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Nothing in my culinary experience had taught me what to feed a vampire when he came for dinner.
In the library I spent most of the day on the Internet looking for recipes that involved raw foods, my manuscripts forgotten on the desk. Matthew said he was omnivorous, but that couldn’t be true. A vampire must be more likely to tolerate uncooked food if he was used to a diet of blood. But he was so civilized he would no doubt eat whatever I put in front of him.
After undertaking extensive gastronomical research, I left the library at midafternoon. Matthew had held down Fortress Bishop by himself today, which must have pleased Miriam. There was no sign of Peter Knox or Gillian Chamberlain anywhere in Duke Humfrey’s, which made me happy. Even Matthew looked in good humor when I trotted down the aisle to return my manuscripts.
Passing by the dome of the Radcliffe Camera, where the undergraduates read their assigned books, and the medieval walls of Jesus College, I went shopping along the aisles of Oxford’s Covered Market. List in hand, I made my first stop at the butcher for fresh venison and rabbit, and then to the fishmonger for Scottish salmon.
Did vampires eat greens?
Thanks to my mobile, I was able to reach the zoology department and inquire about the feeding habits of wolves. They asked me what kind of wolves. I’d seen gray wolves on a long-ago field trip to the Boston zoo, and it was Matthew’s favorite color, so that was my answer. After rattling off a long list of tasty mammals and explaining that they were “preferred foods,” the bored voice on the other end told me that gray wolves also ate nuts, seeds, and berries. “But you shouldn’t feed them!” the voice warned. “They’re not house pets!”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said, trying not to giggle.
The grocer apologetically sold me the last of the summer’s black currants and some fragrant wild strawberries. A bag of chestnuts found its way into my expanding shopping bag, too.
Then it was off to the wine store, where I found myself at the mercy of a viticultural evangelist who asked if “the gentleman knew wine.” That was enough to send me into a tailspin. The clerk seized upon my confusion to sell me what ended up being a remarkably few French and German bottles of wine for a king’s ransom. He then tucked me into a cab to recover from the sticker shock during the drive back to college.
In my rooms I swept all the papers off a battered eighteenth-century table that served as both desk and dining room and moved it closer to the fireplace. I set the table carefully, using the old porcelain and silver that was in my cupboards, along with heavy crystal glasses that had to be the final remainders of an Edwardian set once used in the senior common room. My loyal kitchen ladies had supplied me with stacks of crisp white linen, which were now draped over the table, folded next to the silver, and spread on the chipped wooden tray that would help me carry things the short distance from the kitchen.
Once I started making dinner, it became clear that cooking for a vampire doesn’t take much time. You don’t actually cook much of anything.
By seven o’clock the candles were lit, the food was ready except for what could be done only at the last minute, and all that was left to get ready was me.
My wardrobe contained precious little that said “dinner with a vampire.” There was no way I was dining with Matthew in a suit or in the outfit I’d worn to meet the warden. The number of black trousers and leggings I owned was mind-boggling, all with different degrees of spandex, but most were splotched with tea, boat grease, or both. Finally I found a pair of swishy black trousers that looked a bit like pajama bottoms but with slightly more style. They’d do.
Wearing nothing but a bra and the trousers, I ran into the bathroom and dragged a comb through my shoulder-length, straw-colored hair. Not only was it tied in knots at the end, it was daring me to make it behave by lifting up from my scalp with every touch of the comb. I briefly considered resorting to the curling iron, but chances were excellent I’d get only half my head done by the time Matthew arrived. He was going to be on time. I just knew it.
While brushing my teeth, I decided the only thing to do about my hair was to pull it away from my face and twist it into a knot. This made my chin and nose look more pointed but created the illusion of cheekbones and got my hair out of my eyes, which is where it gravitated these days. I pinned it back, and one piece immediately flopped forward. I sighed.
My mother’s face stared back at me from the mirror. I thought of how beautiful she’d looked when she sat down to dinner, and I wondered what she’d done to make her pale eyebrows and lashes stand out the way they did and why her wide mouth looked so different when she smiled at me or my father. The clock ruled out any idea of achieving a similar transformation cosmetically. I had only three minutes to find a shirt, or I was going to be greeting Matthew Clairmont, distinguished professor of biochemistry and neuroscience, in my underwear.
