Home > Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(16)

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(16)
Author: Deborah Harkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere high above, the bells tolled the hours.

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

Prince.

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

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

Beside me, Pierre let out a gentle exhalation. "Milord est lui-meme," he murmured with relief.

Milord is himself. But was he still mine?

Matthew might be a prince, but there was no doubt who was king. With every strike of our horses' hooves on the frozen roads, the power and influence of Matthew's father grew. As we drew closer to Philippe de Clermont, his son became more remote and imperious-a combination that put my teeth on edge and led to several heated arguments. Matthew always apologized for his high-handed conduct once his temper came off the boil, and, knowing the stress he was under as we approached his reunion with his father, I forgave him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's a remarkably ecumenical view."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You don't know my father." His gaze returned to the castle.

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

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

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

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

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

"Alain." Matthew's face softened with relief.

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

"Thank you, Alain. This is my wife, Diana."

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

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

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

"Have them send food to my rooms-something simple. Diana is tired and hungry." Matthew handed Alain his gloves. "I'll see him momentarily."

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

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

"He was most explicit in his orders, sir." Alain's stiff formality was a warning.

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

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