فصل 32

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فصل 32

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“The twins are ten days old. Don’t you think they’re a bit young to be made members of a chivalric order?” I yawned and walked up and down the second-floor hallway with Rebecca, who was resentful of being removed from her cozy fireside cradle.

“All new members of the de Clermont family become knights as soon as possible,” Matthew said, passing me with Philip. “It’s tradition.”

“Yes, but most new de Clermonts are grown women and men! And we have to do this at Sept Tours?” My thought processes had slowed to a crawl. As he had promised, Matthew took care of the children during the night, but so long as I was breast-feeding, I was still awakened every few hours.

“There or Jerusalem,” Matthew said.

“Not Jerusalem. In December? Are you mad?” Ysabeau appeared on the landing, silent as a ghost.

“The pilgrims are twelve deep. Besides, the babies should be christened at home, in the church their father built, not in London. Both ceremonies can take place on the same day.”

“Clairmont House is our home at the moment, Maman.” Matthew scowled. He was growing weary of the grandmothers and their constant interference. “And Andrew has volunteered to christen them here, if need be.”

Philip, who had already exhibited an uncanny sensitivity to his father’s mercurial moods, arranged his features in a perfect imitation of Matthew’s frown and waved one arm in the air as if calling for a sword so they could vanquish their enemies together.

“Sept-Tours it is, then,” I said. While Andrew Hubbard was no longer a constant thorn in my side, I was not eager for him to take on the role of the children’s spiritual adviser.

“If you’re sure,” Matthew said.

“Will Baldwin be invited?” I knew Matthew had told him about the twins. Baldwin had sent me a lavish bouquet of flowers and two teething rings made of silver and horn for Rebecca and Philip.

Teething rings were a common gift for newborns, of course, but in this case I felt sure it was a none-too subtle reminder of the vampire blood in their veins.

“Probably. But let’s not worry about that now. Why don’t you take a walk with Ysabeau and Sarah—get out of the house for a little while. There’s plenty of milk if the babies get fussy,” Matthew suggested.

I did as Matthew suggested, though I had the uncomfortable feeling that the babies and I were being positioned on a vast de Clermont chessboard by creatures who had been playing the game for centuries.

That feeling grew stronger with each passing day as we prepared to go to France. There were too many hushed conversations for my peace of mind. But my hands were full with the twins, and I had no time for family politics at the moment.

“Of course I invited Baldwin,” Marcus said. “He has to be there.”

“And Gallowglass?” Matthew asked. He had sent his nephew pictures of the twins, along with their full and rather imposing monikers. Matthew had hoped that Gallowglass might respond when he found out that he was Philip’s godfather and that the baby bore one of his names.

“Give him time,” Marcus said.

But time had not been on Matthew’s side lately, and he had no expectation it would cooperate now.

“There’s been no further word from Benjamin,” Fernando reported. “He’s gone silent. Again.”

“Where the hell is he?” Matthew drove his fingers through his hair.

“We’re doing our best, Matthew. Even as a warmblood, Benjamin was devious to a fault.”

“Fine. If we can’t locate Benjamin, then let’s turn our attention to Knox,” Matthew said. “He’ll be easier to smoke out than Gerbert—and the two of them are providing information to Benjamin. I’m sure of it. I want proof.”

He wouldn’t rest until every creature who posed a danger to Diana or the twins was found and destroyed.

“Ready to go?” Marcus chucked Rebecca under the chin, and her mouth made a perfect O of happiness.

She adored her older brother.

“Where’s Jack?” I said, frazzled. No sooner did I get one child situated than another wandered off.

A simple leave-taking had become a logistical nightmare roughly equivalent to sending a battalion off to war.

“Going for a walk with the beast. Speaking of which, where is Corra?” Fernando asked.

“Safely tucked away.” In fact, Corra and I were having a difficult time of it. She had been restless and moody since the twins’ birth and didn’t appreciate getting wedged back into me for a journey to France. I wasn’t happy with the arrangement myself. Being in sole possession of my body again was glorious.

A series of loud barks and the sudden appearance of the world’s largest floor sweeper heralded Jack’s return.

“Come on, Jack. Don’t keep us waiting,” Marcus called. Jack trotted up to his side, and Marcus held out a set of keys. “Think you can manage to get Sarah, Marthe, and your grandmother to France?”

