فصل 31

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فصل 31

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Chapter Thirty One

That night marked the true beginning of our marriage. Matthew was more centered than I had ever seen him. Gone were the sharp retorts, abrupt changes of direction, and impulsive decisions that had characterized our time together thus far. Instead Matthew was methodical, measured— but no less deadly. He fed more regularly, hunting in the city and the villages nearby. As his muscles gained in weight and strength, I came to see what Philippe had already observed: Unlikely though it might seem given his size, his son had been wasting away from lack of proper nourishment.

I was left with a silvery moon on my breast marking the place where he

drank. It was unlike any other scar on my body, lacking the tough buildup of protective tissue that formed over most wounds. Matthew told me that this was due to a property in his saliva, which sealed the bite without letting it heal completely.

The vampire’s ritual taking of a mate’s blood from a vein near the heart and my new ritual of the witch’s kiss that gave me access to his thoughts provided us with a deeper intimacy. We didn’t make love every time he joined me in bed, but when we did, it was always preceded and followed by those two searing moments of absolute honesty that removed not only Matthew’s greatest worry but mine: that our secrets would somehow destroy us. And even when we didn’t make love, we talked in the open, easy way that lovers dream of doing.

The next morning, Matthew told Gallowglass and Pierre about Benjamin. Gallowglass’s fury was shorter-lived than Pierre’s fear, which rose to the surface whenever someone knocked on the door or approached me in the market. The vampires searched for him day and night, with Matthew planning the expeditions.

But Benjamin could not be found. He had simply vanished. Easter came and went, and our plans for Rudolf’s spring festival the following Saturday reached their final stages. Master Hoefnagel and I transformed the palace’s Great Hall into a blooming garden with pots of tulips. I was in awe of the place, with its graceful curved vaults supporting the arched roof like the branches of a willow tree.

“We’ll move the emperor’s orange trees here as well,” Hoefnagel said, his eyes gleaming with possibilities. “And the peacocks.”

On the day of the performance, servants dragged every spare candelabrum in the palace and cathedral into the echoing expanse of stone to provide the illusion of a starry night sky and spread fresh rushes on the floor. For the stage we used the base of the stairs leading up to the royal chapel. It was Master Hoefnagel’s idea, since then I could appear at the top of the staircase, like the moon, while Matthew charted my changing position with one of Master Habermel’s astrolabes.

“You don’t think we’re being too philosophical?” I wondered aloud, worrying at my lip with my fingers.

“This is the court of Rudolf II,” Hoefnagel said drily. “There is so such thing as too philosophical.”

On the night of the celebration, the court filed in for the banquet and gasped in amazement at the scene we’d set.

“They like it,” I whispered to Matthew from behind the curtain that concealed us from the crowd. Our grand entrance was scheduled for the dessert course, and we were holed up in the Knights’ Staircase off the hall until then. Matthew had been keeping me occupied with tales of olden times, when he had ridden his horse up the wide stone stairs for a joust. When I’d questioned the room’s suitability for this particular purpose, he quirked an eyebrow at me.

“Why do you think we made the room so big and the ceiling so high? Prague winters can be damn long, and bored young men with weapons are dangerous. Far better to have them run at each other at high speed than start wars with neighboring kingdoms.”

With the free pouring of wine and the liberal serving of food, the din in the room was soon deafening. When the desserts went by, Matthew and I slipped into our places. Master Hoefnagel had painted some lovely pastoral scenery for Matthew and grudgingly allotted him one of the orange trees to sit beneath on his felt-covered stool meant to look like a rock. I would wait for my cue and then come out of the chapel and stand behind an old wooden door turned on its side and painted to resemble a chariot.

“Don’t you dare make me laugh,” I warned Matthew when he kissed me on the cheek for luck.

“I do love a challenge,” he whispered back.

As strains of music filled through the room, the courtiers gradually hushed. When the room was fully quiet, Matthew lifted his astrolabe to the heavens and the masque began.

I had decided that our best approach to the production involved minimal dialogue and maximum dancing. For one thing, who wanted to sit around after a big dinner and listen to speeches? I’d been to enough academic events to know that wasn’t a good idea. Signor Pasetti was delighted to teach some of the court ladies a “dance of the wandering stars,” which would provide Matthew something heavenly to observe while he waited for his beloved moon to appear. With famous court beauties given a role in the entertainment and wearing fabulously spangled and jeweled costumes, the masque quickly took on the tone of a school play, complete with admiring parents. Matthew made agonized faces as though he weren’t sure he could endure the spectacle for one more moment.

