فصل 09

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فصل 09

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Chapter Nine

When my door swung open the next morning, Matthew was propped against the stone wall opposite. Judging from his state, he hadn’t gotten any sleep either. He sprang to his feet, much to the amusement of the two young servingwomen who stood giggling behind me. They weren’t used to seeing him this way, all mussed and tousled. A scowl darkened his face.

“Good morning.” I stepped forward, cranberry skirts swinging. Like my bed, my servants, and practically everything else I touched, the outfit belonged to Louisa de Clermont. Her scent of roses and civet had been suffocatingly thick last night, emanating from the embroidered hangings that surrounded the bed. I took a deep breath of cold, clear air and sought out the notes of clove and cinnamon that were essentially and indisputably Matthew. Some of the fatigue left my bones as soon as I detected them, and, comforted by their familiarity, I burrowed into the sleeveless, black wool robe that the maids had lowered over my shoulders. It reminded me of my academic regalia and provided an additional layer of warmth.

Matthew’s expression lifted as he drew me close and kissed me with admirable dedication to detail. The maids continued to giggle and make what he took to be encouraging remarks. A sudden gust around my ankles indicated that another witness had arrived. Our lips parted.

“You are too old to moon about in antechambers, Matthaios,” his father commented, sticking his tawny head out of the next room. “The twelfth century was not good for you, and we allowed you to read entirely too much poetry. Compose yourself before the men see you, please, and bring Diana downstairs. She smells like a beehive at midsummer, and it will take time for the household to grow accustomed to her scent. We don’t want any unfortunate bloodshed.”

“There would be less chance of that if you would stop interfering. This separation is absurd,” Matthew said, grasping my elbow. “We are husband and wife.”

“You are not, thank the gods. Go down, and I will join you shortly.” He shook his head ruefully and withdrew.

Matthew was tight-lipped as we faced each other across one of the long tables in the chilly great hall. There were few people in the room at this hour, and those who lingered left quickly after getting a good look at his forbidding expression. Bread, hot from the oven, and spiced wine were laid before me on the table. It wasn’t tea, but it would do. Matthew waited to speak until I had taken my first long sip.

“I’ve seen my father. We’ll leave at once.”

I wrapped my fingers more tightly around the cup without responding. Bits of orange peel floated in the wine, plumped up with the warm liquid. The citrus made it seem slightly more like a breakfast drink.

Matthew looked around the room, his face haunted. “Coming here was unwise.”

“Where are we to go instead? It’s snowing. Back at Woodstock the village is ready to drag me before a judge on charges of witchcraft. At SeptTours we may have to sleep apart and put up with your father, but perhaps he’ll be able to find a witch willing to help me.” So far Matthew’s hasty decisions had not worked out well.

“Philippe is a meddler. As for finding a witch, he’s not much fonder of your people than is Maman.” Matthew studied the scarred wooden table and picked at a bit of candle wax that had trickled down into one of the cracks. “My house in Milan might do. We could spend Christmas there. Italian witches have a considerable reputation for magic and are known for their uncanny foresight.”

“Surely not Milan.” Philippe appeared before us with the force of a hurricane and slid onto the bench next to me. Matthew carefully moderated his speed and strength in deference to warmblooded nerves. So, too, did Miriam, Marcus, Marthe, and even Ysabeau. His father showed no such consideration.

“I’ve performed my act of filial piety, Philippe,” Matthew said curtly. “There’s no reason to tarry, and we will be fine in Milan. Diana knows the Tuscan tongue.”

If he meant Italian, I was capable of ordering tagliatelle in restaurants and books at the library. Somehow I doubted that would be sufficient.

“How useful for her. It is regrettable that you are not going to Florence, then. But it will be a long time before you will be welcomed back to that city, after your latest escapades there,” Philippe said mildly. “Parlez-vous français, madame?”

“Oui,” I said warily, certain that this conversation was taking a multilingual turn for the worse.

“Hmm.” Philippe frowned. “Dicunt mihi vos es philologus.”

“She is a scholar,” Matthew interjected testily. “If you want a rehearsal of her credentials, I’ll be pleased to provide it, in private, after breakfast.”