“Course I can,” Jack said, grabbing at the key ring. He hit the buttons on the key fob, and they unlocked another large vehicle, this one outfitted with a dog bed rather than infant seats.

“How exciting to be setting off for home.” Ysabeau slipped her arm through Jack’s elbow. “I am reminded of the time Philippe asked me to take sixteen wagons from Constantinople to Antioch. The roads were terrible, and there were bandits all along the route. It was a most difficult journey, full of dangers and the threat of death. I had a splendid time.”

“As I recall, you lost most of the wagons,” Matthew said with a dark look. “The horses, too.”

“Not to mention a fair amount of other people’s money,” Fernando recalled.

“Only ten wagons were lost. The other six arrived in perfect condition. As for the money, it was merely reinvested,” Ysabeau said, her voice dripping with hauteur. “Pay no attention, Jack. I will tell you about my adventures as we drive. It will keep your mind off the traffic.”

Phoebe and Marcus set out in one of his trademark blue sports cars—this one British and looking as though James Bond should be driving it. I was beginning to appreciate the value of two-seat automobiles and thought longingly of spending the next nine hours with only Matthew for company.

Given the speed at which Marcus and Phoebe traveled and the fact they wouldn’t have to stop en route for bathroom breaks, diaper changes, and meals, it was not surprising that the couple were waiting for us when we arrived at Sept-Tours, standing at the top of the torchlit stairs along with Alain and Victoire, welcoming us home.

“Milord Marcus tells me we will have a full house for the ceremonies, Madame Ysabeau,” Alain said, greeting his mistress. His wife, Victoire, danced with excitement when she spied the baby carriers and rushed over to lend a hand.

“It will be like the old days, Alain. We will set up cots in the barn for the men. Those who are vampires will not mind the cold, and the rest will get used to it.” Ysabeau sounded unconcerned as she handed Marthe her gloves and turned to help with the babies. They were swaddled within an inch of their lives to protect them from the freezing temperatures. “Are not Milord Philip and Milady Rebecca the most beautiful creatures you have ever seen, Victoire?”

Victoire was incapable of more than oohs and aahs, but Ysabeau seemed to find her response sufficient.

“Shall I help with the babies’ luggage?” Alain asked, surveying the contents of the overstuffed cargo space.

“That would be wonderful, Alain.” Matthew directed him to the bags, totes, portable playpens, and stacks of disposable diapers.

Matthew took a baby carrier in each hand and, with much input from Marthe, Sarah, Ysabeau, and Victoire on the icy state of the stairs, climbed to the front door. Inside, the magnitude of where he was, and why, struck him. Matthew was bringing the latest in a long line of de Clermonts back to their ancestral home. It didn’t matter if our family was only a lowly scion of that distinguished lineage. This was, and would always be, a place steeped in tradition for our children.

“Welcome home.” I kissed him.

He kissed me back, then gave me one of his dazzling, slow smiles. “Thank you, mon coeur.”

Returning to Sept-Tours had been the right decision. Hopefully, no mishaps would darken our otherwise pleasant homecoming.

In the days leading up to the christening, it seemed as though my wishes would be granted.

Sept-Tours was so busy with the preparations for the twins’ christening that I kept expecting Philippe to burst into the room, singing and telling jokes. But it was Marcus who was the life of the household now, roaming all over the place as if he owned it—which I suppose he technically did—and jollying everybody into a more festive mood. For the first time, I could see why Marcus reminded Fernando of Matthew’s father.

When Marcus ordered that all the furniture in the great hall be replaced with long tables and benches capable of seating the expected hordes, I had a dizzying sense of déjà vu as Sept-Tours was transformed back to its medieval self. Only Matthew’s rooms remained unchanged. Marcus had declared them off-limits, since the guests of honor were sleeping there. I retreated to Matthew’s tower at regular intervals to feed, bathe, and change the babies—and to rest from the constant crush of people employed to clean, sort, and move furniture.

“Thank you, Marthe,” I said upon my return from a brisk walk in the garden. She had happily left the crowded kitchen in favor of nanny duty and another of her beloved murder mysteries.

I gave my sleeping son a gentle pat on the back and picked Rebecca up from the cradle. My lips compressed into a thin line at her low weight relative to her brother’s.

“She is hungry.” Marthe’s dark eyes met mine.