The wardrobe contained two possibilities, one black and one midnight blue. The midnight blue had the virtue of being clean, which was the determining factor in its favor. It also had a funny collar that stood up in the back and winged toward my face before descending into a V-shaped neckline. The arms were relatively snug and ended in long, stiff cuffs that flared out slightly and ended up somewhere around the middle of the back of my hand. I was sticking a pair of silver earrings through my ears when there was a knock at the door.
My chest fluttered at the sound, as if this were a date. I squashed the thought immediately.
When I pulled the door open, Matthew stood outside looking like the prince in a fairy tale, tall and straight. In a break with his usual habits, he wore unadulterated black, which only made him look more striking—and more a vampire.
He waited patiently on the landing while I examined him.
“Where are my manners? Please come in, Matthew. Will that do as a formal invitation to enter my house?” I had seen that on TV or read it in a book.
His lips curved into a smile. “Forget most of what you think you know about vampires, Diana. This is just normal politeness. I’m not being held back by a mystical barrier standing between me and a fair maiden.” Matthew had to stoop slightly to make it through the doorframe. He cradled a bottle of wine and carried some white roses.
“For you,” he said, giving me an approving look and handing me the flowers. “Is there somewhere I can put this until dessert?” He glanced down at the bottle.
“Thank you, I love roses. How about the windowsill?” I suggested, before heading to the kitchen to look for a vase. My other vase had turned out to be a decanter, according to the senior common room’s wine steward, who had come to my rooms a few hours earlier to point it out to me when I expressed doubt that I had such an item.
“Perfect,” Matthew replied.
When I returned with the flowers, he was drifting around the room looking at the engravings.
“You know, these really aren’t too bad,” he said as I set the vase on a scarred Napoleonic-era chest of drawers.
“Mostly hunting scenes, I’m afraid.”
“That had not escaped my attention,” Matthew said, his mouth curved in amusement. I flushed with embarrassment.
“Are you hungry?” I had completely forgotten the obligatory nibbles and drinks you were supposed to serve before dinner.
“I could eat,” the vampire said with a grin.
Safely back in the kitchen, I pulled two plates out of the refrigerator. The first course was smoked salmon with fresh dill sprinkled on top and a small pile of capers and gherkins arranged artistically on the side, where they could be construed as garnish if vampires didn’t eat greens.
When I returned with the food, Matthew was waiting by the chair that was farthest from the kitchen. The wine was waiting in a high-sided silver coaster I’d been using to hold change but which the same helpful member of the senior common room’s staff had explained was actually intended to hold wine. Matthew sat down while I extracted the cork from a bottle of German Riesling. I poured two glasses without spilling a drop and joined him.
My dinner guest was lost in concentration, holding the Riesling in front of his long, aquiline nose. I waited for him to finish whatever he was doing, wondering how many sensory receptors vampires had in their noses, as opposed to dogs.
I really didn’t know the first thing about vampires.
“Very nice,” he finally said, opening his eyes and smiling at me.
“I’m not responsible for the wine,” I said quickly, snapping my napkin onto my lap. “The man at the wine store picked everything out, so if it’s no good, it’s not my fault.”
“Very nice,” he said again, “and the salmon looks wonderful.”
Matthew picked up his knife and fork and speared a piece of fish. Watching him from under my lashes to see if he could actually eat it, I piled a bit of pickle, a caper, and some salmon on the back of my own fork.
“You don’t eat like an American,” he commented after he’d taken a sip of wine.
“No,” I said, looking at the fork in my left hand and the knife in my right. “I expect I’ve spent too much time in England. Can you really eat this?” I blurted, unable to stand it anymore.
He laughed. “Yes, I happen to like smoked salmon.”
“But you don’t eat everything,” I insisted, turning my attention back to my plate.
“No,” he admitted, “but I can manage a few bites of most food. It doesn’t taste like much to me, though, unless it’s raw.”
“That’s odd, considering that vampires have such perfect senses. I’d think that all food would taste wonderful.” My salmon tasted as clean as fresh, cold water.