“Loquerisne latine?” Philippe asked me, as if his son hadn’t spoken. “Mil?s ellinik??”

“Mea lingua latina est mala,” I replied, putting down my wine. Philippe’s eyes shot wide at my appallingly schoolgirl response, his expression taking me straight back to the horrors of Latin 101. Put a Latin alchemical text in front of me and I could read it. But I wasn’t prepared for a discussion. I soldiered bravely on, hoping I had deduced correctly that his second question probed my grasp of Greek. “Tamen mea lingua graeca est peior.”

“Then we shall not converse in that language either,” murmured Philippe in a pained tone. He turned to Matthew in indignation. “Den tha ekpaidéfsoun gyna?kes sto méllon?”

“Women in Diana’s time receive considerably more schooling than you would think wise, Father,” Matthew answered. “Just not in Greek.”

“They have no need for Aristotle in the future? What a strange world it must be. I am glad that I will not encounter it for some time to come.” Philippe gave the wine pitcher a suspicious sniff and decided against it. “Diana will have to become more fluent in French and Latin. Only a few of our servants speak English, and none at all belowstairs.” He tossed a heavy ring of keys across the table. My fingers opened automatically to catch them.

“Absolutely not,” Matthew said, reaching to pluck them from my grasp. “Diana won’t be here long enough to trouble herself with the household.”

“She is the highest-ranking woman at Sept-Tours, and it is her due. You should begin, I think, with the cook,” Philippe said, pointing to the largest of the keys. “That one opens the food stores. The others unlock the bakehouse, the brewhouse, all the sleeping chambers save my own, and the cellars.”

“Which one opens the library?” I asked, fingering the worn iron surfaces with interest.

“We don’t lock up books in this house,” Philippe said, “only food, ale, and wine. Reading Herodotus or Aquinas seldom leads to bad behavior.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” I said under my breath. “And what is the cook’s name?”

“Chef.”

“No, his given name,” I said, confused.

Philippe shrugged. “He is in charge, so he is Chef. I’ve never called him anything else. Have you, Matthaios?” Father and son exchanged a look that had me worried about the future of the trestle table that separated them.

“I thought you were in charge. If I’m to call the cook ‘Chef,’ what am I to call you?” My sharp tone temporarily distracted Matthew, who was about to toss the table aside and wrap his long fingers around his father’s neck.

“Everyone here calls me either ‘sire’ or ‘Father.’ Which would you prefer?” Philippe’s question was silky and dangerous.

“Just call him Philippe,” Matthew rumbled. “He goes by many other titles, but those that fit him best would blister your tongue.”

Philippe grinned at his son. “You didn’t lose your combativeness when you lost your sense, I see. Leave the household to your woman and join me for a ride. You look puny and need proper exercise.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

“I am not leaving Diana,” Matthew retorted. He was fiddling nervously with an enormous silver salt, the ancestor of the humble salt crock that sat by my stove in New Haven.

“Why not?” Philippe snorted. “Alain will play nursemaid.”

Matthew opened his mouth to reply.

“Father?” I said sweetly, cutting into the exchange. “Might I speak with my husband privately before he meets you in the stables?”

Philippe’s eyes narrowed. He stood and bowed slowly in my direction. It was the first time the vampire had moved at anything resembling normal speed. “Of course, madame. I will send for Alain to attend upon you. Enjoy your privacy—while you have it.”

Matthew waited, his eyes on me, until his father left the room.

“What are you up to, Diana?” he asked quietly as I rose and made a slow progress around the table.

“Why is Ysabeau in Trier?” I asked.

“What does it matter?” he said evasively.

I swore like a sailor, which effectively removed the innocent expression from his face. There had been a lot of time to think last night, lying alone in Louisa’s rose-scented room—enough time for me to piece together the events of the past weeks and square them with what I knew about the period.

“It matters because there’s nothing much to do in Trier in 1590 but hunt witches!” A servant scuttled through the room, headed for the front door. There were still two men sitting by the fire, so I lowered my voice. “This is neither the time nor the place to discuss your father’s current role in early-modern geopolitics, why a Catholic cardinal allowed you to order him around Mont Saint-Michel as if it were your private island, or the tragic death of Gallowglass’s father. But you will tell me. And we definitely will require further time and privacy for you to explain the more technical aspects of vampire mating.”

