maria, I really need your help. Someone is following me. I need to use the tunnel and I may need you to create a diversion.’
    ‘The tunnel? But, Giorgos, that has not been used for years. I don’t even know whether it is safe. Are you sure you are not imagining the whole thing? It’s not a movie you know. I know your chosen profession has not exactly been an “Indiana-Jones-like” adventure, but it’s had its moments. It’s time to stop daydreaming.’
    As she said it, she knew his face told the truth and it dawned on her that he was not making it up. She went into action, her usual efficient self, a friend you could always rely on at a time of need.
    She opened a non-descript enamelled box sitting in a corner of the kitchen, and, after briefly rummaging inside, retrieved two identical beautifully-crafted keys, of an art and craftsmanship of a time now long lost, obviously very old. On her way out of the kitchen she grabbed a couple of torches and checked that they worked. With a slight movement of the head she told Giorgos to follow her.
    As they were making their way to the back of the house, there was a loud knock on the door. They were spat out into the real world, their task momentarily suspended. They stopped dead in their tracks and listened.
    With a heavy heart that weighed him down so much that he almost left footprints deep in the stone floor, Giorgos could almost catch the smell of his ruthless pursuer and Katia’s most likely instrument of grievous harm and near murderer.
    Maria hesitated and almost turned to walk back to answer the front door. She was expecting her friend, Chryso, any moment now. But something held her back.
    The knock sounded urgent, and that was unlike Chryso. Besides Chryso would have called out to her, as well. It couldn’t be Chryso. At that moment her by now edgy mind told her that whoever was calling at her house was not a friend.
    Giorgos could almost see Maria’s mental debate and almost intervened to take the final decision for her, but her face, when she turned back to look at him, told him that the front would not be answered any time soon. Still he felt he had to rush her, but not terrify her.
    He gently grabbed her hand and pulled her forward. ‘Ignore it. Let’s go.’ They reached the end of a corridor that took them left and right and left again and through a series of rooms to the deepest reaches of the house. It didn’t look it from the street, but like many houses of the same period it was a big barrow of a house, a labyrinth to get lost in which could be, to put it mildly, inconvenient on a good day but a godsend when being chased.
    Maria stopped in front of a heavy wardrobe, gifted to her by her grandmother. Giorgos was relieved to see that they had finally reached their destination. He began to think that they were half way to Nicosia, the capital, by then. Maria started to move the wardrobe without asking for Giorgos’ help and she pushed him away when he went to help her. ‘Leave it. Save your energy.’
    Maria silently thanked her mother for leading her into the rigour and discipline of a life shaped by gymnastics training since she was a little girl, barely out of the habit of sucking her thumb and playing with her favourite doll. And of course her later obsession with martial arts helped.
    Behind the wardrobe was a simply constructed heavy-looking wooden door. Maria inserted one of the keys and it turned easily, even after all these years. She shook her head in disbelief. Behind the door the aroma was of vintage stale and damp of a, by now, forgotten good year. She gave Giorgos the two torches and one of the keys.
    ‘Go on. Take the key and lock the door behind you. I’ll see who it is and, if necessary, keep them busy to buy you time.’
    ‘Maria, no. I know I asked you to create a diversion, but it’s not worth it. It’s too dangerous. Come with me. Please.’
    ‘I’ve been in scary scrapes before. How far worse can this be? And you forget I know my martial arts. OK, I’m not a master, but I can handle an emergency. I have been hoping for some action for some time now. I think I’m growing rusty.’
    ‘Maria, this is not a game.’
    ‘Don’t I know it. I rather gathered that within seconds of you coming through that door.’ She indicated towards the direction of the front door.
    ‘These people are ruthless.’ He grabbed her arm and shook her vigorously. Her expression and physical detachment, transmitted from her flesh to his, told him that he should let her go, but he had to persevere. ‘Maria, they tried to kill Katia.’
    Maria’s eyes opened wide, but then contracted again. ‘No, not Katia. But why? How?’
    ‘Not now. There’s no time. But whoever has been following me and who’s most probably knocking at your door right now could be responsible.’
    ‘She will make it, won’t she?’
    ‘I don’t know. I really hope so. She’s in good hands. I called an ambulance and they took her away. She must be in the hospital by now.’
    Now Maria felt angry and more determined than ever. Giorgos pleaded with her again, but eventually had to give up, because he knew that, once her mind was made up, he didn’t stand a chance in hell in persuading her to change it. He also knew he had wasted enough time already.
    ‘Giorgos, just go. You’ll have a better chance on your own. Do what you have to do. I can tell it’s important; too important for you to risk your mission by putting your life on the line here or by delaying further. Just go. Hurry. I’ll stall whoever is at the door.’
    Giorgos realised she was right and that was why he had come to ask for her help. And standing there arguing was costing him valuable time. He relented. ‘OK, you are right.’
    ‘And believe me, whoever that is he would not be allowed even the remotest pleasure of finding out the existence of the tunnel.’
    ‘OK, Good luck.’
    ‘To you too. I love these exciting dates of ours. We should do it more often.’ Maria kissed him and went back into the house. Soon after she heard the key turn by Giorgos locking the door.
    She then pulled the heavy wardrobe back in front of the door, completely covering its existence. She threw a couple of rugs in front and on the sides of the wardrobe to hide any skid marks from moving it on the wooden floor.
    She looked at her handy work and nodded to herself in approval. The wardrobe appeared as if it had not been moved for a very long time.
    After a few minutes in the tunnel, Giorgos found himself in a small chamber. He saw with relief the dim light of the tunnel giving way to a brightness he was struggling to get used to. He looked up at the ceiling of the chamber for the source of the sudden bright light flooding in.
    He saw many of what looked like holes punched into the ceiling and filled with glass tiles. He estimated that he was under the mosque. He decided that it was safe enough to draw breath and examine the scroll.
    He unfolded it and saw that it started in Greek, but then continued in those illegible characters that he recognised as Pallanian. He began to read. He went no further than the first line when upon reading the word ‘Michael’, a man materialised in front of him resplendent in what Giorgos recognised as 15 ^th century Byzantine clothing. The Symitzis family resemblance was obvious.
    ‘Hello Giorgos.’
    ‘Who are you?’
    ‘I am Michael Symitzis.’
    Giorgos stared at the apparition of a man who was no ghost but no real flesh either, although he looked like flesh and bones. He stammered the words out.
    ‘But you are dead,’ Giorgos paused uncertain and wondering whether his eyes were deceiving him, ‘aren’t you?’
    ‘Yes… and… no.’
    ‘What are you doing here?’ Giorgos was struggling to take in what he was witnessing.
    ‘You summoned me. I’m here to help.’ Michael’s manner was calm but decisive.
    Giorgos was trying to make sense of the appearance of this apparition calling itself ‘Michael Symitzis’ when he remembered that he had read Michael on the scroll just before Michael appeared. Yet he still could not understand why Michael was there.
    ‘Help? How?’
    ‘The scroll…’ Michael paused.
    ‘What about the scroll?’
    ‘Can you read it?’
    ‘Part of it.’
    ‘Well, maybe I can help you with the rest.’ Michael said and extended an ethereal arm towards Giorgos.
    Giorgos was still struggling to accept what was going on.
    ‘I can see you are still of two minds whether to believe what is happening is real or not. I assure you it is real and I am real. Or at least as real as I can be, after the usual signs and problems that time lavishes on everyone, be it one of its favourites or not.’ Michael extended his palm and Giorgos relinquished the scroll in Michael’s care.
    The scroll spoke of the seven pages, which Giorgos suspected were the ones they got from Alexandria and that formed the chapter ‘On the Pallanian Resurrection’ of the Book of the Pallanians. Each of those pages did not only contain text, but much more besides, material of such high density that its explosion would send debris to the fringes of space.
    The scroll said that the now complete Book of the Pallanians should join its master and keeper, the last Emperor, and should be part of the collection of items that would be necessary for the revival of the Emperor and the mother of his lost child.
    The scroll spoke of the procedure that had to be followed in order to unlock the tomb and what the scroll called the temple of wisdom in which the tomb sat. It spoke of three keys. Giorgos assumed that these were the keys that he and Aristo brought back from Athens after winning the philosophical duel with the three philosophers.
    The scroll specified the date for the ceremony for the unlocking of the tomb and the temple of wisdom. It was the 21 ^st of May. Giorgos realised it made perfect sense, as it was the holy day of Saint Konstantinos and Santa Eleni. The last Emperor’s name was Konstantinos and the mother of the lost child was Eleni, as in Eleni Symitzis. This connection of the names of the last Emperor and the mother of the lost child with those of the saints could not be a coincidence.
    Giorgos then remembered something that he saw at the castle near where he had found the bust. He did not realise it back then, but the information must have been stored in his memory and it all came back now as easily retrieved as if it was waiting there for its moment to spring out.
    He thought at the time what he saw were random or incomplete letters, but now that he thought about it what he saw was a date written in Greek lettering, not Arabic numbers. He took a moment to recall the letters and then it came to him.
    The date that was inscribed there on the wall was 21 ^st of May 1454, almost a year to the day after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, which took place on 29 ^th May 1453. The 21 ^st May 1454 was most probably the date that the tomb was sealed, if indeed the tomb was behind that wall at all.
    Giorgos was becoming more excited with every step his thought process took. He felt he was on a rollercoaster, each piece of the jigsaw puzzle finding its rightful place, the whole edifice once completed ready to wake up and speak to him and reveal its secrets, long dormant and forgotten or revealed for the first time.
    With each revelation of the scroll, Giorgos felt as if an exotic flower was dropping its petals one by one or an exotic dancer was peeling away the layers of dress cramping her style to reveal mesmerising flesh.
    The day of 21 ^st May was crucial. It had to be right. If it was not then one could assume that the scroll was not to be trusted and it gave too much relevant and detailed information on the matter of the revival of the last Emperor and the mother of his child for that. It could of course be false information to mislead and hide the trail of the real scroll.
    Giorgos dismissed his overly suspicious mind. Was it too good to be true? No, the whole thing fit perfectly. The scroll had to be genuine. He knew he could date it in order to authenticate it or, perhaps, Michael could confirm its authenticity, which he duly did. Giorgos severely castigated himself for doubting the scroll’s authenticity. Yet it paid for an archaeologist to be suspicious.
    Giorgos stared in disbelief. ‘It’s all here. It’s more amazing than I imagined. The most important question, though, is where is the tomb of the last Emperor?’
    Suddenly, as if a word on the scroll pulled a trigger, one of the walls of the chamber they stood in ruptured. It seemed that there was another chamber beyond the opening that was, unfortunately, not big enough for a human to fit in and crawl through.
    There was a roaring noise, like the noise of a pack of wildebeest on running mode, and the whole place shook, like in an earthquake. The opening began to cough out a large object that expanded as it was freed from the confines of the narrow opening.
    Within seconds, a sarcophagus emerged. Giorgos had this scary thought of the scroll having a life of its own. He decided to test the theory, the evidence of which his eyes had seen but his brain refused to accept as gospel. He kept reading. The lid rose revealing an extremely well preserved, most probably embalmed, body dressed in Ottoman attire of the 15 ^th century A.D.
    Giorgos could read the old Ottoman style of writing on the panels outside and inside the sarcophagus and the dedication on the cover of a silver-crusted Koran on the body’s chest. He reeled from shock.
    ‘It can’t be.’ Giorgos paused not believing his eyes that remained fixed on the occupant of the sarcophagus and new acquaintance. ‘It’s the Sultan Mehmed II, isn’t it?’
    Michael nodded. ‘The remains of the Sultan, whose fate was intertwined with that of the last Emperor and the mystery of what happened to him before the siege of Constantinople, must be joined at the tomb with the other required constituent parts, as listed in the scroll, for the revival of the last Emperor to take place. You are close to your goal. I must go now. Keep the scroll safe.’
    A long-forgotten memory was drenched up out of a remote place in Giorgos’ mind and began to form, but remained elusive, unable to attain a legible shape. Maria. Her name entered Giorgos’ mind and a shadow crossed his face.
    He couldn’t stay there much longer and he couldn’t go on, contrary to what he had promised Maria. He could not accept Maria putting her life on the line for him. He should get back to see whether Maria was alright, even though it might already be too late. He prayed that it was not.
    Giorgos wondered why nobody had come after him, even though he had faith in Maria’s powers of physical persuasion. Giorgos decided to go back to the house. He unlocked the door to the tunnel with the spare key that Maria had given him.
    He was thankful that the door connecting the tunnel to the house opened towards the tunnel, otherwise with the wardrobe in place he would not have been able to get back inside the house. He pushed the wardrobe to one side, crushing the rugs that Maria had placed there and went back inside.
    The house was deathly quiet. When Giorgos reached the courtyard he stopped in shock. Maria was frozen on the spot in front of him. Behind her he could see the half-broken front door and to the side there was his pursuer also frozen. Giorgos’ eyes almost bulged out of their sockets and out of his head to reach the street.
    He approached cautiously. He searched through the pockets of his pursuer. His hand felt a cold stone object. His fingers hugged it and he brought it out. It was the small bust from the castle, the one that was taken from Katia.
    He then heard Michael’s voice. ‘I did that to give us time.’ Giorgos looked around, but saw nothing. Then Michael appeared in front of him. He turned his attention to the intruder.
    ‘He’s a Ruinand.’ Michael said.
    Giorgos looked at the mess, the undeniable signs of a fight. There were scratches and bruises on Maria’s face and bare legs and arms. But the intruder didn’t seem to have fared much better either. It looked like the combatants had been equally matched. Giorgos looked at Michael.
    ‘I don’t think this is the kind of redecoration Maria had in mind when she was talking about giving this place a sprucing up and new lease of life.’
    ‘I agree. But it will be a new life for that… thing over there in the whole sense of that word. I wouldn’t risk leaving him here once I return time in this house to normal.’ Michael paused as if in deep thought. ‘I think he will enjoy a holiday in isolation on his nemesis that is the Holy Mountain. I’m sure the monks there will entertain him by making good use of him. But first we need to erase his memory.’
    Giorgos took out his mobile phone and send a message to Vasilis Symitzis. While he waited for him to arrive he busied himself studying the intruder and Maria, but he made no attempt to disturb the scene of utter devastation. He wanted Vasilis, and Maria for that matter, to see it. It had to be seen to be believed.
    Less than fifteen minutes had passed when Giorgos heard the screeching of brakes as a car pulled up outside and came to a sudden stop. It was surely too soon for Vasilis to have had the time to get there unless he was only somewhere down the road.
    Giorgos feared the worse. Perhaps their frozen friend had called for reinforcements or his friends had been watching. But he visibly relaxed when he saw Vasilis Symitzis, very smartly dressed, walking through the wreckage of the front door.
    ‘Hi, Giorgos. I see you’ve been having fun without me.’
    ‘Thanks for coming. I wasn’t sure you got my message.’
    ‘I would always respond to a call for help from you, especially in these dangerous times.’
    ‘Sorry for interrupting whatever you were into, but I thought you would have liked to see our guest.’
    Vasilis turned to Giorgos. ‘Indeed, I would. And don’t worry. What you dragged me from wasn’t something I couldn’t miss. Besides, I’ve got the car waiting outside to take me back when we are finished here.’
    It only took Vasilis a moment to take in the scene and to recognise the frozen intruder as one of his arch-enemies. He then looked at Michael’s ghost and nodded in acknowledgement.
    ‘It’s good to see you old friend. So… Giorgos here can see you too. He’s managed to dredge you out of whatever hole you were messing up in.’ Vasilis’ eyes briefly rested on the visible parts of the small bust nestled innocently in Giorgos’ hand, his fingers wrapped around most of it as if he didn’t want to let go, as if it was a live bird or insect that was going to fly away, if he didn’t keep it firmly and securely covered. Vasilis went closer to inspect the intruder. He shook his head amused.
    ‘Guest, indeed. In need of a generous dollop of Cypriot hospitality, no doubt?’
    Michael chipped in. ‘Vasilis, I thought our friend here could do with a “monkish” holiday. The clean air, healthy diet and peace of Mount Athos will do him good. Would you mind flying him over there in supreme comfort, courtesy of “Vasilis Airways”, and arrange for him to have luxury accommodation in the bosom of a famous Holy Mountain prison cell. None other than “Vasilis Airways” can do the transportation better.’
    ‘It will be my pleasure.’ He took out his mobile and made a brief call. He then turned his attention to the present company. ‘I think we are all done here. I need to get back to my board meeting. I’m standing in for my mother.’
    ‘Is she alright?’ Giorgos was a bit concerned.
    ‘She’s absolutely fine. But she had to attend a charity event. I have to thank you for the welcome diversion. I needed an excuse to get out of there. I said a friend was rushed to hospital and I had to make an urgent telephone call to find out what had happened. Then I said that I had to go to the hospital to sort out things. I told them I wouldn’t be long and decided instead of adjourning the meeting, as it was important, to continue it after a brief recess. It’s not easy to gather all these busy board members together at a convenient time for all. So I told them to wait there.
    ‘You gave me a welcome respite from Lazaros, a board member who was becoming very tedious with his usual objections to my plans and his long-winded explanations. It’s as if he’s giving a diatribe every time. I think he believes that he’s the only sane and intelligent person surrounded by cretins. I think the time has, perhaps, come to get rid of him. I have been thinking about it for a while and I think this is the time to act decisively.’
    Vasilis paused. ‘I’m sorry. I am rambling. We have to sort out the small matter of our friend here.’ Vasilis indicated the frozen intruder. ‘And we have to act quickly in case his friends come looking for him.’ He turned to Giorgos. ‘I still have time to make the rest of the meeting and later, assuming I have time, I have to attend the same event my mother is attending. It’s an awards ceremony for services to charity. Giorgos, are you sure you don’t want to come with me? I’ve got an extra ticket.’
    ‘With respect, Mr Symitzis, but I think I’ll pass.’
    ‘By the way, Giorgos, you look as if you’ve been dragged backwards through a hedge.’
    ‘I’ve been inside the tunnel.’
    ‘Ah, that would explain it. And what have you found there?’
    ‘I think you should see for yourself.’
    Giorgos led him to the sarcophagus of the Sultan.
    ‘Does my mother know about this?’
    ‘No, we’ve just found it.’ Giorgos was about to tell him about the scroll, but at that moment Vasilis’ men came and in the distraction it slipped through his mind. The scroll stayed in his jacket pocket. The men restrained and gagged the intruder.
    Then Michael reinstated the scene by returning time to normal and disappeared. The intruder struggled in vain to get free of his restraints. Maria was a bit disorientated, but recovered soon enough. She enjoyed her handiwork on the intruder and, looking around, assessed the aftermath and both hers and the intruder’s handiwork on her house.
    But she felt as if she had missed something that her memory refused to surrender. She started to fire a million questions a minute. Giorgos raised his hand to shush her. ‘Later, Maria, later.’ The men were gone and so was Vasilis.
    ‘Maria, I have to go to the hospital to see Katia. And I think you should come with me. Not just for company, but I think you need to have those checked by a doctor.’ He indicated the scratches and bruises on her face, arms and legs when he said that.
    ‘No, don’t worry about that. It’s nothing. It will heal in no time. I’ve been through worse. I don’t need a doctor. But I’ll come with you for the company.’
    ‘Maria, you are a good friend. I’m really sorry for getting you into this. I’ll pay for a new door and the damage done to your house.’
    ‘Don’t be stupid. First of all, you would have done the same for me. Second, don’t be sorry for anything. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I haven’t had so much fun in months. Third, I will accept your offer to pay for the damage. You are considerably more well off than I am.’
    ‘Great. I’m really glad you said that, because I was half-expecting you to decline my offer to pay and I wouldn’t have that. You wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of that one.’
    Giorgos didn’t tell Maria that he also had to find a safe place to hide the scroll until he had contacted Elli about showing it to her. Perhaps it would be safer at his parents’ house.

