فصل 21

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فصل 21

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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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“Move,” Baldwin commanded, holding Jack by the scruff of his neck. Matthew had seen that hand tear another vampire’s head clean off.

Jack hadn’t witnessed that brutal episode, but he knew he was at Baldwin’s mercy just the same.

The boy was white-skinned and wide-eyed, with enormous black pupils. Not surprisingly, he obeyed Baldwin without hesitation.

Lobero knew it, too. Gallowglass still held the leash, but the dog circled the Gael’s feet with eyes fixed on his master.

“It’s okay, Mop,” Jack assured his dog in a whisper, but Lobero was having none of it.

“Trouble, Matthew?” Chris was so close that Matthew could feel his breath.

“There’s always trouble,” Matthew said grimly.

“Go home,” Jack urged Chris. “Take Mop, too, and—” Jack stopped with a wince. Blood suffused the skin on his neck where Baldwin’s fingertips were leaving a dark bruise.

“They’re staying,” Baldwin hissed.

Jack had made a strategic error. Baldwin delighted in destroying what other people loved. Some experience in his past must have shaped the impulse, but Matthew had never discovered what it was.

Baldwin would never let Chris or Mop go now. Not until he got what he came for.

“And you don’t give orders. You take them.” Baldwin was careful to keep the boy between him and Matthew as he pushed him toward the living room. It was a devastatingly simple and effective tactic, one that brought back painful memories.

Jack is not Eleanor, Matthew told himself. Jack was a vampire, too. But he was Matthew’s blood, and Baldwin could use him to bring Matthew to heel.

“That stunt you pulled in the square will be the last time you challenge me, mongrel.” Baldwin’s shirt showed teeth marks at the shoulder, and there were beads of blood around the torn fabric.

Christ. Jack had bitten Baldwin.

“But I’m not yours.” Jack sounded desperate. “Tell him that I belong to you, Matthew!”

“And who do you think Matthew belongs to?” Baldwin whispered in his ear, quietly menacing.

“Diana,” Jack snarled, turning on his captor.

“Diana?” Baldwin’s laugh was mocking, and the blow he gave Jack would have flattened a warmblood twice his size and weight. Jack’s knees met the hard wooden floors. “Get in here, Matthew.

And shut that dog up.”

“Disavow Jack before the de Clermont sire and I’ll see you to hell personally,” Hubbard hissed, grabbing at Matthew’s sleeve as he went past.

Matthew looked at him coldly, and Hubbard dropped his arm.

“Let him go. He’s my blood,” Matthew said, stalking into the room. “Then go back to Manhattan where you belong, Baldwin.”

“Oh,” Chris said in a tone that suggested he finally saw the light. “Of course. You live on Central Park, don’t you?”

Baldwin didn’t reply. In fact, he owned most of that stretch of Fifth Avenue and liked to keep a close eye on his investments. Recently he had been developing his hunting ground in the Meatpacking District, filling it with nightclubs to complement the butcher shops, but as a rule he preferred not to reside where he fed.

“No wonder you’re such an entitled bastard,” Chris said. “Well, buddy, you’re in New Haven now.

We play by different rules here.”

“Rules?” Baldwin drawled. “In New Haven?”

“Yeah. All for one and all that jazz.” It was Chris’s call to arms. Matthew was so close that he could feel Chris’s muscles bunch and was prepared when the small knife went past his ear. The thin blade was so insignificant that it would barely have damaged a human’s skin, never mind Baldwin’s tough hide. Matthew reached up and pinched it between his fingertips before it could reach its target. Chris scowled at him reproachfully, and Matthew shook his head.

“Don’t.” Matthew might have let Chris get in a solid punch, but Baldwin had narrower views when it came to the privileges that should be afforded to warmbloods. He turned to Baldwin. “Leave. Jack is my blood and my problem.”

“And miss all the fun?” Baldwin bent Jack’s head to the side. Jack looked up at Baldwin, his expression black and deadly. “Quite a resemblance, Matthew.”

