Home > Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(8)

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(8)
Author: Deborah Harkness

"Perhaps I could meet Widow Beaton later, in the village, alone?" I suggested, hoping that one of them might see sense and persuade Matthew to let me do this my way.

"No!" cried out six horrified male voices.

Françoise appeared bearing two pieces of starched linen and lace, her bosom swelling like that of an indignant hen facing down a pugnacious rooster. She was as annoyed by Matthew's constant interference as I was.

"Diana's not going to court. That ruff is unnecessary," said Matthew with an impatient gesture. "Besides, it's her hair that's the problem."

"You have no idea what's necessary," Françoise retorted. Though she was a vampire and I was a witch, we had reached unexpected common ground when it came to the idiocy of men. "Which would Madame de Clermont prefer?" She extended a pleated nest of gauzy fabric and something crescent-shaped that resembled snowflakes joined together with invisible stitches.

The snowflakes looked more comfortable. I pointed to them.

While Françoise affixed the collar to the edge of my bodice, Matthew reached up in another attempt to put my hair in a more pleasing arrangement. Françoise slapped his hand away. "Don't touch."

"I'll touch my wife when I like. And stop calling Diana 'Madame de Clermont,'" Matthew rumbled, moving his hands to my shoulders. "I keep expecting my mother to walk through the door." He drew the edges of the collar apart, pulling loose the black velvet cord that hid Françoise's pins.

"Madame is a married woman. Her bosom should be covered. There is enough gossip about the new mistress," Françoise protested.

"Gossip? What kind of gossip?" I asked with a frown.

"You were not in church yesterday, so there is talk that you are with child, or afflicted by smallpox. That heretic priest believes you are Catholic. Others say you are Spanish."

"Spanish?"

"Oui, madame. Someone heard you in the stables yesterday afternoon."

"But I was practicing my French!" I was a fair mimic and thought that imitating Ysabeau's imperious accent might lend credence to my elaborate cover story.

"The groom's son did not recognize it as such." Françoise's tone suggested that the boy's confusion was warranted. She studied with me with satisfaction. "Yes, you look like a respectable woman."

"Fallaces sunt rerum species," said Kit with a touch of acid that brought the scowl back to Matthew's face. "'Appearances can be deceiving.' No one will be taken in by her performance."

"It's far too early in the day for Seneca." Walter gave Marlowe a warning look.

"It is never too early for stoicism," Kit replied severely. "You should thank me that it's not Homer. All we've heard lately is inept paraphrases of the Iliad. Leave the Greek to someone who understands it, George-someone like Matt."

"My translation of Homer's work is not yet finished!" George retorted, bristling.

His response released a flood of Latin quotations from Walter. One of them made Matthew chuckle, and he said something in what I suspected was Greek. The witch waiting downstairs completely forgotten, the men enthusiastically engaged in their favorite pastime: verbal one-upmanship. I sank back into my chair.

"When they are in a fine humor like this, they are a wonder," Henry whispered. "These are the keenest wits in the kingdom, Mistress Roydon."

Raleigh and Marlowe were now shouting at each other about the merits-or lack thereof-of Her Majesty's policies on colonization and exploration.

"One might as well take fistfuls of gold and dump them into the Thames as give them to an adventurer like you, Walter," Kit chortled.

"Adventurer! You can't step out of your own door in daylight for fear of your creditors." Raleigh's voice shook. "You can be such a fool, Kit."

Matthew had been following the volleys with increasing amusement. "Who are you in trouble with now?" he asked Marlowe, reaching for his wine. "And how much is it going to cost to get you out of it?"

"My tailor." Kit waved a hand over his expensive suit. "The printer for Tamburlaine." He hesitated, prioritizing the outstanding sums. "Hopkins, that bastard who calls himself my landlord. But I do have this." Kit held up the tiny figure of Diana that he'd won from Matthew when they played chess on Sunday night. Still anxious about letting the statue out of my sight, I inched forward.

