فصل 08

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فصل 08

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Chapter Eight

“The usual place?” Gallowglass asked quietly as he put down his oars and raised the solitary sail. Though it would be more than four hours before the sun rose, other craft were visible in the darkness. I picked out the shadowed outlines of another sail, a lantern swinging from a post in the stern of a neighboring vessel.

“Walter said we were going to Saint-Malo,” I said, my head turning in consternation. Raleigh had accompanied us from the Old Lodge to Portsmouth and had piloted the boat that took us to Guernsey. We’d left him standing on the dock near the village of Saint-Pierre-Port. He could go no farther—not with a price on his head in Catholic Europe.

“I remember well enough where Raleigh told me to go, Auntie, but he’s a pirate. And English. And he’s not here. I’m asking Matthew.”

“‘Immensi tremor oceani,’” Matthew whispered as he contemplated the heaving seas. Staring out across the black water, he had all the expression of a carved figurehead. And his reply to his nephew’s question was odd—the trembling of the immense ocean. I wondered if I had somehow misunderstood his Latin.

“The tide will be with us, and it is closer to Fougères by horse than to Saint-Malo.” Gallowglass continued as though Matthew were making sense. “She’ll be no colder on the water than on land in this weather, and still plenty of riding before her.”

“And you will be leaving us.” It wasn’t a question but a pronouncement of fact. Matthew’s eyelids dropped. He nodded. “Very well.”

Gallowglass drew in the sail, and the boat changed from a southerly to a more easterly course. Matthew sat on the deck next to me, his back against the curved supports of the hull, and drew me into the circle of his arms so that his cloak was wrapped around me.

True sleep was impossible, but I dozed against Matthew’s chest. It had been a grueling journey thus far, with horses pushed to the limit and boats commandeered. The temperature was frigid, and a thin layer of frost built up on the nap of our English wool. Gallowglass and Pierre kept up a steady patter of conversation in some French dialect, but Matthew remained quiet. He responded to their questions yet kept his own thoughts hidden behind an eerily composed mask.

The weather changed to a misty snow around dawn. Gallowglass’s beard turned white, transforming him into a fair imitation of Santa Claus. Pierre adjusted the sails at his command, and a landscape of grays and whites revealed the coast of France. No more than thirty minutes later, the tide began to race toward the shore. The boat was lifted up on the waves, and through the mist a steeple pierced the clouds. It was surprisingly close, the base of the structure obscured by the weather. I gasped.

“Hold tight,” Gallowglass said grimly as Pierre released the sail.

The boat shot through the mist. The call of seagulls and the slap of water against rock told me we were nearing shore, but the boat didn’t slow. Gallowglass jammed an oar into the flooding tide, angling us sharply. Someone cried out, in warning or greeting.

“Il est le chevalier de Clermont!” Pierre called back, cupping his hands around his mouth. His words were met with silence before scurrying footfalls sounded through the cold air.

“Gallowglass!” We were heading straight for a wall. I scrabbled for an oar to fend off certain disaster. No sooner had my fingers closed around it than Matthew plucked it from my grasp.

“He’s been putting in at this spot for centuries, and his people for longer than that,” Matthew said calmly, holding the oar lightly in his hands. Improbably, the boat’s bow took another sharp left and the hull was broadside to slabs of rough-hewn granite. High above, four men with hooks and ropes emerged to snare the boat and hold it steady. The water level continued to rise with alarming speed, carrying the boat upward until we were level with a small stone house. A set of stairs climbed into invisibility. Pierre hopped onto the landing, talking fast and low and gesturing at the boat. Two armed soldiers joined us for a moment, then sped off in the direction of the stairs.

“We have arrived at Mont Saint-Michel, madame.” Pierre held out his hand. I took it and stepped from the boat. “Here you will rest while milord speaks with the abbot.”

My knowledge of the island was limited to the stories swapped by friends of mine who sailed every summer around the Isle of Wight: that it was surrounded at low tide by quicksand and at high tide by such dangerous currents that boats were crushed against the rocks. I looked over my shoulder at our tiny boat and shuddered. It was a miracle that we were still alive.

While I tried to get my bearings, Matthew studied his nephew, who remained motionless in the stern. “It would be safer for Diana if you came along.”

“When your friends aren’t getting her into trouble, your wife seems able to care of herself.” Gallowglass looked up at me with a smile.

“Philippe will ask after you.”

“Tell him—” Gallowglass stopped, stared off into the distance. The vampire’s blue eyes were deep with longing. “Tell him I have not yet succeeded in forgetting.”

“For his sake you must try to forgive,” said Matthew quietly.

“I will never forgive,” Gallowglass said coldly, “and Philippe would never ask it of me. My father died at the hands of the French, and not a single creature stood up to the king. Until I have made peace with the past, I will not set foot in France.”

“Hugh is gone, God rest his soul. Your grandfather is still among us. Don’t squander your time with him.” Matthew lifted his foot from the boat. Without a word of farewell, he turned and took my elbow, steering me toward a bedraggled huddle of trees with barren branches. Feeling the cold weight of Gallowglass’s stare, I turned and locked eyes with the Gael. His hand rose in a silent gesture of leave.