CHAPTER 48

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    It was early afternoon when, having had an uneventful flight from Crete and having landed back in Cyprus only an hour earlier, Katerina rang the bell of Giorgos’ house. She had asked Vasilis to meet her there. She waited, but there was no reply.
    Aristo was still missing. Katerina didn’t know what had happened back at the house in Crete after she had left for the military hospital with the injured Iakovos in the chopper. She tried to call Aristo’s mobile, but it seemed to have been switched off.
    She considered asking for someone at the military base to take her to the house, but then thought better of it. Her first duty was to Iakovos. It wasn’t safe for him to be left on his own, unguarded, considering what had happened at the house. And she wouldn’t dare to leave Iakovos’ bedside until he came out of unconsciousness and could walk by himself.
    She thought about telling them at the military base about what had happened and asking them to send someone to check out the house. But she did not want to do that. She called Elli and told her what happened. She told Elli that she could not get in touch with Aristo and had not heard from him.
    ‘I will deal with it. It is sharp thinking of you to stay there with Iakovos. Keep him safe. Make sure he’s well looked after. I’ll send people over. I will speak to you soon.’
    The people that Elli sent out to the house in Crete reported back that they had found lots of blood just inside the front door, but no body. Elli feared the worst. Then Katerina remembered about Iakovos’ father and tried in vain to locate him. All their enquiries, even with Elli’s resources at her disposal, drew a blank.
    She arranged for blood analysis. The blood was not Aristo’s. They were relieved, but not happy. The result was still horrible. The blood matched that of Iakovos’ father.
    Katerina rang the bell again and then knocked on the door. Still there was no reply. She looked at Vasilis, concern clouding her face. Under normal circumstances she would not have been worried about Giorgos. He lived a very active and unpredictable life, jumping in and out of Cyprus to visit the locations of his projects.
    But these were not normal circumstances. They were dealing with dangerous people, with objects and matters that people were prepare to kill for. She did not want to worry her parents, but, seeing no other way, she called her mother, Anna.
    Anna confirmed that she had not seen or heard from Giorgos for a few days, but had not found anything odd with that as he had told them he was going on a short holiday. A holiday? In the midst of all this excitement? He wouldn’t even remotely have contemplated it.
    Her brother had lied to their mother to conceal the real reason of his absence. Katerina knew for one thing that what they were all working on was dangerous and she understood Giorgos’ reasons for not wanting to worry their mother. She had not told their mother anything either.
    Katerina wondered why Giorgos had not told her about what he was actually working on or where he was planning to go. But then she had been away so he had no chance. Although there were no missed calls from Giorgos on her mobile or even a text, perhaps he did try to contact her or left a sign, a clue for her.
    It was unlikely he would have called her office. She had to find out as much as she could from her mother, knowing as she was doing it that it would not yield anything useful. ‘Mother, where exactly did he say he was going?’
    ‘He said something about wanting to check an archaeological dig in Cappadocia.’
    Now that was really odd. He had nothing to do there. She knew the excavation had ended and the archaeological team had disbanded, packed up and returned home.
    Katerina’s senses were immediately alerted to danger. She looked at Vasilis and shook her head. He understood she was telling him that it didn’t look good.
    She was astute enough to realise that she should get off the phone before her mother started asking her uncomfortable questions for which she had no answer. That would really panic her mother. She quickly wrapped up the conversation and hung up.
    ‘Vasilis, we need to get inside.’
    Katerina pushed the door, but it was locked. They walked round the back of the house and saw broken glass scattered on the ground. It was then that they saw the shattered back door. They walked cautiously towards it. They could hear nothing.
    The place appeared deserted. Inside they encountered havoc. Their first thought was that it was a burglary. But then they saw the blood on the walls and the floor, and everywhere there were signs of struggle.
    The whole place looked as if a hurricane had passed through. This was definitely not the place of someone who had willingly gone on holiday. There could be no doubt about it. He had been forcibly taken.
    They searched all the rooms. Giorgos’ laptop seemed to be missing together with the hard drive of his personal computer with the cables just hanging there, as if they were arteries of life support severed from the head and body of their subject. Vasilis turned to Katerina.
    ‘It seems that he’s gone, and not willingly by the looks of it.’
    They searched the house again, very carefully this time, but found no clues.
    ‘I have an idea.’ Katerina took out her mobile and dialled a number. The phone was answered on the second ring.
    ‘Hello?’
    ‘Hi, dad.’
    ‘Hi, darling. Your mother told me you were back. How are you?’
    ‘I’m fine, dad.’ Katerina did not have the time for niceties. ‘Dad, have you received anything in the post from Giorgos, a letter or a package, perhaps?’
    ‘No, why?’
    ‘He was supposed to have sent something for mum before he left, a gift for her birthday from the both us. I was just wondering whether you’ve received it.’
    ‘No, honey, nothing. Why wouldn’t he have left it here himself?’
    ‘Well, it wouldn’t be the same, would it? Dad, I have to go. Thanks.’ She was about to hang up when she caught her dad saying something and brought the phone back to her ear.
    Andros sensed a hint of edginess in his daughter’s voice. ‘Katerina, is there something troubling you?’
    Katerina knew she couldn’t fool her father, so she couldn’t completely deny it. ‘It’s nothing I can’t handle.’
    His daughter was her own woman and brilliant at her work. He didn’t want to pry further. That would have been as good as insulting her to her face and belittling her abilities and her strength. ‘You will let me know if I can be of any help, won’t you?’
    ‘I will, dad. Thanks.’
    ‘You are having dinner with us tonight, aren’t you? We’d love to see you.’
    ‘I’d love to see you too. The offer is accepted. However nice food was in Crete it could never compete with home. I couldn’t go another day without mum’s cooking. I need my fix. It’s a date.’
    ‘See you tonight then.’
    ‘See you tonight. Bye, dad.’
    ‘Bye, love.’

CHAPTER 49

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Twenty minutes later Katerina walked into her office. Vasilis was with her. Dora, her loyal personal assistant, stood up when she saw her, her face wreathed in smiles and bathed in bright light.
    Katerina’s troubles always shrank when she got a dose of “Dora-induced” warmth, perspective and a reality check. She was back to being a member of the workaholic routine-chasing human race.
    ‘Welcome back.’
    ‘It’s good to be back. They couldn’t keep me away long.’
    ‘They…?’
    ‘The Cretan men of course.’
    ‘Have you managed to smuggle in any, and maybe one for me?’
    ‘Oh, Dora. You don’t need my help to find someone and you don’t need to use subversive means by abducting them either. But no, I didn’t manage to smuggle in any and not because I didn’t try. But unfortunately the package was confiscated at Customs. Which is the same with the sun I see. Crete was in the throes of a heat wave. It’s nice to have a bit of cloud for a change. Even if it’s only a day’s respite, I wouldn’t say no to it.’
    ‘I couldn’t agree more. Pity about the good weather, though. But more’s the pity about the men.’
    Dora launched into her usual efficient updates and was picking up stuff from her desk ready to follow Katerina into her office. While Dora was talking Katerina studied her personal assistant.
    She was a rare individual and, dare I say, indispensable assistant, the model of efficiency. Katerina loved Dora’s trademark no-nonsense approach. She was warm, but she did not suffer fools gladly. A woman after my own heart, she thought. Unless she was a very good actress, which after all this time working for her, Katerina knew couldn’t be true.
    She knew Dora truly adored her and worshipped the ground she treaded on. After ten years of working for her, Dora was like a member of the family. Dora couldn’t help being very protective of her boss and very often acting more like another mother to her than a personal assistant.
    Katerina knew that Dora would only leave her job there if she could no longer do it to her usual exceedingly high standards.
    Dora was talking when she suddenly stopped, her mouth going dry, the rest of what she was about to say staying on her lips and flying from her mind. Vasilis had at that moment come through the door.
    Now, Vasilis, though younger than Aristo by three years, had an uncanny resemblance to him. They were not identical, but their colouring, body shape and height were the same.
    But it was their similar mannerisms and gestures and voice that sometimes made people do a double-take, as if seeing a ghost, wondering how a person could be at two places at the same time. That was of course the initial brief reaction, which did not last. They did have their own distinctive individuality after all.
    Dora was aware that Aristo was missing in Crete. It was as if she had seen a ghost and she went as white as chalk to match a ghost’s bright colouring and shiny complexion. Katerina realised what had happened.
    ‘How…?’ Dora started to say, but even though her mouth was willing to form the words, her brain was not, as the rest of the sentence flew from her mind.
    Katerina saw that Dora was about to faint and was immediately at her side grabbing her arm and pushing her gently down to her chair.
    ‘Dora, this is Vasilis, Aristo’s brother. Please, sit down. It’s alright. Take your time.’
    Dora obeyed. Katerina brought her a glass of water and waited. Dora gulped the water down and then sat there staring at Katerina and Vasilis as if frozen. It took her a good few minutes to recover.
    When Katerina and Vasilis saw the colour returning to her face and were confident that the shock had passed, Katerina walked into her office with Vasilis in tow.
    As if on cue, Dora came in behind them with coffee and Katerina’s mail. It was as if nothing had happened.
    Her face still a bit clouded, she looked at Katerina. ‘Katerina, sorry about that, but…’
    Katerina smiled amused. ‘Sorry for what? It’s alright. I hadn’t realised before now how much alike they were. I must have got used to them and don’t notice it anymore.’
    Dora nodded, still not trusting herself to speak. But she quickly recovered, becoming her usual consummate professional self. ‘Now, let me start all over again. Welcome back. It’s good to see you Mr Vasilis.’
    ‘Thanks, Dora.’ Katerina and Vasilis answered almost in unison, which caused all three of them to laugh.
    When they all recovered from their bout of laughter, Dora turned to Katerina. ‘How was your holiday?’
    ‘It was short but good, thanks. And the weather was glorious, if a little on the hot side. I had a good much-needed rest.’ Katerina put on a bright and untroubled face. However, inside her worry for Aristo was causing mayhem.
    ‘You work too hard, boss. This is the first break you’ve had in a year.’
    ‘Anything happened while I were away?’
    ‘No, nothing. It’s been quite uneventful around here. Unless you count a fire next door a report-worthy event. Oh, but don’t worry, it was snuffed out in no time and very little damage was caused. But honestly, you haven’t missed any excitement. Anyway I’ll leave you to catch up with your emails.’
    ‘Thanks, Dora. I’ll see you later.’
    Within seconds Dora was gone, closing the door softly behind her.
    Katerina was going through her post when she noticed a postcard. She turned it over and her face told Vasilis that it was important. She could not speak. It was from her brother, Giorgos. Vasilis got up and went to stand behind Katerina.
    They both stared at the postcard and its short message. Katerina spoke first.
    ‘It looks like a normal postcard you would send while on holiday.’
    ‘And yet something about it is not quite right, but I’m struggling to put my finger on it.’ Vasilis said.
    ‘He must be trying to tell us something. Judging by what we saw at his home he must be in some sort of danger and he must be sending us a message.’
    Vasilis was trying to drag a memory of something that seemed long ago now. Katerina turned the postcard over again to look at the front photograph. And then it struck her. It was the oddity of that photograph. She realised what was bothering her.
    ‘Don’t you find it odd that someone on holiday outside Cyprus would send a postcard with the photograph of Limassol Castle?’
    ‘You are right. Yes. Of course. Unless he had taken the postcard with him and posted it from there.’
    Katerina shook her head. ‘But that would not make any sense.’
    ‘Alternatively, he may have sent it from Cyprus before he left, in case he forgot when he got there. That’s assuming he has left Cyprus. But then you are right. It seems unlikely that his house was ransacked after he had left. If as we suspect the blood there is his, though not certain without analysis, then he must have been taken away, after putting up some resistance, judging by the signs of a furious fight there.’
    Katerina said nothing, but was shaking her head as if she was trying to work something out that didn’t fit. She looked at the postcard again. She focused on the postmark.
    She then had an idea and tapped on the postcard with her forefinger.
    ‘Look at the postmark, though. It’s a Turkish one. And the date on the postcard is yesterday’s. My mother said that he had left at around noon yesterday. He would have had to take a flight via Athens, as because of the political situation here there are no direct flights between Cyprus and Turkey. He would have landed at one of the big cities such as Istanbul or Izmir, old Smyrna, and he would then have had to take an internal flight. Would he have had time to post the postcard for it to arrive today?’
    ‘Could someone else have posted it for him on his instructions?’
    ‘I suppose it is possible but unlikely.’ Katerina paused and then became excited. ‘He must have discovered something. Elli had him working on the location of the tomb. He was researching it furiously. He had asked Katia, a member of the expedition in Cappadocia to come to Cyprus to help him.’ She paused. ‘By the way, what about her? I wonder whether she was involved in whatever happened at that house.
    ‘Do you think she may have been taken too, or could she be in hiding? Vasilis, I think we should try and see if we can find her. If she’s still around she may be able to give us a clue as to what they had found or what happened. Then again she may have gone into hiding, especially if she had seen something or what happened at the house or, just maybe, if she had not been able to contact Giorgos.’
    ‘You know it may be a long shot, but let’s put someone onto checking the hospitals just in case they come up with something.’ As he said that Vasilis was thinking the worse for both Giorgos and Katia. It was not just his practical mind talking.
    There was something else troubling him, something related to Katia and hospitals that he could not remember, but had no doubt prompted him to mention checking hospitals. He was struggling to dredge the thought when he heard Katerina speaking and came back to the present.
    ‘Yes. That’s a good idea. Giorgos must have found something. He must have known that he was being followed and wanted to make sure whatever information he had discovered was imparted to us and did not fall into the wrong hands, in case anything happened to him. Yet when I last spoke to him he didn’t show any sign of concern and did not mention anything. Something must have happened since I last spoke to him.’ She paused. ‘Or maybe something had happened already before I spoke to him or even since, and he didn’t want to worry me.’
    ‘Katerina, I saw him two days ago.’
    ‘You did? But how? Why didn’t you tell me this before?’
    ‘Katerina, it was only an hour ago that we were at Giorgos’ home and what we saw there got the ball rolling for all this speculation. It’s only now that I realised the significance of that night.’
    ‘Vasilis, please. Tell me what happened.’
    ‘He and Katia, through their research, found clues leading to Limassol Castle. They were investigating there when they found something, this small bust.’ As he spoke he took the bust out of his pocket. ‘Giorgos said that Katia took it when they decided to call it a day and walked back to her car. He followed her out a while later. He heard a scream and when he went to her car she was barely alive and the bust was gone.’
    Seeing Katerina’s shocked expression, he rushed to reassure her. ‘Yes, he said he had called for an ambulance to take her away. She’s probably still at the hospital. You can’t have gone through that and be out in two days.’
    ‘Vasilis, where did you see him?’
    ‘Yes, I’m coming to that. Giorgos realised he was being followed and went to his friend Maria’s house. It was there that I saw him. He had called me to ask me to go there and help him get rid of his pursuer.’
    He saw her face go white and rushed to explain. ‘Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. His pursuer had caught up with him at Maria’s house. By the time I got there he was no longer a threat. He had been neutralised with Maria’s help and I just arranged for him to be taken away. Giorgos had found the bust taken from Katia in his pursuer’s pocket.’
    ‘What happened afterwards? Where did Giorgos go?’ Katerina wanted answers and she wanted them now.
    ‘I left soon after my men had taken away the pursuer. I was in a hurry, because I had left a board meeting to go and help him and I had to get back, which I did of course only when I was certain that there was no further danger, at least there anyway. I would have thought he would probably have gone home or, now that I think about it, if he thought that home might not have been safe, I don’t know where he might have gone.
    ‘But then whose is the blood at his house if not his? He must have gone home and they must have been still watching him, and followed him and got him and the bust as well. Otherwise we would have seen it there. That’s what they must have been looking for.’
    Katerina had her priorities right.
    ‘We need to check up on Katia. We need to make sure that she’s alright and that she’s receiving the best medical care. I may have to arrange to have her moved to a private clinic at our expense. And we need to talk to her about what she and Giorgos have found out. Let’s hope she’s in a fit state to talk, and doctor’s orders permitting of course.’ She paused.
    ‘All their research was most probably at Giorgos’ house. And if it was, then I’m sure it’s all gone. They must have taken it. That’s why the laptop and my brother’s hard drive are missing. But knowing my brother, he must have had an insurance policy. He must have taken precautions.
    ‘He must have had backed up the files in his laptop and hard drive. And not at his house or the office. It must be some place where they would not even think to look, a safe place.’ She was thinking furiously. She turned to Vasilis. ‘Vasilis? You look as if you are miles away. Have you heard anything of what I just said?’
    ‘Yes, I have.’ He looked up at her, but not really seeing her, actually seeing right through her.
    Katerina pressed him. ‘What is it?’
    Vasilis thought back to that strange night and then it struck him. ‘There was something else. I believe that Giorgos may have found something significant. He tried to tell me. I forgot about it until now, but he started to say something when the men I had sent for to come and get their pursuer arrived and distracted us. And then it all got forgotten. Otherwise I would have reminded him and asked him about it.
    ‘The intruder was a Ruinand and his chums must have been the ones at Giorgos’ house looking for the small bust and his research. I would bet that Giorgos is in the Ruinands’ protective custody. And I know you are thinking it, but I believe…’
    ‘Don’t say it.’ Katerina cut Vasilis off. She was afraid the worst for her brother, even though she didn’t want to accept it could happen.
    ‘… he’s still alive. He’s much too useful to them. They should be pumping him for information as we speak.’ Vasilis saw Katerina’s expression soften, but the relief did not last long as her expression tightened again. A worrying thought crossed her mind.
    ‘If he’s hiding and we were searching for him we could be putting him in further danger, especially if this is part of some plan of his to throw them off the scent.’
    ‘It is possible.’ As Vasilis looked at Katerina he saw determination overriding emotion. When she spoke it was her common sense coming to the fore.
    ‘Then again, how could he be in any worse danger than he already is, that we all are, considering what happened in Crete as well?’
    ‘You never did tell me the whole story of what happened to you there.’
    ‘I told your mum. I’ll tell you some other time. There has just been too much to cope with. Anyway, the ‘hiding’ option is beginning to look more unlikely with every passing minute.’ Katerina thumbed the postcard and looked at Vasilis.
    ‘This postcard was his back-up plan, his plan B. We have to figure it out. It should give us all the clues we need to pick up from where Giorgos left off. I know this is what he meant for us to do and not waste precious time looking for him. We’ll worry about him later.
    ‘Besides we don’t know where to start and we should not be diverted from the main issue of resolving this mystery and bringing it to a successful conclusion in our side’s favour. This should be our main objective. This is bigger than any one of us even though where loved ones are involved we may want to do otherwise. By solving the mystery we help him by honouring and continuing what he has done so far too.’
    Vasilis knew it was hard for Katerina to find the courage to say what she just said and he saw the sense in her words. He joined her in studying the postcard.
    They looked at the back of the postcard, but again nothing jumped out at them from the text. Suddenly Katerina seemed to have thought of something and she examined the front photograph again.
    ‘Vasilis, take a look at this.’
    With her finger she indicated some text in very small, almost illegible characters at the top right-hand corner, almost lost in the foliage in the photo. She opened a drawer and took out a magnifying glass. She could see characters that did not make any sense to her whatsoever.
    Yet, there was something at the back of her mind that made her feel as if she had seen those characters before. Then she remembered.
    ‘Vasilis, you won’t believe me, but I know how to read this.’
    ‘What do you mean you can read this? How?’
    ‘It’s a code, an alphabet we made up with Giorgos when we were kids. We have rarely used it in years.’
    ‘And you remember it?’
    ‘I do.’ She paused. ‘To tell you the truth I don’t remember it by heart, but that’s what a key to a code is for.’ She pushed a button under her desk and part of the floor next to her desk rose, revealing a safe. She opened it and, after a brief search, found what she was looking for.
    Vasilis was curious and leaned down to have a look at this code. It was one of the most complicated codes he had seen in his life. These kids should have been taken off the market and given jobs in cryptography departments of the secret services or the software industry.
    Katerina had already deciphered the message. She only needed a quick look at the key to the code and her near-photographic memory did the rest. Of course it was like learning to ride a bike. You never forgot. Seeing the key to the code it triggered that part of her brain that had it stored and could do it with her eyes closed, so to speak.
    ‘The message on the card says “mother’s laptop — put things in the right order.” That must be the clue to the folder name or password.’
    ‘Katerina, maybe the document on the laptop is password-protected.’
    ‘Let’s get to my parents house and check mum’s laptop.’
    On their way out, Dora started to say something, but Katerina gestured gently for her to stop.
    ‘I’m sorry, but whatever it is it will have to wait, please, Dora. I need to go out urgently.’
    ‘Of course, it can wait.’
    ‘I’ll be back later. We’ll talk then.’