When the dance ended, the musicians cued my entrance with a crash of drums and blare of trumpets. Master Hoefnagel had rigged up a curtain over the chapel doors, so that all I had to do was push my way through them with a goddess’s éclat (and without spearing my moon headdress on the fabric as I had done in rehearsal) and stare wistfully down at Matthew. He, goddess willing, would stare raptly at me without crossing his eyes or looking suggestively at my breasts.

I took a moment to get in character, drew in a deep breath, and pushed confidently through the curtains, trying to glide and float like the moon.

The court gasped in wonder.

Pleased that I had made such a convincing entrance, I looked down at Matthew. His eyes were round as saucers.

Oh, no. I felt with my toe for the floor, but as I suspected, I was already a few inches above it—and rising. I reached out a hand to anchor myself to the edge of my chariot and saw that a distinctively pearly gleam was emanating from my skin. Matthew jerked his head up in the direction of my little silver crescent moon. I’d worn my hair loose, the waves rippling down my back and the front caught up with a tiara-like band of wire that held the moon. Without a mirror I had no idea what it was doing, but I feared the worst.

“La Diosa!” Rudolf said, standing up and applauding. “Wonderful! A wonderful effect!”

Uncertainly, the court joined in. A few of them crossed themselves first. Holding the room’s complete attention, I clasped my hands to my bosom and batted my eyes at Matthew, who returned my admiring looks with a grim smile. I concentrated on lowering myself to the floor so that I could make my way to Rudolf’s throne. As Zeus, he occupied the most splendid carved piece of furniture we could find in the palace attics. It was unbelievably ugly, but it suited the occasion.

Happily, I was not glowing so much anymore as I approached the emperor, and the audience had stopped looking at my head as if it were a Roman candle. I sank into a curtsy.

“Greetings, La Diosa,” Rudolf boomed in what was meant to be a godlike tone but was only a classic example of overacting.

“I am in love with the beautiful Endymion,” I said, rising and gesturing back to the staircase, where Matthew had sunk into a downy nest of feather beds and was feigning sleep. I had written the lines myself. (Matthew suggested I say, “If you do not agree to leave me in peace, Endymion will tear your throat out.” I vetoed that, along with the Keats.) “He looks so peaceful. And though I am a goddess and will never age, fair Endymion will soon grow old and die. I beg of you, make him immortal so that he can stay with me always.”

“On one condition!” Rudolf shouted, abandoning all pretense of godlike sonorousness in favor of simple volume. “He must sleep for the rest of time, never waking. Only then will he remain young.”

“Thank you, mighty Zeus,” I said, trying not to sound too much like a member of a British comedy troupe. “Now I can gaze upon my beloved forevermore.”

Rudolf scowled. It was a good thing he hadn’t been granted script approval.

I withdrew to my chariot and walked slowly backward through the curtains while the court ladies performed their final dance. When it was over, Rudolf led the court in a round of loud stomping and clapping that almost brought the roof down. What it did not do was rouse Endymion.

“Get up!” I hissed as I went past to thank the emperor for providing us an opportunity to entertain his royal self. All I got in response was a theatrical snore.

And so I curtsied alone in front of Rudolf and made speeches in praise of Master Habermel’s astrolabe, Master Hoefnagel’s sets and special effects, and the quality of the music.

“I was greatly entertained, La Diosa—much more than I expected to be. You may ask Zeus for a reward,” Rudolf said, his eyes drifting over my shoulder and down to the swell of my breasts. “Whatever you wish. Name it and it shall be yours.”

The room’s idle chatter stopped. In the silence I heard Abraham’s words: The book will come to you, if only you ask for it. Could it really be that simple?

Endymion stirred in his downy bed. Not wanting him to interfere, I flapped my hands behind my back to encourage him to return to his dreams. The court held its breath, waiting for me to name a prestigious title, a piece of land, a fortune in gold.

“I would like to see Roger Bacon’s alchemical book, Your Majesty.”

“You have balls of iron, Auntie,” Gallowglass said in a tone of hushed admiration on the way home. “Not to mention a way with words.”