Matthew was quiet as we approached the stairs. I couldn’t see where they led and soon lost count of the number of them. I concentrated instead on keeping my footing on the worn, slick treads. Chips of ice fell from the hem of my skirts, and the wind whistled within my wide hood. A sturdy door, ornamented with heavy straps of iron that were rusted and pitted from the salt spray, opened before us.

More steps. I pressed my lips together, lifted my skirts, and kept going.

More soldiers. As we approached, they flattened themselves against the walls to make room for us to pass. Matthew’s fingers tightened a fraction on my elbow, but otherwise the men might have been wraiths for all the attention he paid them.

We entered a room with a forest of columns holding up its vaulted roof. Large fireplaces studded the walls, spreading blessed warmth. I sighed with relief and shook out my cloak, shedding water and ice in all directions. A gentle cough directed my attention to a man standing before one of the blazes. He was dressed in the red robes of a cardinal and appeared to be in his late twenties—a terribly young age for someone to have risen so high in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.

“A h, Chevalier de Clermont. Or are we calling you something else these days? You have long been out of France. Perhaps you have taken Walsingham’s name along with his position, now that he is gone to hell where he belongs.” The cardinal’s English was impeccable although heavily accented. “We have, on the seigneur’s instructions, been watching for you for three days. There was no mention of a woman.”

Matthew dropped my arm so that he could step forward. He genuflected with a smooth bend of his left knee and kissed the ring on the man’s extended hand. “Eminence. I thought you were in Rome, choosing our new pope. Imagine my delight at finding you here.” Matthew didn’t sound happy. I wondered uneasily what we’d stepped into by coming to Mont Saint-Michel and not Saint-Malo as Walter had planned.

“France needs me more than the conclave does at present. These recent murders of kings and queens do not please God.” The cardinal’s eyes sparked a warning. “Your queen will discover that soon enough, when she meets Him.”

“I am not here on English business, Cardinal Joyeuse. This is my wife, Diana” Matthew held his father’s thin silver coin between his first and middle fingers. “We are returning home.”

“So I am told. Your father sent this to ensure your safe passage.” Joyeuse tossed a gleaming object to Matthew, who caught it neatly. “Philippe de Clermont forgets himself and behaves as though he were the king of France.”

“My father has no need to rule, for he is the sharp sword that makes and unmakes kings,” Matthew said softly. He slid the heavy golden ring over the gloved knuckle of his middle finger. Set within it was a carved red stone. I was sure the pattern incised in the ring was the same as the mark on my back. “Your masters know that if it were not for my father, the Catholic cause would be lost in France. Otherwise you would not be here.”

“Perhaps it would be better for all concerned if the seigneur really were king, given the throne’s present Protestant occupant. But that is a topic for us to discuss in private,” Cardinal Joyeuse said tiredly. He gestured to a servant standing in the shadows by the door. “Take the chevalier’s wife to her room. We must leave you, madame. Your husband has been too long among heretics. An extended period spent kneeling on a cold stone floor will remind him who he truly is.”

My face must have shown my dismay at being alone in such a place.

“Pierre will stay with you,” Matthew assured me before he bent and pressed his lips to mine. “We ride out when the tide turns.”

And that was the last glimpse I had of Matthew Clairmont, scientist. The man who strode toward the door was no longer an Oxford don but a Renaissance prince. It was in his bearing, the set of his shoulders, his aura of banked strength, and the cold look in his eyes. Hamish had been right to warn me that Matthew would not be the same man here. Under Matthew’s smooth surface, a profound metamorphosis was taking place.

Somewhere high above, the bells tolled the hours.

Scientist. Vampire. Warrior. Spy. The bells paused before the final knell.

Prince.

I wondered what more our journey would reveal about this complex man I had married.

“Let us not keep God waiting, Cardinal Joyeuse,” Matthew said sharply. Joyeuse followed behind, as if Mont Saint-Michel belonged to the de Clermont family and not the church.

Beside me, Pierre let out a gentle exhalation. “Milord est lui-même,” he murmured with relief.

Milord is himself. But was he still mine?

Matthew might be a prince, but there was no doubt who was king.

With every strike of our horses’ hooves on the frozen roads, the power and influence of Matthew’s father grew. As we drew closer to Philippe de Clermont, his son became more remote and imperious—a combination that put my teeth on edge and led to several heated arguments. Matthew always apologized for his high-handed conduct once his temper came off the boil, and, knowing the stress he was under as we approached his reunion with his father, I forgave him.

After braving the exposed sands around Mont Saint-Michel at low tide and traveling inland, de Clermont allies welcomed us into the city of Fougères and lodged us in a comfortably appointed tower on the ramparts overlooking the French countryside. Two nights later, footmen with torches met us on the road outside the city of Baugé. There was a familiar badge on their livery: Philippe’s insignia of a cross and crescent moon. I’d seen the symbol before when rooting through Matthew’s desk drawer at SeptTours.

“What is this place?” I asked after the footmen led us to a deserted château. It was surprisingly warm for an empty residence, and the delicious smell of cooked food floated through the echoing corridors.

