Home > Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(20)

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(20)
Author: Deborah Harkness

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

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

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

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

Alain coughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Òc," Alain agreed with a nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why?" I asked.

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

"Continue, please, Chef."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It belongs to Madame de Clermont's woman," Alain explained.

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

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

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

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

Alain looked at me sharply. "Use it?"

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

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

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

Rosemary. For remembrance.

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

Remember.

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

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

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

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

"Are you finished here, madame?"

"Yes, Alain. Merces, Chef," I said.

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

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

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

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

"That means Advent will begin on Sunday."

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

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

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

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

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