“I know.” Rebecca was always hungry and never satisfied. My thoughts danced away from the implications. “Matthew said it’s too early for concern.” I buried my nose in Rebecca’s neck and breathed in her sweet baby smell.

“What does Matthew know?” Marthe snorted. “You are her mother.”

“He wouldn’t like it,” I warned.

“Matthew would like it less if she dies,” Marthe said bluntly.

Still I hesitated. If I followed Marthe’s broad hints without consulting him, Matthew would be furious. But if I asked Matthew for his input, he would tell me that Rebecca was in no immediate danger. That might be true, but she certainly wasn’t brimming over with health and wellness. Her frustrated cries broke my heart.

“Is Matthew still hunting?” If I were going to do this, it had to be when Matthew wasn’t around to fret.

“So far as I know.”

“Shh, it’s all right. Mommy’s going to fix it,” I murmured, sitting down by the fire and undoing my shirt with one hand. I put Rebecca to my right breast, and she latched on immediately, sucking with all her might. Milk dribbled out of the corner of her mouth, and her whimper turned into an outright wail.

She had been easier to feed before my milk came in, as though colostrum were more tolerable to her system.

That was when I’d first started to worry.

“Here.” Marthe held out a sharp, thin knife.

“I don’t need it.” I swung Rebecca onto my shoulder and patted her back. She let out a gassy belch, and a stream of white liquid followed.

“She cannot digest the milk properly,” Marthe said.

“Let’s see how she handles this, then.” I rested Rebecca’s head on my forearm, flicked my fingertips toward the soft, scarred skin at my left elbow where I’d tempted her father to take my blood, and waited while red, life-giving fluid swelled from the veins.

Rebecca was instantly alert.

“Is this what you want?” I curled my arm, pressing her mouth to my skin. I felt the same sense of suction that I did when she nursed at my breast, except that now the child wasn’t fussy—she was ravenous.

Freely flowing venous blood was bound to be noticed in a house full of vampires. Ysabeau was there in moments. Fernando was nearly as quick. Then Matthew appeared like a tornado, his hair disheveled from the wind.

“Everyone. Out.” He pointed to the stairs. Without waiting to see if they obeyed him, he dropped to his knees before me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m feeding your daughter.” Tears stung my eyes.

Rebecca’s contented swallowing was audible in the quiet room.

“Everybody’s been wondering for months what the children would be. Well, here’s one mystery solved: Rebecca needs blood to thrive.” I inserted my pinkie gently between her mouth and my skin to break the suction and slow the flow of blood. “And Philip?” Matthew asked, his face frozen.

“He seems satisfied with my milk,” I said. “Maybe, in time, Rebecca will take to a more varied diet. But for now she needs blood, and she’s going to get it.”

“There are good reasons we don’t turn children into vampires,” Matthew said.

“We have not turned Rebecca into anything. She came to us this way. And she’s not a vampire.

She’s a vampitch. Or a wimpire.” I wasn’t trying to be ridiculous, though the names invited laughter.

“Others will want to know what kind of creature they’re dealing with,” Matthew said.

“Well, they’re going to have to wait,” I snapped. “It’s too soon to tell, and I won’t have people forcing Rebecca into a narrow box for their own convenience.”

“And when her teeth come in? What then?” Matthew asked, his voice rising. “Have you forgotten Jack?”

Ah. So it was the blood rage, more than whether they were vampire or witch, that was worrying Matthew. I passed the soundly sleeping Rebecca to him and buttoned my shirt. When I was finished, he had her tucked tightly against his heart, her head cradled between his chin and shoulder. His eyes were closed, as if to block out what he had seen.

“If Rebecca or Philip has blood rage, then we will deal with it—together, as a family,” I said, brushing the hair from where it had tumbled over his forehead. “Try not to worry so much.”

“Deal with it? How? You can’t reason with a two-year-old in a killing rage,” Matthew said.

“Then I’ll spellbind her.” It wasn’t something we’d discussed, but I’d do it without hesitation. “Just as I’d spellbind Jack, if that was the only way to protect him.”

“You will not do to our children what your parents did to you, Diana. You would never forgive yourself.”

The arrow resting along my spine pricked my shoulder, and the tenth knot writhed on my wrist as the cords within me snapped to attention. This time there was no hesitation.

“To save my family, I’ll do what I must.”

“It’s done,” Matthew said, putting down his phone.