“The house of an old friend.” Matthew pried the shoes off my frozen feet. His thumbs pressed into my frigid soles, and the blood began to return to my extremities. I groaned. Pierre put a cup of warm, spicy wine in my hands. “This was René’s favorite hunting lodge. It was so full of life when he lived here, with artists and scholars in every room. My father manages it now. With the constant wars, there hasn’t been an opportunity to give the château the attention it needs.”

While we were still at the Old Lodge, Matthew and Walter had lectured me on the ongoing struggles between French Protestants and Catholics over who would control the Crown—and the country. From our windows at Fougères, I’d seen distant plumes of smoke marking the Protestant army’s latest encampment, and ruined houses and churches dotted our route. I was shocked by the extent of the devastation.

Because of the conflict, my carefully constructed background story had to change. In England I was supposed to be a Protestant woman of French descent fleeing her native land to save her life and practice her faith. Here it was essential that I be a long-suffering English Catholic. Somehow Matthew managed to remember all the lies and half-truths required to maintain our multiple assumed identities, not to mention the historical details of every place through which we traveled.

“We’re in the province of Anjou now.” Matthew’s deep voice brought my attention back. “The people you meet will suspect you’re a Protestant spy because you speak English, no matter what story we tell them. This part of France refuses to acknowledge the king’s claim to the throne and would prefer a Catholic ruler.”

“As would Philippe,” I murmured. It was not just Cardinal Joyeuse who was benefiting from Philippe’s influence. Catholic priests with hollow cheeks and haunted eyes had stopped to speak with us along the way, sharing news and sending thanks to Matthew’s father for his assistance. None left empty-handed.

“He doesn’t care about the subtleties of Christian belief. In other parts of the country, my father supports the Protestants.”

“That’s a remarkably ecumenical view.”

“All Philippe cares about is saving France from itself. This past August our new king, Henri of Navarre, tried to force the city of Paris to his religious and political position. Parisians chose to starve rather than bow to a Protestant king.” Matthew raked his fingers through his hair, a sign of distress. “Thousands died, and now my father does not trust the humans to sort out the mess.”

Philippe was not inclined to let his son manage his own affairs either. Pierre woke us before dawn to announce that fresh horses were saddled and ready. He’d received word that we were expected at a town more than a hundred miles away—in two days.

“It’s impossible. We can’t travel that far so fast!” I was physically fit, but no amount of modern exercise was equivalent to riding more than fifty miles a day across open countryside in November.

“We have little choice,” Matthew said grimly. “If we delay, he’ll only send more men to hurry us along. Better to do what he asks.” Later that day, when I was ready to weep with fatigue, Matthew lifted me into his saddle without asking and rode until the horses ran themselves out. I was too tired to protest.

We reached the stone walls and timbered houses of Saint-Benoît on schedule, just as Philippe had commanded. By that point we were close enough to Sept-Tours that neither Pierre nor Matthew was much concerned with propriety, so I rode astride. In spite of our adherence to his schedule, Philippe continued to increase the number of family retainers accompanying us, as though he feared we might change our minds and return to England. Some dogged our heels on the roads. Others cleared the way, securing food, horses, and places to stay in bustling inns, isolated houses, and barricaded monasteries. Once we climbed into the rocky hills left by the extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne, we often spotted the silhouettes of riders along the forbidding peaks. After they saw us, they whirled away to carry reports of our progress back to Sept-Tours.

Two days later, as twilight fell, Matthew, Pierre, and I stopped on one of these ragged mountaintops, the de Clermont family château barely visible through swirling gusts of snow. The straight lines of the central keep were familiar, but otherwise I might not have recognized the place. Its encircling walls were intact, as were all six of the round towers, each capped by conical copper roofs that had aged to a soft bottle green. Smoke came from chimneys tucked out of sight behind the towers’ crenellations, the jagged outlines suggesting that some crazed giant with pinking shears had trimmed every wall. There was a snow-covered garden within the enclosure as well as rectangular beds beyond.

In modern times the fortress was forbidding. Now, with religious and civil war all around, its defensive capabilities were even more obvious. A formidable gatehouse stood vigil between Sept-Tours and the village. Inside, people hurried this way and that, many of them armed. Peering between snowflakes in the dusky light, I spotted wooden structures dotted throughout the enclosed courtyard. The light from their small windows created oblong cubes of warm color in the otherwise unbroken stretches of gray stone and snow-covered ground.

My mare let out a warm, moist exhalation. She was the finest horse I’d ridden since our first day of travel. Matthew’s present mount was large, inky-colored, and mean, snapping at everyone who got near him save the creature on his back. Both animals came from the de Clermont stables and knew their way home without any direction, eager to reach their oat buckets and a warm stable.

“Dieu. This is the last place on earth I imagined finding myself.” Matthew blinked, slowly, as if he expected the château to disappear before his eyes.

I reached over and rested my hand on his forearm. “Even now you have a choice. We can turn back.” Pierre looked at me with pity, and Matthew gave me a rueful smile.

“You don’t know my father.” His gaze returned to the castle.

Torches blazed all along our approach when at last we entered the gates of Sept-Tours. The heavy slabs of wood and iron were open in readiness, and a team of four men stood silently by as we passed. The gates slammed shut behind us, and two men drew a long timber from its hiding place in the walls to secure the entrance. Six days spent riding across France had taught me that these were wise precautions. People were suspicious of strangers, fearing the arrival of another marauding band of soldiers, a fresh hell of bloodshed and violence, a new lord to please.

