Ysabeau stood in the doorway of her enormous chateau, regal and icy, and glared at her vampire son as we climbed the stone stairs.
Matthew stooped a ful foot to kiss her softly on both cheeks. "Shal we come inside, or do you wish to continue our greetings out here?"
His mother stepped back to let us pass. I felt her furious gaze and smel ed something reminiscent of sarsaparil a soda and caramel. We walked through a short, dark hal way, lined in a none-too-welcoming fashion with pikes that pointed directly at the visitor's head, and into a room with high ceilings and wal paintings that had clearly been done by some imaginative nineteenth-century artist to reflect a medieval past that never was. Lions, fleurs-de-lis, a snake with his tail in his mouth, and scal op shel s were painted on white wal s. At one end a circular set of stairs climbed to the top of one of the towers.
Indoors I faced the ful force of Ysabeau's stare.
Matthew's mother personified the terrifying elegance that seemed bred to the bone in French-women. Like her son- who disconcertingly appeared to be slightly older than she was-she was dressed in a monochromatic palette that minimized her uncanny paleness. Ysabeau's preferred colors ranged from cream to soft brown. Every inch of her ensemble was expensive and simple, from the tips of her soft, buff-colored leather shoes to the topazes that fluttered from her ears. Slivers of startling, cold emerald surrounded dark pupils, and the high slashes of her cheekbones kept her perfect features and dazzling white skin from sliding into mere prettiness. Her hair had the color and texture of honey, a golden pour of silk caught at the base of her skul in a heavy, low knot.
"You might have shown some consideration, Matthew."
Her accent softened his name, making it sound ancient.
Like al vampires she had a seductive and melodic voice. In Ysabeau's case it sounded of distant bel s, pure and deep.
"Afraid of the gossip, Maman? I thought you prided yourself on being a radical." Matthew sounded both indulgent and impatient. He tossed the keys onto a nearby table. They slid across the perfect finish and landed with a clatter at the base of a Chinese porcelain bowl.
"I have never been a radical!" Ysabeau was horrified.
"Change is very much overrated."
She turned and surveyed me from head to toe. Her perfectly formed mouth tightened.
She did not like what she saw-and it was no wonder. I tried to see myself through her eyes-the sandy hair that was neither thick nor wel behaved, the dusting of freckles from being outdoors too much, the nose that was too long for the rest of my face. My eyes were my best feature, but they were unlikely to make up for my fashion sense. Next to her elegance and Matthew's perpetual y unruffled self, I felt -and looked-like a gauche country mouse. I pul ed at the hem of my jacket with my free hand, glad to see that there was no sign of magic at the fingertips, and hoped that there was also no sign of that phantom "shimmering" that Matthew had mentioned.
"Maman, this is Diana Bishop. Diana, my mother, Ysabeau de Clermont." The syl ables rol ed off his tongue.
Ysabeau's nostrils flared delicately. "I do not like the way witches smel ." Her English was flawless, her glittering eyes fixed on mine. "She is sweet and repulsively green, like spring."
Matthew launched into a vol ey of something unintel igible that sounded like a cross between French, Spanish, and Latin. He kept his voice low, but there was no disguising the anger in it.
"Ça suffit," Ysabeau retorted in recognizable French, drawing her hand across her throat. I swal owed hard and reflexively reached for the col ar of my jacket.
"Diana." Ysabeau said it with a long e rather than an i and an emphasis on the first rather than the second syl able. She extended one white, cold hand, and I took her fingers lightly in mine. Matthew grabbed my left hand in his, and for a moment we made an odd chain of vampires and a witch. "Encantada. "
"She's pleased to meet you," Matthew said, translating for me and shooting a warning glance at his mother.
"Yes, yes," Ysabeau said impatiently, turning back to her son. "Of course she speaks only English and new French.
Modern warmbloods are so poorly educated."
A stout old woman with skin like snow and a mass of incongruously dark hair wrapped around her head in intricate braids stepped into the front hal , her arms outstretched. "Matthew!" she cried. "Cossi anatz?"
"Va plan, merces. E tu?" Matthew caught her in a hug, and kissed her on both cheeks.
"Aital aital," she replied, grabbing her elbow and grimacing.
Matthew murmured in sympathy, and Ysabeau appealed to the ceiling for deliverance from the emotional spectacle.
"Marthe, this is my friend Diana," he said, drawing me forward.
