فصل 22

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فصل 22

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Chapter 22

We’d been waiting in the salon, the three of us, since he’d ridden off on Balthasar in the late morning. Now the shadows were lengthening toward twilight. A human would be half dead from the prolonged effort needed to control that enormous horse in the open countryside. However, the events of the morning had reminded me that Matthew wasn’t human, but a vampire—with many secrets, a complicated past, and frightening enemies.

Overhead, a door closed.

“He’s back. He will go to his father’s room, as he always does when he is troubled,” Ysabeau explained.

Matthew’s beautiful young mother sat and stared at the fire, while I wrung my hands in my lap, refusing everything Marthe put in front of me. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but my hollowness had nothing to do with hunger.

I felt shattered, surrounded by the broken pieces of my formerly ordered life. My degree from Oxford, my position at Yale, and my carefully researched and written books had long provided meaning and structure to my life. But none of them were of comfort to me in this strange new world of menacing vampires and threatening witches. My exposure to it had left me raw, with a new fragility linked to a vampire and the invisible, undeniable movement of a witch’s blood in my veins.

At last Matthew entered the salon, clean and dressed in fresh clothes. His eyes sought me out immediately, their cold touch fluttering over me as he checked that I was unharmed. His mouth softened in relief.

It was the last hint of comforting familiarity that I detected in him.

The vampire who entered the salon was not the Matthew that I knew. He was not the elegant, charming creature who had slipped into my life with a mocking smile and invitations to breakfast. Nor was he the scientist, absorbed in his work and preoccupied with the question of why he was here. And there was no sign of the Matthew who had swung me into his arms and kissed me with such passionate intensity only the night before.

This Matthew was cold and impassive. The few soft edges he’d once possessed—around his mouth, in the delicacy of his hands, the stillness of his eyes—had been replaced by hard lines and angles. He seemed older than I remembered, a combination of weariness and careful remove reflecting every moment of his nearly fifteen hundred years of age.

A log broke in the fireplace. The sparks caught my eye, burning blood orange as they fell in the grate.

Nothing but the color red appeared at first. Then the red took on a texture, strands of red burnished here and there with gold and silver. The texture became a thing—hair, Sarah’s hair. My fingers caught the strap of a backpack from my shoulder, and I dropped my lunch box on the floor of the family room with the same officious clatter as my father when he dropped his briefcase by the door.

“I’m home.” My child’s voice was high and bright. “Are there cookies?”

Sarah’s head turned, red and orange, catching sparks in the late-afternoon light.

But her face was pure white.

The white overwhelmed the other colors, became silver, and assumed a texture like the scales of a fish. Chain mail clung to a familiar, muscular body. Matthew.

“I’m through.” His white hands tore at a black tunic with a silver cross on the front, rending it at the shoulders. He flung it at someone’s feet, turned, and strode away.

With a single blink of my eyes, the vision was gone, replaced by the warm tones of the salon at Sept-Tours, but the startling knowledge of what had happened lingered. As with the witchwind, there had been no warning when this hidden talent of mine was released. Had my mother’s visions come on so suddenly and had such clarity? I glanced around the room, but the only creature who seemed to have noticed something was odd was Marthe, who looked at me with concern.

Matthew went to Ysabeau and kissed her lightly on both of her flawless white cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Maman,” he murmured.

“Hein, he was always a pig. It’s not your fault.” Ysabeau gave her son’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I am glad you are home.”

“He’s gone. There’s nothing to worry about tonight,” Matthew said, his mouth tight. He drew his fingers through his hair.

“Drink.” Marthe belonged to the sustenance school of crisis management. She handed a glass of wine to Matthew and plunked yet another cup of tea next to me. It sat on the table, untouched, sending tendrils of steam into the room.

“Thank you, Marthe.” Matthew drank deeply. As he did, his eyes returned to mine, but he deliberately looked away as he swallowed. “My phone,” he said, turning toward his study.