He picked up his wineglass and looked into the pale, golden liquid. “Wine tastes wonderful. Food tastes wrong to a vampire once it’s been cooked to death.”
I reviewed the menu with enormous relief.
“If food doesn’t taste good, why do you keep inviting me out to eat?” I asked.
Matthew’s eyes flicked over my cheeks, my eyes, and lingered on my mouth. “It’s easier to be around you when you’re eating. The smell of cooked food nauseates me.”
I blinked at him, still confused.
“As long as I’m nauseated, I’m not hungry,” Matthew said, his voice exasperated.
“Oh!” The pieces clicked together. I already knew he liked the way I smelled. Apparently that made him hungry.
Oh. I flushed.
“I thought you knew that about vampires,” he said more gently, “and that’s why you invited me for dinner.”
I shook my head, tucking another bundle of salmon together. “I probably know less about vampires than most humans do. And the little my Aunt Sarah taught me has to be treated as highly suspect, given her prejudices. She was quite clear, for instance, on your diet. She said vampires will consume only blood, because it’s all you need to survive. But that isn’t true, is it?”
Matthew’s eyes narrowed, and his tone was suddenly frosty. “No. You need water to survive. Is that all you drink?”
“Should I not be talking about this?” My questions were making him angry. Nervously I wrapped my legs around the base of the chair and realized I’d never put on any shoes. I was entertaining in bare feet.
“You can’t help being curious, I suppose,” Matthew replied after considering my question for a long moment. “I drink wine and can eat food—preferably uncooked food, or food that’s cold, so that it doesn’t smell.”
“But the food and wine don’t nourish you,” I guessed. “You feed on blood—all kinds of blood.” He flinched. “And you don’t have to wait outside until I invite you into my house. What else do I have wrong about vampires?”
Matthew’s face adopted an expression of long-suffering patience. He sat back in his chair, taking the wineglass with him. I stood up slightly and reached across the table to pour him some more. If I was going to ply him with questions, I could at least ply him with wine, too. Leaning over the candles, I almost set my shirt on fire. Matthew grabbed the wine bottle.
“Why don’t I do that?” he suggested. He poured himself some more and topped up my glass as well before he answered. “Most of what you know about me—about vampires—was dreamed up by humans. These legends made it possible for humans to live around us. Creatures frighten them. And I’m not talking solely about vampires.”
“Black hats, bats, brooms.” It was the unholy trinity of witchcraft lore, which burst into spectacular, ridiculous life every year on Halloween.
“Exactly.” Matthew nodded. “Somewhere in each of these stories, there’s a nugget of truth, something that frightened humans and helped them deny we were real. The strongest distinguishing characteristic of humans is their power of denial. I have strength and long life, you have supernatural abilities, daemons have awe-inspiring creativity. Humans can convince themselves up is down and black is white. It’s their special gift.”
“What’s the truth in the story about vampires not being allowed inside without an invitation?” Having pressed him on his diet, I focused on the entrance protocols.
“Humans are with us all the time. They just refuse to acknowledge our existence because we don’t make sense in their limited world. Once they allow us in—see us for who we really are—then we’re in to stay, just as someone you’ve invited into your home can be hard to get rid of. They can’t ignore us anymore.”
“So it’s like the stories of sunlight,” I said slowly. “It’s not that you can’t be in sunlight, but when you are, it’s harder for humans to ignore you. Rather than admit that you’re walking among them, humans tell themselves you can’t survive the light.”
Matthew nodded again. “They manage to ignore us anyway, of course. We can’t stay indoors until it’s dark. But we make more sense to humans after twilight—and that goes for you, too. You should see the looks when you walk into a room or down the street.”
I thought about my ordinary appearance and glanced at him doubtfully. Matthew chuckled.
“You don’t believe me, I know. But it’s true. When humans see a creature in broad daylight, it makes them uneasy. We’re too much for them—too tall, too strong, too confident, too creative, too powerful, too different. They try very hard to push our square pegs into their round holes all day long. At night it’s a bit easier to dismiss us as merely odd.”
