فصل 37

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فصل 37

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37

The sea and sky were leaden and the wind fierce when the de Clermont plane touched down at the Venice airport.

“Fine Venetian weather, I see.” Gallowglass buffered me from the blasts as we descended the airplane stairs behind Baldwin and Fernando.

“At least it’s not raining,” Baldwin said, scanning the tarmac.

Of the many things I’d been warned about, the fact that the house might have an inch or two of water in the ground floor was the least of my concerns. Vampires could have a maddening sense of what was truly important.

“Can we please go?” I said, marching toward the waiting car.

“It won’t make it five o’clock any sooner,” Baldwin observed as he followed me. “They refuse to change the meeting time. It’s tr—”

“Tradition. I know.” I climbed into the waiting car.

The car took us only as far as an airport dock, where Gallowglass helped me into a small, fast boat.

It had the de Clermont crest on its gleaming helm and tinted windows on the cabin. Soon we were at another dock, this one floating in front of a fifteenth-century palazzo on the curve of the Grand Canal.

Ca’ Chiaromonte was an appropriate dwelling for someone like Matthew who had played a pivotal role in Venetian business and political life for centuries. Its three floors, Gothic façade, and sparkling windows screamed wealth and status. Had I been here for any other reason than to save Matthew, I would have reveled in its beauty, but today the place felt as gloomy as the weather outside. A stout, dark-haired man with a prominent nose, round glasses with thick lenses, and a long-suffering expression was there to greet us.

“Benvegnùa, madame,” he said with a bow. “It is an honor to welcome you to your home. And it is always a pleasure to see you again, Ser Baldovino.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Santoro. We need coffee. And something stronger for Gallowglass.” Baldwin handed the man his gloves and coat and guided me toward the palazzo’s open door. It was tucked inside a small portico that was, as predicted, a few inches underwater despite the sandbags that had been arranged in piles by the door. Inside, a floor of terra-cotta and white tiles stretched into the distance, with another door at the far end. The dark wood paneling was illuminated by candles set into sconces with mirrored backs to magnify the light. I peeled off the hood on my heavy raincoat, unwound my scarf, and surveyed my surroundings.

“D’accordo, Ser Baldovino.” Santoro sounded about as sincere as Ysabeau. “And for you, Madame Chiaromonte? Milord Matteo has good taste in wine. A glass of Barolo, perhaps?”I shook my head.

“It’s Ser Matteo now,” Baldwin said from the end of the corridor. Santoro’s jaw dropped. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised, you old goat. You’ve been encouraging Matthew to rebel for centuries.”

Baldwin stomped up the stairs.

I fumbled with the buttons on my sodden coat. It wasn’t raining at the moment, but the air was thick with moisture. Venice, I had discovered, was mostly water, valiantly (if vainly) held together with bricks and mortar. While I did so, I stole a look at the rich furniture in the hall. Fernando saw my wandering attention.”

“Venetians understand two languages, Diaan: wealth and power. The de Clermonts speak both— fluently,” he said. “Besides, the city would have collapsed into the sea long ago if not for Matthew and Baldwin, and the Venetians know it. Neither of them have reason to hide here.” Fernando took my coat and handed it to Santoro. “Come, Diana, let me show you upstairs.”

The bedroom that had been prepared for me was decorated in reds and golds, and the fire in the tiled fireplace was lit, but the flames and bright colors could not warm me. Five minutes after the door closed behind Fernando, I found my way back downstairs.

I sank onto a padded bench in one of the lantern-like bay windows that jutted over the Grand Canal. A fire crackled in one of the house’s cavernous fireplaces. A familiar motto—WHAT NOURISHES ME DESTROYS ME—was carved into the wooden mantel. It reminded me of Matthew, of our time in London, of past deeds that even now threatened my family.

“Please, Auntie. You must rest,” Gallowglass murmured with concern once he’d discovered me there. “It’s hours until the Congregation will hear your case.”

But I refused to move. Instead, I sat among the leaded windows, each one capturing a fractured glimpse of the city outside, and listened to the bells mark the slow passing of the hours.

“It’s time.” Baldwin put his hand on my shoulder.

I stood and turned to face him. I was wearing the brightly embroidered Elizabethan jacket I’d worn home from the past along with a thick black turtleneck and wool trousers. I was dressed for Chelm so I could be ready to leave the moment the proceedings were over.

“You have the key?” Baldwin asked.