It was the sixth of December, one year and one day since Philippe had marked Diana with his blood vow. On Isola della Stella, a small island in the Venetian lagoon, a sworn testament of her status as a de Clermont sat on the desk of a Congregation functionary waiting to be entered into the family pedigree.

“So Aunt Verin came through in the end,” Marcus said.

“Or Gallowglass.” Fernando hadn’t given up hope that Hugh’s son would return in time for the christening.

“Baldwin did it.” Matthew sat back in his chair and wiped his hands over his face.

Alain appeared with an apology for the interruption, a stack of mail, and a glass of wine. He cast a worried glance at the three vampires huddled around the kitchen fire and left without comment.

Fernando and Marcus looked at each other, their consternation evident.

“Baldwin? But if Baldwin did it . . .” Marcus trailed off.

“He’s more worried about Diana’s safety than the de Clermonts’ reputation,” Matthew finished.

“The question is, what does he know that we don’t?”

The seventh of December was our anniversary, and Sarah and Ysabeau baby-sat the twins to give Matthew and me a few hours on our own. I prepared bottles of milk for Philip, mixed blood and a bit of milk for Rebecca, and brought the pair down to the family library. There Ysabeau and Sarah had constructed a wonderland of blankets, toys, and mobiles to entertain them and were looking forward to the evening with their grandchildren.

When I suggested we would simply have a quiet dinner in Matthew’s tower so as to be within calling distance if there was a problem, Ysabeau handed me a set of keys.

“Dinner is waiting for you at Les Revenants,” she said.

“Les Revenants?” It was not a place I’d heard of before.

“Philippe built the castle to house Crusaders coming home from the Holy Land.” Matthew explained. “It belongs to Maman.

“It’s your house now. I’m giving it to you,” Ysabeau said. “Happy anniversary.”

“It’s too much, Ysabeau,” I protested.

“Les Revenants is better suited to a family than this place is. It is really quite cozy.” Ysabeau’s expression was touched with wistfulness. “And Philippe and I were happy there.”

“Are you sure?” Matthew asked his mother.

“Yes. And you will like it, Diana,” Ysabeau said with a lift of her eyebrows. “All the rooms have doors.”

“How could anyone describe this as cozy?” I asked when we arrived at the house outside Limousin.

Les Revenants was smaller than Sept-Tours, but not by much. There were only four towers, Matthew pointed out, one on each corner of the square keep. But the moat that surrounded it was large enough to qualify as a lake, and the splendid stable complex and beautiful interior courtyard rather took away from any claims that this was more modest than the official de Clermont residence. Inside, however, there was an intimate feeling to the place, in spite of its large public rooms on the ground floor.

Though the castle had been built in the twelfth century, it had been thoroughly renovated and was now fully updated with modern conveniences such as bathrooms, electricity, and even heat in some of the rooms. Despite all that, I was just winding myself up to reject the gift and any idea that we would ever live here when my clever husband showed me the library.

The Gothic Revival room with its beamed ceiling, carved woodwork, large fireplace, and decorative heraldic shields was tucked into the southwest corner of the main building. A large bank of windows overlooked the inner courtyard while another, smaller window framed the Limousin countryside. Bookcases lined the only two straight walls, rising to the ceiling. A curved walnut staircase led up to a gallery that gave access to the higher shelves. It reminded me a bit of Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room, with its dark woodwork and hushed lighting.

“What is all this stuff?” The walnut shelves were filled with boxes and books arranged higgledypiggledy.

“Philippe’s personal papers,” Matthew said. “Maman moved them here after the war. Anything having to do with official de Clermont family business or the Knights of Lazarus is still at Sept-Tours, of course.”

This had to be the most extensive personal archive in the world. I sat with a thunk, suddenly sympathetic to Phoebe’s plight among all the family’s artistic treasures, and I covered my mouth with my hand.

“I suppose you’ll want to sort through them, Dr. Bishop,” Matthew said, planting a kiss on my head.

“Of course I do! They could tell us about the Book of Life and the early days of the Congregation.

There may be letters here that refer to Benjamin and to the witch’s child in Jerusalem.” My mind reeled with the possibilities.

Matthew looked doubtful. “I think you’re more likely to find Philippe’s designs for siege engines and instructions about the care and feeding of horses than anything about Benjamin.”