I stood up and removed the fish plates, happy to see that Matthew had eaten everything but the garnish. He poured a bit more of the German wine into his glass while I pulled two more plates out of the refrigerator. Each held neatly arranged slices of raw venison so thin that the butcher insisted you could read the Oxford Mail through them. Vampires didn’t like greens. We’d see about root vegetables and cheese. I heaped beets in the center of each plate and shaved Parmesan on top.
A broad-bottomed decanter full of red wine went into the center of the table, where it quickly caught Matthew’s attention.
“May I?” he asked, no doubt worried about my burning down the college. He reached for the plain glass container, poured a bit of wine into our glasses, then held it up to his nose.
“Côte-Rôtie,” he said with satisfaction. “One of my favorites.”
I eyed the plain glass container. “You can tell that just from smelling it?”
He laughed. “Some vampire stories are true. I have an exceptional sense of smell—and excellent sight and hearing, too. But even a human could tell that this was Côte-Rôtie.” He closed his eyes again. “Is it 2003?”
My mouth gaped open. “Yes!” This was better than watching a game show. There had been a little crown on the label. “Does your nose tell you who made it?”
“Yes, but that’s because I’ve walked the fields where the grapes were grown,” he confessed sheepishly, as if he’d been caught pulling a trick on me.
“You can smell the fields in this?” I stuck my nose in the glass, relieved that the odor of horse manure was no longer there.
“Sometimes I believe I can remember everything I’ve ever smelled. It’s probably vanity,” he said ruefully, “but scents bring back powerful memories. I remember the first time I smelled chocolate as if it were yesterday.”
“Really?” I pitched forward in my chair.
“It was 1615. War hadn’t broken out yet, and the French king had married a Spanish princess that no one liked—especially not the king.” When I smiled, he smiled back, though his eyes were fixed on some distant image. “She brought chocolate to Paris. It was as bitter as sin and as decadent, too. We drank the cacao straight, mixed with water and no sugar.”
I laughed. “It sounds awful. Thank goodness someone figured out that chocolate deserved to be sweet.”
“That was a human, I’m afraid. The vampires liked it bitter and thick.”
We picked up our forks and started in on the venison. “More Scottish food,” I said, gesturing at the meat with my knife.
Matthew chewed a piece. “Red deer. A young Highlands stag from the taste of it.”
I shook my head in amazement.
“As I said,” he continued, “some of the stories are true.”
“Can you fly?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
He snorted. “Of course not. We leave that to the witches, since you can control the elements. But we’re strong and fast. Vampires can run and jump, which makes humans think we can fly. We’re efficient, too.”
“Efficient?” I put my fork down, unsure whether raw venison was to my liking.
“Our bodies don’t waste much energy. We have a lot of it to spend on moving when we need to.”
“You don’t breathe much,” I said, thinking back to yoga and taking a sip of wine.
“No,” Matthew said. “Our hearts don’t beat very often. We don’t need to eat very often. We run cold, which slows down most bodily processes and helps explain why we live so long.”
“The coffin story! You don’t sleep much, but when you do, you sleep like the dead.”
He grinned. “You’re getting the hang of this, I see.”
Matthew’s plate was empty of everything except for the beets, and mine was empty except for the venison. I cleared away the second course and invited him to pour more wine.
The main dish was the only part of the meal that required heat, and not much of it. I had already made a bizarre biscuitlike thing from ground chestnuts. All that was left for me to do was sear some rabbit. The list of ingredients included rosemary, garlic, and celery. I decided to forgo the garlic. With his sense of smell, garlic must overpower everything else—there was the nugget of truth in that vampire legend. The celery was also ruled out. Vampires categorically did not like vegetables. Spices didn’t seem to pose a problem, so I kept the rosemary and ground some pepper over the rabbit while it seared in the pan.
Leaving Matthew’s rabbit a little underdone, I cooked mine a bit more than was required, in the hope that it would get the taste of raw venison out of my mouth. After assembling everything in an artistic pile, I delivered it to the table. “This is cooked, I’m afraid—but barely.”
“You don’t think this is a test of some sort, do you?” Matthew’s face creased into a frown.
