فصل 28

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فصل 28

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Chapter 28

Safely back at the château, we ate in the housekeeper’s room before a blazing fire.

“Where’s Ysabeau?” I asked Marthe when she brought me a fresh cup of tea.

“Out.” She stalked back toward the kitchen.

“Out where?”

“Marthe,” Matthew called. “We’re trying not to keep things from Diana.”

She turned and glared. I couldn’t decide if it was directed at him, his absent mother, or me. “She went to the village to see that priest. The mayor, too.” Marthe stopped, hesitated, and started again. “Then she was going to clean.”

“Clean what?” I wondered.

“The woods. The hills. The caves.” Marthe seemed to think this explanation was sufficient, but I looked at Matthew for clarification.

“Marthe sometimes confuses clean and clear.” The light from the fire caught the facets of his heavy goblet. He was having some of the fresh wine from down the road, but he didn’t drink as much as usual. “It would seem that Maman has gone out to make sure there are no vampires lurking around Sept-Tours.”

“Is she looking for anyone in particular?”

“Domenico, of course. And one of the Congregation’s other vampires, Gerbert. He’s also from the Auvergne, from Aurillac. She’ll look in some of his hiding places just to make sure he isn’t nearby.”

“Gerbert. From Aurillac? The Gerbert of Aurillac, the tenth-century pope who reputedly owned a brass head that spoke oracles?” The fact that Gerbert was a vampire and had once been pope was of much less interest to me than was his reputation as a student of science and magic.

“I keep forgetting how much history you know. You put even vampires to shame. Yes, that Gerbert. And,” he warned, “I would like it very much if you’d stay out of his way. If you do meet him, no quizzing him about Arabic medicine or astronomy. He has always been acquisitive when it comes to witches and magic.” Matthew looked at me possessively.

“Does Ysabeau know him?”

“Oh, yes. They were thick as thieves once. If he’s anywhere near here, she’ll find him. But you don’t have to worry he’ll come to the château,” Matthew assured me. “He knows he’s not welcome here. Stay inside the walls unless one of us is with you.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t leave the grounds.” Gerbert of Aurillac was not someone I wanted to stumble upon unexpectedly.

“I suspect she’s trying to apologize for her behavior.” Matthew’s voice was neutral, but he was still angry.

“You’re going to have to forgive her,” I said again. “She didn’t want you to be hurt.”

“I’m not a child, Diana, and my mother needn’t protect me from my own wife.” He kept turning his glass this way and that. The word “wife” echoed in the room for a few moments.

“Did I miss something?” I finally asked. “When were we married?”

Matthew’s eyes lifted. “The moment I came home and said I loved you. It wouldn’t stand up in court perhaps, but as far as vampires are concerned, we’re wed.”

“Not when I said I loved you, and not when you said you loved me on the phone—it only happened when you came home and told me to my face?” This was something that demanded precision. I was planning on starting a new file on my computer with the title “Phrases That Sound One Way to Witches but Mean Something Else to Vampires.”

“Vampires mate the way lions do, or wolves,” he explained, sounding like a scientist in a television documentary. “The female selects her mate, and once the male has agreed, that’s it. They’re mated for life, and the rest of the community acknowledges their bond.”

“Ah,” I said faintly. We were back to the Norwegian wolves.

“I’ve never liked the word ‘mate,’ though. It always sounds impersonal, as if you’re trying to match up socks, or shoes.” Matthew put his goblet down and crossed his arms, resting them on the scarred surface of the table. “But you’re not a vampire. Do you mind that I think of you as my wife?”

A small cyclone whipped around my brain as I tried to figure out what my love for Matthew had to do with the deadlier members of the animal kingdom and a social institution that I’d never been particularly enthusiastic about. In the whirlwind there were no warning signs or guideposts to help me find my way.

“And when two vampires mate,” I inquired, when I could manage it, “is it expected that the female will obey the male, just like the rest of the pack?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said, looking down at his hands.

“Hmm.” I narrowed my eyes at his dark, bowed head. “What do I get out of this arrangement?”

