The Book of Life Page 70

“As for the other matter,” Godfrey continued, “I have found Benjamin Ben-Gabriel as the Jews call him, or Benjamin Fuchs as the emperor knows him, or Benjamin the Blessed as he prefers. He is in the east as you feared, moving between the emperor’s court, the Báthory, the Drăculeşti, and His Imperial Majesty in Constantinople. There are worrying tales of Benjamin’s relationship with Countess Erzsébet, which, if circulated more widely, will result in Congregation inquiries detrimental to the family and those we hold dear.

“Matthew’s term on the Congregation is near an end, as he will have served his half century. If you will not involve him in business that so directly concerns him and his bloodline, then I beg you to see to it yourself or to send some trusted person to Hungary with all speed.

“In addition to the tales of excess and murder with Countess Erzsébet, the Jews of Prague similarly speak of the terror Benjamin caused in their district, when he threatened their beloved rabbi and a witch from Chelm. Now there are impossible tales of an enchanted creature made of clay who roams the streets protecting the Jews from those who would feast on their blood. The Jews say Benjamin seeks another witch as well, an Englishwoman who they claim was last seen with Ysabeau’s son. But this cannot be true, for Matthew is in England and would never lower himself to associate with a witch.”

Matthew’s breath hissed from between tight lips.

“Perhaps they confuse the English witch with the English daemon Edward Kelley, whom Benjamin visited in the emperor’s palace in May. According to your friend Joris Hoefnagel, Kelley was placed in Benjamin’s custody a few weeks later after he was accused of murdering one of the emperor’s servants. Benjamin took him to a castle in Křivoklát, where Kelley tried to escape and nearly died.

“There is one more piece of intelligence I must share with you, father, though I hesitate to do so, for it may be nothing more than the stuff of fantasy and fear. According to my informants, Gerbert was in Hungary with the countess and Benjamin. The witches of Pozsony have complained formally to the Congregation about women who have been taken and tortured by these three infamous creatures. One witch escaped and before death took her was able only to say these words: ‘They search within us for the Book of Life.’”

Matthew remembered the horrifying image of Diana’s parents, split open from throat to groin.

“These dark matters put the family in too much danger. Gerbert cannot be allowed to fascinate Benjamin with the power that witches have, as he has been. Matthew’s son must be kept away from Erzsébet Báthory, lest your mate’s secret be discovered. And we must not let the witches pursue any further. You will know how best to achieve these ends, whether by seeing to them yourself or by summoning the

brotherhood.

“I remain your humble servant and entrust your soul to God in the hope that He will see us safe together so we might speak more of these matters than present circumstances make wise.”

“Your loving son, Godfrey

“From the Confrérie, Paris this 20th day of December

1591”

Matthew folded the letter carefully.

At last he had some idea where to look. He would go to Central Europe and search for Benjamin himself.

But first he had to tell Diana what he’d learned. He had kept the news of Benjamin from her as long as he could.

The babies’ first Christmas was as loving and festive as anyone could wish. With eight vampires, two witches, one human vampire-in-waiting, and three dogs in attendance, it was also lively.

Matthew showed off the half dozen strands of gray hair that had resulted from my Christmas spell and explained happily that every year I’d give him more. I had asked for a six-slice toaster, which I had received, along with a beautiful antique pen inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl. Ysabeau criticized these gifts as insufficiently romantic for a couple so recently wed, but I didn’t need more jewelry, had no interest in traveling, and wasn’t interested in clothes. A toaster suited me to the ground.

Phoebe had encouraged the entire family to think of gifts that were handmade or hand-me-down, which struck us all as both meaningful and practical. Jack modeled the sweater Marthe had knit for him and the cuff links from his grandmother that had once belonged to Philippe. Phoebe wore a pair of glittering emeralds in her ears that I’d assumed had come from Marcus until she blushed furiously and explained that Marcus had given her something handmade, which she had left at Sept-Tours for safety’s sake. Given her color, I decided not to inquire further. Sarah and Ysabeau were pleased with the photo albums we’d presented that documented the twins’ first month of life.