"You can't be so hard up as to pawn that bauble for pennies." Matthew's eyes flickered to me, and a small movement of his hand had me sinking back again. "I'll take care of it."

Marlowe bounded to his feet with a grin, pocketing the silver goddess. "You can always be counted on, Matt. I'll pay you back, of course."

"Of course," Matthew, Walter, and George murmured doubtfully.

"Keep enough money to buy yourself a beard, though." Kit stroked his own with satisfaction. "You look dreadful."

"Buy a beard?" I couldn't possibly have understood correctly. Marlowe must be using slang again, even though Matthew had asked him to stop on my account.

"There's a barber in Oxford who is a wizard. Your husband's hair grows slowly, as with all of his kind, and he's clean shaven." When I still looked blank, Kit continued with exaggerated patience. "Matt will be noticed, looking as he does. He needs a beard. Apparently you are not witch enough to provide him with one, so we will have to find someone else to do it."

My eyes strayed to the empty jug on the elm table. Françoise had filled it with clippings from the garden-sprigs of holly oak, branches from a medlar with their brown fruit resembling rose hips, and a few white roses-to bring some color and scent into the room. A few hours ago, I had laced my fingers through the branches to tug the roses and medlars to the forefront of the vase, wondering about the garden all the while. I was pleased with the results for about fifteen seconds, until the flowers and fruit withered before my eyes. The desiccation spread from my fingertips in all directions, and my hands tingled with an influx of information from the plants: the feel of sunlight, the quenching sensation of rain, the strength in the roots that came from resisting the pull of the wind, the taste of the soil.

Matthew was right. Now that we were in 1590, my magic was changing. Gone were the eruptions of witchfire, witchwater, and witchwind that I had experienced after meeting Matthew. Instead I was seeing the bright threads of time and the colorful auras that surrounded living creatures. A white stag stared at me from the shadows under the oaks whenever I walked in the gardens. Now I was making things wither.

"Widow Beaton is waiting," Walter reminded us, ushering Tom toward the door.

"What if she can hear my thoughts?" I worried as we descended the wide oak stairs.

"I'm more worried about what you might say aloud. Do nothing that might stir her jealousy or animosity," Walter advised, following behind with the rest of the School of Night. "If all else fails, lie. Matthew and I do it all the time."

"One witch can't lie to another."

"This will not end well," Kit muttered darkly. "I'd wager money on it."

"Enough." Matthew whirled and grabbed Kit by the collar. The pair of English mastiffs sniffed and growled at Kit's ankles. They were devoted to Matthew-and none too fond of Kit.

"All I said-" Kit began, squirming in an attempt to escape. Matthew gave him no opportunity to finish and jacked him against the wall.

"What you said is of no interest, and what you meant was clear enough." Matthew's grip tightened.

"Put him down." Walter had one hand on Marlowe's shoulder and the other on Matthew. The vampire ignored Raleigh and lifted his friend several more inches. In his red-and-black plumage, Kit looked like an exotic bird that had somehow become trapped in the folds of the carved wooden paneling. Matthew held him there for a few more moments to make his point clear, then let him drop.

"Come, Diana. Everything is going to be fine." Matthew still sounded sure, but an ominous pricking in my thumbs warned me that Kit just might be right.

"God's teeth," Walter muttered in disbelief as we processed into the hall. "Is that Widow Beaton?"

At the far end of the room, standing in the shadows, was the witch from central casting: diminutive, bent, and ancient. As we drew closer, the details of her rusty black dress, stringy white hair, and leathery skin became more apparent. One of her eyes was milky with a cataract, the other a mottled hazel. The eyeball with the cataract had an alarming tendency to swivel in its socket, as though its sight might be improved with a different perspective. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, I spotted the wart on the bridge of her nose.

Widow Beaton slid a glance in my direction and dipped into a grudging curtsy. The barely perceptible tingle on my skin suggested that she was indeed a witch. Without warning, my third eye fluttered open, looking for further information. Unlike most other creatures, however, Widow Beaton gave off no light at all. She was gray through and through. It was dispiriting to see a witch try so hard to be invisible. Had I been as pallid as that before I touched Ashmole 782? My third eye drooped closed again.