    At her parents’ home, her mother was baffled.
    ‘Katerina, darling, and Vasilis, it’s so good to see you both. Katerina, I wasn’t expecting you until later this evening. Have you come to help me with the cooking? Has my perennially workaholic daughter suddenly developed a hole in the head?’
    Katerina shivered inside at the analogy with the danger they were in. Her mother was still talking. ‘You can’t have already managed to catch up with work. I even half expected you to change your mind about dinner and spend the night at the office. Has the building got tired of you and spat you out?’
    Katerina always enjoyed her mother’s turn of phrase. ‘Hi, mum. Nice to see you too.’
    She hugged and kissed her mother. But Katerina’s calm exterior did not work its magic on Anna. She knew her daughter too well to be fooled. She could see the signs and could sense that something was bothering her. There was an underlying impatience in her daughter’s demeanour.
    ‘Darling, what’s wrong?’
    ‘Mum, you are as bad as dad. I think you both worry too much about Giorgos and me and refuse to believe that we’ve grown up and have our problems, which we have to deal by ourselves. We won’t always have you watching our backs.’
    ‘You will understand when you have children of your own. It is the one job in the world you never retire from, well, obviously, until you die that is. The other side of the coin is that your children are also, hopefully, your pension. When it’s payback time, you’ll know, love.’
    Katerina’s face showed her shock and Anna noticed. ‘I was joking, of course. Now you have confirmed my fears. If you have forgotten your sense of humour, something’s very wrong. Is it you or is it Giorgos?’
    Vasilis smiled to himself at an exchange between parent and child taking place in every house in the country.
    ‘Vasilis and I are dealing with it. Mum, was Giorgos here using your laptop recently?’
    ‘Yes, he said he wanted to install some software, make some updates. Why?’
    ‘Can I have a look?’
    ‘Katerina, what’s all this about?’
    ‘I’ll tell you later.’
    Anna knew better than to argue with her daughter. It was a match she could not win. She would bet against herself if she could, if a betting shop would accept her bet.
    ‘This way darling.’
    Katerina sat at her mother’s desk and turned on the laptop. She didn’t want to go through all the files and she thought of her brother’s message. “Put the right things in order.”
    The word “order” jumped out at her. Of course. It must be the Order of Vlachernae. Brilliant. Too obvious to be true. She searched for files under that name and she found the folder. She clicked to open it.
    A window popped up asking for a password. She hesitated only briefly. She picked up the postcard and the magnifying glass that she had brought with her.
    She saw the characters under the message, which were also in their childhood made-up alphabet that included numbers as well. There were twelve lines of code. Each one must be a password. She typed the first one and it worked. She completed all twelve lines. She was in.
    She saw various sub-folders. Their names were not clear, but seemed to be in the same code as well. So if anyone came to this point would still not be any the wiser as to their content.
    She deciphered the names of the sub-folders. Then she began clicking on them. Each sub-folder required a password to open. She referred back to the postcard to enter the passwords and access the folders.
    There were plans, geological scans, word documents with historical research, scanned pages from books, photographs and conclusions, undoubtedly written by Giorgos and Katia.
    As they were going through the material, Katerina turned to Vasilis. ‘That’s great. If he has made it so difficult to get in this means that his captors would not be able to crack the passwords so the research they’ve taken would be useless to them. Good. That should give us a head start.’
    Vasilis indicated the screen. ‘Look at the dates of the satellite geological scans. They only came out yesterday. And they were done by the Valchern Corporation’s mining division. I wonder whether my mother has seen this stuff. This material is amazing. They’ve done a lot in only a few days. They’ve practically cracked the mystery of the location of that construction which could be the tomb.’
    ‘These subterranean scans that show the area under the Church of Ayia Napa are a bit fuzzy. It says here that’s because of a mineral interfering with the satellite instruments. I wonder whether it was placed there deliberately. However, you can still see the outline of what’s underneath. It looks very complicated. I bet once we are there the detail must be extraordinary, probably beyond what we may expect.’
    Giorgos had the foresight to include a description and a plan of the wall concealing the opening to the tunnel. On one of the plans there was a red dot indicating the exact place under the castle.
    Katerina turned to Vasilis who was already surfing her mind-waves and believed he could anticipate her thoughts. He saw the look they exchanged as confirmation of that. Vasilis started saying what was most probably on both their minds.
    ‘The tunnel must lead to that huge construction under the Church of Ayia Napa. Imagine living here all our lives and not knowing what wonders existed under our feet. The same goes for the generations that came before us. And that’s not to say there are not enough wonders above ground.
    ‘The Church of Ayia Napa has always been a favourite of mine. Its design is sublime and elegant. It’s at the same time weightless and with impressive gravitas pulls the eye to its perfect dimensions and mesmerising form. You know, I was baptised there and have always had a soft spot for it.
    ‘I was very saddened with the large damage it suffered in the earthquake of 1996. As a result its interior that had the most extraordinarily beautiful decoration and frescoes was controversially whitewashed. The Bishopric of Limassol said that they had to do that because the damage was so extensive that nothing could be saved or repaired.
    ‘They should have found the money to bring it back to its former glory. I bet you that they could have raised the required amount of money from the local people. And there are enough rich people who could, and I believe would, have done it.’ He paused. ‘Anyway, I’m sorry for this sermon, but I had to get it off my chest. Come on, we need to get down to the castle and check it out. It will be closing in an hour.
    ‘We need to leave now, if we are going to make it today. The important thing is to at least get in. As long as we are in we can hide when the castle closes until all is quiet and then go about our business.’
    ‘OK. Let me print out some of this stuff and let’s go.’ Katerina said and she began clicking, opening files and sending them to the printer.
    ‘Is it wise to have these documents with us? What if the people looking for the tomb, our friends the Ruinands, intercept us and relieve us of our precious weight?’
    ‘I guess you are right. Let’s take a few minutes to memorise the important stuff, especially the plans, the geological scans and parts of my brother’s notes.’
    ‘Alright, but let’s hurry.’

    On their way out, Katerina remembered what Vasilis had told her about the other thing her brother had discovered. Before she had time to ask her mother about it, she heard Anna calling her. They were standing in the entrance hall and they both turned.
    ‘Katerina, wait. Giorgos gave me this for you.’
    Anna handed Katerina a small package and then ran back to the kitchen. Katerina unwrapped the package. It was a small box. She opened it. Inside was a key with a number on it.
    Knowing her brother and his love for his clandestine ways and tricks because of his natural suspicion, she checked the wrapping and the ribbon for any clue or message, but there was none.
    Her eye then caught a tiny flash of white on the inside of the round handle of the key. She tried to feel it carefully. It felt like leather. She managed to remove it and unfurl it. On it was one word: ‘Gym’.
    Katerina raised her voice so that her mum would hear her. ‘Mum, which gym does Giorgos go to?’
    There was silence, only broken by the distant noise of the extractor in the kitchen and the crickets outside whose din seemed to be rising in intensity and volume with every passing minute. Katerina waited. She knew her mother was trying to remember.
    ‘It’s the Antillos Gym on Karageorgis street. He took me there once when I expressed an interest in losing weight. It was my first and last visit, sadly.’
    ‘Thanks, mum. We have to go. See you later.’
    Anna knew her daughter would not be late for dinner that night, so she did not say it.
    Katerina turned to Vasilis and whispered. ‘He seems to have done a bit of legwork in the last two days since you saw him.’ Vasilis nodded and smiled.
    They offered rushed final goodbyes and they were off. First stop was the gym. Katerina spoke with the owner who briefly flirted with her and was extremely forthcoming and helpful once she introduced herself.
    She said that her brother had asked her to get something from his locker and she showed the key to the owner. He nodded and led her to the locker area. The owner left them alone and went back to the main area of the gym. He had been giving a personal training session to a guy who obviously did not need it.
    Katerina put the key in the lock and it fitted perfectly. She turned it and yanked open the door. She was amazed. She would never have thought her brother so tidy.
    The locker was immaculate. It was not in a suitable condition to hide something in, but maybe she was wrong and the surprise at the order reigning inside would deter a potential thief. She chuckled to herself at that preposterous thought.
    She checked the contents of the locker carefully without putting anything out of place. And, lo and behold, it was staring her in the face. She had almost missed it.
    There, next to a tube of toothpaste was what looked like a small pipe, but which on closer inspection, when she picked it up, proved to be a parchment-like material. It was a scroll. She unrolled it carefully and was dazzled by the characters and diagrams on it.
    Vasilis was speechless too. They both thought back to the plans and geological scans and Giorgos’ notes and realised the scroll’s significance. Vasilis was astonished.
    ‘So this must be what he so eagerly tried to tell me about. Damn. I wish I had known that night.’
    ‘Why? What would you have done?’
    ‘I would have stayed with him and I would have provided protection. I wouldn’t have let him out of my sight. I know. Don’t say it. I should have done it anyway. But I was in such a hurry to get back to my meeting that, as the immediate danger had passed, I stupidly and rashly assumed that there was nothing left to do there. Damn.’
    ‘Don’t blame yourself. You did a lot and you are doing more now with me. We are going to figure this out together, for Giorgos. And then we’ll try and find him. Although, now that I think of it, if we are successful and the Ruinands will surely find out if we are, my brother will have outlived his usefulness and you know what that would mean. We need to get in touch with Elli. She could help us locate him. Let’s get out of here.’
    ‘OK, let’s.’

    In the car on their way to the castle with only half an hour to spare to closing time Katerina’s mobile started ringing.
    ‘Hello?’
    ‘Katerina?’ It was her mother and she had been crying. Her voice was hoarse and she was blowing her nose.
    ‘Mum, what is it?’
    ‘On the news…’ sniff, blowing of nose, tears… ‘… your brother…’
    ‘Mum, you are not making any sense.’ As she spoke she knew what her mother was going to tell her. ‘What about Giorgos?’
    ‘It’s just been on the news. They said they have information he’s disappeared.’
    ‘What? But how? How could they know that?’ She looked at Vasilis who was driving. They were almost at the castle. He glanced quickly in her direction and met her eyes and then brought his attention back to the road.
    ‘Darling, do you know anything about this?’
    ‘No, I don’t. Mum, is dad with you?’
    ‘Yes, he’s here. Do you want to speak to him?’
    ‘Yes, please.’ She waited while Anna put Andros on the phone.
    ‘Hi, love. I gathered you hadn’t heard.’
    ‘No. Dad, stay with mum. I can’t come right now. I am at this moment in the car with Vasilis at the other end of the city. We have to do something. I’ll call Elli Symitzis. She may be able to do something about tracking down Giorgos.’
    ‘That’s a good idea. You do that.’
    And dad… I’ll try and get there earlier than planned tonight. OK?’
    ‘OK, love. Take care. See you later.’ He almost hung up when he remembered something and he, quickly, called into the mouthpiece, hoping that Katerina was still on the line. ‘Katerina?’
    ‘Yes?’
    ‘You don’t know what he’s been working on, do you?’
    ‘I do. But I can’t tell you about it now.’
    ‘So you are involved too… in this thing?’
    ‘Yes, and where we are going now has to do with that, but I can’t tell you more.’ She wanted to say that they were completing Giorgos’ work and that what they were doing could either save or most likely condemn Giorgos to his fate, but things were bad enough already and she didn’t want to pile more misery onto her parents.
    ‘I understand.’ He wanted to say to his daughter to be careful, but he saw there was no point. It was something important she had to do. He would not show that he was worried either. ‘Let me know if I can help.’
    ‘I will. And dad… be careful who you allow into the house, just in case. Are you alone with mum there?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Don’t open the door unless you know who it is.’
    Andros wanted to ask “is it that bad?” but again refrained from doing so.
    ‘Katerina, just do what you have to do. I can see you are in a hurry, so I’ll let you go. See you later.’
    ‘Thanks, dad. See you later.’
    As soon as she hung up she turned on the radio. The news update was coming up.
    “We have unconfirmed reports that Giorgos Markantaskis, the well known archaeologist, and son of the businessman Andros Markantaskis, recently the head of an archaeological expedition in Cappadocia in Turkey, is missing. It is believed that he was taken from his home sometime during the night.
    “We have no information as to the reasons of his disappearance. Sources in the local police tell us that an inspection of his house and forensic evidence taken from the scene could indicate that he may have been forcibly taken after having put up a fight. We will bring you more on this story as it develops during our bulletins every fifteen minutes.”
    Katerina could not believe what she just heard. ‘That’s quite a lot of accurate information. How could they have known all that? I wonder who’s feeding them the information. We’ve just found out. How could the police have been involved already?’
    ‘It’s a set up. A trap.’
    ‘But with so much attention on this now, won’t it make it more difficult for them and easier for Giorgos to be found?’ She answered her own question. ‘No, of course not. It’s deliberate. It must be. They are counting on stirring as much fuss about this as they can. You are absolutely right. The publicity is for our benefit.
    ‘They want us to know that they have him. They want to show us how powerful they are and that we could have the same fate. And they must be confident that Giorgos is in such a safe place that there is not even the slightest chance of finding him unless they want us to do so.
    ‘They want us to stew in our inability to do anything about it or even force our hand to act rashly by concentrating on finding him and being distracted from our main quest. Then again perhaps they want us to act rashly and reveal what we have found out regarding the quest. Vasilis, we have to continue as planned, but be extra careful.’
    They had just parked outside the castle and were getting out of the car when Katerina’s mobile went off. She took it out of her bag. She could not tell the identity of the caller, but it was clear that it was from abroad.
    ‘Hello?’
    A small and faint female voice barely came out through the other end of the line. ‘Is that Katerina Markantaskis?’
    ‘Yes, who’s that speaking, please?’
    ‘You are Giorgos’ sister?’ Katerina tightened her grip on the mobile expecting the worse, blackmail perhaps or news of her brother’s death. She could not decide which was worse. She could not begin to contemplate what she would do upon receiving the bad news.
    ‘Yes.’ She made it sound like a question, but she meant for the caller to continue.
    ‘I am sorry to trouble you. I tried to contact Giorgos, but there was no reply. Could you please tell me how to contact him?’
    Katerina felt guilty relief wash over her, but it would prove to be short-lived. She wondered whether to tell the caller about her brother’s disappearance. It was on the news already and it was only a matter of time before this woman found out, if she didn’t know already. ‘My brother is missing.’
    ‘Missing? What do you mean missing?’
    ‘I’ve just found out myself. It was on the news. Excuse me, but you haven’t told me your name.’
    ‘I’m sorry. It’s been a very difficult few hours. My name’s Naomi. I am the sister of James Calvell, the deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. James was your brother’s best friend. They were at university together.’
    ‘Yes, I know.’ Katerina paused. There was something the other woman said that triggered the concern part of her brain and then she picked up on it. ‘Did you say “was"?’
    ‘My brother was found dead this morning in his office. I believe it was murder, even though whoever killed him went to great lengths to make it appear like a suicide. That would be preposterous. He’s never in his life shown the slightest sign of wanting to end his life. On the contrary, he’s never been depressed.
    ‘Furthermore, he was the most optimistic person I knew. And when I spoke to him earlier this morning he seemed absolutely normal, his usual cheerful, determined and efficient self. There was nothing in his voice to ring alarm bells, not in the least. I’ve told the police all this. But they refuse to treat it as anything else but a suicide.
    ‘The detective in charge of the investigation is an idiot who is clearly in a rush to wrap the whole thing up, close the file and bury it in a storehouse somewhere, or wherever it is they put their closed files or files of cold cases, which in itself is strange as you would think that he would welcome the publicity of such a case, the benefits to his career, fast-track promotions and rise to the top, running for political office and all that. That’s how things often work here in the States.
    ‘We are talking about the death of the deputy director of one of the world’s greatest museums after all. And there is another thing. John Halland, a restorer at the museum specialising in Byzantine icons is missing too.’ She paused.
    Katerina could tell she was rolling something in her mind and decided not to interrupt her train of thought. When Naomi’s voice next came down the line, the unmistakable signs of fear came down the line with it. ‘Do you think my brother’s death could be connected with your brother’s disappearance? Do you think the restorer was involved in my brother’s death in some way and has fled? Or perhaps he has been kidnapped? Were our brothers, and maybe that restorer as well, working on something together?’
    ‘It could be. Did they find anything, any clue on the scene? Was there anything missing?’
    ‘Forensics haven’t found anything, but yes, some items may be missing. The secret door in his office that led to a secret tunnel and his safe was ajar. Someone had been inside. The only sign that items may be missing comes from the fact that there were marks left on one of the shelves to indicate that something had been there recently.
    ‘We cannot tell whether whatever items were there were taken by the intruder and murderer or whether the items had been removed before then for some reason, be it for restoration, research, an exhibition or something else, perhaps. Has your brother told you of any items that might have been there? Items they had found and were studying? Something of significance?’
    Katerina thought hard, racked her brains for a memory. And then she remembered the icon and the ring found inside it. They had been kept at the Metropolitan where they were supposed to have been safe.
    She decided not to divulge the information to this woman she didn’t know whether she was James’ sister or not. She could be an enemy or rival or a journalist fishing for information for all she knew.
    When she answered Naomi’s question she didn’t hesitate. It was a strong confident voice travelling down the line to Naomi in New York. ‘No, I cannot think of anything. I’m sorry.’
    ‘It’s alright. I hoped… Could you please tell your brother when you see him?’
    ‘I will, of course. Naomi, I’m very sorry for your loss. Please let me know if there is anything we can do for you.’
    ‘Thank you. Please, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.’
    Katerina had to hang up, but she had to end this conversation as gently as she could, without appearing insensitive and abrupt. Getting on with the mission was now more urgent than ever. She assumed an apologetic tone. ‘Naomi, look, I’m sorry, but I really have to go.’
    ‘Yes… yes, of course. I understand. I know, you are busy. I’m keeping you from something. I’m sorry again for troubling you. Thanks for listening. Good-bye.’
    ‘Goodbye, Naomi.’
    Katerina hung up and looked at Vasilis. He got her drift. ‘The plot thickens.’
    ‘Giorgos will be devastated. He and James were very close while at university and they have stayed so since leaving university. They used to go on climbing and other extreme expeditions together.’ She paused. ‘And now there’s the icon and the ring to find as well. The Ruinands are definitely behind this. Do you realise that they now not only have the ring, but both Likureian icons and possibly the third one that was stolen from the auction, as well?’
    Vasilis shook his head and a series of expletives stayed in his throat unsaid. ‘Damn, my mother will be furious.’
    Vasilis’ boiling anger sharply contrasted with Katerina’s calmness. It was she who now spoke, giving Vasilis some time to recover his composure and reenergise his brain and put it back to good use.
    ‘Thankfully the media haven’t yet connected the death and the raft of disappearances and kidnappings, but it can’t be a coincidence. Too many coincidences make a truth. It is starting to look like a pattern. Wait till the Cypriot media get wind of the New York events. They are bound to see a connection. They’ll have a field day.
    ‘Vasilis, we’ll have to make it quick. I can’t afford to be trapped inside the castle after it closes, especially tonight. On any other night I wouldn’t mind. I cannot miss dinner at my parents’ tonight, especially with the news about Giorgos. Let’s have a quick look at the spot shown on the plan and get out of here.’
    Vasilis nodded his assent. ‘OK. I understand. We can come back tomorrow. But we cannot postpone it for longer than that. Time is just too critical here and we need to stay ahead of the Ruinands and anyone else, a gravedigger or whatever, that may be after this tomb. You remember that huge publicity blitz only a few weeks ago after the charity auction?
    ‘It died down, because it just seemed to people too extraordinary to be true. But not everybody felt the same. Some people are still looking; archaeologists, journalists, quick rich opportunists are scouring the width and breadth of this world for information, for clues.’

    Across town Elli had seen the news too. She suspected that it was a matter of time before they publicised Aristo’s disappearance as well. She knew it was the Ruinands and the Madame Marcquesa behind this.
    They wanted to show her what they could do, how many places they had infiltrated and had access to and possibly control of. She also then remembered the not so small matter of the traitor in her family and organisation. She had to find his identity. She had to flash him out soon.

CHAPTER 50

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    Elli received the call she had been dreading. A scrambled signal did not allow her to trace the call. A disguised voice told her that there was a message for her. They had her son, Aristo. They wanted something in exchange to be revealed later.
    She would be picked up from the Hotel Grande Beyon in Athens at five o’clock in the afternoon the next day. She should come alone. Then the caller hung up. It was just before midnight.
    Elli called her pilot and arranged for one of her private jets to be on the tarmac at Larnaca International Airport with the engines revving ready for take off. Then she arranged for the Hotel Grande Beyon to have her usual suite ready; she would be arriving there in the early hours of the morning.
    She was told she was lucky that it was not occupied. She didn’t know whether that was the case or whether they were planning to move the occupier to another suite, because she was such a good customer, but it didn’t matter as long as she got what she wanted. Then she called her driver and apologised for waking him up.
    She went upstairs to her bedroom and took ten minutes to pack a small overnight bag. She let Mrs Manto know that something came up and she would be going to Athens on urgent business that very night. Mrs Manto was surprised, as Elli had only done that a few times in the past year, but guessed that it was part of a global tycoon’s hectic life.
    Elli was standing outside her front door within twenty minutes of the call. The car pulled up. She jumped in without waiting for her driver to open the door for her and they were off. Barring an incident, they should be at the waiting plane at Larnaca International Airport within forty-five minutes at the latest.