Every historical instinct told me that Matthew was grossly underestimating the significance of what was here. Two hours after he’d shown me into the room, I was still there, poking among the boxes while Matthew drank wine and humored me by translating texts when they were in ciphers or a language I didn’t know. Poor Alain and Victoire ended up serving the romantic anniversary dinner they’d prepared for us on the library table rather than down in the dining room.

We moved into Les Revenants the next morning, along with the children, and with no further complaints from me about its size, heating bills, or the number of stairs I would be required to climb to take a bath. The last worry was moot in any event, since Philippe had installed a screw-drive elevator in the tall tower after a visit to Russia in 1811. Happily, the elevator had been electrified in 1896 and no longer required the strength of a vampire to turn the crank.

Only Marthe accompanied us to Les Revenants, though Alain and Victoire would have preferred to join us in Limousin and leave Marcus’s house party in other, younger, hands. Marthe cooked and helped Matthew and me get used to the logistical demands of caring for two infants. As Sept-Tours filled up with knights, Fernando and Sarah would join us here—Jack, too, if he found the crush of strangers overwhelming—but for now we were on our own.

Though we rattled around Les Revenants, it gave us a chance to finally be a family. Rebecca was putting on weight now that we knew how to nourish her tiny body properly. And Philip weathered every change of routine and location with his usual thoughtful expression, staring at the light moving against the stone walls or listening with quiet contentment to the sound of me shuffling papers in the library.

Marthe watched over the children whenever we asked her to, giving Matthew and me a chance to reconnect after our weeks of separation and the stresses and joys of the twins’ birth. During those precious moments on our own, we walked hand in hand along the moat and talked about our plans for the house, including where I would plant my witch’s garden to take best advantage of the sunshine and the perfect spot for Matthew to build the twins a tree house.

No matter how wonderful it was to be alone, however, we spent every moment we could with the new lives we had created. We sat before the fire in our bedroom and watched Rebecca and Philip inch and squirm closer, staring at each other with rapt expressions as their hands clasped. The two were always happiest when they were touching, as though the months they’d spent together in my womb had accustomed them to constant contact. They would soon be too large to do so, but for now we put them to sleep in the same cradle. No matter how we arranged them, they always ended up with their tiny arms wrapped tightly around each other and their faces pressed together.

The twins were usually with us when Matthew and I worked in the library, looking for clues about Benjamin’s present whereabouts, the mysterious witch in Jerusalem and her equally mysterious child, and the Book of Life. Philip and Rebecca were soon familiar with the smell of paper and parchment.

Their heads turned to follow the sound of Matthew’s voice reading aloud from documents written in Greek, Latin, Occitan, Old French, ancient German dialects, Old English, and Philippe’s unique patois. Philippe’s linguistic idiosyncrasy was echoed in whatever organizational scheme he had used for storing his personal files and books. Concerted efforts to locate Crusade-era documents, for example, yielded a remarkable letter from Bishop Adhémar justifying the spiritual motives for the First Crusade, bizarrely accompanied by a 1930s shopping list that enumerated the items Philippe wanted Alain to send from Paris: new shoes from Berluti, a copy of La Cuisine en Dix Minutes, and the third volume of The Science of Life by H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley, and G. P. Wells.

Our time together as a family felt miraculous. There were opportunities for laughter and song, for marveling in the tiny perfection of our children, for confessing how anxious we had both been about the pregnancy and its possible complications.

Though our feelings for each other had never faltered, we reaffirmed them in those quiet, perfect days at Les Revenants even as we braced for the challenges the next weeks would bring.

“These are the knights who have agreed to attend.” Marcus handed Matthew the guest list. His father’s eyes raced down the page.

“Giles. Russell. Excellent.” Matthew flipped the page over. “Addie. Verin. Miriam.” He looked up.

“Whenever did you make Chris a knight?”

“While we were in New Orleans. It seemed right,” Marcus said a touch sheepishly.

“Well done, Marcus. Given who will be in attendance at the children’s christening, I wouldn’t imagine anyone from the Congregation would dare to cause trouble,” Fernando said with a smile. “I think you can relax, Matthew. Diana should be able to enjoy the day as you’d hoped.”

Matthew didn’t look relaxed, however.

“I wish we’d found Knox.” Matthew gazed out the kitchen window at the snow. Like Benjamin, Knox had disappeared without a trace. What this suggested was too terrifying to put into words.