“No, no,” I said hurriedly. “But I’m not used to entertaining vampires.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” he murmured. He gave the rabbit a sniff. “It smells delicious.” While he was bent over his plate, the heat from the rabbit amplified his distinctive scent of cinnamon and clove. Matthew forked up a bit of the chestnut biscuit. As it traveled to his mouth, his eyes widened. “Chestnuts?”
“Nothing but chestnuts, olive oil, and a bit of baking powder.”
“And salt. And water, rosemary, and pepper,” he commented calmly, taking another bite of the biscuit.
“Given your dietary restrictions, it’s a good thing you can figure out exactly what you’re putting in your mouth,” I grumbled jokingly.
With most of the meal behind us, I began to relax. We chatted about Oxford while I cleared the plates and brought cheese, berries, and roasted chestnuts to the table.
“Help yourself,” I said, putting an empty plate in front of him. Matthew savored the aroma of the tiny strawberries and sighed happily as he picked up a chestnut.
“These really are better warm,” he observed. He cracked the hard nut easily in his fingers and popped the meat out of the shell. The nutcracker hanging off the edge of the bowl was clearly optional equipment with a vampire at the table.
“What do I smell like?” I asked, toying with the stem of my wineglass.
For a few moments, it seemed as though he wasn’t going to answer. The silence stretched thin before he turned wistful eyes on me. His lids fell, and he inhaled deeply.
“You smell of willow sap. And chamomile that’s been crushed underfoot.” He sniffed again and smiled a small, sad smile. “There’s honeysuckle and fallen oak leaves, too,” he said softly, breathing out, “along with witch hazel blooming and the first narcissus of spring. And ancient things—horehound, frankincense, lady’s mantle. Scents I thought I’d forgotten.”
His eyes opened slowly, and I looked into their gray depths, afraid to breathe and break the spell his words had cast.
“What about me?” he asked, his eyes holding on to mine.
“Cinnamon.” My voice was hesitant. “And cloves. Sometimes I think you smell of carnations—not the kind in the florist shops but the old-fashioned ones that grow in English cottage gardens.”
“Clove pinks,” Matthew said, his eyes crinkling at the corners in amusement. “Not bad for a witch.”
I reached for a chestnut. Cupping the nut in my palms, I rolled it from one hand to the other, the warmth traveling up my suddenly chilly arms.
Matthew sat back in his chair again, surveying my face with little flicks of his eyes. “How did you decide what to serve for dinner tonight?” He gestured at the berries and nuts that were left from the meal.
“Well, it wasn’t magic. The zoology department helped a lot,” I explained.
He looked startled, then roared with laughter. “You asked the zoology department what to make me for dinner?”
“Not exactly,” I said defensively. “There were raw-food recipes on the Net, but I got stuck after I bought the meat. They told me what gray wolves ate.”
Matthew shook his head, but he was still smiling, and my irritation dissolved. “Thank you,” he said simply. “It’s been a very long time since someone made me a meal.”
“You’re welcome. The wine was the worst part.”
Matthew’s eyes brightened. “Speaking of wine,” he said, standing up and folding his napkin, “I brought us something to have after dinner.”
He asked me to fetch two fresh glasses from the kitchen. An old, slightly lopsided bottle was sitting on the table when I returned. It had a faded cream label with simple lettering and a coronet. Matthew was working the corkscrew carefully into a cork that was crumbly and black with age.
His nostrils flared when he pulled it free, his face taking on the look of a cat in secure possession of a delectable canary. The wine that came out of the bottle was syrupy, its golden color glinting in the light of the candles.
“Smell it,” he commanded, handing me one of the glasses, “and tell me what you think.”
I took a sniff and gasped. “It smells like caramels and berries,” I said, wondering how something so yellow could smell of something red.
Matthew was watching me closely, interested in my reactions. “Take a sip,” he suggested.
The wine’s sweet flavors exploded in my mouth. Apricots and vanilla custard from the kitchen ladies tumbled across my tongue, and my mouth tingled with them long after I’d swallowed. It was like drinking magic.
“What is this?” I finally said, after the taste of the wine had faded.
“It was made from grapes picked a long, long time ago. That summer had been hot and sunny, and the farmers worried that the rains were going to come and ruin the crop. But the weather held, and they got the grapes in just before the weather changed.”