“I like to think so,” Matthew said coolly, giving Jack a tight smile. He took Lobero’s lead from Gallowglass. The dog quieted immediately. “Baldwin might be thirsty. Offer him a drink, Gallowglass.”

Maybe that would sweeten Baldwin’s mood long enough to get Jack safely away. Matthew could send him to Marcus’s house with Hubbard. It was a better alternative than Diana’s house on Court Street. If his wife got wind of Baldwin’s presence, she’d be on Wooster Square with a firedrake and a lightning bolt.

“I’ve got a full larder,” Gallowglass said. “Coffee, wine, water, blood. I’m sure I could scare up some hemlock and honey if you’d prefer that, Uncle.”

“What I require only the boy can provide.” Without warning or preamble, Baldwin’s teeth ripped into Jack’s neck. His bite was savage, deliberately so.

This was vampire justice—swift, unbending, remorseless. For minor infractions the sire’s punishment would consist only of this public show of submission. Through that blood the sire received a thin trickle of his progeny’s innermost thoughts and memories. The ritual stripped a vampire’s soul bare, making him shamefully vulnerable. Acquiring another creature’s secrets, by whatever means, sustained a vampire in much the same way the hunt did, nourishing that part of his soul that forever sought to possess more. If the offenses were more significant, the ritual of submission would be followed by death. Killing another vampire was physically taxing, emotionally draining, and spiritually devastating. It was why most vampire sires appointed one of their kin to do it for them. Though Philippe and Hugh had polished the de Clermonts’ façade to a high sheen over the centuries, it was Matthew who had performed all of the house’s dirty maintenance.

There were hundreds of ways to kill a vampire, and Matthew knew them all. You could drink a vampire dry as he had Philippe. You could weaken a vampire physically by releasing his blood slowly and putting him in the dreaded state of suspension known as thrall. Unable to fight back, the vampire could be tortured into a confession or mercifully allowed to die. There was beheading and evisceration, though some preferred the more old-fashioned method of punching through the rib cage and wrenching out the heart. You could sever the carotid and the aorta, a method that Gerbert’s lovely assassin, Juliette, had tried and failed to use on him.

Matthew prayed that taking Jack’s blood and his memories would suffice for Baldwin tonight.

Too late, he remembered that Jack’s memories held tales best left untold.

Too late, he caught the scent of honeysuckle and summer storms.

Too late, he saw Diana release Corra.

Diana’s firedrake rose up from her mistress’s shoulders and into the air. Corra swooped down on Baldwin with a shriek, rear talons extended and wings aflame. Baldwin grabbed the firedrake by the foot with his free hand, wresting her body away. Corra hurtled into the wall, her wing crumpling at the impact. Diana bent double, grabbing at her own arm in sudden pain, but it didn’t shake her resolve.

“Take your hands. Off. My. Son.” Diana’s skin was gleaming, the subtle nimbus that was always visible without her disguising spell now appearing as a distinctive, prismatic light. Rainbows of color shot under her skin—not just the hands but up her arms, along the tendons of her neck, twisting and spiraling as though the cords in her fingers had extended through her whole body.

When Lobero lunged at the end of his lead, trying to get to Corra, Matthew let the dog go. Lobero crouched over the firedrake, licking at her face and nudging her with his nose as she struggled to get up and go to Diana’s aid.

But Diana didn’t need help—not from Matthew, not from Lobero, not even from Corra. His wife straightened, splayed out her left hand with the palm facing down, and directed her fingers at the floor.

The wooden planks shattered and split, re-forming into thick canes that rose up and wound themselves around Baldwin’s feet, keeping him in place. Lethally long, sharp thorns sprang out of the shoots, digging through his clothes and into flesh.

Diana fixed her gaze on Baldwin, reached out with her right hand, and pulled. Jack’s wrist jerked out and to the side as if he were tethered to her. The rest of him followed, and in moments he was lying in a heap on the floor, out of Baldwin’s reach.

Matthew adopted a similar pose to Lobero’s, standing over Jack’s body to shield him.