A veritable army—humans and vampires both—awaited us inside. Half a dozen of them took charge of the horses. Pierre handed one a small packet of correspondence, while others asked him questions in low voices while sneaking furtive glances at me. No one came near or offered assistance. I sat atop my horse, shaking with fatigue and cold, and searched the crowd for Philippe. Surely he would order someone to help me down.

Matthew noticed my predicament and swung off his horse with enviably fluid grace. In several long strides, he was at my side, where he gently removed my unfeeling foot from the stirrup and rotated it slightly to restore its mobility. I thanked him, not wanting my first performance at SeptTours to involve tumbling into the trampled snow and dirt of the courtyard.

“Which of these men is your father?” I whispered as he crossed under the horse’s neck to reach my other foot.

“None of them. He’s inside, seemingly unconcerned with seeing us after insisting we ride as though the hounds of hell were in pursuit. You should be inside, too.” Matthew began issuing orders in curt French, dispersing the gawking servants in every direction until only one vampire was left standing at the base of a corkscrew of wooden steps that rose to the château’s door. I experienced the jarring sense of past and present colliding when I remembered climbing a not-yet-constructed set of stone steps and meeting Ysabeau for the first time.

“Alain.” Matthew’s face softened with relief.

“Welcome home.” The vampire spoke English. As he approached with a slight hitch in his gait, the details of his appearance came into focus: the salt-and-pepper hair, the lines around his kind eyes, his wiry build.

“Thank you, Alain. This is my wife, Diana.”

“Madame de Clermont.” Alain bowed, keeping a careful, respectful distance.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Alain.” We had never met, but I already associated his name with steadfast loyalty and support. It had been Alain that Matthew called in the middle of the night when he wanted to be sure that there was food waiting for me at Sept-Tours in the twenty-first century.

“Your father is waiting,” Alain said, stepping aside to let us pass.

“Have them send food to my rooms—something simple. Diana is tired and hungry.” Matthew handed Alain his gloves. “I’ll see him momentarily.”

“He is expecting both of you now.” A carefully neutral expression settled over Alain’s face. “Do be careful on the stairs, madame. The treads are icy.” “Is he?” Matthew looked up at the square keep, mouth tightening. With Matthew’s hand firmly at my elbow, I had no trouble navigating the stairs. But my legs were shaking so badly after the climb that my feet caught the edge of an uneven flagstone in the entrance. That slip was enough to set Matthew’s temper ablaze.

“Philippe is being unreasonable,” Matthew snapped as he caught me around the waist. “She’s been traveling for days.”

“He was most explicit in his orders, sir.” Alain’s stiff formality was a warning.

“It’s all right, Matthew.” I pushed my hood from my face to survey the great hall beyond. Gone was the display of armor and pikes I’d seen in the twenty-first century. Instead a carved wooden screen helped deflect the drafts when the door was opened. Gone, too, were the faux-medieval decorations, the round table, the porcelain bowl. Instead tapestries blew gently against stone walls as the warm air from the fireplace mingled with the colder air from outside. Two long tables flanked by low benches filled the remaining space, and men and women shuttled between them laying out plates and cups for supper. There was room for dozens of creatures to gather there. The minstrels’ gallery high above wasn’t empty now but crowded with musicians readying their instruments.

“Amazing,” I breathed from between stiff lips.

Cold fingers grasped my chin and turned it. “You’re blue,” Matthew said.

“I will bring a brazier for her feet, and warm wine,” Alain promised. “And we will build up the fires.”

A warmblooded human appeared and took my wet cloak. Matthew turned sharply in the direction of what I knew as the breakfast room. I listened but heard nothing.

Alain shook his head apologetically. “He is not in a good temper.”

“Evidently not.” Matthew looked down. “Philippe is bellowing for us. Are you sure, Diana? If you don’t want to see him tonight, I’ll brave his wrath.”

But Matthew would not be alone for his first meeting with his father in more than six decades. He had stood by me while I’d faced my ghosts, and I would do the same for him. Then I was going to go to bed, where I planned to remain until Christmas.

“Let’s go,” I said resolutely, picking up my skirts.

Sept-Tours was too ancient to have modern conveniences like corridors, so we snaked through an arched door to the right of the fireplace and into the corner of a room that would one day be Ysabeau’s grand salon. It wasn’t overstuffed with fine furniture now but decorated with the same austerity as every other place I’d seen on our journey. The heavy oak furniture resisted casual theft and could sustain the occasional ill effects of battle, as evidenced by the deep slash that cut diagonally across the surface of a chest.

From there Alain led us into the room where Ysabeau and I would one day take our breakfast amid warm terra-cotta walls at a table set with pottery and weighty silver cutlery. It was a far cry from that place in its present state, with only a table and chair. The tabletop was covered with papers and other tools of the secretary. There was no time to see more before we were climbing a worn stone staircase to an unfamiliar part of the château.