“Shall I question Gerbert?” Fernando asked. They had discussed the possible repercussions if they acted in a way to suggest that Gerbert was a traitor. It could bring the vampires in the southern half of France into open conflict for the first time in more than a millennium.

“Not yet,” Matthew said, reluctant to add to their troubles. “I’ll keep looking through Philippe’s papers. There must be some clue there as to where Benjamin is hiding.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. There cannot be anything more we need to pack for a thirty-minute drive to my mother’s house.” For the past week, Matthew had been making sacrilegious references to the Holy Family and their December journeys, but it was all the more striking today, when the twins were to be christened. Something was bothering him, but he refused to tell me what it was.

“I want to be sure Philip and Rebecca are completely comfortable, given the number of strangers they’ll be meeting,” I said, bouncing Philip up and down in an attempt to get him to burp now rather than spit up halfway through the trip.

“Maybe the cradle can stay?” Matthew said hopefully.

“We have plenty of room to take it with us, and they’re going to need at least one nap. Besides, I’ve been reliably informed that this is the largest motorized vehicle in Limousin, with the exception of Claude Raynard’s hay wagon.” The local populace had bestowed upon Matthew the nickname Gaston Lagaffe after the lovably inept comic book character, and had gently teased him about his grande guimbarde ever since he ran to the store for bread and got the Range Rover wedged between a tiny Citroën and an even more minuscule Renault.

Matthew slammed the rear hatch shut without comment.

“Stop glowering, Matthew,” Sarah said, joining us in front of the house. “Your children are going to grow up thinking you’re a bear.”

“Don’t you look beautiful,” I commented. Sarah was dressed to the nines in a deep green tailored suit and a luscious cream silk blouse that set off her red hair. She looked both glamorous and festive.

“Agatha made it for me. She knows her stuff,” Sarah said, turning around so we could admire her further. “Oh, before I forget: Ysabeau called. Matthew should ignore all the cars parked along the drive and come straight up to the door. They’ve saved a place for you in the courtyard.”

“Cars? Parked along the drive?” I looked at Matthew in shock.

“Marcus thought it might be a good idea to have some of the knights present,” he said smoothly.

“Why?” My stomach somersaulted as my instincts warned me that all was not as it seemed.

“In case the Congregation decides to take exception to the event,” Matthew said. His eyes met mine, cool and tranquil as a summer sea.

In spite of Ysabeau’s warning, nothing could possibly have prepared me for the enthusiastic welcome we received. Marcus had transformed Sept-Tours into Camelot, with flags and banners twisting in the stiff December breeze, their bright colors standing out against both the snow and the dark local basalt. Atop the square keep, the de Clermont family’s black-and-silver standard with the ouroboros on it had been topped by a large square flag bearing the great seal of the Knights of Lazarus.

The two pieces of silk flapped on the same pole, extending the height of the already tall tower by nearly thirty feet.

“Well, if the Congregation didn’t know something was happening before, they do now,” I said, looking at the spectacle.

“There didn’t seem much point in hiding it,” Matthew said. “We shall start as we intend to go on.

And that means we aren’t going to hide the children from the truth—or the rest of the world.”

I nodded and took his hand in mine.

When Matthew pulled in to the courtyard, it was filled with well-wishers. He carefully navigated the car among the throngs, occasionally stopping by an old friend who wanted to shake his hand and congratulate us on our good fortune. He slammed on the brakes hard, however, when he saw Chris Roberts standing with a large grin on his face and a silver tankard in his hand.

“Hey!” Chris banged on the window with the tankard. “I want to see my goddaughter. Now.”

“Hello, Chris! I didn’t realize you were coming,” Sarah said, lowering the window and giving him a kiss. “I’m a knight. I have to be here.” Chris’s grin grew.

“So I’ve been told,” Sarah said. There had been other warmblooded members before Chris—Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy to name just two—but I had never thought to count my best friend among them.

“Yep. I’m going to make my students call me Sir Christopher next semester,” Chris said.

“Better that than St. Christopher,” said a piercing soprano voice. Miriam grinned, her hands on her hips. The pose showed off the T-shirt she was wearing under a demure navy blazer. It, too, was navy and had SCIENCE: RUINING EVERYTHING SINCE 1543 spelled out across the chest along with a unicorn, an Aristotelian depiction of the heavens, and the outline of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. A red bar sinister obliterated each image.

