Chapter 1

Reims, France

18 June 1260

 

A scream poured down from the heavens, and Vital Moysett raised his eyes to trace the anguish back up to its source, far up the graceful arc to the peak of the vault, where his masons were struggling to join the blocks at the apex of the north and south ribs. One of the men must’ve caught his hand under a stone. That, or one of the clumsier sods had managed to spill molten lead on himself.

Vital lowered his gaze and gave his head a slight shake. If I may ask, God, let this not be the start of another delay. And please reward that poor fellow up there for whatever unwilling sacrifice he just made.

A chapter canon, one of several on the worksite, appeared at his elbow. They were on a surprise visit to assess progress—not exactly welcome but within their rights as the owners of the cathedral. “Is there a problem, Master Gaultier?”

Vital made a show of brushing some flecks of limestone from the ermine trim of his cloak. “Not in my earthly realm. We have plenty of men to complete the tasks ahead.”

There were days when he would not particularly mind being relieved of duty, to pass his responsibilities to another architectus and take up his chisels again. To trade the budget clashes, the abuse from angry taxpayers, the meddling of bishops, all of it for the direct truth of drawing beauty from stone. Releasing a saint hidden within a rough block would feel like child’s play after a master’s never-ending duties.

He had already accomplished as much as he dared dream as an architectus, anyway. Gaining renown and no small measure of spite from his fellow masters for his innovations and his rapid climb to the top of their profession, piling up enough deniers to keep him and Tegridia content in the Paris house to the end of their days, and capping it all with the triumph of Vielleny, the daring cathedral that secured his reputation and earned commendations from both king and pope. And if Vielleny didn’t accomplish the only real goal he had left, performing enough good works to ensure the release of his mother’s spirit from purgatory, the grand touches he was adding here at Reims surely would.

The canons were well into their favorite entertainment of arguing architectural principles without the suffocating burden of any architectural knowledge when a boy of eight or ten approached at full sprint. He looked as if he had just raced up from the banks of the River Styx, such was the fear in his eyes. Those eyes scanned the group of men before him, no doubt trying to determine which of the grand figures he should address. “I am to speak to Vital Moysett, master builder here.”

On hearing his birth name spoken, Vital flinched so violently he dropped one of his soft leather gloves and could only pray the canons were too focused on the boy to notice. “I am Gaultier le Brun, the master of these works. This Moysett you speak of, he is unknown to me. Now what is it, mooncalf? You waste my time.” He thought of smacking the boy to punctuate his indignity in front of the canons, but the boy deserved no such maltreatment. Vital motioned him aside and leaned in to let him deliver his message.

“Master,” the boy struggled to say, between deep gasps, “Master…the cathedral at Vielleny…it’s collapsed!”

All sense of life drained from Vital’s body. He held still for a moment, then stood tall. “Send this message back to whatever foul bastard sent you on this prank!” He whipped the back of his hand across the boy’s face with such fury that he knocked the lad to the ground.

The boy looked up without getting up. “But it is true,” he cried, loudly enough for most everyone on the worksite to hear. “The cathedral collapsed at dawn yesterday. There are dead. The bishop said it would have been hundreds on a feast day.”

The canon who had challenged Vital spoke again. “So, Master Gaultier, are these the new ways of building you were boasting of only last week?”

“This news is impossible! Vielleny is the most perfectly proportioned church in all of France. Geometers handpicked by the king himself approved my design.”

The canon reached down and hoisted the boy to his feet. “The news you bring is true?”

“Yes, and…”

“Speak up. You will not be harmed.” The canon eyed Vital. “Again.”

“People in Vielleny saw the devil’s claw marks on the rubble.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Claw marks. On the stones that fell. People are saying the devil himself pulled the cathedral down.”