Home > Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(27)

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(27)
Author: Deborah Harkness

"The picture of the alchemical wedding from Ashmole 782-it is about us. I know it. And Miriam was right: The next step in the process of alchemical transformation after the marriage of gold and silver is conception."

"Conception?" Philippe drawled from the door. His boots creaked as he pushed away from the frame. "No one mentioned that possibility."

"That's because it's impossible. I've had sex with other warmblooded women, and they've never become pregnant. The image of the chemical wedding may have been intended as a message, as Diana says, but the chances of representation becoming reality are slim." Matthew shook his head. "No manjasang has ever fathered a child like that before."

"Never is a long time, Matthew, as I told you. As for the impossible, I have walked this earth longer than man's memories and have seen things that later generations discounted as myth. Once there were creatures who swam like fish in the sea and others who wielded lightning bolts instead of spears. They are gone now, replaced with something new. 'Change is the only reliable thing in the world.'"

"Heraclitus," I murmured.

"The wisest of men," said Philippe, pleased that I recognized the quote. "The gods like to surprise us when we grow complacent. It's their favorite form of entertainment." He studied my unusual costume. "Why are you wearing Matthew's shirt and hose?"

"He gave them to me. It's fairly close to what I wear in my own time, and Matthew wanted me to be comfortable. He sewed the legs together himself, I think." I turned to show off the ensemble. "Who knew the de Clermont men could thread a needle, never mind stitch a straight seam?"

Philippe's eyebrows rose. "Did you think Ysabeau mended our torn garments when we came home from battle?"

The idea of Ysabeau sewing quietly while she waited for her men to return made me giggle. "Hardly."

"You know her well, I see. If you are determined to dress like a boy, put breeches on, at the very least. If the priest sees you, his heart will stop and tomorrow's ceremony will have to be delayed."

"But I'm not going outside," I said, frowning.

"I'd like to take you to a place sacred to the old gods before you are wed. It is not far," Philippe said when Matthew drew a breath to complain, "and I'd like us to be alone, Matthaios."

"I'll meet you in the stables," I agreed without hesitation. Some time in the fresh air would provide a welcome opportunity for me to clear my head.

Outside, I enjoyed the sting of the cold air on my cheeks and the wintry peace of the countryside. Soon Philippe and I came to a hilltop that was flatter than most of the rounded ridges around Sept-Tours. The ground was punctuated with protrusions of stone that struck me as oddly symmetrical. Though ancient and overgrown with vegetation, these weren't natural outcroppings. They were manmade.

Philippe swung down from his horse and motioned for me to do the same. Once I dismounted, he took me by the elbow and guided me through two of the strange lumps and into a smooth expanse of snow-covered ground. All that marred the pristine surface were the tracks of wildlife-the heart-shaped outline of a deer's hoof, the five-clawed marks of bear, the combination of triangular and oval pads belonging to a wolf.

"What is this place?" I asked, my voice hushed.

"A temple dedicated to Diana stood here once, overlooking the woods and valleys where the stags liked to run. Those who revered the goddess planted sacred cypress trees to grow alongside the native oak and alder." Philippe pointed to the thin columns of green that stood guard around the area. "I wanted to bring you here because when I was a child, far away and before I became a manjasang, brides would go to a temple like this before their wedding and make a sacrifice to the goddess. We called her Artemis then."

"A sacrifice?" My mouth was dry. There had been enough bloodshed.

"No matter how much we change, it is important to remember the past and honor it." Philippe handed me a knife and a bag whose contents shifted and chimed. "It is also wise to set old wrongs to rights. The goddesses have not always been pleased with my actions. I would like to make sure that Artemis receives her due before my son marries you tomorrow. The knife is to take a lock of your hair. It is a symbol of your maidenhood, and the customary gift. The money is a symbol of your worth." Philippe's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "There would have been more, but I had to save some for Matthew's god, too."

Philippe led me to a small plinth in the center of the ruined structure. An assortment of offerings rested on it-a wooden doll, a child's shoe, a bowl of sodden grain dusted with snow.