I whirled around to get away from him. He waited until I was far enough away to think escape was possible before neatly catching my elbow and turning me back. It was the instinctive maneuver of a predator. “No, Diana. We’ll talk about our marriage before either of us leaves this room.”

Matthew turned in the direction of the last huddle of servants enjoying their morning meal. A jerk of his head sent them scurrying.

“What marriage?” I demanded. Something dangerous sparked in his eyes and was gone.

“Do you love me, Diana?” Matthew’s mild question surprised me.

“Yes,” I responded instantaneously. “But if loving you were all that mattered, this would be simple and we would still be in Madison.”

“It is simple.” Matthew rose to his feet. “If you love me, my father’s words don’t have the power to dissolve our promises to each other, any more than the Congregation can make us abide by the covenant.”

“If you truly loved me, you would give yourself to me. Body and soul.”

“That’s not so simple,” Matthew said sadly. “From the first I warned you that a relationship with a vampire would be complicated.”

“Philippe doesn’t seem to think so.”

“Then bed him. If it’s me you want, you’ll wait.” Matthew was composed, but it was the calm of a frozen river: hard and smooth on the surface but raging underneath. He’d been using words as weapons since we left the Old Lodge. He’d apologized for the first few cutting remarks, but there would be no apology for this. Now that he was with his father again, Matthew’s civilized veneer was too thin for something so modern and human as regret.

“Philippe isn’t my type,” I said coldly. “You might, however, do me the courtesy of explaining why I should wait for you.”

“Because there is no such thing as vampire divorce. There’s mating and there’s death. Some vampires—my mother and Philippe included— separate for a time if there are”—he paused—“disagreements. They take other lovers. With time and distance, they resolve their differences and come together again. But that isn’t going to work for me.”

“Good. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a marriage either. But I still don’t see why that makes you so reluctant to consummate our relationship.” He’d already learned my body and its responses with the careful attention of a lover. It wasn’t me or the idea of sex that made him hesitate.

“It’s too soon to curb your freedom. Once I lose myself inside you, there will be no other lovers and no separations. You need to be sure if being wed to a vampire is what you really want.”

“You get to choose me, over and over again, but when I want the same, you think I don’t know my own mind?”

“I’ve had ample opportunity to know what I want. Your fondness for me may be nothing more than a way of alleviating your fear of the unknown, or satisfying your desire to embrace this world of creatures that you’ve denied for so long.”

“Fondness? I love you. It makes no difference whether I have two days or two years. My decision will be the same.”

“The difference will be that I will not have done to you what your parents did!” he exploded, pushing past me. “Mating a vampire is no less confining than being spellbound by witches. You’re living on your own terms for the first time, yet you’re ready to swap one set of restraints for another. But mine aren’t the enchanted stuff of fairy tales, and no charm will remove them when they begin to chafe.”

“I’m your lover, not your prisoner.”

“And I am a vampire, not a warmblood. Mating instincts are primitive and difficult to control. My entire being will be focused on you. No one deserves that kind of ruthless attention, least of all the woman I love.”

“So I can either live without you or be locked in a tower by you.” I shook my head. “This is fear talking, not reason. You’re scared of losing me, and being with Philippe is making it worse. Pushing me away isn’t going to ease your pain, but talking about it might.”

“Now that I’m with my father again, my wounds open and bleeding, am I not healing as quickly as you hoped?” The cruelty was back in Matthew’s tone. I winced. Regret flickered over his features before they hardened again.

“You would rather be anywhere than here. I know that, Matthew. But Hancock was right: I wouldn’t last long in a place like London or Paris, where we might be able to find a willing witch. Other women will spot my differences straightaway, and they won’t be as forgiving as Walter or Henry. I’d be turned in to the authorities—or the Congregation—in a matter of days.”

The acuity of Matthew’s gaze gave weight to his warning about what it would feel like to be the object of a vampire’s single-minded attention. “Another witch won’t care,” he said stubbornly, dropping my arms and turning away. “And I can manage the Congregation.”