“Love, honor, guard, and keep,” he said, finally daring to meet my eyes.

“That sounds an awful lot like a medieval wedding service.”

“A vampire wrote that part of the liturgy. But I’m not going to make you serve me,” he assured me hastily, with a straight face. “That was put in to make the humans happy.”

“The men, at least. I don’t imagine it put a smile on the faces of the women.”

“Probably not,” he said, attempting a lopsided grin. Nerves got the better of him, and it collapsed into an anxious look instead. His gaze returned to his hands.

The past seemed gray and cold without Matthew. And the future promised to be much more interesting with him in it. No matter how brief our courtship, I certainly felt bound to him. And, given vampires’ pack behavior, it wasn’t going to be possible to swap obedience for something more progressive, whether he called me “wife” or not.

“I feel I should point out, husband, that, strictly speaking, your mother was not protecting you from your wife.” The words “husband” and “wife” felt strange on my tongue. “I wasn’t your wife, under the terms laid out here, until you came home. Instead I was just some creature you left like a package with no forwarding address. Given that, I got off lightly.”

A smile hovered at the corners of his mouth. “You think so? Then I suppose I should honor your wishes and forgive her.” He reached for my hand and carried it to his mouth, brushing the knuckles with his lips. “I said you were mine. I meant it.”

“This is why Ysabeau was so upset yesterday over our kiss in the courtyard.” It explained both her anger and her abrupt surrender. “Once you were with me, there was no going back.”

“Not for a vampire.”

“Not for a witch either.”

Matthew cut the growing thickness in the air by casting a pointed look at my empty bowl. I’d devoured three helpings of stew, insisting all the while I wasn’t hungry.

“Are you finished?” he asked.

“Yes,” I grumbled, annoyed at being caught out.

It was still early, but my yawns had already begun. We found Marthe rubbing down a vast wooden table with a fragrant combination of boiling water, sea salt, and lemons, and we said good night.

“Ysabeau will return soon,” Matthew told her.

“She will be out all night,” Marthe replied darkly, looking up from her lemons. “I will stay here.”

“As you like, Marthe.” He gripped her shoulder for a moment.

On the way upstairs to his study Matthew told me the story of where he bought his copy of Vesalius’s anatomy book and what he thought when he first saw the illustrations. I dropped onto the sofa with the book in question and happily looked at pictures of flayed corpses, too tired to concentrate on Aurora Consurgens, while Matthew answered e-mail. The hidden drawer in his desk was firmly closed, I noted with relief.

“I’m going to take a bath,” I said an hour later, rising and stretching my stiff muscles in preparation for climbing more stairs. I needed some time alone to think through the implications of my new status as Matthew’s wife. The idea of marriage was overwhelming enough. When you factored in vampire possessiveness and my own ignorance about what was happening, it seemed an ideal time for a moment of reflection.

“I’ll be up shortly,” Matthew said, barely looking up from the glow of his computer screen.

The bathwater was as hot and plentiful as ever, and I sank into the tub with a groan of pleasure. Marthe had been up and had worked her magic with candles and the fire. The rooms felt cozy, if not precisely warm. I drifted through a satisfying replay of the day’s accomplishments. Being in charge was better than letting random events take place.

I was still soaking in the bathtub, my hair falling over the edge in a cascade of straw, when there was a gentle knock on the door. Matthew pushed it open without waiting for me to respond. Sitting up with a start, I quickly sank back into the water when he walked in.

He grabbed one of the towels and held it out like a sail in the wind. His eyes were smoky. “Come to bed,” he said, his voice gruff.

I sat in the water for a few heartbeats, trying to read his face. Matthew stood patiently during my examination, towel extended. After a deep breath, I stood, the water streaming over my naked body. Matthew’s pupils dilated suddenly, his body still. Then he stood back to let me step out of the tub before he wrapped the towel around me.