"I'm surprised that anyone still comes here," I said.

"All over France women still curtsy to the moon when she is full. Such habits die hard, especially those that sustain people during difficult times." Philippe went forward to the makeshift altar. He didn't bow, or kneel, or make any of the other familiar signs of respect to a deity, but when he began to speak, his voice was so quiet I had to strain to hear him. The strange mixture of Greek and English made little sense. Philippe's solemn intentions were clear, however.

"Artemis Agrotere, renowned huntress, Alcides Leontothymos beseeches you to hold this child Diana in your hand. Artemis Lykeie, lady of the wolves, protect her in every way. Artemis Patroia, goddess of my ancestors, bless her with children so that my lineage continues."

Philippe's lineage. I was part of it now, by marriage as well as the giving of his blood.

"Artemis Phosphoros, bring the light of your wisdom when she is in darkness. Artemis Upis, watch over your namesake during her journey in this world." Philippe finished the invocation and motioned me forward.

After carefully placing the bag of coins next to the child's shoe, I reached up and pulled a strand of hair away from the nape of my neck. The knife was sharp, and it easily removed the curl with a single swipe of the blade.

We stood quietly in the dimming afternoon light. A surge of power washed through the ground underneath my feet. The goddess was here. For a moment I could imagine the temple as it once was-pale, gleaming, whole. I stole a glance at Philippe. With a bear pelt draped over his shoulders, he, too, looked like the savage remainder of a lost world. And he was waiting for something.

A white buck with curved antlers picked its way out of the cypress and stood, breath steaming from its nostrils. With quiet steps the buck picked his way over to me. His huge brown eyes were challenging, and he was close enough for me to see the sharp edges on his horns. The buck looked haughtily at Philippe and bellowed, one beast's greeting to another.

"Sas efxaristo," Philippe said gravely, his hand over his heart. He turned to me. "Artemis has accepted your gifts. We can go now."

Matthew had been listening for sounds of our arrival and was waiting, his face uncertain, in the courtyard as we rode up. "Ready yourself for the banquet," Philippe suggested as I dismounted. "Our guests will be arriving soon."

I gave Matthew what I hoped was a confident smile before I went upstairs. As darkness fell, the hum of activity told me the chateau was filling up with people. Soon Catrine and Jehanne came to get me dressed. The gown they'd laid out was by far the grandest thing I'd ever worn. The dark green fabric reminded me of the cypress by the temple now, rather than the holly that decorated the chateau for Advent. And the silver oak leaves embroidered on the bodice caught the light from the candles as the buck's antlers had caught the rays of the setting sun.

The girls' eyes were shining when they finished. I'd been able to get only a glimpse of my hair (swept up into coils and twisted into braids) and my pale face in Louisa's polished silver mirror. But their expressions indicated that my transformation was weddingworthy.

"Bien," Jehanne said softly.

Catrine opened the door with a flourish, and the gown's silver stitches flared to life in the torchlight from the hall. I held my breath while I waited for Matthew's reaction.

"Jesu," he said, stunned. "You are beautiful, mon coeur." Matthew took my hands and lifted my arms to see the full effect. "Good God, are you wearing two sets of sleeves?"

"I think there are three," I said with a laugh. I had on a linen smock with tight lace cuffs, tight green sleeves that matched my bodice and skirts, and voluminous puffs of green silk that fell from my shoulders and were caught up at the elbows and wrists. Jehanne, who had been in Paris last year to attend upon Louisa, assured me the design was a la mode.

"But how am I supposed to kiss you with all this in the way?" Matthew drew his finger around my neck. My pleated ruff, which was standing out a good four inches, quivered in response.

"If you squash it, Jehanne will have a stroke," I murmured as he carefully took my face in his hands. She'd employed a contraption resembling a curling iron to bend yards of linen into the crisp figure-eight formations. It had taken her hours.

"Never fear. I'm a doctor." Matthew leaned in and pressed his mouth to mine. "There, not a pleat disturbed."