“Hello, Miriam!” I waved.

“Park the car so we can see the sprogs,” she demanded.

Matthew obliged, but when a crowd started to form, he said that the babies needed to be out of the cold and beat a hasty retreat into the kitchen, armed with a diaper bag and using Philip as a shield.

“How many people are here?” I asked Fernando. We had passed dozens of parked cars.

“At least a hundred,” he replied. “I haven’t stopped to count.”

Based on the feverish preparations in the kitchen, there were more than a few warmbloods in attendance. I saw a stuffed goose go into the oven and a pig come out of it, ready to be basted with wine and herbs. My mouth watered at the aromas.

Shortly before eleven in the morning, the church bells in Saint-Lucien pealed. By that time Sarah and I had changed the twins into matching white gowns made of silk and lace and little caps sewn by Marthe and Victoire. They looked every inch sixteenth-century babies. We bundled them into blankets and made our way downstairs.

It was then that the ceremonies took an unexpected turn. Sarah climbed into one of the family’s ATVs with Ysabeau, and Marcus directed us to the Range Rover. Once we were strapped in, Marcus drove us not to the church but to the goddess’s temple on the mountain.

My eyes filled at the sight of the well-wishers gathered beneath the oak and cypress. Only some of the faces were familiar to me, but Matthew recognized far more. I spotted Sophie and Margaret, with Nathaniel by their side. Agatha Wilson was there, too, looking at me vaguely as though she recognized but wasn’t able to place me. Amira and Hamish stood together, both looking slightly overwhelmed by all the ceremony. But it was the dozens of unfamiliar vampires present who surprised me most. Their stares were cold and curious, but not malicious.

“What is this about?” I asked Matthew when he opened my door.

“I thought we should divide the ceremony into two parts: a pagan naming ceremony here, and a Christian baptism at the church,” he explained. “That way Emily could be a part of the babies’ day.”

Matthew’s thoughtfulness—and his efforts to remember Em—rendered me temporarily mute. I knew he was always hatching plans and conducting business while I slept. I hadn’t imagined his nocturnal work included overseeing the arrangements for the christening.

“Is it all right, mon coeur?” he asked, anxious at my silence. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“It’s perfect,” I said when I was able. “And it will mean so much to Sarah.”

The guests formed a circle around the ancient altar dedicated to the goddess. Sarah, Matthew, and I took our places within it. My aunt had anticipated that I wouldn’t remember a single word of any baby naming ritual that I had ever witnessed or taken part in, and she was prepared to officiate. The ceremony was a simple but important moment in a young witch’s life, since it was a formal welcome into the community. But there was more to it than that, as Sarah knew.

“Welcome, friends and family of Diana and Matthew,” Sarah began, her cheeks pink with cold and excitement. “We are gathered here today to bestow upon their children the names that they will take with them as they go into the world. Among witches to call something by name is to recognize its power. By naming these children, we honor the goddess who entrusted them to our care and express gratitude for the gifts she has given them.” Matthew and I had used a formula to come up with the babies’ names—and I had vetoed the vampire tradition of five first names in favor of an elemental foursome. With a hyphenated last name, that seemed ample. Each of the babies’ first names came from a grandparent. Their second name honored the de Clermont tradition of bestowing the names of archangels on members of the family. We took their third name from yet another grandparent. For the fourth and final name, we selected someone who had been important to their conception and birth.

No one knew the babies’ full names until now—except for Matthew, Sarah, and me.

Sarah directed Matthew to hold Rebecca up so that her face was turned to the sky.

“Rebecca Arielle Emily Marthe,” Sarah said, her voice ringing through the clearing, “we welcome you into the world and into our hearts. Go forth with the knowledge that all here will recognize you by this honorable name and hold your life sacred.”

Rebecca Arielle Emily Marthe, the trees and the wind whispered back. I was not the only one to hear it. Amira’s eyes widened, and Margaret Wilson cooed and waved her arms in joy.

Matthew lowered Rebecca, his expression full of love as he looked down on the daughter who resembled him so much. Rebecca reached up and touched his nose with her delicate finger in return, a gesture of connection that filled my heart to bursting.

When it was my turn, I lifted Philip to the sky, offering him to the goddess and the elements of fire, air, earth, and water.