“Why, thank you,” I said, pleased. “By the way, what was my head doing during the masque? People were staring at it.”

“Wee stars rose out of the moon and then faded away. I wouldn’t worry. It looked so real that everybody will assume it was an illusion. Most of Rudolf’s aristocrats are human, after all.”

Matthew’s response was more guarded. “Don’t be too pleased yet, mon coeur. Rudolf may have had no other choice than to agree, given the situation, but he hasn’t produced the manuscript. This is a very complicated dance you’re doing. And you can be sure the emperor will want something from you in return for a glimpse of his book.”

“Then we will have to be long gone before he can insist upon it,” I said.

But it turned out that Matthew was right to be cautious. I had imagined that he and I would be invited to view the treasure the next day, in private. Yet no such invitation arrived. Days passed before we received a formal summons to dine at the palace with some up-and-coming Catholic theologians. Afterward, the note promised, a select group would be invited back to Rudolf’s rooms to see items of particular mystical and religious import from the emperor’s collections. Among the visitors was one Johannes Pistorius, who had grown up Lutheran, converted to Calvinism, and was about to become a Catholic priest.

“We’re being set up,” Matthew said, fingers running back and forth through his hair. “Pistorius is a dangerous man, a ruthless adversary, and a witch. He will be back here in ten years to serve as Rudolf’s confessor.”

“Is it true he’s being groomed for the Congregation?” Gallowglass asked quietly.

“Yes. He’s just the kind of intellectual thug that the witches want representing them. No offense meant, Diana. It is a difficult time for witches,” he conceded.

“None taken,” I said mildly. “But he’s not a member of the Congregation yet. You are. What are the chances he’ll want to cause trouble with you watching him, if he has those aspirations?”

“Excellent—or Rudolf wouldn’t have asked him to dine with us. The emperor is drawing his battle lines and rallying his troops.”

“What, exactly, is he planning to fight over?”

“The manuscript—and you. He won’t give up either.”

“I told you before that I wasn’t for sale. I’m not war booty either.”

“No, but you’re unclaimed territory so far as Rudolf’s concerned. Rudolf is an Austrian archduke, king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, margrave of Moravia, and Holy Roman Emperor. He is also Philip of Spain’s nephew. The Hapsburgs are an acquisitive and competitive family and will stop at nothing to get what they want.”

“Matthew’s not coddling you, Auntie,” Gallowglass said somberly when I started to protest. “If you were my wife, you’d have been out of Prague the day the first gift arrived.”

Because of the delicacy of the situation, Pierre and Gallowglass accompanied us to the palace. Three vampires and a witch caused the expected ripples of interest as we went toward the Great Hall, which, once upon a time, Matthew had helped to design.

Rudolf seated me near him, and Gallowglass took up a position behind my chair like a well-mannered servant. Matthew was placed at the opposite end of the banqueting table with an attentive Pierre. To a casual observer, Matthew was having a grand time among a raucous group of ladies and young men who were eager to find a role model with more dash than the emperor. Gales of laughter occasionally drifted in our direction from Matthew’s rival court, which did nothing to brighten His Majesty’s dour mood.

“But why does there have to be so much bloodshed, Father Johannes?” Rudolf complained to the fleshy, middle-aged physician sitting to his left. Pistorius’s ordination was still several months away, but, with the zeal typical of the convert, he made no objection to his premature elevation to the priesthood.

“Because heresy and unorthodoxies must be rooted out completely, Your Majesty. Otherwise they find fresh soil in which to grow.” Pistorius’s heavy-lidded eyes fell on me, his glance probing. My witch’s third eye opened, indignant at his rude attempts to capture my attention, which was strikingly similar to Champier’s method for ferreting out my secrets. I was beginning to dislike university-educated wizards. I put down my knife and returned his stare. He was the first to break it.

“My father believed that tolerance was a wiser policy,” Rudolf replied. “And you have studied the Jewish wisdom of the kabbalah. There are men of God who would call that heresy.”

Matthew’s keen hearing allowed him to zero in on my conversation as intensely as ??rka had pursued her grouse. He frowned.

“My husband tells me you are a physician, Herr Pistorius.” It was not a smooth conversational segue, but it did the job.

“I am, Frau Roydon. Or I was, before I turned my attention from the preservation of bodies to the salvation of souls.”

“Father Johannes’s reputation is based on his cures for the plague,” Rudolf said.

