The Book of Life Page 76

“Thank you.” I hesitated, then said the word that was not only on my tongue but in my heart.

“Brother.”

37

The sea and sky were leaden and the wind fierce when the de Clermont plane touched down at the Venice airport.

“Fine Venetian weather, I see.” Gallowglass buffered me from the blasts as we descended the airplane stairs behind Baldwin and Fernando.

“At least it’s not raining,” Baldwin said, scanning the tarmac.

Of the many things I’d been warned about, the fact that the house might have an inch or two of water in the ground floor was the least of my concerns. Vampires could have a maddening sense of what was truly important.

“Can we please go?” I said, marching toward the waiting car.

“It won’t make it five o’clock any sooner,” Baldwin observed as he followed me. “They refuse to change the meeting time. It’s tr—”

“Tradition. I know.” I climbed into the waiting car.

The car took us only as far as an airport dock, where Gallowglass helped me into a small, fast boat.

It had the de Clermont crest on its gleaming helm and tinted windows on the cabin. Soon we were at another dock, this one floating in front of a fifteenth-century palazzo on the curve of the Grand Canal.

Ca’ Chiaromonte was an appropriate dwelling for someone like Matthew who had played a pivotal role in Venetian business and political life for centuries. Its three floors, Gothic façade, and sparkling windows screamed wealth and status. Had I been here for any other reason than to save Matthew, I would have reveled in its beauty, but today the place felt as gloomy as the weather outside. A stout, dark-haired man with a prominent nose, round glasses with thick lenses, and a long-suffering expression was there to greet us.

“Benvegnùa, madame,” he said with a bow. “It is an honor to welcome you to your home. And it is always a pleasure to see you again, Ser Baldovino.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Santoro. We need coffee. And something stronger for Gallowglass.” Baldwin handed the man his gloves and coat and guided me toward the palazzo’s open door. It was tucked inside a small portico that was, as predicted, a few inches underwater despite the sandbags that had been arranged in piles by the door. Inside, a floor of terra-cotta and white tiles stretched into the distance, with another door at the far end. The dark wood paneling was illuminated by candles set into sconces with mirrored backs to magnify the light. I peeled off the hood on my heavy raincoat, unwound my scarf, and surveyed my surroundings.

“D’accordo, Ser Baldovino. ” Santoro sounded about as sincere as Ysabeau. “And for you, Madame Chiaromonte? Milord Matteo has good taste in wine. A glass of Barolo, perhaps?”I shook my head.

“It’s Ser Matteo now,” Baldwin said from the end of the corridor. Santoro’s jaw dropped. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised, you old goat. You’ve been encouraging Matthew to rebel for centuries.”

Baldwin stomped up the stairs.

I fumbled with the buttons on my sodden coat. It wasn’t raining at the moment, but the air was thick with moisture. Venice, I had discovered, was mostly water, valiantly (if vainly) held together with bricks and mortar. While I did so, I stole a look at the rich furniture in the hall. Fernando saw my wandering attention.”

“Venetians understand two languages, Diaan: wealth and power. The de Clermonts speak both—fluently,” he said. “Besides, the city would have collapsed into the sea long ago if not for Matthew and Baldwin, and the Venetians know it. Neither of them have reason to hide here.” Fernando took my coat and handed it to Santoro. “Come, Diana, let me show you upstairs.”

The bedroom that had been prepared for me was decorated in reds and golds, and the fire in the tiled fireplace was lit, but the flames and bright colors could not warm me. Five minutes after the door closed behind Fernando, I found my way back downstairs.

I sank onto a padded bench in one of the lantern-like bay windows that jutted over the Grand Canal. A fire crackled in one of the house’s cavernous fireplaces. A familiar motto—WHAT NOURISHES

ME DESTROYS ME — was carved into the wooden mantel. It reminded me of Matthew, of our time in London, of past deeds that even now threatened my family.

“Please, Auntie. You must rest,” Gallowglass murmured with concern once he’d discovered me there. “It’s hours until the Congregation will hear your case.”