Marthe, too, was a vampire, one of the oldest I'd ever seen. She had to have been in her sixties when she was reborn, and though her hair was dark, there was no mistaking her age. Lines crisscrossed her face, and the joints of her hands were so gnarled that apparently not even vampiric blood could straighten them.
"Welcome, Diana," she said in a husky voice of sand and treacle, looking deep into my eyes. She nodded at Matthew and reached for my hand. Her nostrils flared. "Elle est une puissante sorciere," she said to Matthew, her voice appreciative.
"She says you're a powerful witch," Matthew explained.
His closeness somewhat diminished my instinctive concern with having a vampire sniff me.
Having no idea what the proper French response was to such a comment, I smiled weakly at Marthe and hoped that would do.
"You're exhausted," Matthew said, his eyes flicking over my face. He began rapidly questioning the two vampires in the unfamiliar language. This led to a great deal of pointing, eye rol ing, emphatic gestures, and sighs. When Ysabeau mentioned the name Louisa, Matthew looked at his mother with renewed fury. His voice took on a flat, abrupt finality when he answered her.
Ysabeau shrugged. "Of course, Matthew," she murmured with patent insincerity.
"Let's get you settled." Matthew's voice warmed as he spoke to me.
"I wil bring food and wine," Marthe said in halting English.
"Thank you," I said. "And thank you, Ysabeau, for having me in your home." She sniffed and bared her teeth. I hoped it was a smile but feared it was not.
"And water, Marthe," Matthew added. "Oh, and food is coming this morning."
"Some of it has already arrived," his mother said tartly.
"Leaves. Sacks of vegetables and eggs. You were very bad to ask them to drive it down."
"Diana needs to eat, Maman. I didn't imagine you had a great deal of proper food in the house." Matthew's long ribbon of patience was fraying from the events of last evening and now his lukewarm homecoming.
"I need fresh blood, but I don't expect Victoire and Alain to fetch it from Paris in the middle of the night." Ysabeau looked vastly pleased with herself as my knees swayed.
Matthew exhaled sharply, his hand under my elbow to steady me. "Marthe," he asked, pointedly ignoring Ysabeau, "can you bring up eggs and toast and some tea for Diana?"
Marthe eyed Ysabeau and then Matthew as if she were at center court at Wimbledon. She cackled with laughter.
"Òc, " she replied, with a cheerful nod.
"We'l see you two at dinner," Matthew said calmly. I felt four icy patches on my shoulders as the women watched us depart. Marthe said something to Ysabeau that made her snort and Matthew smile broadly.
"What did Marthe say?" I whispered, remembering too late that there were few conversations, whispered or shouted, that would not be overheard by everyone in the house.
"She said we looked wel together."
"I don't want Ysabeau to be furious with me the whole time we're here."
"Pay no attention to her," he said serenely. "Her bark is worse than her bite."
We passed through a doorway into a long room with a wide assortment of chairs and tables of many different styles and periods. There were two fireplaces, and two knights in glistening armor jousted over one of them, their bright lances crossing neatly without a drop of bloodshed.
The fresco had clearly been painted by the same dewy- eyed chivalric enthusiast who'd decorated the hal . A pair of doors led to another room, this one lined with bookcases.
"Is that a library?" I asked, Ysabeau's hostility momentarily forgotten. "Can I see your copy of Aurora Consurgens now?"
"Later," Matthew said firmly. "You're going to eat something and then sleep."
He led the way to another curving staircase, navigating through the labyrinth of ancient furniture with the ease of long experience. My own passage was more tentative, and my thighs grazed a bow-fronted chest of drawers, setting a tal porcelain vase swaying. When we final y reached the bottom of the staircase, Matthew paused.
"It's a long climb, and you're tired. Do you need me to carry you?"
"No," I said indignantly. "You are not going to sling me over your shoulder like a victorious medieval knight making off with the spoils of battle."
Matthew pressed his lips together, eyes dancing.
"Don't you dare laugh at me."
He did laugh, the sound bouncing off the stone wal s as if a pack of amused vampires were standing in the stairwel .
This was, after al , precisely the kind of place where knights would have carried women upstairs. But I didn't plan on being counted among them.
By the fifteenth tread, my sides were heaving with effort.
The tower's worn stone steps were not made for ordinary feet and legs-they had clearly been designed for vampires like Matthew who were either over six feet tal , extremely agile, or both. I gritted my teeth and kept climbing. Around a final bend in the stairs, a room opened up suddenly.
"Oh." My hand traveled to my mouth in amazement.
I didn't have to be told whose room this was. It was Matthew's, through and through.