“I was merely a vehicle for God’s will. He is the only true healer,” Pistorius said modestly. “Out of love for us, He created many natural remedies that can effect miraculous results in our imperfect bodies.”

“Ah, yes. I remember your advocacy of bezoars as panaceas against illness. I sent La Diosa one of my stones when she was lately ill.” Rudolf smiled at him approvingly.

Pistorius studied me. “Your cure evidently worked, Your Majesty.”

“Yes. La Diosa is fully recovered. She looks very well,” Rudolf said, his lower lip jutting out even further as he examined me. I wore a simple black gown embroidered in white covered with a black velvet robe. A gauzy ruff winged away from my face, and the red ruby of Matthew’s salamander necklace was arranged to hang in the notch of my throat, providing the only splash of color in my otherwise somber outfit. Rudolf’s attention fixed on the beautiful piece of jewelry. He frowned and motioned to a servant.

“It’s hard to say whether the bezoar stone or Emperor Maximilian’s electuary was the more beneficial,” I said, looking to Dr. H?jek for assistance while Rudolf held his whispered conversation. He was tucking into the third game course, and after a startled cough to free the bit of venison he had just swallowed, H?jek rose to the occasion.

“I believe it was the electuary, Dr. Pistorius,” H?jek admitted. “I prepared it in a cup made from the unicorn’s horn. Emperor Rudolf believed this would increase its efficacy.”

“La Diosa took the electuary from a horn spoon, too,” Rudolf said, his eyes lingering on my lips now, “for additional surety.”

“Will this cup and spoon be among the specimens we see tonight in your cabinet of wonders, Your Majesty?” Pistorius asked. The air between me and the other witch came to sudden, crackling life. Threads surrounding the physician-priest exploded in violent red and orange hues, warning me of the danger. Then he smiled. I do not trust you, witch, he whispered into my mind. Nor does your would-be lover, Emperor Rudolf.

The wild boar that I was chewing—a delicious dish flavored with rosemary and black pepper that, according to the emperor, was supposed to heat the blood—turned to dust in my mouth. Instead of its achieving its desired effect, my blood ran cold.

“Is something wrong?” Gallowglass murmured, bending low over my shoulder. He handed me a shawl, which I hadn’t asked for and didn’t know he was carrying.

“Pistorius has been invited upstairs to see the book,” I said, turning my head toward him and speaking in rapid English to reduce the risk of being understood. Gallowglass smelled of sea salt and mint, a bracing and reassuring combination. My nerves steadied.

“Leave it to me,” he replied, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “By the way, you’re a bit shiny, Auntie. It would be best if no one saw stars tonight.”

Having delivered his warning shot across the bow, Pistorius turned the conversation to other topics and engaged Dr. H?jek in a lively debate about the medical benefits of theriac. Rudolf divided his time between sneaking melancholic looks at me and glaring at Matthew. The closer we got to seeing Ashmole 782, the less appetite I had, so I made small talk with the noblewoman next to me. It was only after five more courses—including a parade of gilded peacocks and a tableau of roast pork and suckling pigs— that the banquet finally concluded.

“You look pale,” Matthew said, whisking me away from the table.

“Pistorius suspects me.” The man reminded me of Peter Knox and Champier, and for similar reasons. “Intellectual thug” was the perfect description for both of them. “Gallowglass said he would take care of it.”

“No wonder Pierre followed on his heels, then.”

“What is Pierre going to do?”

“Make sure Pistorius gets out of here alive,” Matthew said cheerfully. “Left to his own devices, Gallowglass would strangle the man and throw him into the Stag’s Moat for the lions’ midnight snack. My nephew is almost as protective of you as I am.”

Rudolf’s invited guests accompanied him to his inner sanctum: the private gallery where Matthew and I viewed the Bosch altarpiece. Ottavio Strada met us there to guide us through the collection and answer our questions.

When we entered the room, Matthew’s altarpiece still sat in the center of the green-covered table. Rudolf had scattered other objects around it for our viewing pleasure. While the guests oohed and aahed over Bosch’s work, I scanned the room. There were some stunning cups made out of semiprecious stones, an enameled chain of office, a long horn reputedly from a unicorn, some statuary, and a carved Seychelles nut—a nice mix of the expensive, the medicinal, and the exotic. But no alchemical manuscript.