He descended the stairs a few moments later. “For you.” He gave me the phone in such a way that our hands didn’t need to touch.

I knew who was on the line. “Hello, Sarah.”

“I’ve been calling for more than eight hours. What on earth is wrong?” Sarah knew something bad was happening—she wouldn’t have called a vampire otherwise. Her tense voice conjured up the image of her white face from my vision. She’d been frightened in it, not just sad.

“There’s nothing wrong,” I said, not wanting her to be scared anymore. “I’m with Matthew.”

“Being with Matthew is what got you into this trouble in the first place.”

“Sarah, I can’t talk now.” The last thing I needed was to argue with my aunt.

She drew in her breath. “Diana, there are a few things you need to know before you decide to throw in your lot with a vampire.”

“Really?” I asked, my temper flaring. “Do you think now is the time to tell me about the covenant? You don’t by any chance know the witches who are among the current members of the Congregation, do you? I have a few things I’d like to say to them.” My fingers were burning, and the skin under my nails was becoming a vivid sky blue.

“You turned your back on your power, Diana, and refused to talk about magic. The covenant wasn’t relevant to your life, nor was the Congregation.” Sarah sounded defensive.

My bitter laugh helped the blue tinge fade from my fingers. “Justify it any way you want, Sarah. After Mom and Dad were killed, you and Em should have told me, and not just hinted at something in mysterious half-truths. But it’s too late now. I need to talk to Matthew. I’ll call you tomorrow.” After severing the connection and flinging the phone onto the ottoman at my feet, I closed my eyes and waited for the tingling in my fingers to subside.

All three vampires were staring at me—I could feel it.

“So,” I said into the silence, “are we to expect more visitors from this Congregation?”

Matthew’s mouth tightened. “No.”

It was a one-word answer, but at least it was the word I wanted to hear. Over the past few days, I’d had a respite from Matthew’s mood changes and had almost forgotten how alarming they could be. His next words wiped away my hope that this latest outburst would soon pass.

“There will be no visits from the Congregation because we aren’t going to break the covenant. We’ll stay here for a few more days, then return to Oxford. Is that all right with you, Maman?”

“Of course,” Ysabeau replied promptly. She sighed with relief.

“We should keep the standard flying,” Matthew continued, his voice businesslike. “The village should know to be on its guard.”

Ysabeau nodded, and her son took a sip of his wine. I stared, first at one and then the other. Neither responded to my silent demand for more information.

“It’s only been a few days since you took me out of Oxford,” I said after no one rose to my wordless challenge.

Matthew’s eyes lifted to mine in forbidding response. “Now you’re going back,” he said evenly. “Meanwhile there will be no walks outside the grounds. No riding on your own.” His present coldness was more frightening than anything Domenico had said.

“And?” I pressed him.

“No more dancing,” Matthew said, his abruptness suggesting that a host of other activities were included in this category. “We’re going to abide by the Congregation’s rules. If we stop aggravating them, they’ll turn their attention to more important matters.”

“I see. You want me to play dead. And you’ll give up your work and Ashmole 782? I don’t believe that.” I stood and moved toward the door.

Matthew’s hand was rough on my arm. It violated all the laws of physics that he could have reached my side so quickly.

“Sit down, Diana.” His voice was as rough as his touch, but it was oddly gratifying that he was showing any emotion at all.

“Why are you giving in?” I whispered.

“To avoid exposing us all to the humans—and to keep you alive.” He pulled me back to the sofa and pushed me onto the cushions. “This family is not a democracy, especially not at a time like this. When I tell you to do something, you do it, without hesitation or question. Understood?” Matthew’s tone indicated that the discussion was over.

“Or what?” I was deliberately provoking him, but his aloofness frightened me.

He put down his wine, and the crystal captured the light from the candles.

I felt myself falling, this time into a pool of water.

The pool became a drop, the drop a tear glistening on a white cheek.