The few feet that separated Matthew and me stretched until we might have been on opposite sides of the world. Solitude, my old companion, no longer felt like a friend.

“We can’t go on this way, Matthew. With no family and no property, I’m utterly dependent on you,” I continued. Historians had some things right about the past, including the structural weaknesses associated with being female, friendless, and without money. “We need to stay at SeptTours until I can walk into a room and not draw every curious eye. I have to be able to manage on my own. Starting with these.” I held up the keys to the castle.

“You want to play house?” he said doubtfully.

“I’m not playing house. I’m playing for keeps.” Matthew quirked his lips at my words, but it wasn’t a real smile. “Go. Spend time with your father. I’ll be too busy to miss you.”

Matthew left for the stables without a kiss or word of farewell. The absence of his usual reassurances left me feeling strangely unresolved. After his scent had dissipated, I called softly for Alain, who arrived suspiciously quickly, accompanied by Pierre. They must have heard every word of our exchange.

“Staring out the window doesn’t hide your thoughts, Pierre. It’s one of your master’s few tells, and every time he does it, I know he’s concealing something.”

“Tells?” Pierre looked at me, confused. The game of poker had yet to be invented.

“An outward sign of an inward concern. Matthew looks away when he’s anxious or doesn’t want to tell me something. And he runs his fingers through his hair when he doesn’t know what to do. These are tells.”

“So he does, madame.” Pierre looked at me, awestruck. “Does milord know that you used a witch’s powers of divination to see into his soul? Madame de Clermont knows these habits, and milord’s brothers and father do as well. But you have known him for such a short time and yet know so much.”

Alain coughed.

Pierre looked horrified. “I forget myself, madame. Please forgive me.”

“Curiosity is a blessing, Pierre. And I used observation, not divination, to know my husband.” There was no reason the seeds of the Scientific Revolution shouldn’t be planted now, in the Auvergne. “We will, I think, be more comfortable discussing matters in the library.” I pointed in what I hoped was the proper direction.

The room where the de Clermonts kept most of their books represented the closest thing to a home-court advantage available to me in sixteenthcentury Sept-Tours. Once I was enshrouded in the scent of paper, leather, and stone, some of the loneliness left me. This was a world I knew.

“We have a great deal of work to do,” I said quietly, turning to face the family retainers. “First, I would ask both of you to promise me something.”

“A vow, madame?” Alain looked upon me with suspicion.

I nodded. “If I request something that would require the assistance of milord or, more important, his father, please tell me and we will change course immediately. They don’t need to worry about my small concerns.” The men looked wary but intrigued.

“?c,” Alain agreed with a nod.

Despite such auspicious beginnings, my first team meeting got off to a rocky start. Pierre refused to sit in my presence, and Alain would take a chair only if I did. But remaining motionless wasn’t an option, given my rising tide of anxiety about my responsibilities at Sept-Tours, so the three of us completed lap after lap of the library. While we circled, I pointed to books to be brought to Louisa’s room, reeled off necessary supplies, and ordered that my traveling clothes be handed to a tailor to serve as a pattern for a basic wardrobe. I was prepared to wear Louisa de Clermont’s clothes for two more days. After that I threatened to resort to Pierre’s cupboards for breeches and hose. The prospect of such grievous female immodesty clearly struck terror into their hearts.

We spent our second and third hours discussing the inner workings of the château. I had no experience running such a complicated household, but I knew which questions to ask. Alain rehearsed the names and job descriptions of its key officers, provided a brief introduction to leading personalities in the village, accounted for who was staying in the house at present, and speculated about who we could expect to visit over the next few weeks.

Then we decamped to the kitchens, where I had my first encounter with Chef. He was a human, as thin as a reed and no taller than Pierre. Like Popeye, he had all of his bulk concentrated in his forearms, which were the size of hams. The reason for this was apparent when he hefted an enormous lump of dough onto a floury surface and began to work it smooth. Like me, Chef was able to think only when he was in motion.