I slid it out of my pocket. Fortunately, the coat had been designed to hold an Elizabethan housewife’s many keys. Even so, the key to the Congregation chamber was so large it was a tight fit.

“Let’s go, then,” Baldwin said.

We found Gallowglass downstairs with Fernando. Both were draped in black cloaks, and Gallowglass settled a matching black velvet garment over my shoulders. It was ancient and heavy. My fingers traced Matthew’s insignia on the folds of fabric that covered my right arm.

The fierce wind had not abated, and I gripped the bottom of my hood to keep it from blowing open.

Fernando and Gallowglass swept into the launch, which lifted and fell with the swell of the waves in the canal. Baldwin kept a firm grip on my elbow as we walked over the slippery surface. I hopped aboard the launch just as the deck tipped precipitously toward the landing, aided by the sudden application of Gallowglass’s boot to a metal cleat on the side of the boat. I ducked into the cabin, and Gallowglass clambered aboard behind me.

We sped through the mouth of the Grand Canal, zipping across the stretch of water in front of San Marco and ducking into a smaller canal that cut through the Castello district and returned us to the lagoon north of the city. We passed by San Michele, with its high walls and cypress trees shielding the gravestones. My fingers twisted, spinning the black and blue cords within me as I murmured a few words to remember the dead.

As we crossed the lagoon, we passed some inhabited islands, like Murano and Burano, and others occupied only by ruins and dormant fruit trees. When the stark walls protecting the Isola della Stella came into view, my flesh tingled. Baldwin explained that the Venetians thought the place was cursed. It was no wonder. There was power here, both elemental magic and the residue left by centuries of spells cast to keep the place secure and turn away curious human eyes.

“The island is going to sense that I shouldn’t be entering through a vampire’s door,” I told Baldwin.

I could hear the spirits the witches had bound to the place as they swept around the perimeter making security checks. Whoever warded Isola della Stella and Celestina was far more sophisticated than the witch who had installed the magical surveillance system I’d dismantled at the Bodleian.

“Move quickly, then. Congregation rules forbid expulsion of anyone who reaches the cloister that lies at the center of Celestina. If you have the key, you have the right to enter with two companions. It’s always been this way,” Baldwin said calmly.

Santoro cut the engines, and the boat moved smoothly into the protected landing. As we passed under the archway, I saw the faint outlines of the de Clermont ouroboros on the keystone. Time and salt air had softened the chiseled insignia, and to a casual viewer it would have looked like nothing more than a shadow. Inside, the steps that led to the high marble landing were thick with algae. A vampire might risk the climb, but not a witch. Before I could figure out a solution, Gallowglass had sprung from the boat and was on the landing. Santoro tossed a length of rope to him, and Gallowglass tied the boat to a bollard with practiced speed. Baldwin turned to issue his last-minute instructions.

“Once you reach the council chamber, take your seat without engaging in conversation. It’s become common practice for the members to chat endlessly before we convene, but this is no ordinary meeting.

The de Clermont representative is always the presiding member. Call the creatures to order as quickly as you can.”

“Right.” This was the part of the day I relished least. “Does it matter where I sit?”

“Your seat is opposite the door—between Gerbert and Domenico.” With that, Baldwin gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Buona fortuna, Diana.”

“Bring him home, Baldwin.” I clutched at his sleeve for a moment. It was the last sign of weakness I could afford.

“I will. Benjamin expected his father to look for him, and he believes you will run after him,”

Baldwin said. “He will not be expecting me.”

High above, bells tolled.

“We must go.” Fernando said.

“Take care of my sister,” Baldwin told him.

“I am taking care of my sire’s mate,” Fernando replied, “so you need not worry. I will guard her with my life.”

Fernando grasped me around the waist and lifted me up, while Gallowglass reached down and snagged me by the arm. In two seconds I was standing on the landing, Fernando beside me. Baldwin hopped from the launch to a smaller speedboat. With a salute he maneuvered his new vessel to the mouth of the slip. He would wait there until the bells rang five o’clock, signaling the beginning of the meeting. The door that stood between the Congregation and me was heavy and black with age and moisture.

The lock was uncannily shiny in comparison and looked as though it had been recently polished. I suspected that magic kept it gleaming, and a brush of my fingers confirmed my suspicion. But this was just a benign protection spell to prevent the elements from damaging the metal. Based on what I’d seen from the windows of Ca’ Chiaromonte, an enterprising Venetian witch could make a fortune enchanting the plaster and bricks in the city to stop them from crumbling.