“You can taste the sunshine,” I said, earning myself another beautiful smile.
“During the harvest a comet blazed over the vineyards. It had been visible through astronomers’ telescopes for months, but in October it was so bright you could almost read by its light. The workers saw it as a sign that the grapes were blessed.”
“Was this in 1986? Was it Halley’s comet?”
Matthew shook his head. “No. It was 1811.” I stared in astonishment at the almost two-hundred-year-old wine in my glass, fearing it might evaporate before my eyes. “Halley’s comet came in 1759 and 1835.” He pronounced the name “Hawley.”
“Where did you get it?” The wine store by the train station did not have wine like this.
“I bought it from Antoine-Marie as soon as he told me it was going to be extraordinary,” he said with amusement.
Turning the bottle, I looked at the label. Château Yquem. Even I had heard of that.
“And you’ve had it ever since,” I said. He’d drunk chocolate in Paris in 1615 and received a building permit from Henry VIII in 1536—of course he was buying wine in 1811. And there was the ancient-looking ampulla he was wearing around his neck, the cord visible at his throat.
“Matthew,” I said slowly, watching him for any early warning signs of anger. “How old are you?”
His mouth hardened, but he kept his voice light. “I’m older than I look.”
“I know that,” I said, unable to curb my impatience.
“Why is my age important?”
“I’m a historian. If somebody tells me he remembers when chocolate was introduced into France or a comet passing overhead in 1811, it’s difficult not to be curious about the other events he might have lived through. You were alive in 1536—I’ve been to the house you had built. Did you know Machiavelli? Live through the Black Death? Attend the University of Paris when Abelard was teaching there?”
He remained silent. The hair on the back of my neck started to prickle.
“Your pilgrim’s badge tells me you were once in the Holy Land. Did you go on crusade? See Halley’s comet pass over Normandy in 1066?”
“Watch Charlemagne’s coronation? Survive the fall of Carthage? Help keep Attila from reaching Rome?”
Matthew held up his right index finger. “Which fall of Carthage?”
“You tell me!”
“Damn you, Hamish Osborne,” he muttered, his hand flexing on the tablecloth. For the second time in two days, Matthew struggled over what to say. He stared into the candle, drawing his finger slowly through the flame. His flesh erupted into angry red blisters, then smoothed itself out into white, cold perfection an instant later without a flicker of pain evident on his face.
“I believe that my body is nearly thirty-seven years of age. I was born around the time Clovis converted to Christianity. My parents remembered that, or I’d have no idea. We didn’t keep track of birthdays back then. It’s tidier to pick the date of five hundred and be done with it.” He looked up at me, briefly, and returned his attention to the candles. “I was reborn a vampire in 537, and with the exception of Attila—who was before my time—you’ve touched on most of the high and low points in the millennium between then and the year I put the keystone into my house in Woodstock. Because you’re a historian, I feel obligated to tell you that Machiavelli was not nearly as impressive as you all seem to think he was. He was just a Florentine politician—and not a terribly good one at that.” A note of weariness had crept into his voice.
Matthew Clairmont was more than fifteen hundred years old.
“I shouldn’t pry,” I said by way of apology, unsure of where to look and mystified as to what had led me to think that knowing the historical events this vampire had lived through would help me know him better. A line from Ben Jonson floated into my mind. It seemed to explain Matthew in a way that the coronation of Charlemagne could not. “‘He was not of an age, but for all time,’” I murmured.
“‘With thee conversing I forget all time,’” he responded, traveling further into seventeenth-century literature and offering up a line from Milton.
We looked at each other for as long as we could stand it, working another fragile spell between us. I broke it.
“What were you doing in the fall of 1859?”
His face darkened. “What has Peter Knox been telling you?”
“That you were unlikely to share your secrets with a witch.” My voice sounded calmer than I felt.
“Did he?” Matthew said softly, sounding less angry than he clearly was. I could see it in the set of his jaw and shoulders. “In September 1859 I was looking through the manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum.”