Alain coughed gently. "They are waiting for you."

"Matthew," I said, catching at his hand, "I need to tell you something."

He motioned to Alain, and we were left alone in the corridor.

"What is it?" he said uneasily.

"I sent Catrine to the stillroom to put away Marthe's herbs." It was a far bigger step into the unknown than the one that I'd taken in Sarah's hop barn to bring us here.

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure," I said, remembering Philippe's words at the temple.

Our entry into the hall was greeted with whispers and sidelong glances. The changes in my appearance had been noted, and the nods told me that at last I looked like someone who was fit to marry milord.

"There they are," Philippe boomed from the family's usual table. Someone began to clap, and soon the hall rang with the sound. Matthew's smile was shy at first, but as the noise increased, it broadened into a proud grin.

We were seated in the places of honor on either side of Philippe, who then called for the first course and music to accompany it. I was offered small portions of everything Chef had prepared. There were dozens of dishes: a soup made with chickpeas, grilled eel, a delicious puree of lentils, salt cod in garlic sauce, and an entire fish that swam through a gelatinous sea of aspic, with sprigs of lavender and rosemary impersonating water plants. Philippe explained that the menu had been the subject of heated negotiations between Chef and the village priest. After the exchange of several embassies, the two had finally agreed that tonight's meal would strictly adhere to the Friday dietary prohibitions against meat, milk, and cheese, while tomorrow's banquet would be a no-holds-barred extravaganza.

As befitted the groom, Matthew's portions were somewhat heartier than mine-unnecessarily so, since he ate nothing and drank little. The men at the adjoining tables joked with him about the need to bolster his strength for the ordeals to come.

By the time the hippocras started flowing and a delicious nut brittle made with walnuts and honey was passed along the table, their commentary was downright ribald and Matthew's responses were just as barbed. Happily, most of the insults and advice were delivered in languages I didn't fully understand, but Philippe clapped his hands over my ears occasionally anyway.

My heart lifted as the laughter and music swelled. Tonight Matthew didn't look like a fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire but like every other groom the night before his wedding: sheepish, pleased, a bit anxious. This was the man I loved, and my heart stilled for just a moment whenever his gaze settled on me.

The singing started when Chef served the last selection of wine and the candied fennel and cardamom seeds. A man at the opposite end of the hall sang out in a deep bass, and his neighbors picked up the melody. Soon everybody was joining in, with so much stomping and clapping that you couldn't hear the musicians trying desperately to keep up with them.

While the guests were busily devising new songs, Philippe made the rounds, greeting everyone by name. He threw babies into the air, inquired after animals, and listened attentively while the elderly cataloged their aches and pains.

"Just look at him," Matthew marveled, taking my hand. "How does Philippe manage to make every one of them feel that they're the most important guest in the room?"

"You tell me," I said with a laugh. When Matthew looked confused, I shook my head. "Matthew, you are exactly the same. All you need do to take charge of a roomful of people is to enter it."

"If you want a hero like Philippe, you're going to be disappointed in me," he said.

I took his face in my hands. "For your wedding gift, I wish I had a spell that could make you see yourself as others do."

"Based on what's reflected in your eyes, I look much the same. A little nervous, perhaps, given what Guillaume just shared with me about the carnal appetites of older women," Matthew joked, trying to distract me. But I was having none of it.

"If you aren't seeing a leader of men, then you're not looking carefully." Our faces were so close I could smell the spice on his breath. Without thinking, I drew him to me. Philippe had tried to tell Matthew he was worthy of being loved. Perhaps a kiss would be more convincing.

In the distance I heard shouts and more clapping. Then there was whooping.

"Leave the girl something to look forward to tomorrow, Matthaios, or she may not meet you at the church!" Philippe called out, drawing more laughter from the crowd. Matthew and I parted in happy embarrassment. I searched the hall and found Matthew's father by the fireside, tuning an instrument with seven strings. Matthew told me it was a kithara. A hush of anticipation fell over the room.

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