Then the ponies arrived.

“Philip and Rebecca must ride, of course,” Ysabeau said as though this were self-evident. She supervised as her groom, Georges, led two small horses off the trailer. “This way they can grow accustomed to the horses before you put them in the saddle.” I suspected she and I might have different ideas on how soon that blessed day might occur.

“They are Paso Finos,” Ysabeau continued. “I thought an Andalusian like yours might be too much for a beginner. Phoebe said we are supposed to give hand-it-overs, but I have never been a slave to principle.”

Georges led a third animal from the trailer: Rakasa.

“Diana’s been asking for a pony since she could talk. Now she’s finally got one,” Sarah said. When Rakasa decided to investigate her pockets for anything interesting such as apples or peppermints, Sarah jumped away. “Horses have big teeth, don’t they?”

“Perhaps Diana will have better luck teaching her manners than I did,” Ysabeau said.

“Here, give her to me,” Jack said, taking the horse’s lead rope. Rakasa followed him, docile as a lamb.

“I thought you were a city boy,” Sarah called after him.

“My first job—well, my first honest job—was taking care of gentlemen’s horses at the Cardinal’s Hat,” Jack said. “You forget, Granny Sarah, cities used to be full of horses. Pigs, too. And their sh—”

“Where there’s livestock, there’s that,” Marcus said before Jack could finish. The young Paso Fino he was holding had already proved his point. “You’ve got the other one, sweetheart?”

Phoebe nodded, completely at ease with her equine charge. She and Marcus followed Jack to the stables.

“The little mare, Rosita, has established herself as head of the herd,” Ysabeau said. “I would have brought Balthasar, too, but as Rosita brings out his amorous side I’ve left him at Sept-Tours—for now.”

The idea that Matthew’s enormous stallion would try to act upon his intentions with a horse as small as Rosita was inconceivable.

We were sitting in the library after dinner, surrounded by the remains of Philippe de Clermont’s long life, a fire crackling in the enormous stone fireplace, when Jack stood and went to Matthew’s side.

“This is for you. Well, for all of us, really. Grand-mère said that all families of worth have them.”

Jack handed Matthew a piece of paper. “If you like it, Fernando and I will have it made into a standard for the tower.”

Matthew stared down at the paper.

“If you don’t like it—” Jack reached to reclaim his gift.

Matthew’s arm shot out and he caught Jack by the wrist.

“I think it’s perfect.” Matthew looked up at the boy who would always be like our firstborn child, though I had nothing to do with his warmblooded birth and Matthew was not responsible for his rebirth.

“Show it to your mother. See what she thinks.”

Expecting a monogram or a heraldic shield, I was stunned to see the image Jack had devised to symbolize our family. It was an entirely new orobouros, made not of a single snake with a tail in its mouth but two creatures locked forever in a circle with no beginning and no ending. One was the de Clermont serpent. The other was a firedrake, her two legs tucked against her body and her wings extended. A crown rested on the firedrake’s head.

“Grand-mère said the firedrake should wear a crown because you’re a true de Clermont and outrank the rest of us,” Jack explained matter-of-factly. He picked nervously at the pocket of his jeans.

“I can take the crown off. And make the wings smaller.”

“Matthew’s right. It’s already perfect.” I reached for his hand and pulled him down so I could give him a kiss. “Thank you, Jack.”

Everyone admired the official emblem of the Bishop-Clairmont family, and Ysabeau explained that new silver and china would have to be ordered, as well as a flag.

“What a lovely day,” I said, one arm around Matthew and the other waving farewell to our family as they departed, my left thumb prickling in sudden warning.

“I don’t care how reasonable your plan is. Diana’s not going to let you go to Hungary and Poland without her,” Fernando said. “Have you forgotten what happened to you when you left her to go to New Orleans?”

Fernando, Marcus, and Matthew had spent most of the hours between midnight and dawn arguing over what to do about Godfrey’s letter.