“Where is it?” I hissed to Matthew. Before he could respond, I felt the touch of a warm hand on my arm. Matthew stiffened.

“I have a gift for you, querida diosa.” Rudolf’s breath smelled of onions and red wine, and my stomach flopped over in protest. I turned, expecting to see Ashmole 782. Instead the emperor was holding up the enameled chain. Before I could protest, he draped it over my head and settled it on my shoulders. I looked down and saw a green ouroboros hanging from a circle of red crosses, thickly encrusted with emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and pearls. The color scheme reminded me of the jewel Herr Maisel gave to Benjamin.

“That is a strange gift to give my wife, Your Majesty,” Matthew said softly. He was standing right behind the emperor and looking at the necklace with distaste. This was my third such chain, and I knew there must be a meaning behind the symbolism. I lifted the ouroboros so that I could study the enameling. It wasn’t an ouroboros, exactly, because it had feet. It looked more like a lizard or a salamander than a snake. A bloody red cross emerged from the lizard’s flayed back. Most important, the tail was not held in the creature’s mouth but wrapped around the lizard’s throat, strangling it.

“It is a mark of respect, Herr Roydon.” Rudolf placed a subtle emphasis on the name. “This once belonged to King Vladislaus and was passed on to my grandmother. The insignia belongs to a brave company of Hungarian knights known as the Order of the Defeated Dragon.”

“Dragon?” I said faintly, looking at Matthew. With its stumpy legs, this might well be a dragon. But it was otherwise strikingly similar to the de Clermont family’s ouroboros—except this ouroboros was dying a slow, painful death. I remembered Herr Fuchs’s oath—Benjamin’s oath—to slay dragons wherever he found them.

“The dragon symbolizes our enemies, especially those who might wish to interfere with our royal prerogatives.” Rudolf said it in a civilized tone, but it was a virtual declaration of war on the whole de Clermont clan. “It would please me if you would wear it next time you come to court.” Rudolf ’s finger touched the dragon at my breast lightly and lingered there. “Then you can leave your little French salamanders at home.”

Matthew’s eyes, which were glued to the dragon and the imperial finger, went black when Rudolf made his insulting remark about French salamanders. I tried to think like Mary Sidney and come up with a response that was appropriate for the period and likely to calm the vampire. I’d deal with my outraged sense of feminism later.

“Whether or not I wear your gift will be up to my husband, Your Majesty,” I said coolly, forcing myself not to step away from Rudolf’s finger. I heard gasps, a few hushed whispers. But the only reaction I cared about was Matthew’s.

“I see no reason you should not wear it for the rest of the evening, mon coeur,” Matthew said agreeably. He was no longer concerned that the queen of England’s ambassador sounded like a French aristocrat. “Salamanders and dragons are kin, after all. Both will endure the flames to protect those they love. And the emperor is being kind enough to show you his book.” Matthew looked around. “Though it seems Signor Strada’s incompetency continues, for the book is not here.” Another bridge burned behind us.

“Not yet, not yet,” Rudolf said testily. “I have something else to present to La Diosa first. Go see my carved nut from the Maldives. It is the only one of its kind.” Everybody but Matthew trooped off obediently in the direction of Strada’s pointing finger. “You, too, Herr Roydon.”

“Of course,” Matthew murmured, imitating his mother’s tone perfectly. He slowly trailed after the crowd.

“Here is something I requested especially. Father Johannes helped to procure the treasure.” Rudolf looked around the room but failed to locate Pistorius. He frowned. “Where has he gone, Signor Strada?”

“I have not seen him since we left the Great Hall, Your Majesty,” Strada replied.

“You!” Rudolf pointed to a servant. “Go and find him!” The man left immediately, and at a run. The emperor gathered his composure and returned his attention to the strange object in front of us. It looked like a crude carving of a naked man. “This, La Diosa, is a fabled root from Eppendorf. A century ago a woman stole a consecrated host from the church and planted it by the light of the full moon to increase her garden’s fertility. The next morning they discovered an enormous cabbage.”

“Growing out of the host?” Surely something was being lost in translation, unless I very much misunderstood the nature of the Christian Eucharist. An arbor Dian? was one thing. An arbor brassic? was quite another.

“Yes. It was a miracle. And when the cabbage was dug up, its root resembled the body of Christ.” Rudolf held out the item to me. It was crowned with a golden diadem studded with pearls. Presumably that had been added later.