Clutching it to my chest, I kept my eyes on him. When they didn’t waver, I let the towel fall, the light from the candles glinting off damp skin. His eyes lingered over my body, their slow, cold progress sending a shiver of anticipation down my spine. He pulled me toward him without a word, his lips moving over my neck and shoulders. Matthew breathed in my scent, his long, cool fingers lifting the hair off my neck and back. I gasped when his thumb came to rest against the pulse in my throat.

“Dieu, you are beautiful,” he murmured, “and so alive.”

He began to kiss me again. Pulling at his T-shirt, my warm fingers moved against his cool, smooth skin. Matthew shuddered. It was much like my reaction to his first, cold touches. I smiled against his busy mouth, and he paused with a question on his face.

“It feels nice, doesn’t it, when your coldness and my warmth meet?”

Matthew laughed, and the sound was as deep and smoky as his eyes. With my help, his shirt went up and over his shoulders. I started to fold it neatly. He snatched it away, balled it up, and threw it into the corner.

“Later,” Matthew said impatiently, his hands moving once more over my body. Broad expanses of skin touched skin for the first time, warm and cold, in a meeting of opposites.

It was my turn to laugh, delighted by how perfectly our bodies fit. I traced his spine, my fingers sweeping up and down his back until they sent Matthew diving down to capture the hollow of my throat and the tips of my breasts with his lips.

My knees started to soften, and I grabbed his waist for support. More inequity. My hands traveled to the front of his soft pajama bottoms and undid the tie that kept them up. Matthew stopped kissing me long enough to give me a searching look. Without breaking his stare, I eased the loosened material over his hips and let it fall.

“There,” I said softly. “Now we’re even.”

“Not even close,” Matthew said, stepping out of the fabric.

I very nearly gasped but bit my lip at the last moment to keep the sound in. Nevertheless my eyes widened at the sight of him. The parts of him that hadn’t been visible to me were just as perfect as those that had. Seeing Matthew, naked and gleaming, was like witnessing a classical sculpture brought to life.

Wordlessly he took my hand and led me toward the bed. Standing beside its curtained confines, he jerked the coverlet and sheets aside and lifted me onto the high mattress. Matthew climbed into bed after me. Once he’d joined me under the covers, he lay on his side with his head resting on his hand. Like his position at the end of yoga class, here was another pose that reminded me of the effigies of medieval knights in English churches.

I drew the sheets up to my chin, conscious of the parts of my own body that were far from perfect.

“What’s wrong?” He frowned.

“A little nervous, that’s all.”

“About what?”

“I’ve never had sex with a vampire before.”

Matthew looked genuinely shocked. “And you’re not going to tonight either.”

The sheet forgotten, I raised myself on my elbows. “You come into my bath, watch me get out of it naked and dripping wet, let me undress you, and then tell me we are not going to make love tonight?”

“I keep telling you we have no reason to rush. Modern creatures are always in such a hurry,” Matthew murmured, drawing the fallen sheet down to my waist. “Call me old-fashioned if you’d like, but I want to enjoy every moment of our courtship.”

I tried to snatch the edge of the bedding and cover myself with it, but his reflexes were quicker than mine. He inched the sheet lower, out of my reach, eyes keen.

“Courtship?” I cried indignantly. “You’ve already brought me flowers and wine. Now you’re my husband, or so you tell me.” I flicked the sheets off his torso. My pulse quickened once more at the sight of him.

“As a historian, you must know that scores of weddings weren’t consummated immediately.” His attention lingered over my hips and thighs, making them cold, then warm, in an entirely pleasant fashion. “Years of courtship were required in some cases.”

“Most of those courtships led to bloodshed and tears.” I put a slight emphasis on the word in question. Matthew grinned and stroked my breast with feather-light fingers until my gasp made him purr with satisfaction.

“I promise not to draw blood, if you promise not to weep.”

It was easier to ignore his words than his fingers. “Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon!” I said triumphantly, pleased at my ability to recall relevant historical information under such distracting conditions. “Did you know them?”

“Not Arthur. I was in Florence. But Catherine, yes. She was nearly as brave as you are. Speaking of the past,” Matthew drew the back of his hand down my arm, “what does the distinguished historian know about bundling?”