"Thank you for coming to see us, Widow Beaton." Matthew's tone suggested that she should be glad he'd let her into his house.

"Master Roydon." The witch's words rasped like the fallen leaves that swirled on the gravel outside. She turned her one good eye on me.

"Help Widow Beaton to her seat, George."

Chapman leaped forward at Matthew's command, while the rest of us remained at a careful distance. The witch groaned as her rheumatic limbs settled into the chair. Matthew politely waited as she did so, then continued.

"Let us get straight to the heart of the matter. This woman"-he indicated me-"is under my protection and has been having difficulties of late." Matthew made no mention of our marriage.

"You are surrounded by influential friends and loyal servants, Master Roydon. A poor woman can be of little use to a gentleman such as you." Widow Beaton tried to hide the reproach in her words with a false note of courtesy, but my husband had excellent hearing. His eyes narrowed.

"Do not play games with me," he said shortly. "You do not want me as an enemy, Widow Beaton. The woman shows signs of being a witch and needs your help."

"A witch?" Widow Beaton looked politely doubtful. "Was her mother a witch? Or her father a wizard?"

"Both died when she was still a child. We are not certain what powers they possessed," Matthew admitted, telling one of his typically vampiric half-truths. He tossed a small bag of coins into her lap. "I would be grateful if you could examine her."

"Very well." Widow Beaton's gnarled fingers reached for my face. When our flesh touched, an unmistakable surge of energy passed between us. The old woman jumped.

"So?" Matthew demanded.

Widow Beaton's hands dropped to her lap. She clutched at the pouch of money, and for a moment it seemed as though she might hurl it back at him. Then she regained her composure.

"It is as I suspected. This woman is no witch, Master Roydon." Her voice was even, though a bit higher than it had been. A wave of contempt rose from my stomach and filled my mouth with bitterness.

"If you think that, you don't have as much power as the people of Woodstock imagine," I retorted.

Widow Beaton drew herself up indignantly. "I am a respected healer, with a knowledge of herbs to protect men and women from illness. Master Roydon knows my abilities."

"That is the craft of a witch. But our people have other talents as well," I said carefully. Matthew's fingers were painfully tight on my hand, urging me to be silent.

"I know of no such talents," was her quick reply. The old woman was as obstinate as my Aunt Sarah and shared her disdain for witches like me who could draw on the elements without any careful study of the witch's craft tradition. Sarah knew the uses of every herb and plant and could remember hundreds of spells perfectly, but there was more to being a witch. Widow Beaton knew that, even if she wouldn't admit it.

"Surely there is some way to determine the extent of this woman's powers beyond a simple touch. Someone with your abilities must know what they are," Matthew said, his lightly mocking tone a clear challenge. Widow Beaton looked uncertain, weighing the pouch in her hand. In the end its heaviness convinced her to rise to the contest. She slipped the payment into a pocket concealed under her skirts.

"There are tests to determine whether someone is a witch. Some rely on the recitation of a prayer. If a creature stumbles over the words, hesitates even for a moment, then it is a sign that the devil is near," she pronounced, adopting a mysterious tone.

"The devil is not abroad in Woodstock, Widow Beaton," Tom said. He sounded like a parent trying to convince a child there wasn't a monster under the bed.

"The devil is everywhere, sir. Those who believe otherwise fall prey to his wiles."

"These are human fables meant to frighten the superstitious and the weak-minded," said Tom dismissively.

"Not now, Tom," Walter muttered.

"There are other signs, too," George said, eager as ever to share his knowledge. "The devil marks a witch as his own with scars and blemishes."

"Indeed, sir," Widow Beaton, "and wise men know to look for them."

My blood drained from my head in a rush, leaving me dizzy. If anyone were to do so, such marks would be found on me.

"There must be other methods," Henry said uneasily.

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