The key felt warm as my hand closed around it. I drew it from my pocket, slipped the end of the stem and the bit into the lock, and turned. The mechanism inside the lock activated quickly and without complaint.

I grasped the heavy ring and pulled the door open. Beyond, there was a dark corridor with a veined marble floor. I could see no more than a yard ahead of me in the gloom.

“Let me show you the way,” Fernando said, taking my arm.

After the gloom of the corridor, I was temporarily blinded when we reached the dim light of the cloister. When my eyes focused, I saw rounded archways that were supported by graceful double columns. In the center of the space was a marble wellhead—a reminder that the cloister had been constructed long before modern conveniences like electricity and running water. In the days when travel was difficult and dangerous, the Congregation had met for months on end, living on the island until their business was finished.

The low murmur of conversation stopped. I pulled the hooded cloak around me, hoping to hide whatever markings of power might be visible on my skin. The thick folds also masked the tote bag slung over my shoulder. Quickly I surveyed the crowd. Satu stood alone. She avoided my eyes, but I was aware of her discomfort at seeing me again. More than that, the witch felt . . . wrong somehow, and my stomach flipped in a minor version of the revulsion I felt when another witch lied to me. Satu was wearing a disguising spell, but it did no good. I knew what she was hiding.

The other creatures present huddled into groups according to species. Agatha Wilson was standing with her two fellow daemons. Domenico and Gerbert were together, exchanging surprised looks. The Congregation’s remaining two witches were both women. One was stern-looking, with a tight braided bun woven from brown hair threaded with gray. She wore the ugliest dress I had ever seen, accented by an ornate choker. A small portrait miniature adorned the center of the gold-and-enameled necklace—an ancestor, no doubt. The other witch was pleasantly round-faced, with pink cheeks and white hair. Her skin was remarkably unlined, which made it impossible to determine her age. Something about this witch tugged at me, too, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. The flesh on my arms prickled, warning me that the Book of Life held an answer to my unspoken questions, but I couldn’t take the time to decipher it now.

“I am pleased to see that the de Clermonts have bowed to the Congregation’s request to see this witch.” Gerbert appeared before me. I had not seen him since La Pierre. “We meet again, Diana Bishop.”

“Gerbert,” I met his gaze unflinchingly, though it made my flesh shrink. His lips curled.

“I see you are the same proud creature you were before.” Gerbert turned to Gallowglass. “To see such a noble lineage as the de Clermonts brought to confusion and ruin by a girl!”

“They used to say something similar about Granny,” Gallowglass shot back. “If we can survive Ysabeau we can survive this ‘girl.’”

“You may think differently once you learn the extent of the witch’s offenses,” Gerbert replied.

“Where is Baldwin?” Domenico joined us, a scowl on his face.

Gears whirred and clanged overhead.

“Saved by the bell,” Gallowglass said. “Stand aside, Domenico.”

“A change of de Clermont representative at this late hour, and without notification, is most irregular, Gallowglass,” Gerbert said.

“What are you waiting for, Gallowglass? Unlock the door,” Domenico commanded.

“It’s not me who holds the key,” Gallowglass said, his voice soft. “Come, Auntie. You have a meeting to attend.”

“What do you mean, you don’t have the key?” Gerbert asked, his voice so sharp the sound cut through the enchanted carillon playing overhead. “You are the only de Clermont present.”

“Not so. Baldwin recognized Diana Bishop as a blood-sworn daughter of Philippe de Clermont weeks ago.” Gallowglass gave Gerbert a mocking smile.

Across the cloister, one of the witches gasped and whispered to her neighbor.

“That’s impossible,” Domenico said. “Philippe de Clermont has been dead for more than half a century. How—”

“Diana Bishop is a timewalker.” Gerbert looked at me in loathing. Across the courtyard the white haired witch’s dimples grew deeper. “I should have guessed. This is all part of some vast enchantment she has been working. I warned you that this witch must be stopped. Now we will pay the price for your failure to act appropriately.” He pointed an accusing finger at Satu.

The first toll of the hours sounded.

“Time to go,” I said briskly. “We wouldn’t want to be late and disrupt the Congregation’s traditions.” Their failure to agree to an earlier meeting time still rankled.