But I refused to move. Instead, I sat among the leaded windows, each one capturing a fractured glimpse of the city outside, and listened to the bells mark the slow passing of the hours.

“It’s time.” Baldwin put his hand on my shoulder.

I stood and turned to face him. I was wearing the brightly embroidered Elizabethan jacket I’d worn home from the past along with a thick black turtleneck and wool trousers. I was dressed for Chelm so I could be ready to leave the moment the proceedings were over.

“You have the key?” Baldwin asked.

I slid it out of my pocket. Fortunately, the coat had been designed to hold an Elizabethan housewife’s many keys. Even so, the key to the Congregation chamber was so large it was a tight fit.

“Let’s go, then,” Baldwin said.

We found Gallowglass downstairs with Fernando. Both were draped in black cloaks, and Gallowglass settled a matching black velvet garment over my shoulders. It was ancient and heavy. My fingers traced Matthew’s insignia on the folds of fabric that covered my right arm.

The fierce wind had not abated, and I gripped the bottom of my hood to keep it from blowing open.

Fernando and Gallowglass swept into the launch, which lifted and fell with the swell of the waves in the canal.

Baldwin kept a firm grip on my elbow as we walked over the slippery surface. I hopped aboard the launch just as the deck tipped precipitously toward the landing, aided by the sudden application of Gallowglass’s boot to a metal cleat on the side of the boat. I ducked into the cabin, and Gallowglass clambered aboard behind me.

We sped through the mouth of the Grand Canal, zipping across the stretch of water in front of San Marco and ducking into a smaller canal that cut through the Castello district and returned us to the lagoon north of the city. We passed by San Michele, with its high walls and cypress trees shielding the gravestones. My fingers twisted, spinning the black and blue cords within me as I murmured a few words to remember the dead.

As we crossed the lagoon, we passed some inhabited islands, like Murano and Burano, and others occupied only by ruins and dormant fruit trees. When the stark walls protecting the Isola della Stella came into view, my flesh tingled. Baldwin explained that the Venetians thought the place was cursed. It was no wonder. There was power here, both elemental magic and the residue left by centuries of spells cast to keep the place secure and turn away curious human eyes.

“The island is going to sense that I shouldn’t be entering through a vampire’s door,” I told Baldwin.

I could hear the spirits the witches had bound to the place as they swept around the perimeter making security checks. Whoever warded Isola della Stella and Celestina was far more sophisticated than the witch who had installed the magical surveillance system I’d dismantled at the Bodleian.

“Move quickly, then. Congregation rules forbid expulsion of anyone who reaches the cloister that lies at the center of Celestina. If you have the key, you have the right to enter with two companions. It’s always been this way,” Baldwin said calmly.

Santoro cut the engines, and the boat moved smoothly into the protected landing. As we passed under the archway, I saw the faint outlines of the de Clermont ouroboros on the keystone. Time and salt air had softened the chiseled insignia, and to a casual viewer it would have looked like nothing more than a shadow.

Inside, the steps that led to the high marble landing were thick with algae. A vampire might risk the climb, but not a witch. Before I could figure out a solution, Gallowglass had sprung from the boat and was on the landing. Santoro tossed a length of rope to him, and Gallowglass tied the boat to a bollard with practiced speed. Baldwin turned to issue his last-minute instructions.

“Once you reach the council chamber, take your seat without engaging in conversation. It’s become common practice for the members to chat endlessly before we convene, but this is no ordinary meeting.

The de Clermont representative is always the presiding member. Call the creatures to order as quickly as you can.”

“Right.” This was the part of the day I relished least. “Does it matter where I sit?”

“Your seat is opposite the door—between Gerbert and Domenico.” With that, Baldwin gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Buona fortuna, Diana.”

“Bring him home, Baldwin.” I clutched at his sleeve for a moment. It was the last sign of weakness I could afford.

“I will. Benjamin expected his father to look for him, and he believes you will run after him,”

Baldwin said. “He will not be expecting me.”

High above, bells tolled.

“We must go.” Fernando said.

“Take care of my sister,” Baldwin told him.