I turned on my side and slowly extended my fingertip along his jawbone. “I’m familiar with the custom. But you are neither Amish nor English. Are you telling me that—like wedding vows—the practice of getting two people into bed to talk all night but not have sex was dreamed up by vampires?”

“Modern creatures aren’t only in a hurry, they’re overly focused on the act of sexual intercourse. It’s far too clinical and narrow a definition. Making love should be about intimacy, about knowing another’s body as well as your own.”

“Answer my question,” I insisted, unable to think clearly now that he was kissing my shoulder. “Did vampires invent bundling?”

“No,” he said softly, his eyes glittering as my fingertip rounded his chin. He nipped at it with his teeth. As promised, he drew no blood. “Once upon a time, we all did it. The Dutch and then the English came up with the variation of putting boards between the intended couple. The rest of us did it the old-fashioned way—we were just wrapped in blankets, shut into a room at dusk, and let out at dawn.”

“It sounds dreadful,” I said sternly. His attention drifted down my arm and across the swell of my belly. I tried to squirm away, but his free hand clamped onto my hip, keeping me still. “Matthew,” I protested.

“As I recall,” he said, as if I hadn’t spoken, “it was a very pleasant way to spend a long winter’s night. The hard part was looking innocent the next day.”

His fingers played against my stomach, making my heart skip around inside my rib cage. I eyed Matthew’s body with interest, picking my next target. My mouth landed on his collarbone while my hand snaked down along his flat stomach.

“I’m sure sleep was involved,” I said after he found it necessary to snatch my hand and hold it away for a few minutes. My hip free, I pressed the length of my body against him. His body responded, and my face showed my satisfaction at the reaction. “No one can talk all night.”

“Ah, but vampires don’t need to sleep,” he reminded me, just before he pulled back, bent his head, and planted a kiss below my breastbone.

I grabbed his head and lifted it. “There’s only one vampire in this bed. Is this how you imagine you’ll keep me awake?”

“I’ve been imagining little else from the first moment I saw you.” Matthew’s eyes shone darkly as he lowered his head. My body arched up to meet his mouth. When it did, he gently but firmly turned me onto my back, grabbing both of my wrists in his right hand and pinning them to the pillow.

Matthew shook his head. “No rushing, remember?”

I was accustomed to the kind of sex that involved a physical release without needless delay or unnecessary emotional complications. As an athlete who spent much of my time with other athletes, I was well acquainted with my body and its needs, and there was usually someone around to help me fill them. I was never casual about sex or my choice of partners, but most of my experiences had been with men who shared my frank attitude and were content to enjoy a few ardent encounters and then return to being friends again as though nothing had happened.

Matthew was making it clear that those days and nights were over. With him there would be no more straightforward sex—and I’d had no other kind. I might as well be a virgin. My deep feelings for him were becoming inextricably bound with my body’s responses, his fingers and mouth tying them together in complicated, agonizing knots.

“We have all the time we need,” he said stroking the undersides of my arms with his fingertips, weaving love and physical longing together until my body felt tight.

Matthew proceeded to study me with the rapt attention of a cartographer who found himself on the shores of a new world. I tried to keep up with him, wanting to discover his body while he was discovering mine, but he held my wrists firmly against the pillows. When I began to complain in earnest about the unfairness of this situation, he found an effective way to silence me. His cool fingers dipped between my legs and touched the only inches of my body that remained uncharted.

“Matthew,” I breathed, “I don’t think that’s bundling.”

“It is in France,” he said complacently, a wicked gleam in his eye. He let go of my wrists, convinced quite rightly that there would be no attempts to squirm away now, and I caught his face in my hands. We kissed each other, long and deep, while my legs opened like the covers of a book. Matthew’s fingers coaxed, teased, and danced between them until the pleasure was so intense it left me shaking.

He held me until the tremors subsided and my heart returned to its normal rhythm. When I finally mustered the energy to look at him, he had the self-satisfied look of a cat.

“What are the historian’s thoughts on bundling now?” he asked.