As I approached the door, the weight of the key filled my palm. There were nine locks, and every one had a key in it, save one. I slipped the metal bit into the remaining keyhole and twisted it with a flick of my wrist. The locking mechanisms whirred and clicked. Then the door swung open.

“After you.” I stepped aside so the others could file by. My first Congregation meeting was about to begin.

The council chamber was magnificent, decorated with brilliant frescoes and mosaics that were illuminated from the light of torches and hundreds of candles. The vaulted ceiling seemed miles above, and a gallery circled the room three or four stories up. That lofty space was where the Congregation’s records were kept. Thousands of years of records, based on a quick visual inventory of the shelves. In addition to books and manuscripts, there were earlier writing technologies, including scrolls and glass frames of the kind that held papyrus fragments. Banks of shallow drawers suggested there might even be clay tablets up there.

My eyes dropped to survey the meeting room, dominated by a large oval table surrounded by high backed chairs. Like the locks, and the keys that opened them, each chair was inscribed with a symbol.

Mine was right where Baldwin had promised it would be: on the far side of the room, opposite the door.

A young human woman stood inside, presenting each Congregation member who entered with a leather folio. At first I thought it must contain the meeting’s agenda. Then I noticed that each folio was a different thickness, as though items had been requested from the shelves above according to the members’ specific instructions.

I was the last to enter the room, and the door clanged shut behind me.

“Madame de Clermont,” the woman said, her dark eyes brimming with intelligence. “I am Rima Jaén, the Congregation’s librarian. Here are the documents Sieur Baldwin requested for the meeting. If there is anything more you require, you have only to let me know.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the materials from her.

She hesitated. “Pardon my presumption, madame, but have we met? You seem so familiar. I know you are a scholar. Have you ever visited the Gonçalves archive in Seville?”

“No, I have never worked there,” I said, adding, “but I believe I know the owner.”

“Se?or Gonçalves nominated me for this job after I was made redundant,” Rima said. “The Congregation’s former librarian retired quite unexpectedly in July, after suffering a heart attack. The librarians are, by tradition, human. Sieur Baldwin took on the task of replacing him.”

The librarian’s heart attack—and Rima’s appointment—had come a few weeks after Baldwin found out about my blood vow. I strongly suspected that my new brother had engineered the whole business.

The de Clermont’s king became more interesting by the hour.

“You are keeping us waiting, Professor Bishop,” Gerbert said testily, though based on the hum of conversation among the delegates he was the only creature who minded.

“Allow Professor Bishop a chance to get her bearings. It is her first meeting,” said the dimpled witch in a broad Scots accent. “Are you able to remember yours, Gerbert, or is that happy day lost in the mists of time?”

“Give that witch a chance and she’ll spellbind us all,” Gerbert said. “Do not underestimate her, Janet. Knox’s assessment of her childhood power and potential was grossly misleading, I fear.”

“Thank you kindly, but I don’t believe it’s I who need the warning,” Janet said with a twinkle in her gray eyes.

I took the folio from Rima and passed her the folded document that gave the Bishop-Clairmont family official standing in the vampire world.

“Can you file that, please?” I asked.

“Happily, Madame de Clermont,” Rima said. “The Congregation librarian is also its secretary. I’ll take whatever actions the document requires while you are meeting.”

Having handed off the papers that formally established the Bishop-Clairmont scion, I circumnavigated the table, the black cloak billowing around my feet.

“Nice tats,” Agatha whispered as I walked by, pointing to her own hairline. “Great coat, too.”

I smiled at her without comment and kept going. When I reached my chair, I wrestled with the damp cloak, not wanting to relinquish the tote bag while I did so. Finally I managed to get it off and hung it over the back of my chair.

“There are hooks by the door,” Gerbert said.

I turned to face him. His eyes widened. My jacket had long sleeves to hide the Book of Life’s text, but my eyes were fully on view. And I’d deliberately pulled my hair back into a long red braid that revealed the tips of the branches that covered my scalp.

“My power is unsettled at the moment, and some people are made uncomfortable by my appearance,” I said. “I prefer to keep my cloak nearby. Or I can use a disguising spell like Satu. But hiding in plain sight is as much a lie as any spoken form of deceit.”

I looked at each creature of the Congregation in turn, daring any of them to react to the letters and symbols that I knew were passing across my eyes.

Satu glanced away, but not quickly enough to mask her frightened look. The sudden movement stretched her poor excuse for a disguising spell. I searched for the spell’s signature, but there was none.