The stairs came to an abrupt halt on a wide landing. A long gallery opened up to the left, housing an odd assortment of gadgets, clocks, weaponry, portraits, and furniture. A battered golden crown perched casually on the marble head of some ancient god. A lumpy pigeon’s-blood ruby the size of an egg winked malevolently at me from the crown’s center.

“This way,” Alain said, motioning us forward into the next chamber. Here was another staircase, this one leading up rather than down. A few uncomfortable benches sat on either side of a closed door. Alain waited, patiently and silently, for a response to our presence. When it came, the single Latin word resounded through the thick wood:

“Introite.”

Matthew started at the sound. Alain cast a worried look at him and pushed the door. It silently swung open on substantial, well-oiled hinges.

A man sat opposite, his back to us and his hair gleaming. Even seated it was evident that he was quite tall, with the broad shoulders of an athlete. A pen scratched against paper, providing a steady treble note to harmonize with the intermittent pops of wood burning in the fireplace and the gusts of wind howling outside.

A bass note rumbled into the music of the place: “Sedete.”

Now it was my turn to jump. With no door to muffle its impact, Philippe’s voice resonated until my ears tingled. The man was used to being obeyed, at once and without question. My feet moved toward the two awaiting chairs so that I could sit as he’d commanded. I took three steps before realizing that Matthew was still in the doorway. I returned to his side and grasped his hand in mine. Matthew stared down, bewildered, and shook himself free from his memories.

In moments we had crossed the room. I settled into a chair with the promised wine and a pierced-metal foot warmer to prop up my legs. Alain withdrew with a sympathetic glance and a nod. Then we waited. It was difficult for me but impossible for Matthew. His tension increased until he was nearly vibrating with suppressed emotion.

By the time his father acknowledged our presence, my anxiety and temper were both dangerously close to the surface. I was staring down at my hands and wondering if they were strong enough to strangle him when two ferociously cold spots bloomed on my bowed head. Lifting my chin, I found myself gazing into the tawny eyes of a Greek god.

When I had first seen Matthew, my instinctive response had been to run. But Matthew—large and brooding as he’d been that September night in the Bodleian Library—hadn’t appeared half so otherworldly. And it wasn’t because Philippe de Clermont was a monster. On the contrary. He was, quite simply, the most breathtaking creature I had ever seen—supernatural, preternatural, daemonic, or merely human.

No one could look at Philippe de Clermont and think he was mortal flesh. The vampire’s features were too perfect, and eerily symmetrical. Straight, dark eyebrows settled over eyes that were a pale, mutable golden brown touched with flecks of green. Exposure to sun and elements had touched his brown hair with strands of gleaming gold, silver, and bronze. Philippe’s mouth was soft and sensual, though anger had drawn his lips hard and tight tonight.

Pressing my own lips together to keep my jaw from dropping, I met his appraising stare. Once I did, his eyes moved slowly and deliberately to Matthew.

“Explain yourself.” The words were quiet, but they didn’t conceal Philippe’s fury. There was more than one angry vampire in the room, however. Now that the shock of seeing Philippe had passed, Matthew tried to take the upper hand.

“You commanded me to Sept-Tours. Here I am, alive and well, despite your grandson’s hysterical reports.” Matthew tossed the silver coin onto his father’s oak table. It landed on its edge and whirled on an invisible axis before toppling flat.

“Surely it would have been better for your wife to remain at home this time of year.” Like Alain, Philippe spoke English as flawlessly as a native.

“Diana is my mate, Father. I could hardly leave her in England with Henry and Walter simply because it might snow.”

“Stand down, Matthew,” Philippe growled. The sound was as leonine as the rest of him. The de Clermont family was a menagerie of formidable beasts. In Matthew’s presence I was always reminded of wolves. With Ysabeau it was falcons. Gallowglass had made me think of a bear. Philippe was akin to yet another deadly predator.

“Gallowglass and Walter tell me the witch requires my protection.” The lion reached for a letter. He tapped the edge of it on the table and stared at Matthew. “I thought that protecting weaker creatures was your job now that you occupy the family’s seat on the Congregation.”

“Diana isn’t weak—and she needs more protection than the Congregation can afford, given the fact that she is married to me. Will you bestow it?” The challenge was in Matthew’s tone now, as well as his bearing.

“First I need to hear her account,” Philippe said. He looked at me and lifted his eyebrows.

“We met by chance. I knew she was a witch, but the bond between us was undeniable,” Matthew said. “Her own people have turned on her—”

A hand that might have been mistaken for a paw rose in a gesture commanding quiet. Philippe returned his attention to his son.

“Matthaios.” Philippe’s lazy drawl had the efficiency of a slow-moving whip, silencing his son immediately. “Am I to understand that you need my protection?”

“Of course not,” Matthew said indignantly.

“Then hush and let the witch speak.”

Intent on giving Matthew’s father what he wanted so that we could get out of his unnerving presence as quickly as possible, I considered how best to recount our recent adventures. Rehearsing every detail would take too long, and the chances that Matthew might explode in the meantime were excellent. I took a deep breath and began.

“My name is Diana Bishop, and my parents were both powerful witches. Other witches killed them when they were far from home, when I was still a child. Before they died, they spellbound me. My mother was a seer, and she knew what was to come.”