Word had trickled belowstairs about the warmblooded guest sleeping in a room near the head of the family. So, too, had speculation about my relationship to milord and what kind of creature I was, given my scent and eating habits. I caught the words sorcière and masca—French and Occitan terms for witch—when we entered the inferno of activity and heat. Chef had assembled the kitchen staff, which was vast and Byzantine in its organization. This provided an opportunity for them to study me firsthand. Some were vampires, others were humans. One was a daemon. I made a mental note to ensure that the young woman called Catrine, whose glance nudged against my cheeks with open curiosity, was kindly treated and looked after until her strengths and weaknesses were clearer.

I was resolved to speak English only out of necessity, and even then just to Matthew, his father, Alain, and Pierre. As a result my conversation with Chef and his associates was full of misunderstandings. Fortunately, Alain and Pierre gently untangled the knots when my French and their heavily accented Occitan mingled. Once I had been a decent mimic. It was time to resurrect those talents, and I listened carefully to the dips and sways of the local tongue. I’d already put several language dictionaries on the shopping list for the next time someone went to the nearby city of Lyon.

Chef warmed to me after I complimented his baking skills, praised the order of the kitchens, and requested that he tell me immediately if he needed anything at all to work his culinary magic. Our good relationship was assured, however, when I inquired into Matthew’s favorite food and drink. Chef became animated, waving his sticky hands in the air and speaking a mile a minute about milord’s skeletal condition, which he blamed entirely on the English and their poor regard for the arts of the kitchen.

“Have I not sent Charles to see to his needs?” Chef demanded in rapid Occitan, picking up his dough and slamming it down. Pierre murmured the translation as quickly as he could. “I lost my best assistant, and it is nothing to the English! Milord has a delicate stomach, and he must be tempted to eat or he begins to waste away.”

I apologized on behalf of England and asked how he and I might ensure Matthew’s return to health, although the thought of my husband being any more robust was alarming. “He enjoys uncooked fish, does he not, as well as venison?”

“Milord needs blood. And he will not take it unless it is prepared just so.”

Chef led me to the game room, where the carcasses of several beasts were suspended over silver troughs to catch the blood falling from their severed necks.

“Only silver, glass, or pottery should be used to collect blood for milord, or he refuses it,” Chef instructed with a raised finger.

“Why?” I asked.

“Other vessels taint the blood with bad odors and tastes. This is pure. Smell,” Chef instructed, handing me the cup. My stomach heaved at the metallic aroma, and I covered my mouth and nose. Alain motioned the blood away, but I stopped him with a glance.

“Continue, please, Chef.”

Chef gave me an approving look and began to describe the other delicacies that made up Matthew’s diet. He told me of Matthew’s love of beef broth fortified with wine and spices and served cool. Matthew would take partridge blood, provided it was in small quantities and not too early in the day. Madame de Clermont was not so fussy, Chef said with a sorrowful shake of his head, but she had not passed her impressive appetite to her son.

“No,” I said tightly, thinking of my hunting trip with Ysabeau.

Chef put the tip of his finger into the silver cup and held it up, shimmering red in the light, before inserting it into his mouth and letting the lifeblood roll over his tongue. “Stag’s blood is his favorite, of course. It is not as rich as human blood, but it is similar in taste.”

“May I?” I asked hesitantly, extending my little finger toward the cup. Venison turned my stomach. Perhaps the taste of a stag’s blood would be different.

“Milord would not like it, Madame de Clermont,” Alain said, his concern evident.

“But he is not here,” I said. I dipped the tip of my little finger into the cup. The blood was thick, and I brought it to my nose and sniffed it as Chef had. What scent did Matthew detect? What flavors did he perceive?

When my finger passed over my lips, my senses were flooded with information: wind on a craggy peak, the comfort of a bed of leaves in a hollow between two trees, the joy of running free. Accompanying it all was a steady, thundering beat. A pulse, a heart.

My experience of the deer’s life faded all too quickly. I reached out my finger with a fierce desire to know more, but Alain’s hand stopped mine. Still the hunger for information gnawed at me, its intensity diminishing as the last traces of blood left my mouth.

“Perhaps madame should go back to the library now,” Alain suggested, giving Chef a warning look.

On my way out of the kitchens, I told Chef what to do when Matthew and Philippe returned from their ride. We were passing through a long stone corridor when I stopped abruptly at a low, open door. Pierre narrowly avoided plowing into me.