Satu’s disguising spell had not been cast. She herself had woven it—and not very skillfully.

I know your secret, sister, I said silently.

And I have long suspected yours, Satu replied, her voice as bitter as wormwood.

Oh, I’ve picked up a few more along the way, I said.

After my slow survey of the room, only Agatha risked asking a question.

“What happened to you?” she whispered.

“I chose my path.” I dropped the tote bag on the table and lowered myself into the chair. The bag was bound to me so tightly that even at this short distance I could feel the tug.

“What’s that?” Domenico asked suspiciously.

“A Bodleian Library tote bag.” I had taken it from the library shop when we retrieved the Book of Life, making sure to leave a twenty-pound note under the pencil cup near the till. Fittingly, it had the library oath emblazoned upon it in red and black letters.

Domenico opened his mouth to ask another question, but I silenced him with a look. I had waited long enough for today’s meeting to begin. Domenico could ask me questions after Matthew was free.

“I call this meeting to order. I am Diana Bishop, Philippe de Clermont’s blood-sworn daughter, and I represent the de Clermonts.” I turned to Domenico. He crossed his arms and refused to speak. I continued.

“This is Domenico Michele, and Gerbert of Aurillac is to my left. I know Agatha Wilson from Oxford, and Satu J?rvinen and I spent some time together in France, didn’t we?” My back smarted with the memory of her fire. “I’m afraid the rest of you will have to introduce yourselves.”

“I am Osamu Watanabe,” said the young male daemon sitting next to Agatha. “You look like a manga character. Can I draw you later?”

“Sure,” I said, hoping that the character in question didn’t turn out to be evil.

“Tatiana Alkaev,” said the platinum blonde with the dreamy blue eyes. All she needed was a sleigh pulled by white horses and she would be the perfect heroine in a Russian fairy tale. “You’re full of answers, but I have no questions at this time.”

“Excellent.” I turned to the witch with the forbidding expression and the execrable taste in clothing.

“And you?”

“I am Sidonie von Borcke,” she said, putting on a pair of reading glasses and opening her leather folio with a snap. “And I have no knowledge of this so-called blood vow.”

“It’s in the librarian’s report. Second page, at the bottom, in the addendum, third line,” Osamu said helpfully. Sidonie glared at him. “I seem to recall that it begins ‘Additions to vampire pedigrees (alphabetical): Almasi, Bettingcourt, de Clermont, D?az—”

“Yes, I see it now, Mr. Watanabe,” Sidonie snapped.

“I believe it’s my turn to be introduced, dear Sidonie.” The white-haired witch smiled beneficently.

“I am Janet Gowdie, and meeting you is a long-awaited pleasure. I knew your father and mother. They were a great credit to our people, and I still feel their loss keenly.”

“Thank you,” I said, moved by the woman’s simple tribute.

“We were told the de Clermonts had a motion for us to consider?” Janet gently steered the meeting back on track.

I gave her a grateful look. “The de Clermonts formally request the assistance of the Congregation in tracking down a member of the Bishop-Clairmont scion, Benjamin Fox or Fuchs. Mr. Fox contracted blood rage from his father, my husband, Matthew Clairmont, and has been kidnapping and raping witches for centuries in an attempt to impregnate them, mostly in the area surrounding the Polish city of Chelm. Some of you may remember complaints made by the Chelm coven, which the Congregation ignored. To date, Benjamin’s desire to create a witch-vampire child has been thwarted, in large part because he does not know what the witches discovered long ago—namely, that vampires with blood rage can reproduce biologically, but only with a particular kind of witch called a weaver.”

The room was completely quiet. I took a deep breath and continued.

“My husband, in an attempt to draw Benjamin into the open, went into Poland where he disappeared. We believe Benjamin has captured him and is holding him in a facility that served as a Nazi labor camp or research facility during the Second World War. The Knights of Lazarus have pledged to get my husband back, but the de Clermonts will need witches and daemons to come to our aid as well.

Benjamin must be stopped.”

I looked around the room once more. Every person in it save Janet Gowdie was slack-jawed with amazement.

“Discussion? Or should we move straight to the vote?” I asked, eager to forstall a long debate.

After a long silence, the Congregation chamber was filled with an indignant clamor as the representatives began to shout questions at me and accusations at each other. “Discussion it is,” I said.

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