Philippe’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. I understood his caution. It was still difficult for me to understand why two people who loved me had broken the witches’ ethical code and placed their only daughter in magical shackles.

“Growing up, I was a family disgrace—a witch who couldn’t light a candle or perform a spell properly. I turned my back on the Bishops and went to university.” With this revelation Matthew began to shift uneasily in his seat. “I studied the history of alchemy.”

“Diana studies the art of alchemy,” Matthew corrected, shooting me a warning glance. But his convoluted half-truths wouldn’t satisfy his father.

“I’m a timewalker.” The word hung in the air between the three of us. “You call it a fileuse de temps.”

“Oh, I am well aware of what you are,” Philippe said in the same lazy tone. A fleeting look of surprise touched Matthew’s face. “I have lived a long time, madame, and have known many creatures. You are not from this time, nor the past, so you must be from the future. And Matthaios traveled back with you, for he is not the same man he was eight months ago. The Matthew I know would never have looked twice at a witch.” The vampire drew in a deep breath. “My grandson warned me that you both smelled very odd.”

“Philippe, let me explain—” But Matthew was not destined to finish his sentences this evening.

“As troubling as many aspects of this situation are, I am glad to see that we can look forward to a sensible attitude toward shaving in the years to come.” Philippe idly scratched his own neatly clipped beard and mustache. “Beards are a sign of lice, not wisdom, after all.”

“I’m told Matthew looks like an invalid.” I drew a tired sigh. “But I don’t know a spell to fix it.”

Philippe waved my words away. “A beard is easy enough to arrange. You were telling me of your interest in alchemy.”

“Yes. I found a book—one that many others have sought. I met Matthew when he came to steal it from me, but he couldn’t because I’d already let it out of my hands. Every creature for miles was after me then. I had to stop working!”

A sound that might have been suppressed laughter set a muscle in Philippe’s jaw throbbing. It was, I discovered, hard to tell with lions whether they were amused or about to pounce.

“We think it’s the book of origins,” Matthew said. His expression was proud, though my calling of the manuscript had been completely accidental. “It came looking for Diana. By the time the other creatures realized what she’d found, I was already in love.”

“So this went on for some time, then.” Philippe tented his fingers in front of his chin, resting his elbows on the edges of the table. He was sitting on a simple four-legged stool, even though a splendid, thronelike eyesore sat empty next to him.

“No,” I said after doing some calculations, “just a fortnight. Matthew wouldn’t admit to his feelings for the longest time, though—not until we were at Sept-Tours. But it wasn’t safe here either. One night I left Matthew’s bed and went outside. A witch took me from the gardens.”

Philippe’s eyes darted from me to Matthew. “There was a witch inside the walls of Sept-Tours?”

“Yes,” said Matthew tersely.

“Down into them,” I corrected gently, capturing his father’s attention once more. “I don’t believe any witch’s foot ever touched the ground, if that’s important. Well, mine did, of course.”

“Of course,” Philippe acknowledged with a tip of his head. “Continue.”

“She took me to La Pierre. Domenico was there. So was Gerbert.” The look on Philippe’s face told me that neither the castle nor the two vampires who had met me inside it were unfamiliar.

“Curses, like chickens, come home to roost,” Philippe murmured.

“It was the Congregation who ordered my abduction, and a witch named Satu tried to force the magic from me. When she failed, Satu threw me into the oubliette.”

Matthew’s hand strayed to the small of my back as it always did when that night was mentioned. Philippe watched the movement but said nothing.

“After I escaped, I couldn’t stay at Sept-Tours and put Ysabeau in danger. There was all this magic coming out of me, you see, and powers I couldn’t control. Matthew and I went home, to my aunts’ house.” I paused, searching for a way to explain where that house was. “You know the legends told by Gallowglass’s people, about lands across the ocean to the west?” Philippe nodded. “That’s where my aunts live. More or less.”

“And these aunts are both witches?”

“Yes. Then a manjasang came to kill Matthew—one of Gerbert’s creatures—and she nearly succeeded. There was nowhere we could go that would be beyond the Congregation’s reach, except the past.” I paused, shocked at the venomous look that Philippe gave Matthew. “But we haven’t found a haven here. People in Woodstock know I’m a witch, and the trials in Scotland might affect our lives in Oxfordshire. So we’re on the run again.” I reviewed the outlines of the story, making sure I hadn’t left out anything important. “That’s my tale.”

“You have a talent for relating complicated information quickly and succinctly, madame. If you would be so kind as to share your methods with Matthew, it would be a service to the family. We spend more than we should on paper and quills.” Philippe considered his fingertips for a moment, then stood with a vampiric efficiency that turned a simple movement into an explosion. One minute he was seated, and then, the next, his muscles sprang into action so that all six feet of him suddenly, and startlingly, loomed over the table. The vampire fixed his attention on his son.

“This is a dangerous game you are playing, Matthew, one with everything to lose and very little to gain. Gallowglass sent a message after you parted. The rider took a different route and arrived before you did. While you’ve been taking your time getting here, the king of Scotland has arrested hundreds of witches and imprisoned them in Edinburgh. The Congregation no doubt thinks you are on your way there to persuade King James to drop this matter.”

“All the more reason for you to give Diana your protection,” Matthew said tightly.