“Whose room is this?” I asked, my throat closing at the scent of the herbs that hung from the rafters.

“It belongs to Madame de Clermont’s woman,” Alain explained.

“Marthe,” I breathed, stepping over the threshold. Earthenware pots stood in neat rows on shelves, and the floor was swept clean. There was something medicinal—mint?—in the tang of the air. It reminded me of the scent that sometimes drifted from the housekeeper’s clothes. When I turned, the three of them were blocking the doorway.

“The men are not allowed in here, madame,” Pierre confessed, looking over his shoulder as though he feared that Marthe might appear at any moment. “Only Marthe and Mademoiselle Louisa spend time in the stillroom. Not even Madame de Clermont disturbs this place.”

Ysabeau didn’t approve of Marthe’s herbal remedies—this I knew. Marthe was not a witch, but her potions were only a few steps away from Sarah’s lore. My eyes swept the room. There was more to be done in a kitchen than cooking, and more to learn from the sixteenth century than the management of household affairs and my own magic.

“I would like to use the stillroom while at Sept-Tours.”

Alain looked at me sharply. “Use it?”

I nodded. “For my alchemy. Please have two barrels of wine brought here for my use—as old as possible, but nothing that’s turned to vinegar. Give me a few moments alone to take stock of what’s here.”

Pierre and Alain shifted nervously at the unexpected development. After weighing my resolve against his companions’ uncertainty, Chef took charge, pushing the other men in the direction of the kitchens.

As Pierre’s grumbling faded, I focused on my surroundings. The wooden table before me was deeply scored from the work of hundreds of knives that had separated leaf from stalk. I ran a finger down one of the grooves and brought it to my nose.

Rosemary. For remembrance.

“Remember?” It was Peter Knox’s voice I heard, the modern wizard who had taunted me with memories of my parents’ death and wanted Ashmole 782 for himself. Past and present collided once more, and I stole a glance at the corner by the fire. The blue and amber threads were there, just as I expected. I sensed something else as well, some other creature in some other time. My rosemary-scented fingers reached to make contact, but it was too late. Whoever it was had already gone, and the corner had returned to its normal, dusty self.

Remember.

It was Marthe’s voice that echoed in my memory now, naming herbs and instructing me to take a pinch of each and make a tea. It would inhibit conception, though I hadn’t known it when I’d first tasted the hot brew. The ingredients for it were surely here, in Marthe’s stillroom.

The simple wooden box was on the uppermost shelf, safely beyond reach. Rising to my toes, I lifted my arm up and directed my desire toward the box just as I had once called a library book off the Bodleian’s shelf. The box slid forward obligingly until my fingers could brush the corners. I snared it and set it down gently on the table.

The lid lifted to reveal twelve equal compartments, each filled with a different substance. Parsley. Ginger. Feverfew. Rosemary. Sage. Queen Anne’s lace seeds. Mugwort. Pennyroyal. Angelica. Rue. Tansy. Juniper root. Marthe was well equipped to help the women of the village curb their fertility. I touched each in turn, pleased that I remembered their names and scents. My satisfaction turned quickly to shame, however. I knew nothing else— not the proper phase of the moon to gather them or what other magical uses they might have. Sarah would have known. Any sixteenth-century woman would have known, too.

I shook off the regret. For now I knew what these herbs would do if I steeped them in hot water or wine. I tucked the box under my arm and joined the others in the kitchen. Alain stood.

“Are you finished here, madame?”

“Yes, Alain. Mercés, Chef,” I said.

Back in the library, I put the box carefully on the corner of my table and drew a blank sheet of paper toward me. Sitting down, I took a quill from the stand of pens.

“Chef tells me that it will be December on Saturday. I didn’t want to mention it in the kitchen, but can someone explain how I misplaced the second half of November?” I dipped my pen in a pot of dark ink and looked at Alain expectantly.

“The English refuse the pope’s new calendar,” he said slowly, as if talking to a child. “So it is only the seventeenth day of November there, and the twenty-seventh day of November here in France.”

I had timewalked more than four centuries and not lost a single hour, yet my trip from Elizabeth’s England to war-torn France had cost me nearly three weeks instead of ten days. I smothered a sigh and wrote the correct dates on the top of the page. My pen stilled.