Sarah’s cheeks were covered in tears, her eyes red and swollen. Em was in the kitchen. When she joined us, it was evident that she’ d been crying, too. She looked devastated.

“What?” I said, fear gripping my stomach. “What’s happened?”

Sarah wiped at her eyes, her fingers stained with the herbs and spices she used in her spell casting.

Her fingers grew longer, the stains dissolving.

“What?” Matthew said, his eyes wild, white fingers brushing a tiny, bloodstained tear from an equally white cheek. “What’s happened?”

“Witches. They have your father,” Ysabeau said, her voice breaking.

As the vision faded, I searched for Matthew, hoping his eyes would exert their usual pull and relieve my lingering disorientation. As soon as our glances met, he came and hovered over me. But there was none of the usual comfort associated with his presence.

“I will kill you myself before I let anyone hurt you.” The words caught in his throat. “And I don’t want to kill you. So please do what I tell you.”

“So that’s it?” I asked when I could manage it. “We’re going to abide by an ancient, narrow-minded agreement made almost a thousand years ago. Case closed.”

“You mustn’t be under the Congregation’s scrutiny. You have no control over your magic and no understanding of your relationship to Ashmole 782. At Sept-Tours you may be protected from Peter Knox, Diana, but I’ve told you before that you aren’t safe around vampires. No warmblood is. Ever.”

“You won’t hurt me.” In spite of what had happened over the past several days, on this point I was absolutely certain.

“You persist in this romantic vision of what it is to be a vampire, but despite my best efforts to curb it I have a taste for blood.”

I made a dismissive gesture. “You’ve killed humans. I know this, Matthew. You’re a vampire, and you’ve lived for hundreds of years. Do you think I imagined you survived on nothing but animals?”

Ysabeau was watching her son closely.

“Saying you know I’ve killed humans and understanding what that means are two different things, Diana. You have no idea what I’m capable of.” He touched his talisman from Bethany and moved away from me with swift, impatient steps.

“I know who you are.” Here was another point of absolute certainty. I wondered what made me so instinctively sure of Matthew as the evidence about the brutality of vampires—even witches—mounted.

“You don’t know yourself. And three weeks ago you’d never heard of me.” Matthew’s gaze was restless and his hands, like mine, were shaking. This worried me less than the fact that Ysabeau had pitched farther forward in her seat. He picked up a poker and gave the fire a vicious thrust before throwing it aside. The metal rang against the stone, gouging the hard surface as if it were butter.

“We will figure this out. Give us some time.” I tried to make my voice low and soothing.

“There’s nothing to figure out.” Matthew was pacing now. “You have too much undisciplined power. It’s like a drug—a highly addictive, dangerous drug that other creatures are desperate to share. You’ll never be safe so long as a witch or vampire is near you.”

My mouth opened to respond, but the place where he’d been standing was empty. Matthew’s icy fingers were on my chin, lifting me to my feet.

“I’m a predator, Diana.” He said it with the seductiveness of a lover. The dark aroma of cloves made me dizzy. “I have to hunt and kill to survive.” He turned my face away from him with a savage twist, exposing my neck. His restless eyes raked over my throat.

“Matthew, put Diana down.” Ysabeau sounded unconcerned, and my own faith in him remained unshaken. He wanted to frighten me off for some reason, but I was in no real danger—not as I had been with Domenico.

“She thinks she knows me, Maman,” he purred. “But Diana doesn’t know what it’s like when the craving for a warmblood tightens your stomach so much that you’re mad with need. She doesn’t know how much we want to feel the blood of another heart pulsing through our veins. Or how difficult it is for me to stand here, so close, and not taste her.”

Ysabeau rose but remained where she was. “Now is not the time to teach her, Matthew.”

“You see, it’s not just that I could kill you outright,” he continued, ignoring his mother. His black eyes were mesmerizing. “I could feed on you slowly, taking your blood and letting it replenish, only to begin again the next day.” His grip moved from my chin to circle my neck, and his thumb stroked the pulse at my throat as if he were gauging just where to sink his teeth into my flesh.