We were in the chateau's graceful round tower-the one that stil had its smooth, conical copper roof and was set on the back of the massive main building. Tal , narrow windows punctuated the wal s, their leaded panes letting in slashes of light and autumn colors from the fields and trees outside.
The room was circular, and high bookcases smoothed its graceful curves into occasional straight lines. A large fireplace was set squarely into the wal s that butted up against the chateau's central structure. This fireplace had miraculously escaped the attention of the nineteenth- century fresco painter. There were armchairs and couches, tables and hassocks, most in shades of green, brown, and gold. Despite the size of the room and the expanses of gray stone, the overal effect was of cozy warmth.
The room's most intriguing objects were those Matthew had chosen to keep from one of his many lives. A painting by Vermeer was propped up on a bookshelf next to a shel .
It was unfamiliar-not one of the artist's few known canvases. The subject looked an awful lot like Matthew. A broadsword so long and heavy that no one but a vampire could have wielded it hung over the fireplace, and a Matthew-size suit of armor stood in one corner. Opposite, there was an ancient-looking human skeleton hanging from a wooden stand, the bones tied together with something resembling piano wire. On the table next to it were two microscopes, both made in the seventeenth century unless I was very much mistaken. An ornate crucifix studded with large red, green, and blue stones was tucked into a niche in the wal along with a stunning ivory carving of the Virgin.
Matthew's snowflakes drifted across my face as he watched me survey his belongings.
"It's a Matthew museum," I said softly, knowing that every object there told a story.
"It's just my study."
"Where did you-" I began, pointing at the microscopes.
"Later," he said again. "You have thirty more steps to climb."
Matthew led me to the other side of the room and a second staircase. This one, too, curved up toward the heavens. Thirty slow steps later, I stood on the edge of another round room dominated by an enormous walnut four-poster bed complete with tester and heavy hangings.
High above it were the exposed beams and supports that held the copper roof in place. A table was pushed against one wal , a fireplace was tucked into another, and a few comfortable chairs were arranged before it. Opposite, a door stood ajar, revealing an enormous bathtub.
"It's like a falcon's lair," I said, peering out the window.
Matthew had been looking at this landscape from these windows since the Middle Ages. I wondered, briefly, about the other women he'd brought here before me. I was sure I wasn't the first, but I didn't think there had been many.
There was something intensely private about the chateau.
Matthew came up behind me and looked over my shoulder. "Do you approve?" His breath was soft against my ear. I nodded.
"How long?" I asked, unable to help myself.
"This tower?" he asked. "About seven hundred years."
"And the vil age? Do they know about you?"
"Yes. Like witches, vampires are safer when they're part of a community who knows what they are but doesn't ask too many questions."
Generations of Bishops had lived in Madison without anyone's making a fuss. Like Peter Knox, we were hiding in plain sight.
"Thank you for bringing me to Sept-Tours," I said. "It does feel safer than Oxford." In spite of Ysabeau.
"Thank you for braving my mother." Matthew chuckled as if he'd heard my unspoken words. The distinctive scent of carnations accompanied the sound. "She's overprotective, like most parents."
"I felt like an idiot-and underdressed, too. I didn't bring a single thing to wear that wil meet with her approval." I bit my lip, my forehead creased.
"Coco Chanel didn't meet with Ysabeau's approval. You may be aiming a bit high."
I laughed and turned, my eyes seeking his. When they met, my breath caught. Matthew's gaze lingered on my eyes, cheeks, and final y my mouth. His hand rose to my face.
"You're so alive," he said gruffly. "You should be with a man much, much younger."
I lifted to my toes. He bent his head. Before our lips touched, a tray clattered on the table.
"' Vos etz arbres e branca,'" Marthe sang, giving Matthew a wicked look.
He laughed and sang back in a clear baritone, "' On fruitz de gaug s'asazona.'"
"What language is that?" I asked, getting down off my tiptoes and fol owing Matthew to the fireplace.
"The old tongue," Marthe replied.
"Occitan." Matthew removed the silver cover from a plate of eggs. The aroma of hot food fil ed the room. "Marthe decided to recite poetry before you sat down to eat."
Marthe giggled and swatted at Matthew's wrist with a towel that she pul ed from her waist. He dropped the cover and took a seat.
"Come here, come here," she said, gesturing at the chair across from him. "Sit, eat." I did as I was told. Marthe poured Matthew a goblet of wine from a tal , silver-handled glass pitcher.
"Merces," he murmured, his nose going immediately to the glass in anticipation.