“Philip Michael Addison Sorley,” Sarah said, “we also welcome you into the world and into our hearts. Go forth knowing that all present will recognize you by this honorable name and hold your life sacred.”

The vampires exchanged glances when they heard Philip’s last given name and searched the crowd for Gallowglass. We had chosen Addison because it was my father’s middle name, but Sorley belonged to the absent Gael. I wished he had been able to hear it echo through the trees.

“May Rebecca and Philip bear their names proudly, grow into their promise in the fullness of time, and trust that they will be cherished and protected by all those who have borne witness to the love their parents have for them. Blessed be,” Sarah said, her eyes shining with unshed tears.

It was impossible to find a dry eye in the clearing or to know who was the most moved by the ceremony. Even my normally vocal daughter was awed by the occasion and sucked pensively on her lower lip.

From the clearing we decamped to the church. The vampires walked, beating everybody down the hill. The rest of us used a combination of ATVs and cars with four-wheel drive, which led to much self congratulation on Matthew’s part as to the wisdom of his automotive preferences.

At the church the crowd of witnesses swelled to include people from the village, and, as on the day of our marriage, the priest was waiting for us at the door.

“Does every Catholic religious ceremony take place in the open air?” I asked, tucking Philip’s blanket more firmly around him.

“A fair few of them,” Fernando replied. “It never made any sense to me, but I am an infidel, after all.”

“Shh,” Marcus warned, eyeing the priest with concern. “Père Antoine is admirably ecumenical and agreed to pass lightly over the usual exorcisms, but let’s not push him. Now, does anyone know the words of the ceremony?”

“I do,” Jack said.

“Me, too,” Miriam said.

“Good. Jack will take Philip, and Miriam will hold Rebecca. You two can do the talking. The rest of us will look attentive and nod when it seems appropriate,” Marcus said, his bonhomie unwavering.

He gave the priest a thumbs-up. “Nous sommes prêts, Père Antoine!”

Matthew took my arm and steered me inside.

“Are they going to be okay?” I whispered. The godparents included only one lonely Catholic, accompanied by a converso, a Baptist, two Presbyterians, one Anglican, three witches, a daemon, and three vampires of uncertain religious persuasion.

“This is a house of prayer, and I beseeched God to watch over them,” Matthew murmured as we took our places near the altar. “Hopefully, He is listening.”

But neither we—nor God—needed to worry. Jack and Miriam answered all the priest’s questions about their faith and the state of the children’s souls in perfect Latin. Philip chortled when the priest blew on his face to expel any evil spirits and objected strenuously when salt was put in his tiny mouth.

Rebecca seemed more interested in Miriam’s long curls, one of which was clenched in her fist.

As for the rest of the godparents, they were a formidable group. Fernando, Marcus, Chris, Marthe, and Sarah (in place of Vivian Harrison, who could not be there) served with Miriam as godparents for Rebecca. Jack, along with Hamish, Phoebe, Sophie, Amira, and Ysabeau (who stood up for her absent grandson Gallowglass) promised to guide and care for Philip. Even for a nonbeliever such as myself, the ancient words spoken by the priest made me feel that these children were going to be looked after and cared for, no matter what might happen.

The ceremony drew to a close, and Matthew visibly relaxed. Père Antoine asked Matthew and me to come forward and take Rebecca and Philip from their godparents. When we faced the congregation for the first time, there was one spontaneous cheer, then another.

“And there’s an end to the covenant!” a unfamiliar vampire said in a loud voice. “About bloody time, too.”

“Hear, hear, Russell,” several murmured in reply.

The bells rang out overhead. My smile turned to laughter as we were caught up in the happiness of the moment.

As usual, that was when everything started to go wrong.

The south door opened, letting in a gust of cold air. A man stood silhouetted against the light. I squinted, trying to make out his features. Throughout the church, vampires seemed to vanish only to reappear in the nave, barring the new arrival from coming any further inside. I drew closer to Matthew, holding Rebecca tight. The bells fell silent, though the air still reverberated with their final echoes.

“Congratulations, sister.” Baldwin’s deep voice filled the space. “I’ve come to welcome your children into the de Clermont family.”

Matthew drew himself up to his full height. Without a backward look, he handed Philip to Jack and marched down the aisle to his brother.

“Our children are not de Clermonts,” Matthew said coldly. He reached into his jacket and thrust a folded document at Baldwin. “They belong to me.”

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