“Enough, Baldwin.” Matthew’s hand sliced through the air.

“I’m sorry, Matthew,” Jack whispered, remaining on the floor. “He came out of nowhere and went straight for Gallowglass. When I’m surprised—” He stopped with a shudder, his knees drawing close to his chest. “I didn’t know who he was.”

Miriam came into the room. After studying the scene, she took charge. She pointed Gallowglass and Hubbard in Jack’s direction and cast a worried look at Diana, who stood unmoving and unblinking, as though she had taken root in the living room.

“Is Jack okay?” Chris asked, his voice strained.

“He’ll be fine. Every vampire alive has been bitten by their sire at least once,” Miriam said, trying to put his mind at rest. Chris didn’t seem comforted by this revelation about vampire family life.

Matthew helped Jack up. The bite mark on his neck was shallow and would heal quickly, but at the moment it looked gruesome. Matthew touched it briefly, hoping to reassure Jack that he would, as Miriam promised, be fine.

“Can you see to Corra?” Matthew asked Miriam as he handed Jack off to Gallowglass and Hubbard.

Miriam nodded.

Matthew was already crossing the room, his hands wrapping around Baldwin’s throat.

“I want your word that if Diana lets you go, you will not touch her for what happened here tonight.” Matthew’s fingers tightened. “If not, I will kill you, Baldwin. Make no mistake about that.”

“We’re not finished here, Matthew,” Baldwin warned.

“I know.” Matthew locked his eyes on his brother until the man nodded.

Then he turned to Diana. The colors pulsing beneath her skin reminded him of the shining ball of energy she had gifted him in Madison before either of them knew she was a weaver. The colors were brightest at her fingertips, as though her magic were waiting there, ready to be released. Matthew knew how unpredictable his own blood rage could be when it was that close to the surface, and he treated his wife with caution.

“Diana?” Matthew smoothed the hair back from her face, searching her blue-and-gold irises for signs of recognition. Instead he saw infinity, her eyes fixed on some invisible vista. He changed tack, trying to bring her back to the here and now.

“Jack is with Gallowglass and Andrew, ma lionne. Baldwin will not harm him tonight.” Matthew’s words were carefully chosen. “You should take him back home.”

Chris started, ready to voice a protest.

“Perhaps Chris will go with you,” Matthew continued smoothly. “Corra and Lobero, too.”

“Corra.” Diana croaked. Her eyes flickered, but not even concern for her firedrake could break her mesmerized stare. Matthew wondered what she saw that the rest of them did not and why it held such a powerful attraction for her. He felt a disturbing flicker of jealousy.

“Miriam is with Corra.” Matthew found himself unable to look away from the navy depths of her eyes.

“Baldwin . . . hurt her.” Diana sounded confused, as though she had forgotten that vampires were not like other creatures. She rubbed absently at her arm.

Just when Matthew thought whatever it was that held her might give way to reason, Diana’s anger caught again. He could smell it—taste it.

“He hurt Jack.” Diana’s fingers opened wide in a sudden spasm. No longer concerned with the wisdom of getting between a weaver and her power, Matthew caught them before they could work magic.

“Baldwin will let you take Jack home. In return you have to release Baldwin. We can’t have the two of you at war. The family wouldn’t survive it.” Based on what he’d seen tonight, Diana was as single-minded as Baldwin when it came to destroying the obstacles in her way.

Matthew lifted her hands and brushed the knuckles with his lips. “Remember when we talked about our children in London? We spoke then about what they would need.”

That got Diana’s attention. At last. Her eyes focused on him.

“Love,” she whispered. “A grown-up to take responsibility for them. A soft place to land.”

“That’s right.” Matthew smiled. “Jack needs you. Release Baldwin from your spell.”

Diana’s magic gave way in a shudder that passed through her from feet to head. She flicked her fingers in Baldwin’s direction. The thorns withdrew from his skin. The canes loosened, retracting back into the splintered floorboards surrounding the vampire. Soon he was free and Gallowglass’s house was returned to its normal, disenchanted state.