    By three o’clock in the morning of the following day Elli’s plane had landed at Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport and parked in a quiet corner reserved for private planes. A car drove up to the jet. Within forty minutes Elli was in her suite at the Hotel Grande Beyon wondering what to do for the next thirteen hours or so.

    At ten to five in the afternoon she was standing in the lobby just inside the front entrance. She knew she should have sat down so as to draw the minimum attention to herself, but her impatience could not let her.
    At exactly five o’clock a man gently touched her arm. She turned and was looking into eyes of the most unusual green she had ever seen owned by a man no older than thirty and with a masculine and angular but at the same time angelic face.
    She was taken aback. She smirked to herself. She was looking at the civilised, mesmerising and admirably acceptable public face of one of the most ruthless organisations in the history of the world.
    ‘Mrs Symitzis, would you follow me please?’
    She followed him to the waiting car outside. The man opened the door for her and joined her in the back seat. The driver had the car running and drove off immediately the back door closed with a gentle thud. They rushed through the city with police escort and sirens to get through the car-clogged streets quickly.
    Once they were out of the city centre and into the Northern suburbs the police escort fell away. They left the city behind them and were driving on the Ethniki Odos or National Route, the motorway connecting Athens with Thessaloniki in the North of the country in the province of Macedonia.
    It was soon after they got onto the motorway that the man sitting next to Elli leaned towards her holding a scarf in his hand.
    ‘We cannot allow you to see where we are going so I will need to put a blindfold on you. Please don’t show any resistance.’
    Elli was no fool. She knew there was no other way. If she refused, they would turn back or just drop her there and then in the middle of nowhere. So she nodded.
    Of course she believed she knew where they were going. It must have been the Ruinands’ underwater city, Le Mirabel, in Marathon Bay, North of Athens. Vasilis had told her about that. She knew what to expect.

CHAPTER 51

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    In the meantime, in Limassol, Andros was speaking on the phone with his cousin, Andrew Le Charos. Andros could hear the urgency in Andrew’s voice coming down the line all the way from Sydney.
    ‘Andros, you have to open the package I sent you and give what’s inside to Elli. There is not much time. Forget that I said in my letter that it should be opened if you haven’t heard from me for a week or if I’m dead. Before you unwrap it, throw it…’
    The line went dead.
    Andros shouted at the mouthpiece, but he knew as he did so that there would be no reply forthcoming from the other end. He knew something terrible had happened to Andrew. What he didn’t know was that the conversation had been overheard.

    At the other end of the world in Sydney, Andrew Le Charos was working late in his office in the Fanari Tower. A group of four Ruinands disabled his security guards and the security systems at the building and within five minutes they were standing outside Andrew’s office.
    Two of them stayed there while the rest went to the next floor up, Andrew’s penthouse suite. They entered the penthouse. There was no danger of tripping any security systems as they had inside knowledge of the entire security system of the building and the penthouse’s security system, which was handled separately off-site, had already been rendered inoperable. They only had a brief sojourn dealing with Andrew in his office after having surprised him.
    Within minutes they were exiting the Fanari Tower with Andrew in their care. Their ultimate destination was Le Mirabel, the underwater city and nerve-centre of the Ruinands.
    That was where Andrew would be brainwashed to serve the Ruinand cause and punch further holes into the Order of Vlachernae and Elli’s organisation. The Madame Marcquesa had changed her mind about Andrew and realised that he could have his uses, but only under her full control.

    Andros got up and almost ran to his study. He opened the safe and took out the package that Andrew Le Charos had sent to him. He weighed it in his hand. It felt unusually heavy. He thought back to his conversation with Andrew. He remembered the last thing Andrew told him. He had said to “open it and throw it”. That was a strange thing to say.
    But there was no other way of interpreting Andrew’s words. He wondered whether Andrew meant it literally. There was only one way to find out. Andros toyed with the package for a while and tossed it from hand to hand. There was no harm in following Andrew’s instructions, as he could see no alternative. Doubting the sanity of what he was about to do, he threw the package in the air.
    On its descent to the floor the package narrowly missed his palm. Just before the package touched the floor it opened up like a flower with multi-coloured sparks flying everywhere and bouncing off the walls.
    Andros shielded his eyes and tried to protect his body from the onslaught. But when the firework display stopped and he checked his body for signs of injury, he found nothing and was perplexed. A few seconds passed and suddenly out of the centre of the flower rose an exquisite icon unlike any he had ever seen. He was hypnotised by its beauty.
    He wanted to touch it, but he hesitated for fear of triggering some unintended consequence, worse even than the spectacle he had just witnessed. He feared an explosion which considering what he had just witnessed would not be such a crazy notion.
    There was a noise in the entrance hall and Andros called out the names of his wife and his daughter, but there was no reply. He remembered Katerina’s warning and at that moment he knew there was an intruder in the house.
    He was tempted to freeze on the spot from fear and shock, but he steeled himself and thought quickly, looking for a weapon. He was too far away from his desk and could not reach the licensed revolver he had inside one of the draws.
    He saw the letter opener. He grabbed it and held it to his side, partly hidden by his shirt and his slightly bulging stomach. He then remembered the icon on the floor next to him. He quickly picked it up and hid it behind some books on the bookshelf closest to him, forgetting his earlier reluctance to touch it.
    Just as he was quickly bringing his hand back to his side, a smiling face appeared at the door of the study, a face he knew very well. He breathed a sigh of relief, he let his shoulders visibly relax and his suspicions instantly fled from his mind.
    He made a few tentative steps ready to hug that person, when he stopped as the smile vanished and his shock at the sudden change was amplified when he stood nailed to the spot looking at the barrel of a gun that appeared out of nowhere.
    The intruder had just caught Andros’ movement at the bookcase when he entered the room. Unobstructed he went to the bookcase and he searched with his hand. He found what he sought and his fingers closed around it in a gentle gesture redolent with self-satisfaction.
    A smile of mirth coloured his face. Mission accomplished. This person and his grief-stricken brood would not bother us again. From now on he would be my master’s houseguest, a silent embalmed decorative presence, a worthy addition to the glory that was Le Mirabel.
    Andros knew his fate was sealed. He was thankful that his wife was not in the house with him. But then his last thought was that that was not a guarantee that she would be safe.
    At the moment that the bullet travelled and just before it lodged in Andros’ chest on a straight course to his heart, determined to pierce it and shred it to pieces, and before Andros collapsed to the floor unconscious, Andros saw his wife standing behind the traitor, Elli’s traitor, and was, discreetly but desperately, signalling to her, hoping not to alert the traitor.
    Her shock at the unfolding turn of events did not give her enough time to pick up on the danger signals, recover from her initial shock and flee.

CHAPTER 52

    Limassol, Cyprus
    Present day
    The next morning, Katerina was having a quick coffee for breakfast and some toast. Vasilis had spent the night there for extra security. She had a lovely time with her parents the previous evening.
    Her mother’s food was as delicious and finger-licking as ever and conversation flowed easily, which was surprising considering the cloud weighing heavily on everybody’s mind, the cloud that had Giorgos’ name splashed across it. She knew her parents put on a brave face for her sake, even though they were eaten with worry about her brother’s fate.
    Katerina was accompanied in her breakfast by the television in the background, set on low volume. Katerina’s eye fell on the screen as it was showing the latest news. Suddenly the toast stopped on approach to Katerina’s mouth for another much-desired bite and floated mid-air. She leaned forward to pick up the remote control and raise the volume on the television.
    “We have unconfirmed reports that businessman Andros Markantaskis and his wife Anna have disappeared. Police sources believe them to have been kidnapped during the night.”
    Katerina spat out her last bite and ran to find Vasilis who was having a shower and listening to the news on the radio. He immediately rinsed himself in seconds and jumped out grabbing a towel and running out of the bathroom towards the kitchen dripping water all the way.
    He almost collided with Katerina as he was reaching the entrance hall, a wet slippery trail running away from him like fuel that was in danger of being ignited. They both started speaking at once. Then Vasilis stopped and let Katerina go ahead.
    ‘Vasilis, it’s my parents. Just now on the news. They are missing.’
    ‘I know. I just heard it on the radio. It looks to me suspiciously similar to the other disappearances, or kidnappings I suppose we should call them now.’
    Katerina was visibly distraught, but her usual practical self took over.
    ‘How could the media have found out so quickly? I believe that our original theory is correct. There’s no doubt now that the media are being deliberately fed this information. Do you realise that you, Elli, Iraklios, my grandmother and I are the only ones left? We need to go to my parents’ house before the police and the media get there, and see if we can find any clues as to what happened.
    ‘It is likely that the media, and perhaps the police as well, have had a head start on us, so they may be there already. And many of those who had not been forewarned, but who just heard the news will be congregating there to get their healthy dose of excitement and gossip. We need to hurry.’
    Vasilis was speaking as he turned and headed towards the guest bedroom. ‘I’m coming with you. Give me five minutes to get dressed.’
    ‘I need five minutes myself.’ Katerina rushed to her bedroom.
    Within exactly five minutes they were getting into the car on the ten-minute short drive to her parents’ house. When they parked outside eight minutes later and got out of the car they could see nothing suspicious from the outside.
    Katerina took out the keys and unlocked the front door. She wondered about her parents’ hired help and whether any of them were there. She and Vasilis stood in the entrance hall, but heard only silence. Katerina moved to the living room, which was the room nearest to her.
    She saw no sign of a struggle or a search. Everything seemed to be in its place. Then she went into her father’s study. At first glance it all seemed normal, until she noticed the letter opener on the floor and she saw her mother’s bag on the side table. Then she saw the door to her father’s safe hanging open.
    With Vasilis they had a quick look round the study. She was about to move away from her father’s desk when she felt as if there was something there she saw but didn’t quite properly register and should go back for another look.
    She looked at her father’s desk again and then she saw it. It was easy to miss. It was a scribble on a small notepad with detachable sheets near the corner of the desk close to the bookcase. It was in her father’s hand-writing.
    There was the date of the previous day and the time 11.24 p.m. Underneath there was only one word: “Iraklios”. Vasilis had joined her and they looked at each other not knowing what to make of it at first. And then it hit them both at the same time and they said it almost in unison. ‘The traitor.’
    They checked the rest of the house, but found nothing out of place or any other obvious clues. Vasilis was struggling to remember something that had been bothering him. Then it came to him. “Better safe than sorry”, he thought. He saw Katerina about to say something and he shushed her with his finger and indicated the front door. When they were outside he told her they could now speak.
    ‘I want to have the house checked for bugs. I’ll call my mother’s team.’
    ‘Vasilis, I don’t think there is any hope of finding out where my parents are, so I think we need to get to the castle. We should avoid Iraklios at all costs and try to warn the others when we see them. I was about to say we can do as much as we can without the others, but we can’t, can we?’
    Vasilis nodded in agreement. ‘No, we can’t. There wouldn’t be any point to even attempt it. Remember the scroll. We will need the three icons. We will need to establish which ones are the two original Likureian icons. We will need the Emperor’s ring, a phial of Iakovos’ blood and Eleni’s dismembered body from Cappadocia. We will also need to figure out that structure and the traps.
    ‘We’ll need your brother and the others for that. I think I have an idea where they may be and I know how to get there. You are coming with me, because I think you will be of great help. Unless you object, I can also use you as bait to create a distraction.’ Vasilis paused, waiting for Katerina’s consent. She nodded her acceptance.
    ‘I will do whatever is necessary.’
    Vasilis gave her an outline of the plan he had just devised.
    ‘We will not be going in alone. But first we need to pass by my mother’s house. I must tell you that we will be going to Le Mirabel, the Ruinands’ underwater city in Marathon Bay, North of Athens in Greece. For a while, recently, I was deliberately planted by my mother as a spy, and I got to know the place very well.
    ‘I have installed an extensive network of bugs recording practically everything going on in there and monitored from the specially set-up centre at my mother’s house. From there we can listen in on current and recent developments before we prepare our plan for the rescue.
    ‘I have also made contacts with local Ruinands inside the city who are my additional eyes and ears there. Once we have formulated our plan I’ll get word in to them to help us. Their assistance would be crucial to this mission.’