“Why, Matthew?” Please tell me, I urged silently, crossing my fingers in my lap. I’d provoked him into revealing the first part of his secret but wanted him to freely give me the rest. No games, no riddles. Just tell me.
“I’d recently finished reading a book manuscript that was soon going to press. It was written by a Cambridge naturalist.” Matthew put down his glass.
My hand flew to my mouth as the significance of the date registered. “Origin.” Like Newton’s great work of physics, the Principia, this was a book that did not require a full citation. Anyone who’d passed high-school biology knew Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
“Darwin’s article the previous summer laid out his theory of natural selection, but the book was quite different. It was marvelous, the way he established easily observable changes in nature and inched you toward accepting something so revolutionary.”
“But alchemy has nothing to do with evolution.” Grabbing the bottle, I poured myself more of the precious wine, less concerned that it might vanish than that I might come unglued.
“Lamarck believed that each species descended from different ancestors and progressed independently toward higher forms of being. It’s remarkably similar to what your alchemists believed—that the philosopher’s stone was the elusive end product of a natural transmutation of base metals into more exalted metals like copper, silver, and gold.” Matthew reached for the wine, and I pushed it toward him.
“But Darwin disagreed with Lamarck, even if he did use the same word—‘transmutation’—in his initial discussions of evolution.”
“He disagreed with linear transmutation, it’s true. But Darwin’s theory of natural selection can still be seen as a series of linked transmutations.”
Maybe Matthew was right and magic really was in everything. It was in Newton’s theory of gravity, and it might be in Darwin’s theory of evolution, too.
“There are alchemical manuscripts all over the world.” I was trying to remain moored to the details while coming to terms with the bigger picture. “Why the Ashmole manuscripts?”
“When I read Darwin and saw how he seemed to explore the alchemical theory of transmutation through biology, I remembered stories about a mysterious book that explained the origin of our three species—daemons, witches, and vampires. I’d always dismissed them as fantastic.” He took a sip of wine. “Most suggested that the story was concealed from human eyes in a book of alchemy. The publication of Origin prompted me to look for it, and if such a book existed, Elias Ashmole would have bought it. He had an uncanny ability to find bizarre manuscripts.”
“You were looking for it here in Oxford, one hundred and fifty years ago?”
“Yes,” Matthew said. “And one hundred and fifty years before you received Ashmole 782, I was told that it was missing.”
My heart sped up, and he looked at me in concern. “Keep going,” I said, waving him on.
“I’ve been trying to get my hands on it ever since. Every other Ashmole manuscript was there, and none seemed promising. I’ve looked at manuscripts in other libraries—at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Germany, the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, the Medici Library in Florence, the Vatican, the Library of Congress.”
I blinked, thinking of a vampire wandering the hallways of the Vatican.
“The only manuscript I haven’t seen is Ashmole 782. By simple process of elimination, it must be the manuscript that contains our story—if it still survives.”
“You’ve looked at more alchemical manuscripts than I have.”
“Perhaps,” Matthew admitted, “but it doesn’t mean I understand them as well as you do. What all the manuscripts I’ve seen have in common, though, is an absolute confidence that the alchemist can help one substance change into another, creating new forms of life.”
“That sounds like evolution,” I said flatly.
“Yes,” Matthew said gently, “it does.”
We moved to the sofas, and I curled up into a ball at the end of one while Matthew sprawled in the corner of the other, his long legs stretched out in front of him. Happily, he’d brought the wine. Once we were settled, it was time for more honesty between us.
“I met a daemon, Agatha Wilson, at Blackwell’s last week. According to the Internet, she’s a famous designer. Agatha told me the daemons believe that Ashmole 782 is the story of all origins—even human origins. Peter Knox told me a different story. He said it was the first grimoire, the source of all witches’ power. Knox believes that the manuscript contains the secret of immortality,” I said, glancing at Matthew, “and how to destroy vampires. I’ve heard the daemon and witch versions of the story—now I want yours.”
“Vampires believe the lost manuscript explains our longevity and our strength,” he said. “In the past, our fear was that this secret—if it fell into witches’ hands—would lead to our extermination. Some fear that magic was involved in our making and that the witches might find a way to reverse the magic and destroy us. It seems that that part of the legend might be true.” He exhaled softly, looking worried.