“It’s far less wholesome than it’s been made out to be in the scholarly literature,” I said, touching his lips with my fingers. “And if this is what the Amish do at night, it’s no wonder they don’t need television.”

Matthew chuckled, the look of contentment never leaving his face. “Are you sleepy now?” he asked, trailing his fingers through my hair.

“Oh, no.” I pushed him over onto his back. He folded his hands beneath his head and looked up at me with another grin. “Not in the slightest. Besides, it’s my turn.”

I studied him with the same intensity that he’d lavished on me. While I was inching up his hip bone, a white shadow in the shape of a triangle caught my attention. It was deep under the surface of his smooth, perfect skin. Frowning, I looked across the expanse of his chest. There were more odd marks, some shaped like snowflakes, others in crisscrossing lines. None of them were on the skin, though. They were all deep within him.

“What is this, Matthew?” I touched a particularly large snowflake under his left collarbone.

“It’s just a scar,” he said, craning his neck to see. “That one was made by the tip of a broadsword. The Hundred Years’ War, maybe? I can’t remember.”

I slithered up his body to get a better look, pressing my warm skin against him, and he sighed happily.

“A scar? Turn over.”

He made little sounds of pleasure while my hands swept across his back.

“Oh, Matthew.” My worst fears were realized. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of marks. I knelt and pulled the sheet down to his feet. They were on his legs, too.

His head swiveled over his shoulder. “What’s wrong?” The sight of my face was answer enough, and he turned over and sat up. “It’s nothing, mon coeur. Just my vampire body, holding on to trauma.”

“There are so many of them.” There was another one, on the swell of muscles where his arm met his shoulders.

“I said vampires were difficult to kill. Creatures try their best to do so anyway.”

“Did it hurt when you were wounded?”

“You know I feel pleasure. Why not pain, too? Yes, they hurt. But they healed quickly.”

“Why haven’t I seen them before?”

“The light has to be just right, and you have to look carefully. Do they bother you?” Matthew asked hesitantly.

“The scars themselves?” I shook my head. “No, of course not. I just want to hunt down all the people who gave them to you.”

Like Ashmole 782, Matthew’s body was a palimpsest, its bright surface obscuring the tale of him hinted at by all those scars. I shivered at the thought of the battles Matthew had already fought, in wars declared and undeclared.

“You’ve fought enough.” My voice shook with anger and remorse. “No more.”

“It’s a bit late for that, Diana. I’m a warrior.”

“No you’re not,” I said fiercely. “You’re a scientist.”

“I’ve been a warrior longer. I’m hard to kill. Here’s the proof.” He gestured at his long white body. As evidence of his indestructibility, the scars were strangely comforting. “Besides, most creatures who wounded me are long gone. You’ll have to set that desire aside.”

“Whatever will I replace it with?” I pulled the sheets over my head like a tent. Then there was silence except for an occasional gasp from Matthew, the crackle of the logs in the fireplace, and in time his own cry of pleasure. Tucking myself under his arm, I hooked my leg over his. Matthew looked down at me, one eye opened and one closed.

“Is this what they’re teaching at Oxford these days?” he asked.

“It’s magic. I was born knowing how to make you happy.” My hand rested on his heart, pleased that I instinctively understood where and how to touch him, when to be gentle and when to leave my passion unchecked.

“If it is magic, then I’m even more delighted to be sharing the rest of my life with a witch,” he said, sounding as content as I felt.

“You mean the rest of my life, not the rest of yours.”

Matthew was suspiciously quiet, and I pushed myself up to see his expression. “Tonight I feel thirty-seven. Even more important, I believe that next year I will feel thirty-eight.”

“I don’t understand,” I said uneasily.

He drew me back down and tucked my head under his chin. “For more than a thousand years, I’ve stood outside of time, watching the days and years go by. Since I’ve been with you, I’m aware of its passage. It’s easy for vampires to forget such things. It’s one of the reasons Ysabeau is so obsessed with reading the newspapers—to remind herself that there’s always change, even though time doesn’t alter her.”