CHAPTER 53

    Le Mirabel (Ruinand underwater city)
    Marathon Bay, Greece
    Present day
    John Halland came round and tried to get his bearings. He struggled to get his head around what happened to him. His head was hurting. Still unsure of himself and his sanity, he woke up to survey his venerable prison.
    He felt this unfamiliar space suffocating him and it wasn’t because of the shackles that had appeared on his legs and arms. He was desperate to scratch at the heart of the claustrophobic feeling that clutched at his throat and flowed down all the way to his lungs and squeezed his heart in its fist.
    The place was bathed in almost total darkness. He could not make out any windows. He could only just about see what appeared to be solid walls. But however much he had tried he could not make out the total size of his prison cell.
    Somehow it did not feel that small, though, in spite of the feeling of being trapped that his shackles and isolation gave him. He decided to conduct a simple test. He shouted. The echo travelled far and bounced around, hurting his ears and making the whole of him shake and, in combination with his chains, vibrate painfully.
    He thought about repeating it until his chains and his body vibrated with the same resonance and came into sync and his shackles snapped. It was a wonderful idea in theory, but most likely impossible to put into practice.
    The space sounded larger than he thought at first sight. He tried to get up and walk, but the chains resisted and pulled violently, straining and cutting into his wrists and legs and throwing him back down in agony.
    There should be an opening somewhere, as the air smelled fresh and he could feel a welcoming breeze that offered some relief to his hangover-like head which felt about to explode. He thought that maybe his shouting would, hopefully, have invited a reaction by his captors, whose identity he did not know, and they would have paid him a visit.
    It all happened so quickly in New York, that by the time he realised what had happened, he was already being knocked unconscious and it was too late to do anything about it, assuming he could. He waited, straining his ears to pick up a sound, but nothing happened. Nobody came in.
    In his clouded and mushy mind everything was a blur. He suddenly recalled the dream he had so long ago now. He had no idea it would turn out to be a vision of his future. The only thing he knew was that he should think of something, anything, to extricate himself from this predicament.
    He was staring intently at a point a few paces away from him, lost in his thoughts, when, as his eyes began to adjust to the dim light, he realised that he was looking at a strange lump. He focused his eyes further at that lump that at first glance looked like a sack of something or other.
    Then he noticed that the lump was moving rhythmically up and down. Then it hit him. The lump was breathing. For a terrifying second he feared it might have been a large animal, a dog or something vicious, placed in there by his captors to guard him and keep him terrified and subdued.
    But no, it was another human being, another “inmate”. He studied his fellow cellmate from a safe distance. It wasn’t out of caution. He had no choice really as he couldn’t move closer. The lump or body seemed slumped in an awkward position, as if thrown away as waste from an abattoir.
    As John Halland was going in and out of consciousness, images and sounds came and went, people manhandling him, probably his captors, whispering and pointing. He caught a name: Giorgos… James. He was too confused to connect the name with the Giorgos he had met recently in James Calvell’s office.
    He thought about his captors. What could he remember about them? How many were there? What did they look like? What did they sound like? What did they do? How far back could he go to remember, to make sense of what had happened to him. He looked again at the living dead lump near him and wondered what happened to that poor soul.
    Where was he? Was it the underwater city he saw in another of his dreams? The name that crept into his mind was Le Mirabel, but he did not know where that came from, how he knew this. He looked back at his dreams that had troubled him for some time now.
    He remembered another name, Aristo, and then another, that of an intimidating but gentle woman, Elli was it? Names flew off his mind like a trickle of a river starting at the source and then gaining volume and force as it flowed on its way to the sea, by then a growing unstoppable torrent.
    It was names he did not recognise. Apart from “Valchern Corporation”. That was a familiar name. He had heard of that powerful company, its tentacles spread all over the globe, and its interest in the funding of archaeological expeditions, and not any old expeditions for that matter. All had a common theme: Byzantine relics and artefacts.
    And there were rumours of the organisation’s famed collection of antiquities, relics, artefacts and other valuable objects, that not even the greatest museums of this world could rival. But they remained mere rumours. He had found no-one who had seen the collection to confirm its existence and provide details on its contents.
    The lump stirred again. Suddenly he heard voices and they were coming closer. Then he saw a light approaching. He heard a noise at the far end of the room, a key turning, a bolt being removed. Then there was the echo of a light switch being flicked on and a bright light overhead flooded the space.
    He could see that it was a huge cavernous space made of stone, coral and crystal. So those were the blinking lights he caught see from time to time. He could now get a better look of the lump near him. For the lump seemed to have woken up as if from the dead and sat cross-legged looking around dazed.
    John could just about see that it was not an animal, but a man he didn’t recognise. The man’s face was badly bruised. He looked despondent and tortured, as if he had been through hell and back. The poor guy looked like a tramp dressed in rags, like a large-sized doll, lifeless and limp and dirty as if he had been doused by a bucket of mud or manure.
    The man’s chest heaved and bounced up and down as if he was in the throes of an anxiety attack. Who was he? Then it came to him. It was difficult to tell at first who was hiding under all the layers of mucky make-up. But when he concentrated hard he saw that it was Giorgos, the archaeologist and friend of James. James… where was he, he wondered? Had something happened to him?
    If he, John, was here captive, surely James must have been taken too? Perhaps James was also here. And with Giorgos here as well, there was only one explanation, one thing they had in common: the icon and the ring and that business with the last Byzantine Emperor.
    He looked around but he couldn’t see James. He could have been kept in another cell. What he saw, though, was another man slumped with his face on the cold floor with the strange texture, both firm but almost liquid jelly-like to the touch.
    The two men who entered the room ignored him and Giorgos and went straight to the other man. One of them shook him violently.
    ‘Aristo Symitzis, you need to come with us. You’ve been summoned.’
    Now he knew the identity of that man. He had heard of Aristo Symitzis, son of Elli Symitzis, one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world. Aristo looked up, confused.
    They had no way of knowing that he had hoped it was all a bad dream, and his confusion was disappointment when he realised his ordeal was real. Aristo stood up with difficulty as a result of his maltreatment in their hands. They saw him shaky on his feet and held his arms to steady him. They led him out and the door was firmly closed behind them.
    John and Giorgos were not left alone in silence for long. A four-band escort arrived soon after. They dragged John and Giorgos away from their cell, their temporary small corner of comfort and cold, dark cosiness. They were led through bright, lavishly decorated corridors, a stark contrast to the cold and damp dark cell.
    The pace was fast, and exhausted as they were, they were struggling to keep up with their escorts. Their escorts were vocally and physically pulling them forward, their actions lashing them like a whip.
    John and Giorgos had no choice but to fight the urge to give up, tortured by their escorts setting an increasingly faster pace that reminded John of being chased by a hungry wild animal or an invisible enemy bend on catching up with them and annihilating them.
    They reached an antechamber to a grander chamber that they could see through the doorway beyond. The four-band escort stopped. John and Giorgos obeyed the silent order of their temporary masters and stopped behind them. They waited there, presumably until called into the grand chamber up ahead.
    They saw that man, Aristo, being paraded past them, appearing to have been cleaned up, and dressed in clean clothes, but with the bruising standing out, more prominent and ugly than before. Aristo looked at Giorgos and John and acknowledged them with a slight nod of his head. Aristo was led into the grand chamber.
    The four-band escort turned and stood two at either side of Giorgos and John and, grabbing their arms, pulled them forward and through the doorway. They were led to an eerie chamber, to what looked like a throne room, a woman’s testament to her ambition and self-importance, a dark parody of a hall of justice of the palace of the kings of Egypt and pharaohs in Alexandria in the presence of none other than the Madame Marcquesa de Parmalanski, leader of the Ruinands.
    She was sitting, resplendent in her finery, on a golden throne with sphinxes for handles and onyx cobras forming the back of the throne and rising upwards with their frightening heads turned towards the entrance.
    The Madame Marcquesa’s servants were standing on either side of their mistress, in silent reverence for the “living goddess”. A man moved forward from a place just below the throne. He stood next to Aristo and indicating him, he bowed to the Marcquesa.
    ‘My lady, I present your guests, here to pay homage to your Majesty and grace.’
    ‘Thank you, Koutsoparontis.’
    Koutsoparontis bowed again and moved back to his original position. Aristo, Giorgos and John were led to one side to clear a path from the entrance to the throne.
    They waited in silence for only a few seconds before trumpets were heard from a remote end of the chamber and a procession of five men entered with none other than Elli Symitzis in the middle, obviously being gently, but still with stealthy determination, pushed forward.
    A man from this escort split from its main body, approached the throne and bowed.
    ‘My lady, may I present your guest of honour, the notorious Elli Symitzis.’
    Those present, excluding the captives, sniggered, out of loyalty to their mistress. The man then moved immediately back into place. Another man whispered something in Elli’s ear and forcibly nudged her forward.
    She walked to a distance of a few paces from the throne and kneeled down bowing her head to the Marcquesa. The Marcquesa was amused and she smiled a victorious smile and laughed an ugly victorious laugh that echoed long after her face attained its serious distorted mask.
    ‘If it isn’t Elli Symitzis… Dear Elli, what an honour that you deign to grace us with your presence, how blessed we are to be generously granted such precious time which is but a small window in your so busy and valuable time.’ She was spitting the irony to all the corners of the chamber and beyond.
    Elli did not hesitate to respond in kind. ‘I must say, Madame, this spectacle, this show of pomp and circumstance is pointless and wasted on me. It shows insecurity. I would credit you with more class and style than that.’ The Marcquesa did not acknowledge the insult, but simply smiled, giving Elli a hard stare and then looked to all those present, to her literally captive audience and loyal fans.
    ‘We are here today to pass judgement on these poor specimens that want to pass for people. Your fate will be decided in due course. First things first. You may know by now that I have in my possession the Likureian icons and the Emperor’s ring. And I have recently acquired a third icon, the one that was stolen from the auction at the Topkapi in Istanbul.
    ‘I am aware, as I know you are, of the power residing with the last Emperor hidden in his tomb and I want to be the one to initiate and complete the revival process. When he comes to life, I’m the one he will see and the one he will speak to first and I’m the one he will be a servant to.
    ‘His power will be placed in my service to be harnessed for what purpose I decide. With that power in my disposal the world does not stand a chance. You and your organisation are in my way and will be but an ant to be squashed to let me pass on my destiny to world domination.’
    The Marcquesa paused and stared intently at Elli, her expression of triumph over her adversary a vision for sore eyes, a precious snapshot of invincibility, of immortality. Was it to last, though, or would it crumble?
    ‘Elli, accept the fact that you have lost and can no longer stand in my way. We have obtained Giorgos’ research.’ The Marcquesa paused. Her tone when she continued was one of ruthless superiority poured on absolute authority. ‘Yes…’ Another pause. She had everybody present eating out of her hand waiting for her next morsel of revelation.
    ‘He has found quite a lot it seems, a lot for which I would bet you have no idea. But I confess I don’t know either. Because it is encrypted. Giorgos here who holds the key to those findings as he was the one that encrypted them, will decrypt them for me and will give me the location of the last Emperor’s tomb and what is necessary to be done for the last Emperor’s revival and the use of his powers which will be all mine.
    ‘Before you think that you could use Giorgos as a bargaining chip, let me tell you that he will have his own reasons not to refuse to serve me, even if he may think that he and the subject of his reasons may be perishable when they have outlived their usefulness. Then again it will be a risk he will have to take as I may decide to be merciful.
    ‘And do you know why he will have no choice but to comply? Not because you will tell him to, if I agree to let you all go, if you are so deluded as to foolishly believe that I could ever agree to that in the first place, but because he will not want for any harm to come to his beloved parents, tough but gentle Andros and sweet Anna, who are as we speak on their way here to be my guests.
    ‘Yes, it is high season for this hotel of mine that is fully booked and will soon be fully occupied. But fear not. Catering-wise we are prepared for any eventuality. But I fear that we may have overbooked, so one of you will have to go, disposed of gently and discreetly.’ She paused and indicated for Aristo to be pushed slightly forward and down to the ground on his knees.
    ‘Look at your son, Aristo. If you want him to stay alive you will give me your kalbendium mines.’ The Marcquesa saw in Elli’s face the hint of surprise, barely perceptible. ‘Ah, I see you are surprised.’
    Elli racked her brains for how the Marcquesa could have found out about the kalbendium mines. Who apart from her knew? Of course. Iraklios. The first seed was planted in her mind of the identity of her traitor. But she could not allow it to sink in.
    She simply would not make herself believe that there was any truth in it. The Marcquesa was looking at her in silence as if waiting for her to finish her train of thought, enjoying Elli’s torment. Let her stew, she thought. I won’t reveal my source, but she may have guessed. The Marcquesa wondered whether she had been too rush, too obvious.
    ‘I know you won’t give them up without a fight. So I will just ask for the key once, nicely, and, let me remind you, that you are in no position to refuse.’ Elli was trying to think of a way to escape. It seemed impossible to do that and save the others as well. It was the Marcquesa’s home ground. She had the home advantage.
    The Marcquesa was still speaking. ‘In case you have in mind to try anything silly, remember this: you have no bargaining power. You are in no position to barter. However, I won’t be cruel and unfair and will offer something in return.’
    Elli looked at the Marcquesa with disdain dripping from every pore. ‘What can you possibly have to offer me that I want or need and don’t have already?’
    ‘Me.’
    ‘You? Please, don’t make me laugh.’
    Elli’s host was incensed by her defiance.
    ‘Elli, it is not a request. I will repeat my demand only once more and then you will lose something precious to you and then another, and then one by one, you will watch while you lose everything, until you capitulate and submit to me and give me what I want. Let me clarify what I meant by “me”.’
    The Marcquesa stood to her full height of six feet, briefly towering over all around her, an effect accentuated by the raised platform she was standing on. She held the audience’s attention for a full minute before proceeding to walk slowly and purposefully out of the chamber.
    Hushed silence descended. Nobody dared speak in anticipation of something significant and shocking they knew was coming. They did not dare speculate as to what that might be.
    Time appeared to have stood still in the chamber. Five minutes ticked by. There was a brief murmur and shuffling at the doorway. The Marcquesa was back. She looked the same as before but different somehow. Everybody in the chamber saw it.
    The Marcquesa’s resemblance to Elli was uncanny. She seemed to be the spitting image of Elli, the only difference being her darker colouring. Elli wondered whether the disguise was deliberate. Was it to confuse her, to scare her or to show her that she could be disposed of and easily replaced?
    The Marcquesa smiled an ironic smile. ‘You don’t remember do you?’ She paused. ‘Think back, a long way back, to when you were a child. Do you remember your parents? Shall I answer it for you? Of course not. You were too young when they perished. You remember what happened, don’t you? And do you remember whether you had a sister? You do. Good.
    ‘Do you remember her? She was innocent back then, wasn’t she? None of you knew what hit you, what dark forces shattered your charmed existence. You thought that girl was dead, didn’t you?’
    She paused for effect, her eyes looking directly at Elli, searching Elli’s face for any sign of recognition. And she waited. And waited. And waited. To her disappointment no such sign came.
    ‘I am that girl, Elli.’ She declared slowly, emphasising every word. She paused to let it sink in. There was almost a hint of regret in her words, easily missed. ‘You were lucky. You were left behind and raised by a good family. Demetrius and his wife loved you like a daughter. But I was not so lucky. I ended up here. Do you want to know why they only took me while they spared you?
    ‘They could have killed you of course, but they didn’t, probably because at the last minute they decided they wanted the challenge that you would give them in the future. They kept me, Elli, because I had a defect, a stigma. Do you remember that tattoo-like mark near my navel? That was the mark of the Ruinands.
    ‘As I found out much later, their oracle told them that I could not be brought up to be good, but was rotten to the core. Do you see? I was doomed from birth. My future was written at my birth and there was nothing our parents or I could do to change it. They were told I was one of them, one of the Ruinands. It’s too late to change now, to go back to those lovely carefree days, to what might have been. But who says I want to do that?’
    Elli was not yet ready to accept what she had just heard. It all sounded too preposterous to be true. Even though the facts were staring her in the eye, surely those were facts that the Marcquesa could very easily have found out from various sources.
    There was nothing unique in that story that only those present, the exclusive group of the Marcquesa and Elli, would have known. ‘I see you have left any hint of decency, principle or humanity at the door, or in your own personal prison that you inhabit. I don’t know what you are playing at.’
    ‘You don’t believe me, I see. Well a DNA analysis would resolve your dilemma and dispel your doubts and in fact we can have it done right here in this city. You can observe in case you may think I will interfere with the result. We’ll take a recess until this is done. Elli, you are coming with me. The others will stay here. Enjoy yourselves. We will not be long.’
    A roar of voices filled the chamber in defiance to the Marcquesa, but taking advantage of her absence. The gossip and speculation flowed freely.
    Those present could not believe their luck at the prime entertainment enacted for their benefit, a rare sight indeed, made all the more exciting because of the dreariness of this little place that was governed by fear, a depressing life that was in stark contrast to the impressive visual accomplishment surrounding them, the living and extraordinary testament to the talent and vision of the creators of this city, of this marvel that was Le Mirabel.
    The audience marvelled to at the tingling-to-the-ear sensation of the contrasting female voices of the two protagonists in the drama that had unfolded in the chamber, one deep (Elli), the other high-pitched and painful to the brain (the Marcquesa).
    Huge enjoyment was derived from the high-octane verbal battle of wills, the exchange of civilised insults back and forth like a tennis match. The audience was anxiously looking forward to the next act. How delicious. They wouldn’t miss it for the world.

    Within twenty minutes they were back. From Elli’s face they all knew that what the Marcquesa said was true. They were indeed sisters.
    ‘Now, my dear Elli, there is someone here I want you to meet.’ She turned to one of her servants. ‘Bring him in.’ Andrew Le Charos was brought in none the worse for wear, looking as fresh as if he had come out of a mountain spring moments before. ‘Andrew and I have found some common ground, haven’t we, darling?’ The Marcquesa gently squeezed and pulled at his chin as she said that.
    Elli was confused. This was an unexpected development. ‘What is the meaning of this, Marcquesa?’ Then she turned to Andrew. ‘Do you know what you are doing allying yourself with her?’ Even as she said it she knew it was pointless when she saw his blank face looking at his mistress with complete adoration, enraptured by her.
    What had they done to him? It was obvious to Elli that Andrew had been brainwashed. But how? The “why” was easier to guess, considering Andrew’s connection to Elli’s and Andros Markantaskis’ families. Was there anything of him left in there at all, she wondered. Elli addressed the Marcquesa. ‘What are you planning to do with us?’
    ‘Well, I do want the mines and the information from you and from Giorgos, and until you give it to me, you are not going anywhere. You will be wondering why John Halland is here. I thought about that long and hard and almost left him behind, but he has been close to this matter and I’m sure that he has certain knowledge he would be very kind to share with us, though he keeps protesting to the contrary.’
    The Marcquesa paused and turned to look at Giorgos.
    ‘Giorgos, you may be interested to know that your dear old friend, James Calvell, has joined his maker in the sky and will no longer be helping you or anyone else for that matter. Nor will he be bothering us either.’
    Giorgos went ashen. He felt a chill travel down his spine and through his veins and arteries reach every part of his body. He was in a state of shock and disbelief. She must be lying, he thought. But would she be bluffing to scare us into submission? He answered his own question. Yes, of course she would.
    She couldn’t exactly be trusted, now, could she? She would have no compunction whatsoever in toying with them, just to see her captives squirm and to amuse herself with watching her captives’ reaction to her tricks and surprises and her inflammatory verbal bombs that had been premeditated and were carefully targeted.
    The Marcquesa cut through Giorgos’ thoughts.
    ‘Maybe we should have done the same with John here. He is disposable, just like his boss. But maybe, Giorgos here will be persuaded with the death sentence hanging over John as well as his parents to cooperate. One by one you will be tortured slowly with the others watching. So, Giorgos, I would suggest that you reconsider.’
    The Marcquesa addressed her minions.
    ‘Put them in the isolation cell where they shall remain until they come to their senses.’
    Before she was led out, Elli had a last word. She turned and looked at her nemesis and sister. Her captors holding her by the arms and pulling her away sensed the strength emanating from her and washing over them and automatically released her as if hypnotised by her defiance into doing so. Then Elli spoke.
    ‘My dear Marcquesa, that power of the last Emperor you seek is not real. It’s just a myth. Stop this ridiculous charade and let us do the good deed we have to do.’
    ‘Elli… defiant to your last breath. Why am I not surprised? You can’t fool me with this desperate act. You are as ruthless and power-hungry as I am. We share the same blood, the same genes after all.’
    Elli spat irony. ‘I wouldn’t want to see you disappointed, that’s all. Because I know your fury will consume you and those working for you, and anyone unlucky enough to inadvertently cross your path will dearly pay for your loss. You don’t know how to lose graciously, dear sister. I haven’t forgotten how you would react as the precocious child that you were, if you did not get your own way.
    ‘And you would take revenge. A child’s revenge can be cruel, but yours was in a league of its own, crueller than most. Yes, you were right and they were right to tell you that you were rotten from birth. It was in your genes. You were spiteful with a sting that stung more savagely than anything anyone had experienced, than I have experienced since then. I still bear the marks and scars of your endeavours and taste its bitter taste all the way to my heart. Yours is a mean streak like no other, such an integral part of you, that it doesn’t go away.’
    Elli said her piece in one fast torrent. She was almost out of breath. Then she relaxed, but was still shaking and panting from the effort. She was desperately taking in mouthfuls of air as if she had just been drowning and was saved from the teeth of certain death.
    The Marcquesa, though secretly boiling with anger at the truth of Elli’s words, did not make any attempt to interrupt her and furthermore indicated to her underlings to do the same.
    When Elli had finished the Marcquesa did not reply, but just laughed, a loud, ugly laugh that made the hairs of everybody present stand on end, in salute, as if ordered to attention by her power.
    After that surreal exchange the prisoners were led away back to the minimalist comfort of their cells.

CHAPTER 54

    Le Mirabel (Ruinand underwater city)
    Marathon Bay, Greece
    Present day
    Vasilis and Katerina were flying into Le Mirabel in a converted cargo plane that carried, amongst other things, a small submarine that would take them to the underwater city. With them was a crew of ten, former members of the Special Forces, including the pilot and the controller of the submarine.
    Vasilis had selected a small team. He wanted to get in and out quickly and reduce the risk of detection and alerting the city’s authorities. The plane had special equipment for avoiding detection and for jamming the target city’s radar systems.
    On approaching the city the anti-detection measures went into effect. But Vasilis had also arranged for help on the inside. He had enough insiders in important positions to paralyse the city’s defences and security measures with one message. He had already communicated with his spies and had agreed estimated arrival times. They were expecting them.
    The journey from Cyprus took an hour and a half. Once the plane reached the Bay of Marathon in Greece, it flew low, the back hatch was opened in mid-air and the submarine with Vasilis and Katerina and eight of the crew, in addition to the controller of the submarine, was dropped into the sea and quickly submerged.
    Just outside the city limits everyone aboard, apart from the controller, put on diving suits and equipment and left the submarine for the final leg into the city. They expected the doors at a particular spot to be opened by Vasilis’ insiders.
    Somehow, whether betrayed by a double spy or by accident, they tripped the alert systems upon entering the city. Intruder alert sirens broke the city’s routine and every citizen scuppered from their daily activities to go to their allocated posts and duties.
    Vasilis cursed. This meant they would need to move faster than planned. They at least still had the element of surprise on their side. The city’s occupiers wouldn’t know what hit them.
    By the time the Ruinands realised what was going on and got organised into a real threat capable of scuppering Vasilis’ plans, Vasilis and his team would have what they came for and would be out of the city at a safe distance and out of their firing range. That was the plan anyway.
    Vasilis knew the city’s weaknesses and had arranged for the defence and tracking systems to be neutralised, or so he believed. As he discovered with the alarm they triggered, there were secret back-up systems he was not aware of. Before launching themselves into mingling with the locals, they donned disguises that would allow them to blend in.
    Vasilis, through his surveillance systems, had been monitoring everything that had been taking place inside the city. Combined with intelligence from his spies he knew the exact location of the cells and of the Marcquesa herself.
    Vasilis and Katerina would head straight to the Marcquesa’s strong room to get the items she had stolen and that they needed for their ultimate act in the last Emperor’s tomb.
    The rest of the team would go straight for the cells and they would meet up later at one of the escape pods. They would use the escape pod to send the rescued out while Vasilis, Katerina and the team would go back out the way they came. The pod would be lifted into the plane once it reached the surface.
    When the eight men reached the cells they split into two. They knew already that the captives were located in two cells close to each other. Vasilis hoped that his information was accurate and that nothing had changed.
    As the alarms were triggered, panic and furious activity spread throughout the city. Nobody had heard this sound before. At the beginning they didn’t know what to make of it. But the realisation slowly dawned on them that it was not a drill. There were intruders actually inside the city. It had never happened before. The only ones who were not allowed to move were the guards in the cells.
    Elli and the others had only two hours earlier been deposited in their cells. At least they were thankful that their captors were, in their arrogance and complacency, not concerned enough or had simply not thought of them as a threat to put them in isolation, into separate cells, to prevent them from planning anything.
    Elli, Aristo, Giorgos and John were furiously weighing their options and different plans for an escape when they heard the deafening sound of the alarms that caused the whole place to vibrate violently. They could feel their bodies vibrate like a piano chord. But they knew what it meant. Elli put it into words. ‘It’s a rescue. And I bet you it’s Vasilis.’
    Aristo turned surprised. ‘Vasilis? But how?’
    ‘That was a pet project of mine. Haven’t you wondered why you had not seen him for a while? You didn’t seriously believe those stories about trips to farflung mines and operations with tricky communications, did you? Those stories were deliberately spread. I had him installed as a spy within the Ruinands.
    ‘We managed to have them believe that he was the victim of serious displeasure at my hands and had been banished and blacklisted and forbidden from having any contact with the family. For a while he became one of them, lived, breathed, ate as one of them and had the run of this city that he got to know very well.
    ‘They were happy to have one of my sons at their beck and call and to boss around. Little did they know that he had been subverting them from the inside. He did the groundwork and put down the foundations for a rescue, if necessary, and more. The whole place is bugged. We’ve known everything that has been going on. It’s all been monitored from my house in Limassol.’
    ‘But why didn’t you…?’
    ‘… didn’t I tell you, you mean? Because I couldn’t risk the slightest leak. I could not risk the Ruinands getting wind of it.’
    Aristo played out the following scenario in his mind of a hypothetical conversation with his mother about this matter, a scenario he very well knew he could not enact in that place, at that time, as they were not alone.
    As the moment was not appropriate then, that would be the end of any discussion on it. Aristo’s thoughts on the matter would not be raised at a later time as such an act would be childish then as it would in essence be childish, if raised, now.
    His hypothetical scenario went something like this:
    “Aristo knew the right thing to say would be ‘you must have had your reasons’ and leave it at that. But that’s not what came out before he could stop himself. ‘Didn’t you trust me?’
    ‘Of course I did. And I do. How could you doubt that? But the Ruinands have eyes and ears everywhere and they would have picked up on the slightest nuance of any difference in your behaviour. It did not matter whether you knew or not, because you would not have been expected to be hostile to your brother irrespective of his falling out of favour with me. You behaved as I expected you to. But if you had known, it might have been a bit difficult to carry out the perfect pretence.
    ‘The risk was simply too great. In addition, it was possible that you may have been captured and tortured to reveal our secrets. And you were. You are here a prisoner after all. That you have not been tortured and may now be rescued is lucky.’
    Aristo was not entirely convinced with his mother’s explanation. And even though their rescue was probably imminent, he wanted to further question his mother on why she had kept this project a secret from him.
    He waited for her, as she alluded to the possibility of his capture, to concede that the same could happen to her, which it did, but as she did not admit her own vulnerable position in the same situation, he would throw the same argument that his mother used back at her.
    ‘What about if you were captured and tortured? And you were. And here we are together, unless I’m mistaken and you are an honoured and pampered guest here and free to walk out of here at any time or you are just a hologram and the real Elli Symitzis is at this very moment sitting at home.’
    Aristo could see he was taking this too far and that his behaviour was bordering on rude and in front of other people. This was getting out of control. He had to soften his stance and release the tense tones of his argument with his mother.
    But he had to ask one final thing that bothered him even though he half-knew the answer to his question before he let it free. ‘Wasn’t the risk higher by not telling me?’
    Elli ignored Aristo’s challenge, though his arguments were valid, and decided to end this conversation.
    ‘Well, you knew Vasilis had been on the lookout for Ruinands wherever they hid around us. That mission was an extension of those duties. Vasilis was assigned with infiltrating the Ruinands’ lair. You had other important things to do. You couldn’t be distracted. If you had known, you might have faced a conflict of loyalties that might have become apparent.
    ‘Although it would be expected that in the end you would defy me and would not ostracise your brother, but would keep in contact with him, as apart from familial loyalties, you would regard my break with your brother as a personal difference of opinion between him and me.
    ‘And by behaving as expected you confirmed that the fatal break between me and your brother was true and any doubt would have been obliterated from people’s minds. It was a gamble that has paid off beyond my wildest expectations.’
    Elli stopped her evaluation of the success of her plan and waited for the rescue she hoped was coming.”
    Here ended Aristo’s hypothetical scenario of his conversation with his mother, but did it? Perhaps it was not hypothetical and only a debate in his mind after all.
    Aristo suddenly had the sickening feeling that he did, indeed, actually have that conversation with his mother. When he looked at his mother and saw her intense stare and rebuke, a moment during which only each of them existed for the other and which felt as if they had briefly locked horns, the realisation dawned on him that he had had that exchange with his mother telepathically
    Aristo caught a glimpse of the others present and saw them oblivious to anything but their own thoughts, their own little internal world. The others had heard nothing of the exchange that had taken place.
    Aristo’s reverie, if that was what it was, after having veered wildly off any sensible course, ended abruptly with the much-anticipated rescue that had, by God, now become reality.
    The team in the cells met with little resistance that they easily neutralised. In one cell they found Elli, Aristo, Giorgos and John Halland. The four prisoners heard a commanding voice order them to stand away from the door.
    Elli immediately spurred into action. ‘Come on. Let’s get to the other side.’
    The door was wrenched open. Before them stood four men in what looked like Special Forces uniforms.
    One of them, who must have been their team leader, gave Elli a salute before addressing her.
    ‘Mrs Symitzis. We are operating under Vasilis’ instructions. We are to get you out of here.’ The team leader briefly held Elli’s gaze, and after looking at the others present, his eyes returned to Elli. ‘Please follow us.’ The four former prisoners obeyed without question. Those four men were their ticket out of their captivity.
    Elli turned to the team leader. ‘And Vasilis?’
    ‘He will be joining us later. He’s dealing with the items in the strong room.’
    ‘Alone?’
    ‘Mrs Symitzis, there’s no time.’ They turned towards the door and started to move away. Elli and the others followed.
    In another cell they found Giorgos’ and Katerina’s parents, Andros and Anna. The same scene was repeated there. There was only little resistance on Andros’ and Anna’s part, born of being dazed by their abduction and their disbelief at their dramatic rescue from their nightmare. At least a part of their brain was present and clear and was thankful for their soon-to-materialise return to reality.
    Their situation was compounded by the deafening sirens and alarms that had unexpectedly gone off simultaneously throughout the city and that had come hard on the heels of their ordeal. But the name “Vasilis” managed to get through the fog of their minds. They resigned to their fate and allowed themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter.
    The rescue team wasted no time in leading everyone to the escape pod. They joined them inside and, immediately the door closed, the pod was launched on its way to the surface.
    The team leader notified their waiting plane to come and pick them up. The plane zeroed in on the pod’s signal. Once the pod was sighted, the plane flew low, almost brushing the water, until it was above the pod.
    There the plane hovered while it lowered its powerful magnet and lifted the pod into its hold. It flew away to a safe height and distance to wait for the signal from Vasilis.
    For Vasilis and Katerina things got a bit complicated. The strong room was well guarded. They had to arrange a distraction for the guards. However, with little time at their disposal, they were faced with three chambers with individual keypads requiring separate codes.
    With the danger of the guards returning at any moment, Vasilis used a special device he had brought with him to break the codes. They managed to do it just in time. Once they had managed to get inside the strong room, relief washed over them.
    Their face smiled as it reflected all the items they sought that were staring back at them. Within minutes they were out, with the guards catching up as they rounded a corner. The guards had swiftly sounded the alarm and gave chase.
    Vasilis called on his internal spies to help them. As they reached their chosen entry point and exit and were getting into their diving suits, Ruinands on Vasilis’ side fell behind them blocking their pursuers’ way and giving them the time to escape.
    Vasilis had contacted the submarine that collected them and rushed straight for the surface. It was picked up by their plane’s magnet and was on its way to be lifted into the plane’s hold when the city’s guns started to roar. Bullets and other projectiles rushed past the submarine as it hung in mid-air, but they missed their targets, both the submarine and the plane.
    But some bullets hit the plane. They caused some damage, but not to critical systems and the plane’s fuselage held intact. The plane was already accelerating away with the submarine still being pulled in and the back hatch half-open.