“Fascinating,” I said, trying to look and sound interested.

“I wanted you to see it in part because it resembles a picture in the book you requested. Fetch Edward, Ottavio.”

Edward Kelley entered, clutching a leather-bound volume to his chest.

As soon as I saw it, I knew. My entire body was tingling while the book was still across the room. Its power was palpable—far more so than it had been at the Bodleian on that September night when my whole life changed.

Here was the missing Ashmole manuscript—before it belonged to Elias Ashmole and before it went missing.

“You will sit here, with me, and we will look at the book together.” Rudolf gestured toward a table and two chairs that were set up in an intimate tête-à-tête. “Give me the book, Edward.” Rudolf held out his hand, and Kelley reluctantly placed the book in it.

I shot Matthew a questioning look. What if the manuscript started to glow as it had in the Bodleian or behaved strangely in some other way? And what if I weren’t able to stop my mind from wondering about the book or its secrets? An eruption of magic at this point would be disastrous.

This is why we’re here, said his confident nod.

I sat down next to the emperor, and Strada ushered the courtiers around the room to the unicorn’s horn. Matthew drifted still closer. I stared at the book in front of me, hardly daring to believe that the moment had come when I would at last see Ashmole 782 whole and complete.

“Well?” Rudolf demanded. “Are you going to open it?”

“Of course,” I said, pulling the book closer. No iridescence escaped from the pages. For purposes of comparison, I rested my hand on the cover for just a moment, as I had when I’d retrieved Ashmole 782 from the stacks. Then it had sighed in recognition, as though it had been waiting for me to show up. This time the book lay still.

I flipped open the hide-bound wooden board of the front cover. A blank sheet of parchment. My mind raced back over what I’d seen months ago. This was the sheet on which Ashmole and my father would one day write the book’s title.

I turned the page and felt the same sense of uncanny heaviness. When the page fell open, I gasped.

The first, missing page of Ashmole 782 was a glorious illumination of a tree. The tree’s trunk was knotted and gnarled, thick and yet sinuous. Branches sprang from the top, twisting and turning their way across the page and ending in a defiant combination of leaves, bright red fruit, and flowers. It was like the arbor Dian? that Mary had made using blood drawn from Matthew and me.

When I bent closer, my breath caught in my throat. The tree’s trunk was not made of wood, sap, and bark. It was made of hundreds of bodies— some writhing and thrashing in pain, some serenely entwined, others alone and frightened.

At the bottom of the page, written in a late-thirteenth-century hand, was the title Roger Bacon had given it: The True Secret of Secrets.

Matthew’s nostrils flared, as though he were trying to identify a scent. The book did have a strange odor—the same musty smell that I had noticed at Oxford.

I turned the page. Here was the image sent to my parents, the one the Bishop house had saved for so many years: the phoenix enfolding the chemical wedding in her wings, while mythical and alchemical beasts witnessed the union of Sol and Luna.

Matthew looked shocked, and he was staring at the book. I frowned. He was still too far away to see it clearly. What had surprised him?

Quickly, I flipped over the image of the alchemical wedding. The third missing page turned out to be two alchemical dragons, their tails intertwined and their bodies locked in either a battle or an embrace—it was impossible to tell which. A rain of blood fell from their wounds, pooling in a basin from which sprang dozens of naked, pale figures. I’d never seen an alchemical image like it.

Matthew stood over the emperor’s shoulder, and I expected his shock to turn to excitement at seeing these new images and getting closer to solving the book’s mysteries. But he looked as if he’d seen a ghost. A white hand covered his mouth and nose. When I frowned with concern, Matthew nodded to me, a sign that I should keep going.

I took a deep breath and turned to what should be the first of the strange alchemical images I’d seen in Oxford. Here, as expected, was the baby girl with the two roses. What was unexpected was that every inch of space around her was covered in text. It was an odd mix of symbols and a few scattered letters. In the Bodleian this text had been hidden by a spell that transformed the book into a magical palimpsest. Now, with the book intact, the secret text was on full view. Though I could see it, I still couldn’t read it. What did it say?

My fingers traced the lines of text. My touch unmade the words, transforming them into a face, a silhouette, a name. It was as though the text were trying to tell a story involving thousands of creatures.