“I still don’t understand why you’re so certain that this book of origins—whatever it may contain—is hidden inside an alchemy book.”
“An alchemy book could hide these secrets in plain sight—just like Peter Knox hides his identity as a witch under the veneer that he’s an expert in the occult. I think it was vampires who learned that the book was alchemical. It’s too perfect a fit to be coincidence. The human alchemists seemed to capture what it is to be a vampire when they wrote about the philosopher’s stone. Becoming a vampire makes us nearly immortal, it makes most of us rich, and it gives us the chance to accrue unimaginable knowledge and learning.”
“That’s the philosopher’s stone, all right.” The parallels between this mythic substance and the creature sitting opposite me were striking—and chilling. “But it’s still hard to imagine such a book really exists. For one thing, all the stories contradict one another. And who would be so foolish as to put so much information in one place?”
“As with the legends about vampires and witches, there’s at least a nugget of truth in all the stories about the manuscript. We just have to figure out what that nugget is and strip away the rest. Then we’ll begin to understand.”
Matthew’s face bore no trace of deceit or evasion. Encouraged by his use of “we,” I decided he’d earned more information.
“You’re right about Ashmole 782. The book you’ve been seeking is inside it.”
“Go on,” Matthew said softly, trying to control his curiosity.
“It’s an alchemy book on the surface. The images contain errors, or deliberate mistakes—I still can’t decide which.” I bit my lip in concentration, and his eyes fixed on the place where my teeth had drawn a tiny bead of blood to the surface.
“What do you mean ‘it’s an alchemy book on the surface’?” Matthew held his glass closer to his nose.
“It’s a palimpsest. But the ink hasn’t been washed away. Magic is hiding the text. I almost missed the words, they’re hidden so well. But when I turned one of the pages, the light was at just the right angle and I could see lines of writing moving underneath.”
“Could you read it?”
“No.” I shook my head. “If Ashmole 782 contains information about who we are, how we came to be, and how we might be destroyed, it’s deeply buried.”
“It’s fine if it remains buried,” Matthew said grimly, “at least for now. But the time is quickly coming when we will need that book.”
“Why? What makes it so urgent?”
“I’d rather show you than tell you. Can you come to my lab tomorrow?”
I nodded, mystified.
“We can walk there after lunch,” he said, standing up and stretching. We had emptied the bottle of wine amid all this talk of secrets and origins. “It’s late. I should go.”
Matthew reached for the doorknob and gave it a twist. It rattled, and the catch sprang open easily.
He frowned. “Have you had trouble with your lock?”
“No,” I said, pushing the mechanism in and out, “not that I’m aware of.”
“You should have them look at that,” he said, still jiggling the door’s hardware. “It might not close properly until you do.”
When I looked up from the door, an emotion I couldn’t name flitted across his face.
“I’m sorry the evening ended on such a serious note,” he said softly. “I did have a lovely time.”
“Was the dinner really all right?” I asked. We’d talked about the secrets of the universe, but I was more worried about how his stomach was faring.
“It was more than all right,” he assured me.
My face softened at his beautiful, ancient features. How could people walk by him on the street and not gasp? Before I could stop myself, my toes were gripping the old rug and I was stretching up to kiss him quickly on the cheek. His skin felt smooth and cold like satin, and my lips felt unusually warm against his flesh.
Why did you do that? I asked myself, coming down off my toes and gazing at the questionable doorknob to hide my confusion.
It was over in a matter of seconds, but as I knew from using magic to get Notes and Queries off the Bodleian’s shelf, a few seconds was all it took to change your life.
Matthew studied me. When I showed no sign of hysteria or an inclination to make a run for it, he leaned toward me and kissed me slowly once, twice in the French manner. His face skimmed over mine, and he drank in my scent of willow sap and honeysuckle. When he straightened, Matthew’s eyes looked smokier than usual.
“Good night, Diana,” he said with a smile.
Moments later, leaning against the closed door, I spied the blinking number one on my answering machine. Mercifully, the machine’s volume was turned down.
Aunt Sarah wanted to ask the same question I’d asked myself.
I just didn’t want to answer.
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