    Inside the city, their escape was discovered. Madame Marcquesa was outraged. She went straight to her strong room and, seeing the precious items missing, she almost had a seizure with the amount of blood that flooded her brain. She wanted to punish her new-found sister.
    Elli’s memory of the day her parents were taken away from her, forever, chose this crucial time to come back to haunt her once more. She sensed Madame Marcquesa’s hand in this. She was her tormentor.
    Then, as if a door was unlocked in Elli’s brain, all the memories from that distant tragic moment in the past came rushing in, and were, strangely, at once uninvited and painfully welcome. Elli remembered everything.

    She saw herself as a young girl playing on her father’s knees, a happy joyful peaceful time, before she grew up and roared into the woman she was today.
    In the background, behind the house the mountains were framed by the blue sky and the luscious meadows sparkled in the midday sun, that yellow disc in the sky, merciless to all but this earth and to us, shining down on an idyllic landscape about to be shattered.
    Suddenly, out of nowhere, smashing the brightness of another perfect day, a dense fog descended from the upper reaches of the mountains and began to spread quickly. The fog hovered there, just a couple of feet above the ground, and for days afterwards stubbornly refused to lift and disperse.
    It was but a harbinger of things to come, and soon, so very soon. If only they had known how to read the ominous signs that unbeknownst to them were slowly choking them. Paradise blinds one to the inevitable and obvious that seems impossible to accept, even if it is looking one in the eye.
    One day, soon after the fog’s arrival, her father was taken away and her mother never came back from a journey. On that day she was out in the meadows playing with her friends, the animals that inhabited this realm, and with the people that worked it and tended it with love, a love built and nourished over generations, one after another after another.
    Her sister was taken away too. Her brother who was also spared was given to another family to be cared for, a family that did not live far and that allowed the two remaining siblings to grow up together and become as thick as thieves.
    Nobody could separate them. Nobody could try to harm one of them without the other coming charging and bearing down on the attackers bend on revenge and protection.
    The devastated lonely girl was taken into the care of Demetrius, a friend of her father’s, a gentle man, a man of great intelligence, abilities, prowess and achievement. She lived with him and his wife, Iolanthe, at once the most fearsome and most generous woman she had ever met.
    Iolanthe and Demetrius were prime examples to follow for the young girl in her formative years, the best anyone could have wished for, and a catalyst for the development of her personality.
    She had few memories of her mother and father and even those few precious memories were vague. There was nothing vivid to satisfyingly grasp for comfort and to cherish. Iolanthe became her surrogate mother and Demetrius her father.
    Those two unique individuals influenced and sculpted her view of life and of people and her reactions and interaction with the environment around her. Iolanthe and Demetrius had worked hard to prepare Elli for her future role.
    It was they who had initiated her into the secrets and practices of the Pallanians and the Order of Vlachernae and of her family and of the Cypriots and the Greeks, so that she knew her own and her people’s history and had a deep knowledge of where she came from.
    They were the ones who helped her reconcile her tragedies with her future responsibilities as head of the Order, the family and the mighty Valchern Corporation. They set her, as best equipped as possible, on her difficult journey, on a collision course with her destiny, with a great enemy, and were instrumental in her becoming the powerhouse and dominant force that she would later become, always using her ruthlessness and fairness for good.
    Back to that fateful day, the fog became as thick as soup and stung the eyes and, if you enjoyed doing that almost blind, you could almost swim in it, and you could almost taste it, an earthy buttery sweetness, spiced with bitterness and savour, and spiked with the herbs and coniferous smells and tastes of the forest.
    The fog took a life of its own, like a huge beast on an aggressive move on not just her surroundings, but principally her and only her.
    Her family was the target and the aggressor was the enemy that did not want her to survive and fulfil her pre-destined and prophesied role. Somehow they knew. What was that fog? What did it represent to her or to anyone else? Did it appear in a unique form to each one that was unlucky enough to cross its path and fall in its lap and become its target and potential victim?
    More precisely, who was it? She could sense it was a living breathing being. A human presence, another creature, something else? That she could not say.
    Now she finally knew who it was. The Ruinands. Their eternal enemy. Who else could it have been? She knew it deep down, but never really admitted it to herself before now.
    She now understood the Marcquesa. But she still could not accept what she had been told. Yet there did not seem to be any doubt. She had to concede that the DNA test put paid to that.
    A chill ran down her spine, chilled her to the bone and tickled her sensitive nerve-endings. The sensation was painful. She could not breathe. She was choking, her breathing attempts were almost failing and coming out coarse, troubled and hurried with every laboured breath spiced with pain.
    She felt she was choking on the very air entering her larynx and lungs that should have given her relief. Her experience that day, that horrible feeling foretold the future; she knew it now. It was a foretaste of travails, trials and tribulations to come.
    Then, this… thing, let go of her but only for a moment. She broke free and ran back to the house with all the strength left to her and closed the door as if that would be a deterrent to that force.
    Yet even though she was a child, her mind had in those excruciating moments grown beyond her years and to her the act of barricading herself behind that door, inside her home and sole refuge, was attune to instinctively putting a barrier between her and her pursuer.
    She prayed not to have to see this… thing again. But she knew even in her child’s mind that free as she was it was only a respite until their next appointment, at an indeterminate date, for this thing to get bored and come running after her, after amusement, as you would when in the exercise of a favourite hobby.
    Only when no-one was watching did she resign herself to the thing’s power and hold over her, isolating herself, so that she did not harm anyone else but herself.
    Every time, this thing took out something from her, a part of her. She had no resistance to it, no cure, no medicine to take, no weapon against it, no way to stop it, no choice… To the accidental onlooker it could look as if she was having severe epileptic fits.
    But maybe she could use it to her advantage. She would need to think about that. Maybe there would be some knowledge or strength she may be able to glean from it, from the experience, from wrestling with it.
    She perhaps could glean some insight into her enemy’s mind and use the connection when it occurred to sabotage her enemy, to feed her enemy wrong information. She had to learn how to control it, how to initiate the connection and how to break it. She did not want to be surprised by it when it decided to pay her a visit and to wait for that moment to use it.
    She had to turn that connection into a reliable tool and, perhaps, weapon to serve the cause of the Order of Vlachernae.
    And now she had rediscovered her sister. She felt that the two sisters were two sides of the same coin.

CHAPTER 55

    Ten thousand metres above the Aegean Sea, Greece
    Present day
    It was in the plane going back to Cyprus from Le Mirabel that they began to discuss their next steps. They knew they had to move quickly.
    The Ruinands and the Marcquesa would not be far behind. They had their own spies. And there was the small matter of the traitor.
    Elli thought of Iraklios and she was about to dismiss it when Katerina turned to her.
    ‘Elli, we know who the traitor is.’ Elli looked at her with blank eyes as if her mind was still somewhere else or was refusing to obey her and open up to hear the truth she feared. ‘In fact my parents can confirm it.’ She turned to her parents who were only now slowly coming out of their nightmare of the last twenty-four hours. ‘Dad?’
    ‘Elli, it’s Iraklios.’ Andros Markantaskis said, his voice and his face shouting his sadness loud and clear.
    ‘No.’ A small word full of anguish. Her inscrutability mask slipped, a rare event indeed. But she knew it to be true. She realised she had known for some time, but refused to believe it.
    Then, not fully recovered yet, but loath to waste time in self-indulgent grief and soul-searching, determination brightly coloured her voice and she spoke.
    ‘We need to get back to the organisation of the mission. Tomorrow is the 21 ^st May, the day of Saint Konstantinos and Santa Eleni, and the crucial date for carrying out the ceremony. There may not be another opportunity for who knows how long.’ Her eyes fell on Giorgos. ‘Now, Giorgos, you can access your hard drives from that panel over there. Download all the relevant material. And don’t worry. The encryption and security equipment here is better than that of any secret service or software company in the world. Vasilis will show you how to use it.’ She looked at Vasilis who nodded. ‘Do you have scans of the scroll?’
    ‘Yes. I’ll get them too.’ Giorgos said and swiftly moved into action.
    ‘Good. It should not take you more than ten minutes, right?’
    ‘Yes, that should be enough time to have everything.’
    ‘Excellent. We’ll start then. I think we could all do with a little time to recover even if we cannot afford any.’

    About twenty-five minutes later Giorgos was ready with all the material printed out. He distributed folders.
    ‘Take a few minutes to familiarise yourselves with the material.’

    Giorgos was operating the console and projecting the material on a big screen above it. He brought up one of the geological scans. He indicated an area on the scan.
    ‘Look here at this. It’s a bit fuzzy, but you can clearly see that there are two entrances. Remember there has been a lot of erosion in Limassol in this area. The coastline has receded by a huge measure. I have calculated where the ancient coastline was around 1454 A.D. which from the evidence we have seems to be the time that whatever is down there was constructed.’
    He brought up a plan and put it on top of the scan.
    ‘There is a second submerged entrance which has to be approached from the sea at this point here, next to the Western side of the old port. From the scroll we can deduce that we will need to split into two groups. Both groups will need to be at these precise locations that look to be the entrances into the main cavern containing the structure.
    ‘You will see from the scan of the scroll in your pack that two of the keys, the ones for the slots corresponding to Alexandria and Athens, will have to be used at the doorway accessed through the castle tunnel and the other key, the one corresponding to Constantinople on the doorway on the seaward side. The keys will need to be inserted and turned at the same time. We will need to be in communication to co-ordinate that.’ He turned to Vasilis. ‘Vasilis?’
    Vasilis nodded and took over from Giorgos. ‘We will have to arrange in advance for the access through the seaward side. We will be employing the Valchern Corporation resources here. We will need to make sure that the entrance is not obstructed, and if it is, we will need to unblock it under the cover of construction works. It would not be difficult since Valchern owns this area here adjacent to the old port.’ He said indicating on the map.
    ‘We will use a special small submarine to pick us up from a place where we cannot be seen boarding it which I propose to be here near the mouth of the now dry river.’ He again pointed at the relevant area. ‘This area is also owned by Valchern. There is a copse of trees and a line of rocks jutting out to sea that should give us cover. The submarine will drop us off underwater at this point where we will change into divers’ suits and will proceed underwater all the way to the entrance. Giorgos?’
    ‘There are tests we will need to complete successfully and traps we will need to avoid. We will need to be close together and in constant communication. Let’s hope there is nothing to interfere with communications down there, be it the geological composition or an unsavoury companion. No rush moves, please. We cannot afford any wrong steps.
    ‘We’ve already arranged for Eleni Symitzis’ remains to be transported from the Symitzis Museum in Athens to Limassol. We thought about whether to stop on our way to pick them up, but that would be risky and we could not afford the delay or something going wrong. We wouldn’t want the Ruinands catching up with us in Greece and jeopardising everything.
    ‘The priority is to get to Cyprus as quickly as possible. We have the phial with Iakovos’ blood. We have the three icons and we can, therefore, now establish which of the three are the two real Likureian icons. We have the Emperor’s ring and the Book of the Pallanians and its missing part, the seven pages comprising the chapter called “The Pallanian Resurrection”. The scroll explains in detail how to put everything in its rightful place once we reach the Emperor’s tomb.
    ‘I propose to split the teams as follows: the team to approach from the castle tunnel will consist of Elli, Aristo and Katerina. John, you can dive can’t you?’ John nodded. ‘OK. Myself, Vasilis and John will deal with the seaward entrance. Vasilis?’
    ‘I’ve already arranged with trusted people from Valchern for the equipment to be ready at the appointed place and they will be expecting us. Andros and Anna will be taken to my mother’s house by four of our men where they will be under guard until this is over. The house, already a fortress, is now impregnable.
    ‘OK, everybody, that’s all. We should be landing soon. We are all suffering from lack of sleep, but I think the adrenaline will keep us going for as long as necessary to complete this mission.’

CHAPTER 56

    Limassol, Cyprus
    21st May
    Present day
    Vasilis, Giorgos and John were already at the quayside ready to board the small submarine. Elli, Aristo and Katerina were in the large cavity below Limassol Castle next to the wall covering the opening to the tunnel beyond.
    The castle closed an hour earlier. There was nobody else around. A small device detonated the explosive that surgically removed enough part of the wall to allow a human to go through.
    Elli, Aristo and Katerina switched on their torches and cautiously proceeded through the opening. Once they entered a strange feeling came over them. It hit them that time seemed to slow down only inside the tunnel.
    They walked on, their ears pricked for the slightest noise or sign of danger. The tunnel was a lonely place, but the sense of the slowing down of time made it even more threatening and lonely. It felt as if they were being choked, their limbs pulled apart, as if they were slowly being dismembered.
    They had only walked a few paces when they saw the beginning of openings on either side of them. First one on the left, then the next on the right and so on. They stopped at the first one. A part of the dark wall started to glow with an inscription. Elli recognised it immediately.
    ‘It’s in the Pallanian language. Turn on the voice recorder on your phone. We can pass it through its transcription programme.’ She traced her fingers over it and the characters bubbled in her vocal chords. They heard a voice from a faraway era.
    “The temple of wisdom is asleep, dismembered, its life extinguished, if only for a moment in its time, a lifetime in the time of men, it lies hidden in the four corners of the earth, it lies in wait for the time when the one favoured by the gods will bring together the pieces and the torso of the body of the king lost in the city that had reigned as queen in the darkest time when all around it were being stifled, and reawakened by the blood of its progeny, the king will show the way and breathe life into that wonder that was lost, but was once shining bright above all stars in the fiery firmament of a blinding sky. The one that reawakens the king will manipulate him and wield his power but only for the common good. If anyone attempts to use that power for his own ends, the power shall be extinguished and he with it.”
    In the meantime, Vasilis, Giorgos and John had entered the tunnel on the seaward side. They hadn’t realised it but the gradient of the tunnel was gradually ascending.
    After they had covered a few feet they encountered a series of steps hewn from the rock that led to another tunnel at a higher level than the one they were in. They noticed that the sea water was lapping against the bottom two steps and appeared to remain at a constant level of a couple of feet lower than the lip of the next tunnel.
    Once they had reached the higher ground they were relieved to now be walking on dry land. As they no longer needed their diving equipment, they took it off and abandoned it there. With the equipment not weighing them down they could move a lot faster.
    The tunnel they entered was similar to the one on the other side accessed through Limassol Castle with similar openings at the same irregular intervals. They had heard Elli read the inscription. There was nothing similar at their end. They waited as the other group had begun to throw ideas as to the meaning of the inscription.
    An expression of recognition coloured Katerina’s face.
    ‘It must refer to Constantinople and the king must be the Emperor. That bit about the pieces of the Emperor’s body could be a test, something we need to get before we proceed to the tomb and the final act of waking the Emperor. The “temple of wisdom” could be an actual structure that we should find further on inside with pieces missing that we would need to insert to complete it.
    ‘Then again “temple of wisdom” could be referring to a space with manuscripts residing inside, a space very much like a library, perhaps? It could mean that the Emperor’s tomb could be inside the temple.’ Katerina paused, suddenly, and surprisingly for her, self-conscious and shame-faced. ‘I hope I’m not going on a wild tangent here. Sorry. My imagination got the better of me.’
    Suddenly she had second thoughts and quickly recovered from her unlikely feeling of shy embarrassment. She certainly did not have an inferiority complex. Her defiance and common sense reasserted themselves. ‘But, surely, especially because of what we have encountered so far on this adventure, my speculation is not that crazy, is it? I only wish the geological scans were clearer.
    ‘The geological strata or something in there was interfering with the satellite imaging. But the outline of that subterranean structure in the middle could be a temple or a church. And there seems to be a chasm surrounding it, above and below and on each side. It looks as if there is no way to reach it. We’ll have to get there and see by ourselves. If indeed there exists that chasm around whatever structure is there, there may be walkways leading to it.’
    Giorgos cut in. His voice carried clear through their earpieces. ‘Katerina, it looks like you will have to go through the opening next to the inscription before you proceed further along the tunnel.’
    At that time the same inscription appeared next to the first opening in the tunnel on the seaward side where Giorgos, Vasilis and John were standing.
    ‘It looks as if we have to do the same at our end. Let me check the scroll.’ Giorgos paused for a couple of minutes while he consulted it. ‘The three keys seem to activate walkways leading to the middle structure. Katerina your wild speculation appears to be right. But that comes later. We need to go through our respective openings first. There may be traps. Take care.’ They all went through their respective openings.