“You’ve never felt this way before?”

“A few times, very fleetingly. Once or twice in battle, when I feared I was about to die.”

“So it’s about danger, not just love.” A cold wisp of fear moved through me at this matter-of-fact talk of war and death.

“My life now has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything before was preamble. Now I have you. One day you will be gone, and my life will be over.”

“Not necessarily,” I said hastily. “I’ve only got another handful of decades in me—you could go on forever.” A world without Matthew was unthinkable.

“We’ll see,” he said quietly, stroking my shoulder.

Suddenly his safety was of paramount concern to me. “You will be careful?”

“No one sees as many centuries as I have without being careful. I’m always careful. Now more than ever, since I have so much more to lose.”

“I would rather have had this moment with you—just this one night—than centuries with someone else,” I whispered.

Matthew considered my words. “I suppose if it’s taken me only a few weeks to feel thirty-seven again, I might be able to reach the point where one moment with you was enough,” he said, cuddling me closer. “But this talk is too serious for a marriage bed.”

“I thought conversation was the point of bundling,” I said primly.

“It depends on whom you ask—the bundlers or those being bundled.” He began working his mouth down from my ear to my shoulders. “Besides, I have another part of the medieval wedding service I’d like to discuss with you.”

“You do, husband?” I bit his ear gently as it moved past.

“Don’t do that,” he said, with mock severity. “No biting in bed.” I did it again anyway. “What I was referring to was the part of the ceremony where the obedient wife,” he said, looking at me pointedly, “promises to be ‘bonny and buxom in bed and board.’ How do you intend to fulfill that promise?” He buried his face in my breasts as if he might find the answer there.

After several more hours discussing the medieval liturgy, I had a new appreciation for church ceremonies as well as folk customs. And being with him in this way was more intimate than I’d ever been with another creature.

Relaxed and at ease, I curled against Matthew’s now-familiar body so that my head rested below his heart. His fingers ran through my hair again and again, until I fell asleep.

It was just before dawn when I awoke to a strange sound coming from the bed next to me, like gravel rolling around in a metal tube.

Matthew was sleeping—and snoring, too. He looked even more like the effigy of a knight on a tombstone now. All that was missing was the dog at his feet and the sword clasped at his waist.

I pulled the covers over him. He didn’t stir. I smoothed his hair back, and he kept breathing deeply. I kissed him lightly on the mouth, and there was still no reaction. I smiled at my beautiful vampire, sleeping like the dead, and felt like the luckiest creature on the planet as I crept from under the covers.

Outside, the clouds were still hanging in the sky, but at the horizon they were thin enough to reveal faint traces of red behind the gray layers. It might actually clear today, I thought, stretching slightly and looking back at Matthew’s recumbent form. He would be unconscious for hours. I, on the other hand, was feeling restless and oddly rejuvenated. I dressed quickly, wanting to go outside in the gardens and be by myself for a while.

When I finished dressing, Matthew was still lost in his rare, peaceful slumber. “I’ll be back before you know it,” I whispered, kissing him.

There was no sign of Marthe, or of Ysabeau. In the kitchen I took an apple from the bowl set aside for the horses and bit into it. The apple’s crisp flesh tasted bright against my tongue.

I drifted into the garden, walking along the gravel paths, drinking in the smells of herbs and the white roses that glowed in the early-morning light. If not for my modern clothes, it could have been in the sixteenth century, with the orderly square beds and the willow fences that were supposed to keep the rabbits out—though the château’s vampire occupants were no doubt a better deterrent than a scant foot of bent twigs.

Reaching down, I ran my fingers over the herbs growing at my feet. One of them was in Marthe’s tea. Rue, I realized with satisfaction, pleased that the knowledge had stuck.

A gust of wind brushed past me, pulling loose the same infernal lock of hair that would not stay put. My fingers scraped it back in place, just as an arm swept me off the ground.

Ears popping, I was rocketed straight up into the sky.

The gentle tingle against my skin told me what I already knew.

When my eyes opened, I would be looking at a witch.

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