“I would have given you anything you asked for,” Rudolf said, his breath hot against my cheek. Once again I smelled onions and wine. It was so unlike Matthew’s clean, spicy scent. And Rudolf’s warmth was off-putting now that I was used to a vampire’s cool temperature. “Why did you choose this? It cannot be understood, though Edward believes it contains a great secret.”

A long arm reached between us and gently touched the page. “Why, this is as meaningless as the manuscript you foisted off on poor Dr. Dee.” Matthew’s face belied his words. Rudolf might not have seen the muscle ticking in Matthew’s jaw or known how the fine lines around his eyes deepened when he concentrated.

“Not necessarily,” I said hastily. “Alchemical texts require study and contemplation if you wish to understand them fully. Perhaps if I spent more time with it . . .”

“Even then one must have God’s special blessing,” Rudolf said, scowling at Matthew. “Edward is touched by God in ways you are not, Herr Roydon.”

“Oh, he’s touched all right,” Matthew said, looking over at Kelley. The English alchemist was acting strange now that the book was not in his possession. There were threads connecting him and the book. But why was Kelley bound to Ashmole 782?

As the question went through my mind, the fine yellow and white threads tying Kelley to Ashmole 782 took on a new appearance. Instead of the normal tight twist of two colors or a weave of horizontal and vertical threads, these spooled loosely around an invisible center, like the curling ribbons on a birthday present. Short, horizontal threads kept the curls from touching. It looked like—

A double helix. My hand rose to my mouth, and I stared down at the manuscript. Now that I’d touched the book, its musty smell was on my fingers. It was strong, gamy, like—

Flesh and blood. I looked to Matthew, knowing that the expression on my face mirrored the shocked look I had seen on his.

“You don’t look well, mon coeur,” he said solicitously, helping me to my feet. “Let me take you home.” Edward Kelley chose this moment to lose control.

“I hear their voices. They speak in languages I cannot understand. Can you hear them?”

He moaned in distress, his hands clapped over his ears.

“What are you chattering about?” Rudolf said. “Dr. H?jek, something is wrong with Edward.”

“You will find your name in it, too,” Edward told me, his voice getting louder, as if he were trying to drown out some other sound. “I knew it the moment I saw you.”

I looked down. Curling threads bound me to the book, too—only mine were white and lavender. Matthew was bound to it by curling strands of red and white.

Gallowglass appeared, unannounced and uninvited. A burly guard followed him, clutching at his own limp arm.

“The horses are ready,” Gallowglass informed us, gesturing toward the exit.

“You do not have permission to be here!” Rudolf shouted, his fury mounting as his careful arrangements disintegrated. “And you, La Diosa, do not have permission to leave.”

Matthew paid absolutely no attention to Rudolf. He simply took my arm and strode in the direction of the door. I could feel the manuscript pulling on me, the threads stretching to bring me back to its side.

“We can’t leave the book. It’s—”

“I know what it is,” Matthew said grimly.

“Stop them!” Rudolf screamed.

But the guard with the broken arm had already tangled with one angry vampire tonight. He wasn’t going to tempt fate by interfering with Matthew. Instead his eyes rolled up into his head and he dropped to the floor in a faint.

Gallowglass threw my cloak over my shoulders as we pelted down the stairs. Two more guards—both unconscious—lay at the bottom.

“Go back and get the book!” I said to Gallowglass, breathless from my constrictive corset and the speed at which we were moving across the courtyard. “We can’t let Rudolf have it now that we know what it is.”

Matthew stopped, his fingers digging into my arm. “We won’t leave Prague without the manuscript. I’ll go back and get it, I promise. But first we are going home. You must have the children ready to leave the moment I get back.”

“We’ve burned our bridges, Auntie,” Gallowglass said grimly. “Pistorius is locked up in the White Tower. I killed one guard and injured three more. Rudolf touched you most improperly, and I have a strong desire to see him dead, too.”

“You don’t understand, Gallowglass. That book may be the answer to everything,” I managed to squeak out before Matthew had me in motion again.

“Oh, I understand more than you think I do.” Gallowglass’s voice floated in the breeze next to me. “I picked up the scent of it downstairs when I knocked out the guards. There are dead wearhs in that book. Witches and daemons, too, I warrant. Whoever could have imagined that the lost Book of Life would stink to high heaven of death?”

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