CHAPTER 57

    Present day
    Katerina, Elli and Aristo recognised the place they were standing in. It was the Megaron Mousikis or Music Hall in Athens. They were suddenly all dressed to the nines for a very formal event.
    A board on a tripod in front of them told them that Elli Symitzis appeared to be hosting a concert there in aid of the Symitzis Foundation and a host of charities close to her heart. A chance for the elite to show off and hear and relish the multi-layered gossip. Another chance to trash some people, praise others and dish the dirt. And an opportunity to do business.
    Security was tight. Nobody unwanted could slip through the net, the spider’s web that Elli had weaved, unless she wanted them to.
    When Giorgos, Vasilis and John went through the opening on their side, they seemed to have landed at the same event, themselves dressed formally as well. As they were mingling and enjoying the jovial and glamorous atmosphere, during the interval before the second act, the three of them found themselves drawn towards backstage to see one of the performers whom they admired like star-struck teenage fans, when their eyes fell upon a strange altercation outside one of the dressing rooms. They went closer to investigate.
    Giorgos, Vasilis and John could see the intensity of the discussion increasing until it was almost a shouting match, only none of the people standing close to them or passing by, seemed to have noticed or, if they had, did not want to get involved. It was as if they could not see the verbal combatants at all.
    As the three of them approached, the couple who were engrossed in their drama, apparently more dramatic than anything taking place only a few metres away on stage, the whole place started to wobble and the floor was changing shapes like jelly and taking them on a rollercoaster ride.
    All three of them started to feel dizzy and swaying like a tree accosted by high winds. They were feeling close to losing their balance. The couple was not getting any closer. It was as if they had been walking forever. They began to wonder whether they were going to miss the rest of the performance.
    Then suddenly the couple disappeared. Giorgos, Vasilis and John launched into a fierce search. Their eyes caught someone disappearing through a door and they followed. They found themselves in an empty low-ceilinged room with whitewashed walls and no adornment but a simple chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There was nowhere to hide and no other exit from the room. Where did the man go?
    As they were about to give up and return to the concert, a man materialised in front of them. Not any man. He was dressed in what Giorgos recognised as Persian attire of the 4 ^th century B.C. The whole room transformed into Persepolis, the Persian Empire’s ceremonial capital and showcase of Persian splendour, that stood for more than two hundred years until it was burned down by the army of Alexander the Great a few months after they captured it in 330 B.C. an act that some people claimed might have even been an accident or the result of a challenge or a misguided act committed in a drunken stupor; others have labelled it a crime against history by the usual perpetrators, the victors.
    The Persian led the three men through pillared halls and peaceful gardens to a strange door with indecipherable writing around the whole of its outer edge. The Persian beckoned them through. They were a little apprehensive, but they followed once again, bitten by the bug of curiosity.
    When they went through the door, they realised it was a gateway that took them a few years into the future for they found themselves in a ruined Persepolis, only recently raised to the ground by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian troops and stripped to its foundations, its hollowed and ghostly, formerly intimidating, halls of grandeur, now deserted ruins still smoking and telling their sad story through their smoky tears to everybody who would listen.
    Giorgos, Vasilis and John felt the shame of being the only people, since the fateful day of its destruction, to see that place freshly desolate. The sands of time and of the desert hid it well until it was rediscovered in the 20 ^th century. The three men wondered what they were doing there when they saw the Persian disappear up a flight of stairs ahead of them.
    Up the stairs they went to the great hall and throne room, now not even a burned out shell, but a pile of ashes and random stones. In front of their eyes, though, it seemed to have been restored to its former glory and awe-inspiring magnificence.
    They entered a different place, a whole world away from the ashen ruins they left only a few footsteps behind. But then suddenly the illusion was shattered and the hall fell back to its harsh reality of non-existence, its ethereal beauty turning to dust and stripped back to its burned out ashen shell.
    They went down a few steps, and through a free-standing doorway connected to nothing, a lone survivor, jutting out like a sore thumb in a flattened-down landscape coming from nowhere and leading to nowhere. They tried to go around it, but the Persian shook his head and insisted that they go through. Although he only spoke once when he greeted them at their first sighting, the few words he had said were strangely in both English and Modern Greek. They wanted to ask why, but held back.
    They went through the lone doorway, half-expecting to come out the other side just a step from where they were standing earlier, when they were forced to stop, as if an invisible barrier had been erected in front of them. They tried to go back to where they had come from, but they came up against another barrier.
    They were trapped in limbo. They could not move forward and they could not go back. Then they heard a noise accompanied by a tremor appearing to be coming from under their feet and rising ever closer towards them, getting louder and more intense.
    A flight of steps appeared and they followed down into darkness that slowly lifted to bathe them in day-light.
    They were standing in an underground temple. A mesmerising song echoed around the fresco-heavy walls and the forest of statues and the unsupported roof that did not seem to be attached to anything but floating above them.
    The whole place shone with changing colours and images that appeared and disappeared and were reflected around its edges like a news reel or a film, with them the only spectators in a surreal spectacle that seemed to be drawing them in and taking them to different places, places they had never seen before.
    A mist rose and fell and a battered stone chest landed at their feet. Something like branches or tentacles or long legs jutted out and speared the ground, securely fastening the chest, and nailing it to the ground, or so it seemed.
    Giorgos, Vasilis and John attempted to find a way to open it, but it seemed solid with no visible opening. They tried to lift it, expecting great weight and resistance, and they were almost thrown back when it proved to be as light as a feather.
    The Persian seemed to have disappeared altogether. They were flummoxed, defeated by their featherweight gift that miraculously appeared with no warning or an instruction manual. A dark presence was approaching.
    Shadowy figures began to gather and multiply exponentially inside the temple. A cold shiver ran down their spines. Then the figures spoke with one voice, the words appearing in the air in front of them.
    “You need to see the world with new eyes and then you will be deserving to accept the blessings of the chest. Do not be afraid of what you see. You will know what is an illusion and what is real. Time in your world and the worlds through the other openings has stopped while you are inside.”

    The scene suddenly changed and they were standing in a field in the middle of nowhere. They saw a plane a few feet away. What looked like a pilot stood by the plane and there was a lonely ticket booth on one side of what they now decided was a derelict airfield, while, in all honesty, calling it that would be stretching the definition.
    Above the ticket booth was a board with the word “tickets” and below the phrase “plane charter for peanuts”. They began to walk towards the ticket booth, wondering with what money they didn’t have they would pay the fares, when the person behind the counter made a gesture to waive them away towards the plane, but not before handing them a small bag which when they opened saw that it contained a hand. A note inside told them that it was the Emperor’s right hand.
    The pilot told them they could board the first flight out of there. They boarded the rickety old plane and with their fingers crossed, their knuckles white from holding on for dear life, and their hearts in their palms, they set off to destination unknown.
    Giorgos, Vasilis and John recognised their destination when the plane landed on the street outside the acoustically extraordinary Megaron Mousikis or Music Hall, in resplendent-in-leafy-concrete chaotic Athens.
    A famous soprano was singing in Bizet’s “Carmen”. They simply could not resist attending. After their evening at the opera was over they ventured out to find refuge and relax at an elegant old cafe a short bracing walk away in the Kolonaki area of the city.
    Sitting at a table, only a short distance away, was the soprano they had just watched, the soprano who carried them into another world, who reached into nerve endings they didn’t know existed, teasing them ruthlessly, playing them like a master, making them vibrate and swell almost to bursting point like a grenade armed and about to explode and spread their innards and splash them onto the canvas around them with deft masterstrokes in a phenomenally wondrous but bloody masterpiece. Job done, sacrifice worth it to the altar of great art.
    The soprano had generously and selflessly given them emotions they had never experienced before. Now before them she seemed to have switched to another role, a role expected of someone of her fame, talent and stature, when not on stage but amongst her public, that of behaving every inch la diva prima, la prima donna.
    Something did not fit the picture they had created of her in their minds. For her act slipped at an unguarded moment, the layer of legend was peeled away, revealing a girl in all her vulnerability, a deep sadness appearing to be eating away at her. She was, shockingly, alone. Where were the armies and hoards of admirers, barbarian and otherwise, to adulate and worship at her altar and glorious form?
    She looked in their direction and beckoned them over. They got up reluctantly, suddenly star-struck shy. Even when she spoke, she sang like a nightingale or a bird of paradise.
    ‘Vasilis, and Giorgos and… John, is it? Come and sit with me.’
    ‘How do you know our names?’ Vasilis was curious and a little bit worried.
    ‘Come. First you sit down. Then I’ll tell you.’
    The three men obeyed.
    ‘Thank you.’ She sang.
    ‘For what? What could we possibly have given you, my dear lady, that we don’t remember? Our dear friend, amnesia, may have been more tender than usual in her affections.’
    ‘Even at that distance, I could see that the three of you were mesmerised, hypnotised and ruptured, with eyes for nothing and no-one else on stage or inside that theatre, but for my dear self. I want you all to come with me to my apartment for a drink.’
    Vasilis, Giorgos and John could not resist. They were a little bit curious too. They had just met her, but they could not shake the feeling that the chance meeting was orchestrated and that she had a message for them. They accepted her generous invite with alacrity.
    ‘We would be delighted.’ Vasilis, the unofficial but by silent consent appointed ambassador, spoke for them all.
    Inside her apartment in one of the city’s most exclusive blocks, at one of the city’s most exclusive addresses, they sat on her chintz sofa while she excused herself for a moment.
    Vasilis, Giorgos and John heard the rustle of silk and turned. Even when walking, she barely touched the ground, her movements sensuous and reminiscent of a cat. A cat about to pounce, perhaps? She came into the room looking every bit the gracious hostess in a temptingly wrapped package, the perfect image of loveliness. She handed Vasilis a small package.
    ‘This is for you. A small token of appreciation for your admiration. Good manners and Santa Claus will chastise me for not wrapping it, but there was no time.’
    Vasilis hesitated, as if afraid of being burned, whether because of the package or touching her he could not be sure. She laughed loudly at his reluctance and misplaced caution.
    ‘Take it. It won’t bite.’
    She said this in a singing a-cappella voice from an invisible sheet to an invisible melody in her head rather than in a flat boring narrative to the non-existent music in their heads which they tried to follow, but could not dare participate in.
    Vasilis started to play with the package, flicking it and bouncing it from hand to hand, unsure what to do with it. A crazy idea kept shouting at him inside his brain. This trick was part of her foreplay. He smiled. She smiled too, but from amusement at the confusion of such a usually confident and courageous man.
    ‘Vasilis, it’s not a bomb. If it were, it would have exploded by now with all that bouncing about. Please open it.’
    Vasilis opened the package and came face to face with a severed embalmed hand.
    ‘That’s the Emperor’s left hand. Your next destination is Wallaman Falls near Ingam in Queensland, Australia. Your pilot awaits you.’
    Vasilis was perplexed, as were the others, but they all gave in to her charm wrapped in iron will. They were entranced and enthralled by her and her body’s and her eyes’ promise of the dream of faraway lands of magic and blissful oblivion. They felt they could not resist, but they knew they should, and they did desist.
    She was without doubt a redoubtable force and a, hopelessly, shameless temptress. Giorgos was a hapless romantic at heart, but deep down he felt a strange attraction to her. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had seen her before, perhaps in a dream and he couldn’t believe his dream was standing before him in the flesh.
    She noticed Giorgos’ reaction to her. She took his hand and gently blew on it, barely tracing it with her lips. Her breath was wonderfully spiced and scented and visible, the colours of the rainbow.
    He wanted to bring his hand to his nose but refrained from doing so as to avoid showing his subjugation to her. As if it wasn’t obvious enough. Who was she? What was she?
    ‘Now, go.’ She urged, only a slight hint of panic in her voice, which they detected, but chose not to pry.
    They wanted to spend more time with her. Why was she sending them away so soon? Did she sense something would happen?
    As far as they were concerned they hadn’t done anything to offend her. Or had they? They knew they would not get an answer to a perilous question that might itself offend. They kept their own counsel and stayed silent.
    ‘Goodbye.’ She sang for one last time.
    ‘Thank you.’ The three men said almost in unison.
    And they were off. The door closed softly behind them.
    Moments after they exited the apartment block, a dark figure, steeped and veiled in anonymity, entered and climbed the stairs to her floor. She opened the door resigned to her fate.

CHAPTER 58

    Present day
    Vasilis, Giorgos and John arrived at Ingam in Queensland, Australia at dusk. After a sumptuous, but simple and delicious meal at the local inn, an inn steeped in history and legend, and a restful sleep, the following morning, after an early breakfast, they set off for the Wallaman Falls, a trip involving a short drive from Ingam and then a short trek.
    An Aborigine was waiting for them at the foot of the falling water that splashed next to them and sprayed them with a refreshing foam that tickled their senses.
    ‘You have travelled far. Now your reward awaits you. Just walk through the water, with me.’
    There was nobody around, so nobody saw them disappearing, swallowed by the mountain, and entering a tunnel that led to an arch that appeared manmade. Beyond it there was darkness to choke one’s pupils to submission and despair.
    Their guide uttered something incomprehensible that sounded like an instruction. Giorgos, Vasilis and John assumed that the instruction was addressed to a person. But however hard they searched they could see no-one.
    They remained silent and waited. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then the arch suddenly became the door to an unbelievable sight that had them rubbing their eyes to bleeding point in disbelief.
    Vasilis, Giorgos and John were standing on the edge of a steep cliff. Below them the ground fell to a sheer drop to the bottom of the ravine, a bottom they could not see. They saw no way to go forward, only back. But spreading in front of them only a short distance away, was a gleaming city of towers and palaces and magnificent buildings, a magical place. In the centre stood a temple, an ancient Greek look-alike. Now, there was a conundrum, if ever there was one.
    A walkway appeared out of nowhere. They followed their guide into the city where they enjoyed a constant bombardment of surprises and marvellous spectacles. The residents appeared to be Aborigines and Greeks speaking both Greek and the Aborigine language and living in perfect harmony.
    Giorgos was the first to voice what they were all thinking. ‘This is just bizarre. The cans of worms filled instead with questions never cease. This mixed community is one-of-a-kind. How on earth has it come to be, I wonder?’
    John’s eyes were drawn as if by a leash and they fixed on some point in the distance. ‘Giorgos, look. Over there. At the central structure.’
    Vasilis and Giorgos tried to focus, fighting the glare from the blinding sun.
    Giorgos was first to put their surprise into words. ‘The statue. Oh, my God, but how…?’
    Giorgos quickly recovered from his pleasant shock. ‘Exactly… the Minoan bull, the frescoes on the structure, the columns… It’s like a copycat of the palace in Knossos.’
    Inside the structure, they were led to the inner sanctum and stopped at the altar where they were asked to take the glass and wooden box set atop it. Inside were two feet decked in sandals bearing the Imperial crest next to two kidneys and a liver.
    Vasilis could not resist a joke. ‘I feel like a macabre trader in transplant organs.’
    They looked at each other. They knew their next destination.
    Suddenly the opening regurgitated them back into the tunnel in Limassol. They found the Knossos door, which was the next opening on the right and entered.

    Giorgos, Vasilis and John arrived in Knossos in Crete in pitch darkness. The site was closed to tourists and all visitors. The place was a heaven of all sorts of shadows and ghosts from the past. You could sense the odd disruptions in the air or were they imagining it? Where to now? Then they saw it, the glowing trail leading away from them, and they followed.
    They waded through the ancient ruins heading for their destination and, hopefully, their next prize. They reached the remnants of the surviving central staircase and descended deeper and deeper into the innards of the palace’s storehouses.
    They stopped at the bottomless main well that served the palace. The trail went straight down the well. Somehow they knew what they had to do. There was no other way. They had no equipment, but they knew that they had to jump. They put their faith in whatever god or gods were out there and took the plunge, literally.
    The landing was surprisingly smooth and they found themselves lying on the most comfortable bed they had ever had the pleasure to lie on. Without being given the luxury of time to recover there was a soft, barely audible, knock on the door.
    An old man with the gentlest face entered the room carrying a huge tray laden with food and fruit and drink. They were handed a set of warm dry clothes to change into. They obeyed, relieved and grateful for their heaven-sent visitor.
    They impatiently got up and almost broke into a run to the other side of the room to their saviour with one aim in mind, to assault his gifts and devour their prey. They suddenly realised they had not eaten anything for some time and were famished.
    While they were eating they felt a presence and turned. An ethereal being in female form stood there like an apparition. The apparition had a voice. It was a language they felt they should not understand, but somehow they did and they surprised themselves when they replied in kind.
    ‘Welcome, friends. We have been expecting you.’ A soft crystal voice reached their ears. They knew it had to have come out of the apparition, but it felt as if it had come from the space and the walls surrounding them. The voice kept echoing for a short time after the apparition spoke.
    Giorgos spoke for them all. ‘Thank you. With respect, who are you?’
    ‘My name is Ordania. I will be your host for today. There is someone who can’t wait to meet you. I’m here to take you to him.’
    Vasilis, Giorgos and John followed. Their guide walked as if she was on the run for a crime she had committed, as if she was being chased by the Furies to torment her for that crime.
    They were brought to a chamber that seemed as if lashed by hurricane-strength winds that stopped at its edges, their power dissipated, then withdrew and attacked over and over again. A man standing in the middle of the chamber turned and came to Vasilis’ side and gently took his right hand.
    ‘I knew your mother.’
    Vasilis’ thoughts briefly turned to his mother. You found people who knew her in the most unlikely of places. Feed him the stories they could tell and he would never go hungry again. But this was not the time to ask how this man knew his mother.
    Only four words, but so heavy and full of meaning; it was impossible to miss the unspoken part. This man like many others admired and adored his mother. Vasilis looked into the man’s eyes that held the world in their grasp.
    ‘Tell me, apart from you, the woman Ordania and the other older man I met earlier, is there anyone else living here? I have not seen anyone wandering around and it made me wonder.’
    ‘No, it is just us three.’
    ‘But how did you choose to be here and why? And how long have you been here?’
    ‘Long enough. We cannot die, never had and never can have children, and cannot live a normal life as you know it. We are the guardians of this sacred place. I can see you are wondering what this place is.’ Vasilis was surprised that this man could read his thoughts and cautioned himself to control them. ‘Maybe you will find out the next time you visit us. I cannot tell you when that will be. It is for fate to decide when you need us again in the future. A call for help will not go unanswered. Now is not the time for this place to divulge its secrets and its purpose.’
    He turned to a small tray next to him that Ordania had placed there earlier. He lifted the cover and offered the tray to Vasilis. On the tray was the Emperor’s heart.
    ‘I cannot let you leave without a gift. Our guests, however short their stay with us, never forget our renowned hospitality nor do they leave without a small memento depending on the task they have embarked on when they visit us.’ As the man said that he was gone, and so was everything else around them.
    Giorgos and John found themselves in the tunnel and the chest they first saw in Persepolis was sitting open next to them, having disgorged its contents; the Emperor’s private parts lay at their feet.
    Giorgos and John expected Vasilis to be with them. They wondered whether he had arrived before them and wandered off. They immediately dismissed the thought as highly unlikely. But Vasilis was nowhere to be seen.

    Back at the Megaron Mousikis in Athens, Elli was, with Katerina’s help, in a desperate search of her own for Vasilis, Giorgos and John. She found Aristo.
    He could tell from her manner and the lines that appeared on her face that she was very worried. Something serious had happened. Only someone who knew her as well as he did would have even noticed her concern.
    ‘Aristo, have you seen Vasilis and the others? I think there has been trouble.’
    ‘Do we know where they were seen last?’
    ‘I’ve been told they were on their way backstage. I’ll go and see if I can find anything.’
    Without another word, Aristo turned and, at a brisk pace, headed backstage. He found the room that paid host to the three missing men a few minutes earlier, and like them before him, stood there at a loss.
    He was about to accept that they had been given a wrong tip on the whereabouts of the three missing men when, unbeknownst to him, the same man that welcomed Vasilis, Giorgos and John was now standing before him, smiling and bowing respectfully.
    The man kept his eyes firmly on Aristo’s and was urgently indicating the floor. Aristo assumed that the man expected him to see or open something there. But, however hard he looked, from where he stood he could see nothing of interest nor could he detect an opening there.
    He was mystified. The strangeness of the situation gave him the suspicion that he was on the right track in establishing the fate of the three missing men. He could not shake a feeling of uneasiness.
    Something happened here, Aristo thought. His certainty that the man before him was connected, was indeed the key, to what befell the three missing men was growing.
    Whatever reservations he might have had, he suspected that this man was his only chance of finding the three missing men and decided to go closer. But, as he did so, the man disappeared through the floor. Aristo followed him.
    Reaching the temple, he saw the three men being surrounded by a suffocating mist. His eyes fell on the chest at the same time as the three men and the chest vanished into the ether.
    The mist dispelled, but he could no longer see them or the man that had brought him there. Before he could decide what to do, Aristo felt a punch in his stomach rendering him unable to make any attempt to retaliate or react in any way.
    He felt himself falling into a dark abyss. Within seconds he had blacked out.