While her spell slowly unraveled, Diana went to Jack and cupped his face. The skin on his neck was already starting to knit together, but it would take several days to heal completely. Her generous mouth became a thin line.

“Don’t worry,” Jack told her, covering the wound self-consciously.

“Come on, Jackie. Diana and I will take you to Court Street. You must be famished.” Gallowglass clapped his hand on Jack’s shoulder. Jack was exhausted but tried to look less wan for Diana’s sake.

“Corra,” Diana said, beckoning to her firedrake. Corra limped toward her, gaining strength as she drew closer to her mistress. When the weaver and the firedrake were nearly touching, Corra faded into invisibility as she and Diana became one.

“Let Chris help you home,” Matthew said, careful to keep his broad frame between his wife and the disturbing images on the walls. She was, thankfully, too tired to do more than glance at them.

Matthew was pleased to see that Miriam had rounded up everyone in the house except Baldwin.

They were huddled in the entrance—Chris, Andrew, Lobero, and Miriam—waiting for Diana, Gallowglass, and Jack. The more creatures there to support the boy, the better.

Watching them go took every ounce of control Matthew had. He forced himself to wave encouragingly at Diana when she turned for one more glimpse of him. Once they disappeared between the houses on Court Street, he returned to Baldwin.

His brother was staring up at the last section of the murals, his shirt dotted with dark stains where Jack’s teeth and Diana’s briars had pierced the skin.

“Jack is the vampire murderer. I saw it in his thoughts, and now I see it here on the walls. We’ve been looking for him for more than a year. How has he evaded the Congregation all this time?” Baldwin asked.

“He was with Benjamin. Then he was on the run.” Matthew deliberately avoided looking at the horrifying images that surrounded Benjamin’s disembodied features. They were, he supposed, no more hideous than other brutal acts that vampires had perpetrated over the years. What made them so unbearable was that Jack had done them.

“Jack has to be stopped.” Baldwin’s tone was matter-of-fact.

“God forgive me.” Matthew lowered his head.

“Philippe was right. Your Christianity really does make you perfect for your job.” Baldwin snorted.

“What other faith promises to wash away your sins if only you confess them?”

Sadly, Baldwin had never grasped the concept of atonement. His view of Matthew’s faith was purely transactional—you went to church, confessed, and walked out a clean man. But salvation was more complicated. Philippe had come to understand that in the end, although he had long found Matthew’s constant search for forgiveness irritating and irrational.

“You know very well there’s no place for him among the de Clermonts—not if his disease is as serious as these pictures suggest.” Baldwin saw in Jack what Benjamin had seen: a dangerous weapon, one that could be shaped and twisted to make it as deadly as possible. Unlike Benjamin, Baldwin had a conscience. He would not use the weapon that had come so unexpectedly into his hand, but neither would he allow it to be used by another.

Matthew’s head remained bowed, weighted down with memories and regret. Baldwin’s next words were expected, but Matthew felt them as a blow nevertheless.

“Kill him,” commanded the head of the de Clermont family.

When Matthew returned home to the brightly painted red door with the white trim and the black pediment, it opened wide.

Diana had been waiting. She had changed into something that would ward off the chill and was bundled into one of his old cardigans, lessening the scent of the others she’d come into contact with that night. Even so, Matthew’s kiss of greeting was rough and possessive, and he only reluctantly drew away.

“What’s wrong?” Diana’s fingers went to Philippe’s arrowhead. It had become a reliable signal that her anxiety was climbing. The smudges of color on their tips told the same tale, growing more visible with every passing moment.

Matthew looked heavenward, hoping to find some guidance. What he saw instead was a sky totally devoid of stars. The reasonable, human part of him knew that this was due to the city’s bright lights and tonight’s full moon. But the vampire within was instinctively alarmed. There was nothing to orient him in such a place, no markers to guide his way.

“Come.” Matthew picked up Diana’s coat from the chair in the front hall, took his wife’s hand, and led her down the steps. “Where are we going?” she said, struggling to keep up. “To a place where I can see the stars,” Matthew replied.

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