“That means Advent will begin on Sunday.”

“Oui. The village—and milord, of course—will fast until the night before Christmas. The household will break the fast with the seigneur on the seventeenth of December.” How did a vampire fast? My knowledge of Christian religious ceremonies was of little help.

“What happens on the seventeenth?” I asked, making note of that date, too.

“It is Saturnalia, madame,” Pierre said, “the celebration dedicated to the god of the harvest. Sieur Philippe still observes the old ways.”

“Ancient” would be more accurate. Saturnalia hadn’t been practiced since the last days of the Roman Empire. I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling overwhelmed. “Let’s begin at the beginning, Alain. What, exactly, is happening in this house this weekend?”

After thirty minutes of discussion and three more sheets of paper, I was left alone with my books, papers, and a pounding headache. Sometime later I heard a commotion in the great hall, followed by a bellow of laughter. A familiar voice, somehow richer and warmer than I knew it, called out in greeting.

Matthew.

Before I could set my papers aside, he was there.

“Did you notice I was gone after all?” Matthew’s face was touched with color. His fingers pulled loose a tendril of hair as he gripped my neck and planted a kiss on my lips. There was no blood on his tongue, only the taste of the wind and the outdoors. Matthew had ridden, but he hadn’t fed. “I’m sorry about what happened earlier, mon coeur,” he whispered into my ear. “Forgive me for behaving so badly.” The ride had lifted his spirits, and his behavior toward his father was natural and unforced for the first time.

“Diana,” Philippe said, stepping from behind his son. He reached for the nearest book and took it to the fire, leafing through the pages. “You are reading The History of the Franks—not for the first time, I trust. This book would be more enjoyable, of course, if Gregory’s mother had overseen the writing of it. Armentaria’s Latin was most impressive. It was always a pleasure to receive her letters.”

I had never read Gregory of Tours’s famous book on French history, but there was no reason for Philippe to know that.

“When he and Matthew attended school in Tours, your famous Gregory was a boy of twelve. Matthew was far older than the teacher, never mind the other pupils, and allowed the boys to ride him like a horse when it was time for their recreation.” Philippe scanned the pages. “Where is the part about the giant? It’s my favorite.”

Alain entered, bearing a tray with two silver cups. He set it on the table by the fire.

“Merci, Alain.” I gestured at the tray. “You both must be hungry. Chef sent your meal here. Why don’t you tell me about your morning?”

“I don’t need—” Matthew began. His father and I both made sounds of exasperation. Philippe deferred to me with a gentle incline of his head.

“Yes you do,” I said. “It’s partridge blood, which you should be able to stomach at this hour. I hope you will hunt tomorrow, though, and Saturday, too. If you intend to fast for the next four weeks, you have to feed while you can.” I thanked Alain, who bowed, shot a veiled glance at his master, and left hastily. “Yours is stag’s blood, Philippe. It was drawn only this morning.”

“What do you know of partridge blood and fasting?” Matthew’s fingers tugged gently on my loose curl. I looked up into my husband’s gray-green eyes.

“More than I did yesterday.” I freed my hair before handing him his cup.

“I will take my meal elsewhere,” Philippe interjected, “and leave you to your argument.”

“There’s no argument. Matthew must remain healthy. Where did you go on your ride?” I picked up the cup of stag’s blood and held it out to Philippe.

Philippe’s attention traveled from the silver cup to his son’s face and back to me. He gave me a dazzling smile, but there was no mistaking his appraising look. He took the proffered cup and raised it in salute.

“Thank you, Diana,” he said, his voice full of friendship.

But those unnatural eyes that missed nothing continued to watch me as Matthew described their morning. A sensation of spring thaw told me when Philippe’s attention moved to his son. I couldn’t resist glancing in his direction to see if it was possible to tell what he was thinking. Our gazes crossed, clashed. The warning was unmistakable.

Philippe de Clermont was up to something.

“How did you find the kitchens?” Matthew asked, turning the conversation in my direction.

“Fascinating,” I said, meeting Philippe’s shrewd eyes with a challenging stare. “Absolutely fascinating.”

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