“Why should I?” Philippe’s cold countenance dared him to say it.

“Because I love her. And because you tell me that’s what the Order of Lazarus is for: protecting those who cannot protect themselves.”

“I protect other manjasang, not witches!”

“Maybe you should take a more expansive view,” Matthew said stubbornly. “Manjasang can normally take care of themselves.”

“You know very well that I cannot protect this woman, Matthew. All of Europe is feuding over matters of faith, and warmbloods are seeking scapegoats for their present troubles. Inevitably they turn to the creatures around them. Yet you knowingly brought this woman—a woman you claim is your mate and a witch by blood—into this madness. No.” Philippe shook his head vehemently. “You may think you can brazen it out, but I will not put the family at risk by provoking the Congregation and ignoring the terms of the covenant.”

“Philippe, you must—”

“Don’t use that word with me.” A finger jabbed in Matthew’s direction. “Set your affairs in order and return whence you came. Ask me for help there—or better yet, ask the witch’s aunts. Don’t bring your troubles into the past where they don’t belong.”

But there was no Philippe for Matthew to lean on in the twenty-first century. He was gone—dead and buried.

“I have never asked you for anything, Philippe. Until now.” The air in the room dropped several dangerous degrees.

“You should have foreseen my response, Matthaios, but as usual you were not thinking. What if your mother were here? What if bad weather hadn’t struck Trier? You know she despises witches.” Philippe stared at his son. “It would take a small army to keep her from tearing this woman limb from limb, and I don’t have one to spare at the moment.”

First it had been Ysabeau who’d wished me out of her son’s life. Baldwin had made no effort to hide his disdain. Matthew’s friend Hamish was wary of me, and Kit openly disliked me. Now it was Philippe’s turn. I stood and waited for Matthew’s father to look at me. When he did, I met his eyes squarely. His flickered with surprise.

“Matthew couldn’t anticipate this, Monsieur de Clermont. He trusted you to stand with him, though his faith was misplaced in this case.” I took a steadying breath. “I would be grateful if you would let me stay at SeptTours tonight. Matthew hasn’t slept for weeks, and he is more likely to do so in a familiar place. Tomorrow I will return to England—without Matthew, if necessary.”

One of my new curls tumbled onto my left temple. I reached up to push it away and found my wrist in Philippe de Clermont’s grip. By the time I had registered my new position, Matthew was next to his father, palms on his shoulders.

“Where did you get that?” Philippe was gazing at the ring on the third finger of my left hand. Ysabeau’s ring. Philippe’s eyes turned feral, sought out mine. His fingers tightened on my wrist until the bones started to give way. “She would never have given my ring to another, not while we both lived.”

“She lives, Philippe.” Matthew’s words were fast and rough, meant to convey information rather than reassurance.

“But if Ysabeau is alive, then . . .” Philippe trailed off into silence. For a moment he looked dumbfounded before understanding crept over his features. “So I am not immortal after all. And you cannot seek me out when and where these troubles began.”

“No.” Matthew forced the syllable past his lips.

“Yet you left your mother to face your enemies?” Philippe’s expression was savage.

“Marthe is with her. Baldwin and Alain will make certain that she comes to no harm.” Matthew’s words now came in a soothing stream, but his father still held my fingers. They were growing numb.

“And Ysabeau gave my ring to a witch? How extraordinary. It looks well on her, though,” Philippe said absently, turning my hand toward the firelight.

“Maman thought it would,” said Matthew softly.

“When—” Philippe took a deliberate breath and shook his head. “No. Don’t tell me. No creature should know his own death.”

My mother had foreseen her gruesome end and my father’s, too. Cold, exhausted, and haunted by my own memories, I started to tremble. Matthew’s father seemed oblivious to it, staring down at our hands, but his son was not.

“Let her go, Philippe,” Matthew commanded.

Philippe looked into my eyes and sighed with disappointment. Despite the ring, I was not his beloved Ysabeau. He withdrew his hand, and I stepped back, well beyond Philippe’s long reach.

“Now that you have heard her tale, will you give Diana your protection?” Matthew searched his father’s face.

“Is that what you want, madame?”

I nodded, my fingers curling around the carved arm of the nearby chair.

“Then yes, the Knights of Lazarus will ensure her well-being.”

“Thank you, Father.” Matthew’s hands tightened on Philippe’s shoulder, and then he headed back in my direction. “Diana is tired. We will see you in the morning.”

“Absolutely not.” Philippe’s voice cracked across the room. “Your witch is under my roof and in my care. She will not be sharing a bed with you.”

Matthew took my hand in his. “Diana is far from home, Philippe. She’s not familiar with this part of the castle.”

“She will not be staying in your rooms, Matthew.”

“Why not?” I asked, frowning at Matthew and his father in turn.

“Because the two of you are not mated, no matter what pretty lies Matthew told you. And thank the gods for that. Perhaps we can avert disaster after all.”

“Not mated?” I asked numbly.

“Exchanging promises and accepting a manjasang bond do not make an inviolable agreement, madame.”

“He’s my husband in every way that matters,” I said, color flooding into my cheeks. After I told Matthew I loved him, he had assured me that we were mated.