“Stop it,” I said sharply. His scare tactics had gone on long enough.

Matthew dropped me abruptly on the soft carpet. By the time I felt the impact, the vampire was across the room, his back to me and his head bowed.

I stared at the pattern on the rug beneath my hands and knees.

A swirl of colors, too many to distinguish, moved before my eyes.

They were leaves dancing against the sky—green, brown, blue, gold.

“It’s your mom and dad,” Sarah was explaining, her voice tight. “They’ve been killed. They’re gone, honey.”

I dragged my eyes from the carpet to the vampire standing with his back to me.

“No.” I shook my head.

“What is it, Diana?” Matthew turned, concern momentarily pushing the predator away.

The swirl of colors captured my attention again—green, brown, blue, gold. They were leaves, caught in an eddy on a pool of water, falling onto the ground around my hands. A bow, curved and polished, rested next to a scattering of arrows and a half-empty quiver.

I reached for the bow and felt the taut string cut into my flesh.

“Matthew,” Ysabeau warned, sniffing the air delicately.

“I know, I can smell it, too,” he said grimly.

He’s yours, a strange voice whispered. You mustn’t let him go.

“I know,” I murmured impatiently.

“What do you know, Diana?” Matthew took a step toward me.

Marthe shot to my side. “Leave her,” she hissed. “The child is not in this world.”

I was nowhere, caught between the terrible ache of losing my parents and the certain knowledge that soon Matthew, too, would be gone.

Be careful, the strange voice warned.

“It’s too late for that.” I raised my hand from the floor and smashed it into the bow, snapping it in two. “Much too late.”

“What’s too late?” Matthew asked.

“I’ve fallen in love with you.”

“You can’t have,” he said numbly. The room was utterly silent, except for the crackling of the fire. “It’s too soon.”

“Why do vampires have such a strange attitude toward time?” I mused aloud, still caught in a bewildering mix of past and present. The word “love” had sent feelings of possessiveness through me, however, drawing me to the here and now. “Witches don’t have centuries to fall in love. We do it quickly. Sarah says my mother fell in love with my father the moment she saw him. I’ve loved you since I decided not to hit you with an oar on the City of Oxford’s dock.” The blood in my veins began to hum. Marthe looked startled, suggesting she could hear it, too.

“You don’t understand.” It sounded as if Matthew, like the bow, might snap in two.

“I do. The Congregation will try to stop me, but they won’t tell me who to love.” When my parents were taken from me, I was a child with no options and did what people told me. I was an adult now, and I was going to fight for Matthew.

“Domenico’s overtures are nothing compared to what you can expect from Peter Knox. What happened today was an attempt at rapprochement, a diplomatic mission. You aren’t ready to face the Congregation, Diana, no matter what you think. And if you did stand up to them, what then? Bringing these old animosities to the surface could spin out of control, expose us to humans. Your family might suffer.” Matthew’s words were brutal, meant to make me stop and reconsider. But nothing he said outweighed what I felt for him.

“I love you, and I’m not going to stop.” Of this, too, I was certain.

“You are not in love with me.”

“I decide who I love, and how, and when. Stop telling me what to do, Matthew. My ideas about vampires may be romantic, but your attitudes toward women need a major overhaul.”

Before he could respond, his phone began to hop across the ottoman. He swore an oath in Occitan that must have been truly awe-inspiring, because even Marthe looked shocked. He reached down and snagged the phone before it could skitter onto the floor.

“What is it?” he said, his eyes fixed on me.

There were faint murmurs on the other end of the line. Marthe and Ysabeau exchanged worried glances.

“When?” Matthew’s voice sounded like a gunshot. “Did they take anything?” My forehead creased at the anger in his voice. “Thank God. Was there damage?”

