Autumn, 1583. The skies above England harbour dark omens...
An astrological phenomenon heralds the dawn of a new age and Queen Elizabeth's throne is in peril. As Mary Stuart's supporters scheme to usurp the rightful monarch, a young maid of honour is murdered, occult symbols carved into her flesh.
The Queen's spymaster, Francis Walsingham, calls on maverick agent Giordano Bruno to infiltrate the plotters and secure the evidence that will condemn them to death.
Bruno is cunning, but so are his enemies. His identity could be exposed at any moment. The proof he seeks is within his grasp. But the young woman’s murder could point to an even more sinister truth...
Mortlake, House of John Dee
3rd September, Year of Our Lord 1583
Without warning, all the candles in the room's corners flicker and feint, as if a sudden gust has entered, but the air remains still. At the same moment, the hairs on my arms prickle and stand erect and I shudder; a cold breath descends on us, though outside the day is close. I chance a sideways glance at Doctor Dee; he stands unmoving as marble, his hands clasped as if in prayer, the knuckles of both thumbs pressed anxiously to his lips – or what can be seen of them through his ash-grey beard, which he wears in a point down to his chest in imitation of Merlin, whose heir Dee secretly considers himself. The cunning-man, Ned Kelley, kneels on the floor in front of the table of practice with his back to us, eyes fixed on the pale, translucent crystal about the size of a goose-egg mounted in fixings of brass and standing upon a square of red silk. The wooden shutters of the study windows have been closed; this busi-ness must be conducted in shadow and candlelight. Kelley draws breath like a player about to deliver his prologue, and stretches his arms out wide at shoulder height, in a posture of crucifixion.
'Yes . . .' he breathes, finally, his voice little more than a whisper. 'He is here. He beckons to me.'
'Who?' Dee leans forward eagerly, his eyes bright. 'Who is he?'
Kelley waits a moment before answering, his brow creasing as he concentrates his gaze on the stone.
'A man of more than mortal height, with skin as dark as polished mahogany. He is dressed head to foot in a white garment, which is torn, and his eyes are of red fire. In his right hand he holds aloft a sword.'
Dee snaps his head around then and clutches my arm, staring at me; the shock on his face must be mirrored in my own. He has recognised the description, as have I: the being Kelley sees in the stone matches the first figure of the sign of Aries, as described by the ancient philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. There are thirty-six of these figures, the Egyptian gods of time who rule the divisions of the zodiac and are called by some 'star-demons'. There are few scholars in Christendom who could thus identify the figure Kelley sees, and two of them are here in this study in Mortlake. If, indeed, this is what Kelley sees. I say nothing.
'What says he?' Dee urges.
'He holds out a book,' Kelley answers.
'What manner of book?'
'An ancient book, with worn covers and pages all of beaten gold.' Kelley leans closer to the stone. 'Wait! He is writing upon it with his forefinger, and the letters are traced in blood.'
I want to ask what he has done with the sword while he writes in this book – has he tucked it under his arm, perhaps? – but Dee would not thank me for holding this business lightly. Beside me, he draws in his breath, impatient to hear what the spirit is writing.
'XV,' Kelley reports, after a moment. He turns to look up at us, then over his right shoulder, his expression perplexed, perhaps expecting Dee to interpret the numerals.
'Fifteen, Bruno,' Dee whispers, looking again to me for confirmation. I nod, once. The lost fifteenth book of Hermes Trismegistus, the book I had come to England to find, the book I now knew Dee had once held in his hands years earlier, only to be robbed of it violently and lose it again. Could it be? It occurs to me that Kelley must know of his master's obsession with the fifteenth book.
The scryer raises a hand for silence. His eyes do not move from the crystal.
'He turns the page. Now he traces . . . it seems . . . yes, he makes a sign – quickly, fetch me paper and ink!'
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'Tense and lively, a welcome follow-up to Heresy, fully living up to its predecessor’s promise'
'Parris’s plot is well crafted and full of surprises, an imaginatively satisfying addition to the many real intrigues surrounding the imprisoned Mary Stuart and the threats to Elizabeth’s security'
'Parris writes with confident ease of Tudor London … The dialogue balances nicely on a tightrope of period phrases and cut-to-the-chase colloquialisms. More, please'