“You’re not properly married either—at least not in a way to stand up to scrutiny,” Philippe continued, “and there will be plenty of that if you keep up this pretense. Matthew always did spend more time in Paris brooding over his metaphysics than studying the law. In this case, my son, your instinct should have told you what was necessary even if your intellect did not.”

“We swore oaths to each other before we left. Matthew gave me Ysabeau’s ring.” We’d been through a kind of ceremony during those last minutes in Madison. My mind raced over the sequence of events to find the loophole.

“What constitutes a manjasang mating is the same thing that silences all objections to a marriage when priests, lawyers, enemies, and rivals come calling: physical consummation.” Philippe’s nostrils flared. “And you are not yet joined in that way. Your scents are not only odd but entirely distinct— like two separate creatures instead of one. Any manjasang would know you are not fully mated. Gerbert and Domenico certainly knew it as soon as Diana was in their presence. So did Baldwin.”

“We are married and mated. There is no need for any proof other than my assurances. As for the rest, it is none of your affair, Philippe,” Matthew said, putting his body firmly between me and his father.

“Oh, Matthaios, we are long past that.” Philippe sounded tired. “Diana is an unmarried, fatherless woman, and I see no brothers in the room to stand for her. She is entirely my affair.”

“We are married in the eyes of God.”

“And yet you waited to take her. What are you waiting for, Matthew? A sign? She wants you. I can tell by the way she looks at you. For most men that’s enough.” Philippe’s eyes pinned his son and me in turn. Reminded of Matthew’s strange reluctance on this score, worry and doubt spread through me like poison.

“We’ve not known each other long. Even so, I know I will be with her—and only her—for my whole life. She is my mate. You know what the ring says, Philippe: ‘a ma vie de coer entier.’”

“Giving a woman your whole life is meaningless without giving her your whole heart as well. You should pay more attention to the conclusion of that love token, not just the beginning.”

“She has my heart,” Matthew said.

“Not all of it. If she did, every member of the Congregation would be dead, the covenant would be broken forever, and you would be where you belong and not in this room,” Philippe said bluntly. “I don’t know what constitutes marriage in this future of yours, but in the present moment it is something worth dying for.”

“Shedding blood in Diana’s name is not the answer to our current difficulties.” Despite centuries of experience with his father, Matthew stubbornly refused to admit to what I already knew: There was no way to win an argument with Philippe de Clermont.

“Does a witch’s blood not count?” Both men turned to me in surprise. “You’ve killed a witch, Matthew. And I’ve killed a vampire—a manjasang—rather than lose you. Since we are sharing secrets tonight, your father may as well know the truth.” Gillian Chamberlain and Juliette Durand were two casualties in the escalating hostilities caused by our relationship.

“And you think there is time for courtship? For a man who considers himself learned, Matthew, your stupidity is breathtaking,” Philippe said, disgusted. Matthew took his father’s insult without flinching, then played his trump card.

“Ysabeau accepted Diana as her daughter,” he said.

But Philippe would not be so easily swayed.

“Neither your God nor your mother has ever succeeded in making you face the consequences of your actions. Apparently that hasn’t changed.” Philippe braced his hands on the desk and called for Alain. “Since you are not mated, no permanent damage has been done. This matter can be set to rights before anyone finds out and the family is ruined. I will send to Lyon for a witch to help Diana better understand her power. You can inquire after her book while I do, Matthew. Then you are both going home, where you will forget about this indiscretion and move on with your separate lives.”

“Diana and I are going to my rooms. Together. Or so help me—”

“Before you finish delivering that threat, be very sure that you have sufficient might to back it up,” Philippe replied dispassionately. “The girl sleeps alone and near me.”

A draft told me the door had opened. It carried with it a distinct whiff of wax and cracked pepper. Alain’s cold eyes darted around, taking in Matthew’s anger and the unrelenting look on Philippe’s face.

“You have been outmaneuvered, Matthaios,” Philippe said to his son. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing with yourself, but it has made you soft. Come now. Concede the field, kiss your witch, and say your good-nights. Alain, take this woman to Louisa’s room. She is in Vienna—or Venice. I cannot keep up with that girl and her endless wanderings.

“As for you,” Philippe continued, casting amber eyes over his son, “you will go downstairs and wait for me in the hall until I am finished writing to Gallowglass and Raleigh. It has been some time since you were home, and your friends want to know whether Elizabeth Tudor has two heads and three breasts as is widely claimed.”

Unwilling to relinquish his territory completely, Matthew put his fingers under my chin, looked deep into my eyes, and kissed me rather more thoroughly than his father apparently expected.

“That will be all, Diana,” Philippe said, sharply dismissive, when Matthew was finished.

“Come, madame,” Alain said, gesturing toward the door.

Awake and alone in another woman’s bed, I listened to the crying wind, turning over all that had happened. There was too much subterfuge to sort through, as well as the hurt and sense of betrayal. I knew that Matthew loved me. But he must have known that others would contest our vows.

As the hours passed, I gave up all hope of sleeping. I went to the window and faced the dawn, trying to figure out how our plans had unraveled so much in such a short period of time and wondering what part Philippe de Clermont—and Matthew’s secrets—had played in their undoing.

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