Something had happened in Oxford while we were gone, and it sounded like a robbery. I hoped it wasn’t the Old Lodge.

The voice on the other end of the phone continued. Matthew passed a hand over his eyes.

“What else?” he asked, his voice rising.

There was another long silence. He turned away and walked to the fireplace, his right hand splayed flat against the mantel.

“So much for diplomacy.” Matthew swore under his breath. “I’ll be there in a few hours. Can you pick me up?”

We were going back to Oxford. I stood.

“Fine. I’ll call before I land. And, Marcus? Find out who else besides Peter Knox and Domenico Michele are members of the Congregation.”

Peter Knox? The pieces of the puzzle began to click into place. No wonder Matthew had come back to Oxford so quickly when I’d told him who the brown wizard was. It explained why he was so eager to push me away now, too. We were breaking the covenant, and it was Knox’s job to enforce it.

Matthew stood silently for a few moments after the line went dead, one hand clenched as if he were resisting the urge to beat the stone mantel into submission.

“That was Marcus. Someone tried to break in to the lab. I need to go back to Oxford.” He turned, his eyes dead.

“Is everything all right?” Ysabeau shot a worried look in my direction.

“They didn’t make it through the security controls. Still, I need to talk to the university officials and make sure whoever it was doesn’t succeed the next time.” Nothing that Matthew was saying made sense. If the burglars had failed, why wasn’t he relieved? And why was he shaking his head at his mother?

“Who were they?” I asked warily.

“Marcus isn’t sure.”

That was odd, given a vampire’s preternaturally sharp sense of smell. “Was it humans?”

“No.” We were back to the monosyllabic answers.

“I’ll get my things.” I turned toward the stairs.

“You aren’t coming. You’re staying here.” Matthew’s words brought me to a standstill.

“I’d rather be in Oxford,” I protested, “with you.”

“Oxford’s not safe at the moment. I’ll be back when it is.”

“You just told me we should return there! Make up your mind, Matthew. Where is the danger? The manuscript and the witches? Peter Knox and the Congregation? Or Domenico Michele and the vampires?”

“Were you listening? I am the danger.” Matthew’s voice was sharp.

“Oh, I heard you. But you’re keeping something from me. It’s a historian’s job to uncover secrets,” I promised him softly. “And I’m very good at it.” He opened his mouth to speak, but I stopped him. “No more excuses or false explanations. Go to Oxford. I’ll stay here.”

“Do you need anything from upstairs?” Ysabeau asked. “You should take a coat. Humans will notice if you’re wearing only a sweater.”

“Just my computer. My passport’s in the bag.”

“I’ll get them.” Wanting a respite from all the de Clermonts for a moment, I pelted up the stairs. In Matthew’s study I looked around the room that held so much of him.

The armor’s silvery surfaces winked in the firelight, holding my attention while a jumble of faces flashed through my mind, the visions as swift as comets through the sky. There was a pale woman with enormous blue eyes and a sweet smile, another woman whose firm chin and square shoulders exuded determination, a man with a hawkish nose in terrible pain. There were other faces, too, but the only one I recognized was Louisa de Clermont, holding dripping, bloody fingers in front of her face.

Resisting the vision’s pull helped the faces fade, but it left my body shaking and my mind bewildered. The DNA report had indicated that visions were likely to come. But there’d been no more warning of their arrival than there had been last night when I floated in Matthew’s arms. It was as if someone had pulled the stopper on a bottle and my magic—released at last—was rushing to get out.

Once I was able to jerk the cord from the socket I slid it into Matthew’s bag, along with the computer. His passport was in the front pocket, as he’d said it would be.

When I returned to the salon, Matthew was alone, his keys in his hands and a suede barn jacket draped across his shoulders. Marthe muttered and paced in the great hall.

I handed him his computer and stood far away to better resist the urge to touch him once more. Matthew pocketed his keys and took the bag.