“Diana must go to Oxford. Only she can find the Book of Life,” Matthew said. “If something goes wrong and I can’t find Benjamin, I’ll need that manuscript to lure him into the open.”

“And when you do find him?” Marcus said sharply.

“Your job is to take care of Diana and my children,” Matthew said, equally sharp. “Leave Benjamin to me.”

I watched the heavens for auguries and plucked at every thread that seemed out of place to try to foresee and rectify whatever evil was abroad.

But the trouble did not gallop over the hill like an apocalyptic horseman, or cruise into the driveway, or even call on the phone.

The trouble was already in the house—and had been for some time.

I found Matthew in the library late one afternoon a few days after Christmas, several folded sheets of paper before him. My hands turned every color in the rainbow, and my heart sank.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A letter from Godfrey.” He slid it in my direction. I glanced at it, but it was written in Old French.

“Read it to me,” I said, sitting down next to him.

The truth was far worse than I had allowed myself to imagine. Benjamin’s killing spree had lasted centuries. He’d preyed on witches, and very probably weavers in particular. Gerbert was almost certainly involved. And that one phrase—“They search within us for the Book of Life”— turned my blood to fire and ice.

“We have to stop him, Matthew. If he finds out we’ve had a daughter . . .” I trailed off. Benjamin’s final words to me in the Bodleian haunted me. When I thought of what he might try to do to Rebecca, the power snapped through my veins like the lash of a whip.

“He already knows.” Matthew met my eyes, and I gasped at the rage I saw there.

“Since when?”

“Sometime before the christening,” Matthew said. “I’m going to look for him, Diana.”

“How will you find him?” I asked.

“Not by using computers or by trying to find his IP address. He’s too clever for that. I’ll find him the way I know best: tracking him, scenting him, cornering him,” Matthew said. “Once I do that, I’ll tear him limb from limb. If I fail—”

“You can’t,” I said flatly.

“I may.” Matthew’s eyes met mine. He needed me to hear him, not reassure him.

“Okay,” I said with a calmness I didn’t feel, “what happens if you fail?”

“You’ll need the Book of Life. It’s the only thing that may lure Benjamin out of hiding so he can be destroyed—once and for all.”

“The only thing besides me,” I said.

Matthew’s darkening eyes said that using me as bait to catch Benjamin was not an option.

“I’ll leave for Oxford tomorrow. The library is closed for the Christmas vacation. There won’t be any staff around except for security,” I said.

To my surprise, Matthew nodded. He was going to let me help.

“Will you be all right on your own?” I didn’t want to fuss over him, but I needed to know. Matthew had already suffered through one separation. He nodded.

“What shall we do about the children?” Matthew asked.

“They need to stay here, with Sarah and Ysabeau and with enough of my milk and blood to feed them until I return. I’ll take Fernando with me—no one else. If someone is watching us and reporting back to Benjamin, then we need to do what we can to make it look as though we’re still here and everything is normal.”

“Someone is watching us. There’s no doubt about it.” Matthew pushed his fingers through his hair.

“The only question is whether that someone belongs to Benjamin or to Gerbert. That wily bastard’s role in this may have been bigger than we thought.”

“If he and your son have been in league all this time, there’s no telling how much they know,” I said.

“Then our only hope is to possess information they don’t yet have. Get the book. Bring it back here and see if you can fix it by reinserting the pages Kelley removed,” Matthew said. “Meanwhile I’ll find Benjamin and do what I should have done long ago.”

“When will you leave?” I asked.

“Tomorrow. After you go, so I can make sure that you aren’t being followed,” he said, rising to his feet.

I watched in silence as the parts of Matthew I knew and loved—the poet and the scientist, the warrior and the spy, the Renaissance prince and the father—fell away until only the darkest, most forbidding part of him remained. He was only the assassin now.

Prev Next
Free Novels Read Online | Read Wuxia Novel | Read Xianxia Novel