“I am taking care of my sire’s mate,” Fernando replied, “so you need not worry. I will guard her with my life.”

Fernando grasped me around the waist and lifted me up, while Gallowglass reached down and snagged me by the arm. In two seconds I was standing on the landing, Fernando beside me. Baldwin hopped from the launch to a smaller speedboat. With a salute he maneuvered his new vessel to the mouth of the slip. He would wait there until the bells rang five o’clock, signaling the beginning of the meeting.

The door that stood between the Congregation and me was heavy and black with age and moisture.

The lock was uncannily shiny in comparison and looked as though it had been recently polished. I suspected that magic kept it gleaming, and a brush of my fingers confirmed my suspicion. But this was just a benign protection spell to prevent the elements from damaging the metal. Based on what I’d seen from the windows of Ca’ Chiaromonte, an enterprising Venetian witch could make a fortune enchanting the plaster and bricks in the city to stop them from crumbling.

The key felt warm as my hand closed around it. I drew it from my pocket, slipped the end of the stem and the bit into the lock, and turned. The mechanism inside the lock activated quickly and without complaint.

I grasped the heavy ring and pulled the door open. Beyond, there was a dark corridor with a veined-marble floor. I could see no more than a yard ahead of me in the gloom.

“Let me show you the way,” Fernando said, taking my arm.

After the gloom of the corridor, I was temporarily blinded when we reached the dim light of the cloister. When my eyes focused, I saw rounded archways that were supported by graceful double columns. In the center of the space was a marble wellhead—a reminder that the cloister had been constructed long before modern conveniences like electricity and running water. In the days when travel was difficult and dangerous, the Congregation had met for months on end, living on the island until their business was finished.

The low murmur of conversation stopped. I pulled the hooded cloak around me, hoping to hide whatever markings of power might be visible on my skin. The thick folds also masked the tote bag slung over my shoulder. Quickly I surveyed the crowd. Satu stood alone. She avoided my eyes, but I was aware of her discomfort at seeing me again. More than that, the witch felt . . . wrong somehow, and my stomach flipped in a minor version of the revulsion I felt when another witch lied to me. Satu was wearing a disguising spell, but it did no good. I knew what she was hiding.

The other creatures present huddled into groups according to species. Agatha Wilson was standing with her two fellow daemons. Domenico and Gerbert were together, exchanging surprised looks. The Congregation’s remaining two witches were both women. One was stern-looking, with a tight braided bun woven from brown hair threaded with gray. She wore the ugliest dress I had ever seen, accented by an ornate choker. A small portrait miniature adorned the center of the gold-and-enameled necklace—an ancestor, no doubt. The other witch was pleasantly round-faced, with pink cheeks and white hair. Her skin was remarkably unlined, which made it impossible to determine her age. Something about this witch tugged at me, too, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. The flesh on my arms prickled, warning me that held an answer to my unspoken questions, but I couldn’t take the time to decipher it now.

“I am pleased to see that the de Clermonts have bowed to the Congregation’s request to see this witch.” Gerbert appeared before me. I had not seen him since La Pierre. “We meet again, Diana Bishop.”

“Gerbert,” I met his gaze unflinchingly, though it made my flesh shrink. His lips curled.

“I see you are the same proud creature you were before.” Gerbert turned to Gallowglass. “To see such a noble lineage as the de Clermonts brought to confusion and ruin by a girl!”

“They used to say something similar about Granny,” Gallowglass shot back. “If we can survive Ysabeau we can survive this ‘girl.’”

“You may think differently once you learn the extent of the witch’s offenses,” Gerbert replied.

“Where is Baldwin?” Domenico joined us, a scowl on his face.

Gears whirred and clanged overhead.

“Saved by the bell,” Gallowglass said. “Stand aside, Domenico.”

“A change of de Clermont representative at this late hour, and without notification, is most irregular, Gallowglass,” Gerbert said.

“What are you waiting for, Gallowglass? Unlock the door,” Domenico commanded.

“It’s not me who holds the key,” Gallowglass said, his voice soft. “Come, Auntie. You have a meeting to attend.”

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