“I know this is hard.” His voice was hushed and strange. “But you need to let me take care of it. And I need to know that you’re safe while I’m doing that.”

“I’m safe with you, wherever we are.”

He shook his head. “My name should have been enough to protect you. It wasn’t.”

“Leaving me isn’t the answer. I don’t understand all of what’s happened today, but Domenico’s hatred goes beyond me. He wants to destroy your family and everything else you care about. Domenico might decide this isn’t the right time to pursue his vendetta. But Peter Knox? He wants Ashmole 782, and he thinks I can get it for him. He won’t be put off so easily.” I shivered.

“He’ll make a deal if I offer him one.”

“A deal? What do you have to trade?”

The vampire fell silent.

“Matthew?” I insisted.

“The manuscript,” he said flatly. “I’ll leave it—and you—alone if he promises the same. Ashmole 782 has been undisturbed for a century and a half. We’ll let it remain that way.”

“You can’t make a deal with Knox. He can’t be trusted.” I was horrified. “Besides, you have all the time you need to wait for the manuscript. Knox doesn’t. Your deal won’t appeal to him.”

“Just leave Knox to me,” he said gruffly.

My eyes snapped with anger. “Leave Domenico to you. Leave Knox to you. What do you imagine I’m going to do? You said I’m not a damsel in distress. So stop treating me like one.”

“I suppose I deserved that,” he said slowly, his eyes black, “but you have a lot to learn about vampires.”

“So your mother tells me. But you may have a few things to learn about witches, too.” I pushed the hair out of my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. “Go to Oxford. Sort out what happened there.” Whatever happened that you won’t share with me. “But for God’s sake, Matthew, don’t negotiate with Peter Knox. Decide how you feel about me—not because of what the covenant forbids, or the Congregation wants, or even what Peter Knox and Domenico Michele make you afraid of.”

My beloved vampire, with a face that would make an angel envious, looked at me with sorrow. “You know how I feel about you.”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t. When you’re ready, you’ll tell me.”

Matthew struggled with something and left it unsaid. Wordlessly he walked toward the door into the hall. When he reached it, he gave me a long look of snowflakes and frost before walking through.

Marthe met him in the hall. He kissed her softly on both cheeks and said something in rapid Occitan.

“Compreni, compreni,” she said, nodding vehemently and looking past him at me.

“Mercés amb tot meu c?r,” he said quietly.

“Al rebèire. Mèfi.”

“T’afortissi.” Matthew turned to me. “And you’ll promise me the same thing—that you’ll be careful. Listen to Ysabeau.”

He left without a glance or a final, reassuring touch.

I bit my lip and tried to swallow the tears, but they spilled out. After three slow steps toward the watchtower stairs, my feet began to run, tears streaming down my face. With a look of understanding, Marthe let me go.

When I came out into the cold, damp air, the de Clermont standard was snapping gently to and fro and the clouds continued to obscure the moon. Darkness pressed on me from every direction, and the one creature who kept it at bay was leaving, taking the light with him.

Peering down over the tower’s ramparts, I saw Matthew standing by the Range Rover, talking furiously to Ysabeau. She looked shocked and grabbed the sleeve of his jacket as if to stop him from getting in the car.

His hand was a white blur as he pulled his arm free. His fist pounded, once, into the car’s roof. I jumped. Matthew had never used his strength on anything bigger than a walnut or an oyster shell when he was around me, and the dent he’d left in the metal was alarmingly deep.

He hung his head. Ysabeau touched him lightly on the cheek, his sad features gleaming in the dim light. He climbed into the car and said a few more words. His mother nodded and looked briefly at the watchtower. I stepped back, hoping neither of them had seen me. The car turned over, and its heavy tires crunched across the gravel as Matthew pulled away.

The Range Rover’s lights disappeared below the hill. With Matthew gone, I slid down the stone wall of the keep and gave in to the tears.

It was then that I discovered what witchwater was all about.

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