Prologue

Screams. Echoing through wood panelled corridors, centuries old, bouncing back and forth through night darkened rooms. Cracked eyes in ancient portraits stare wordlessly through the sounds. Scuffed floorboards, worn and polished, lead to more rooms, more corridors. The screams penetrate them all. Darkened windows reflect candlelight and stillness, black mirrors keeping back the night.

History manifests in the smells of wood and incense, camphor and sandalwood. The silent echoes of generations come and gone, the faded stains of blood spilled in halls and hints of joy known in secret places, the rise and fall of the powerful and the weak. History written, revised, written again.

In a large room on the second floor where the screams are loudest, two nuns bustle around a sweating, panting woman on a small cot. The only light from candles and a roaring fire in a huge marble fireplace, dancing, flickering orange glow.

The Bishop stood behind his heavy mahogany desk, his face fixed in an uncomfortable frown, staring at the nuns and the woman on the cot. A moment of silence as the woman paused, gulping down deep breaths, her hands curled like claws on her swollen abdomen. Between each hitched breath she sobbed, tears streaming down her cheeks. One of the nuns gently wiped her face with a damp cloth, the other leaning in between her raised knees.

Try again, dear,’ the nun said. ‘It’s coming.’

It hurts! It hurts so much!’

The nun looked up, her face twisted in sorrow and pity. ‘Please, try again. Push!’

The woman clenched her teeth and grimaced. With a strained grunt she pushed again, her breath exploding out in another piercing scream. Again and again she pushed and screamed, pushed, screamed, gasping for breath.

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