    When Vasilis came round, he was lying on the Olympian beach, somewhere between the Limassol Zoo and the Anamerila Hotel near the old part of Limassol, his head hurting as if fresh from a hangover.
    His body was, though, unharmed, but slightly prickly from too much sun exposure. His skin felt scorched and his palms were red and burning like hell. He tried to get up, but failed at the first hurdle.
    But that hazy feeling quickly passed, and he got up with ease, and with a, strangely, complete lack of the pain that bedevilled him only a moment earlier. Relief washed over him. He did not miss that pain. It was as if suddenly he had at once become cured and immune to pain and the elements. He could not explain it.
    Then he saw people walking by, looking at him and smiling, some clearly mocking him, others turning red-faced and increasing their pace, some even winking lustily, conspiratorially. He looked down. He was naked and defenceless. He tried to hide his modesty, but then changed his mind.
    He reasserted himself and walked defiant with nothing to hide. To hell with it. He quickened his pace, as much as the sand allowed. He had to find out whether he was actually in Limassol of the present day.
    He saw a small shop selling beachwear and went in. He decided to buy himself a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and went to pay with the euros he did not have, hoping to prey on the shopkeeper’s generosity and hoping he could accept his promise to come back the next day to settle his bill.
    The shopkeeper just smiled, did not ask for payment and waived him away, but not before Vasilis had checked the newspaper stand and was relieved to see that it was indeed the present day. How could that be, he wondered. What on earth was going on with those openings in the tunnels?
    On his way out of the shop the security guy at the entrance was about to waive him through without a word, but decided to have some fun. He pretended to ask Vasilis to submit to a body search, but then he seemed to have changed his mind when he saw the look on Vasilis’ face whose eyes were spitting daggers from embarrassment at his situation.
    Thankfully, the security guy decided not to challenge and antagonise Vasilis and cause a disturbance on such a lazy day. And there was the small matter of not risking his job over something as trivial as this without any valid suspicion.
    He had been watching all the time after all and it was a small shop with nowhere to hide, no blind spots to give the opportunity for theft. He could tell this gentleman was, no doubt, not the thieving kind. He just smiled and winked at Vasilis.
    Just before he left the shop, Vasilis passed a fulllength mirror and practically jumped at the person looking back at him. He blinked twice at the frightful sight. He looked ridiculous. He winked at himself. He was relieved to see that he had not lost his sense of humour.
    A voice inside his head was mocking him too: “You stick out like a sore thumb. You will definitely have no trouble blending in”. He was ready to smash the mirror in annoyance. But then he controlled himself. He had little choice until something better came along.
    It would have to do for now. What was he doing here anyway?
    He was moving as if led by an invisible force that took hold of him, pulling him to a destination and a destiny he could not know. Suddenly he saw it clearly and was surprised at his earlier confusion.
    What he saw that cleared his mind was a play of the light, but one that was intended for him as a message.
    As the sun was setting on a magical landscape, he thought his eyes were deceiving him. He thought it was a trick of the light. But of course it couldn’t be.
    The rays bounced off the Ayia Napa Church and then set off past the city’s Western suburbs heading North towards the Troodos mountain range in a mad rush, as if being chased by an invisible enemy only they could see.
    They seemed to have stopped at a point at the foot of the Troodos Mountains, still visible despite the distance. He blinked into the light and squinted. Was it meant for him to follow?
    He must be out of his mind. But he knew he had to follow immediately. It could not wait. What he was meant to see might not be there tomorrow or even later on. He might be overtaken by his enemy and rival, the Ruinand group he smelled on the plane, even though they surely must have thought they were in the most amazing and deceit-proof disguise.
    They were on his tail and he could not allow them to know what he knew, to go where he was going. He had to shake them off. But how? Think hard, Vasilis. Then he had an idea. He got onto a phone and got the people at Valchern Corporation to see if they could get one of their satellites to zoom in and attempt to detect the signal or the heat signature left behind to locate the signal’s final destination.
    When they got back to him they confirmed that it was visible. The signal seemed to have stopped at Mount Zalakas in the village of Trimiklini, a twenty-minute drive North of Limassol on the way to the Troodos Mountains. Vasilis had to check it out.
    But he had to do something first. He could use the opportunity to follow up on the Mount Zalakas site and get some information. Kill two birds with one stone. Lara was just back from Brazil where she had been excavating a site made all the more intriguing for the discovery of Athenian pottery of the fifth century B.C.
    She planned to stay in Cyprus for the next year assisting an excavation on Mount Zalakas. The head of the expedition had specifically asked for her and she jumped at the chance. She accepted on the spot without the slight hesitation.
    It sounded like a once in a lifetime opportunity. She would not have missed it for the world. It was also convenient that she could take, at a moment’s notice, a sabbatical from her excavation work in Brazil.
    That was because she was not the head of that expedition, but a mere observer attached to the excavation team as a travelling consultant. Vasilis wondered whether it was a coincidence that Lara was working at Mount Zalakas. It was a long time since he had seen her.

CHAPTER 59

    Cyprus
    Present day
    Giorgos and John stood in the tunnel in Limassol wondering what happened to Vasilis. Elli and Katerina were back too, in the tunnel on the other side, wondering about Aristo.
    Suddenly Katerina gestured towards the further reaches of the tunnel, a perplexed expression pregnant with worry blackening her face. ‘Elli.’ She called out and paused until she had Elli’s attention. ‘What are those figures appearing to be coming in and out of the openings, but not quite reaching the tunnel as if restricted by an invisible force blocking their way and keeping them in the confines of their own worlds?’
    Elli’s face had become white as a sheet. ‘I don’t know, but it’s giving me the creeps.’

    Aristo, when he came to after blacking out, woke up in the tunnel next to his mother and Katerina.
    The tunnels had a strange effect on people. Aristo had already forgotten about the room and the strange man, and the memory of being surrounded by something or someone before he blacked out could not be further from his mind.
    He searched his brain frantically for the last thing he could remember, but came out wanting. He seemed anxious and obsessed about something.
    ‘I thought I caught a glimpse of Vasilis through one of the openings. Come on, we need to find him.’ Elli decided to stay behind. Katerina and Aristo stood in front of the opening where Aristo thought he had seen Vasilis and took the plunge.

    They landed on a beach at the same time as the naked Vasilis was getting up. But they were too far away to call to him. They walked as fast as they could to catch up with him. They watched him go through the admiring glances and winks of a multitude of people on the beach.
    They then saw him go into the beachgear shop, and after a while come out dressed in what could be generously described as fashionable beach tosh. They were grateful that particular fashion passed them by.
    ‘Now let’s see what this brother of mine is up to.’ Aristo said.
    ‘He’s calling for a taxi. Come on.’ Katerina grabbed Aristo’s arm and, starting to move, dragged him forward oblivious to the consequences of her act. Aristo was not expecting the gesture, and the force she employed, and almost tripped in her wake nearly toppling on top of her.
    A few seconds behind Vasilis’ departure at high speed, Katerina hailed a taxi and they were on Vasilis’ tail.
    The day was hot and humid and sweat was dripping down their foreheads and exiting their pores in spades. Vasilis’ taxi stopped abruptly outside the Limassol Palace Hotel.
    Katerina and Aristo’s taxi left them at the spot Vasilis had occupied a few seconds earlier. Aristo gave the driver a generous tip and they entered the lobby of the hotel just a few paces behind his brother.
    ‘Aristo, why don’t we just go and talk to him?’
    ‘No, not yet. I want to see what he does. And he may be followed in which case we could be his rear guard security detail.’
    They waited in the lobby and wandered around the shops browsing and pretending to have a keen interest in buying an engagement ring.
    When they next saw Vasilis, he was coming out of the lift, dressed in a very smart suit and strutting across the lobby with his trademark dark good looks and air of self-assurance.
    One could not ignore Vasilis. He never failed to cut quite a swathe and to turn heads. People crowding the lobby turned and paid attention, spellbound.
    The glory of youth, Aristo thought to himself. Katerina broke the spell.
    ‘I think he may be on a date. He has that look and he appears to have switched on the charm ready to go out on the offensive all guns blazing. Come on, let’s follow.’
    A few moments later they were standing outside the “La Marassant”, the queen of dining experiences and the toast of Limassol high society and high-roller fast life.
    Inside, in a quiet corner, delicately pinching at an exquisite dinner, were Vasilis and Lara, appearing to be in their own bubble, flirting with and teasing each other, and laughing, totally at ease in each other’s company, obviously having a very good time indeed.
    Aristo smiled to himself at Vasilis’ selection of a table. Typical cautious Vasilis always covering his back, but presenting it as seeking privacy.
    Vasilis had not seen Lara for what felt like ages. Lara was born and grew up in Greece, but could never settle in any one place. She was an archaeologist who travelled the world searching for challenges and never did things by the book.
    She and Vasilis had known each other for many years and they had a child together. The child was being raised by Lara, but Vasilis was a regular visitor and financial contributor to the lives of mother and child. For the last three years she had lived in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, partly because of her work, partly because she loved the place and partly to create a home for their child. That was why she had become resistant to constant moves around the world to quell her curiosity and ambition.
    Vasilis had tried, repeatedly, to persuade Lara to move to Cyprus, so that he could see her and their child more often, but she refused. Her home and her career were currently based in South America. The Mediterranean with all its archaeological and historical fascination and wealth could not replace it. At least for the time being.
    Vasilis knew she could not be moved once she had made up her mind and planted her feet firmly on the ground and he, reluctantly, accepted her decision. That was how they ended up living apart with an ocean and a continent separating them.
    Suddenly Vasilis’ voice betrayed a surprising urgency. ‘I want to ask you for a favour. I was intrigued when you told me about that small icon you found inside that cave on Mount Zalakas. That’s the main reason I’m here. From the picture you sent me it looks to be surprisingly well preserved. I would like to have a look at the cave myself. Could you get me inside?’
    ‘Vasilis, you know I cannot do that. I’ll be putting my job on the line. No unauthorised access is allowed and I am not the person to give that authority. The bureaucracy in this place is astounding, beyond comprehension. I really don’t know how people do anything here, as it makes things so expensive and time-consuming.
    ‘I actually admire them for persevering and achieving so much. It challenges my patience every single hour of every single minute of every single day. Well, I am exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture. If I let you in and they find out, I’ll be in big trouble. They’ll have my guts for garters. They’ll no doubt deport me and put me on a black list, never to allow me to enter the country ever again.’
    Vasilis said nothing, but gave her that look she could never resist. She looked at him for a while, lost in her own thoughts.
    Lara was debating with herself. She felt it was a mistake to think that this place, this setting, was the set of her dreams. Maybe she had to change it. Was Vasilis the answer? Was what Vasilis wanted the answer? Was Cyprus the answer?
    But then again it didn’t have to be like that. They both had compromised in the past and she was sure they could do it again. There had never been any regrets. She was sure they would both do it all over again the same way, not changing a thing, if they had to.
    But her mind had gone into overdrive. Both sides of her brain were fighting a battle with her heart. The jury, selected and approved, was growing impatient. It was split down the middle, still not ready to deliver a verdict.
    The decision was floating there in the air, almost invisible, like an indecisive cloud, becoming more elusive with every passing second. She suddenly pushed the thoughts out of her mind and focused her eyes on Vasilis, an air of selfishness, a healthy dose of defiance raising its ugly head and animating her face.
    ‘I will help you on condition that you re-arrange your schedule, so that you start spending at least a few weeks at a time here in Cyprus with me. Perhaps not this time as you seem to be busy with something, but after this, whatever it is, is finished.’
    His mouth twitched and started to droop, his eyes spoke volumes in their own special language she knew so well. He looked hurt, but his eyes were saying “maybe”, and yet they seemed to be passing judgement condemning her conduct as screaming of intransigence and belligerence that was so unlike her.
    She almost felt sorry for him and was close to relenting and capitulating.
    ‘OK, alright, stop that. Don’t give me that sorrowful pleading charm of yours.’
    His face spoke with the raising of a quizzical brow.
    ‘Vasilis, stop it. Don’t make that face. Come, on. You know you are doing it. It’s always like that. You always do it when you want me to do something. This time it’s not working.’
    The brow rose higher.
    She broke the impasse. ‘What do you expect to find there?’
    ‘A body.’ Vasilis blurted out with no qualms about shocking Lara.
    ‘You mean bones, a skeleton?’
    ‘No, I mean a body or more specifically a part or parts of it.’
    Even with her belief that nothing could shock her, Lara had gone white. This was serious. The reality that Vasilis might be involved in something shady began to dawn on her, but she chose not to voice her suspicions and her concerns in case she was wrong.
    She didn’t want to mess things up between them, if she was wrong, especially as things had been going well between them lately, and she was in no doubt that it was all legitimate and above board. He would never forgive her, if she insulted him by thinking him capable of anything illegitimate. She had to know more about this matter.
    ‘I don’t understand. What’s so special about this body you are looking for? What research do you have to back it up? How do you think you can find something where we have been excavating for months and have found nothing?’
    ‘I just know. I have a feeling.’ Vasilis said, an inner voice leading him to waters untravelled, and Lara could see his firm belief in his words. Her scepticism began to waiver, but she could not help a bit of mocking for her amusement. And there was also the fact that she could not be seen to so easily capitulate and accept that there could be the possibility of some truth in what he had said.
    ‘A voice at the back of your mind is speaking to you?’
    ‘Something like that. You know I’ve always been a bit unconventional, for some people crazy even, in doing things my way, but my instinct has served me well so far. So indulge me on this. Have some faith.’
    Lara took a quick decision. ‘OK. But I’m coming with you.’
    ‘No, you’re not. You are staying here to watch my back.’
    ‘It’s non-negotiable.’ Lara was adamant. ‘I can get you a pass and have you attend the dig for a couple of days for people to get used to you. We’ll introduce you as a visiting expert archaeologist from Crete.’
    ‘Will that work? Who’s checking authorisations?’
    ‘Trust me, it won’t be a problem.’
    ‘Won’t they recognise me?’
    ‘You have a bit of a high profile, but I don’t think they read the society or the business pages. But we’ll give you a little disguise just in case.’ Lara said and winked at Vasilis.
    Suddenly Vasilis had a strange feeling that they were being watched. He turned to the two men at the table next to them. The eyes he saw were empty and cold and licensed to kill. They had to get out of there.
    There was another reason for Vasilis’ urgency to leave. Vasilis did not want to involve the other diners in any violent altercation that might follow. They had to leave before anything happened that got people hurt.
    A waiter was passing by with the most humungous tray split in two, one half laden and piled on high with a mountain of meat laced with rice, the other half with fruit and bordered in semi-circle shapes with two jugs full of steaming hot juices and gravy.
    Vasilis tripped the waiter as he was passing by the adjacent table. The whole pile practically buried and burned the two men. But it was enough to distract the two men and put them out of action for long enough for Vasilis and Lara to make their escape.
    Vasilis grabbed Lara’s hand and they ran outside where a taxi was already waiting with the meter running. Vasilis had taken that precaution in the event that they had to make a quick get-away.
    They got into the taxi, and, in a movie-like moment, Vasilis fired a sharp order to the taxi driver to step on it. The taxi speeded off.
    Katerina and Aristo had witnessed Vasilis’ and Lara’s sudden rush for the exit. They stood to the side of the restaurant and waited. It took less than a minute for the two men, whom they suspected to be Ruinands, to come out of the restaurant, get into another waiting taxi and follow at great speed.
    Katerina and Aristo got into a taxi that had at that moment left a couple on the kerb and followed close behind the other two taxis, bringing up the rear.
    ‘Katerina, we will need to find a way to sabotage the taxi in front of us to give Vasilis a fighting chance to break free of the pursuit.’ Aristo’s mind was working furiously for a solution.
    The car chase was on. Inside the first taxi, Vasilis turned to Lara, who was almost a wreck from the sudden excitement, his voice on the verge of breaking.
    ‘Lara, we cannot wait for a few days. We’ll have to go to the site tonight. They must be after the same thing that I am. We have to shake them off first, though. How the hell did they know where to find us? I was careful. I was sure I had not been followed.’
    ‘And to think that they were sitting next to us for all this time and we didn’t suspect a thing.’
    ‘I’m not surprised. We were a bit engrossed in our own world back there as is always the case when we get together.’ Vasilis said and smiled sweetly at Lara.
    ‘I dare say more than a bit engrossed.’
    Vasilis leaned towards the driver. ‘We need to shake off the taxi following us.’
    ‘No problem, sir. Though there are actually two taxis following us.’
    ‘What? Two?’ Vasilis turned back to look, but couldn’t be sure that the third taxi was not an innocent bystander.
    At that moment the taxi took a sharp left and increased speed, but the Ruinands were with them and catching up fast. They were driving on the coastal road now and it was busy. They had to weave in and out of the cars ahead of them and avoid incoming traffic as well.
    The chase had been going on for about fifteen minutes when, out of nowhere, Vasilis and Lara saw a sudden flash of light and, turning to look back, they saw the chasing taxi carrying the Ruinands suddenly veered off course and, closely avoiding collision with a bus, climb the pavement and smash its way to an abrupt stop inside the elaborately-decorated window of a patisserie.
    Vasilis and Lara had no way of knowing that the spectacle had the hallmark of Aristo’s handiwork stamped all over it.
    Aristo had an inspiration. He used a laser gun to blind the driver of a truck travelling towards them in the opposite direction while it was almost level with the taxi carrying the two Ruinands in front.
    The truck veered to the right while another car in front of them did not hold back, but like a horse rearing up when frightened, speeded up to avoid the truck, and crashed into, actually almost climbed on, the Ruinand taxi and forced it off the road on a straight collision course to oblivion. The truck rushed to join that car, and like comrades-in-arms, the two vehicles blocked the Ruinand taxi in a half bear hug, determined not to let their prey escape.
    But the Ruinands as “diehard refusniks” in the death-defying stakes, denied death its blood. They got out and dusted themselves. They were too late to catch up, but unbeknownst to Katerina and Aristo they had inside information on their movements from the traitor in their midst.
    Katerina’s and Aristo’s taxi only just avoided the near crash scene by the skin of its teeth, their heart on tender-hooks, until they were out of the near carnage. The hair-raising experience over, they fell behind Vasilis’ taxi at a safe distance.
    Vasilis and Lara had seen the incident and thought they were out of the woods, but their relief did not last long as they saw what they suspected could be another enemy taxi, but which they hoped was an innocent one still behind them.
    About half an hour after the crash incident, Vasilis’ taxi came to a stop near a shed at the foot of Mount Zalakas. The taxi carrying Katerina and Aristo stopped behind them and they got out.
    Vasilis and Lara had taken a fighting stance, but let their guard down and relaxed when they recognised Katerina and Aristo coming towards them.
    Vasilis’ jaw dropped when he saw Katerina and Aristo. ‘What are you two doing here?’
    ‘I could ask you the same thing. To help you, if you let us. You thought we were chasing you as well, didn’t you?’ Aristo hugged his brother.
    ‘Well, yes, I couldn’t see inside your taxi, now could I? So I told the driver to go faster and faster.’
    ‘Yes, I suspected as much. No wonder we could not catch up.’ Aristo looked at Lara. ‘Hi, Lara. It’s good to see you again. It could have been under better circumstances, though.’
    ‘It’s always some crisis or other that brings us together, isn’t it?’ Lara laughed and looked to Katerina. ‘Katerina, it’s good to see you.’
    ‘You too.’
    Vasilis had had enough of this civil idle chitchat. He decided to cut in. ‘Enough with the pleasantries. We need to get a move on.’ Vasilis turned to Lara. ‘Lara, what