F rom afar I beheld a black cloud covering the earth. It absorbed the earth and covered my soul as the seas entered, becoming putrid and corrupted at the prospect of hell and the shadow of death. A tempest had overwhelmed me,'" I read aloud from Matthew's copy of Aurora Consurgens.
Turning to my computer, I typed notes about the imagery my anonymous author had used to describe nigredo, one of the dangerous steps in alchemical transformation.
During this part of the process, the combination of substances like mercury and lead gave off fumes that endangered the alchemist's health. Appropriately, one of Bourgot Le Noir's gargoylelike faces pinched his nose tight shut, avoiding the cloud mentioned in the text.
"Get your riding clothes on."
My head lifted from the pages of the manuscript .
"Matthew made me promise to take you outdoors. He said it would keep you from getting sick," Ysabeau explained.
"You don't have to, Ysabeau. Domenico and the witchwater have depleted my adrenaline supply, if that's your concern."
"Matthew must have told you how al uring the smel of panic is to a vampire."
"Marcus told me," I corrected her. "Actual y, he told me what it tastes like. What does it smel like?"
Ysabeau shrugged. "Like it tastes. Maybe a bit more exotic-a touch of muskiness, perhaps. I was never much drawn to it. I prefer the kil to the hunt. But to each her own."
"I'm not having as many panic attacks these days.
There's no need for you to take me riding." I turned back to my work.
"Why do you think they have gone away?" Ysabeau asked.
"I honestly don't know," I said with a sigh, looking at Matthew's mother.
"You have been like this for a long time?"
"Since I was seven."
"What happened then?"
"My parents were kil ed in Nigeria," I replied shortly.
"This was the picture you received-the one that caused Matthew to bring you to Sept-Tours."
When I nodded in response, Ysabeau's mouth flattened into a familiar, hard line. "Pigs."
There were worse things to cal them, but "pigs" did the job pretty wel . And if it grouped whoever had sent me the photograph with Domenico Michele, then it was the right category.
"Panic or no panic," Ysabeau said briskly, "we are going to exercise as Matthew wanted."
I powered off the computer and went upstairs to change.
My riding clothes were folded neatly in the bathroom, courtesy of Marthe, though my boots were in the stables, along with my helmet and vest. I slithered into the black breeches, added a turtleneck, and slipped on loafers over a pair of warm socks, then went downstairs in search of Matthew's mother.
"I'm in here," she cal ed. I fol owed the sound to a smal room painted warm terra-cotta. It was ornamented with old plates, animal horns, and an ancient dresser large enough to store an entire inn's worth of plates, cups, and cutlery.
Ysabeau peered over the pages of Le Monde, her eyes covering every inch of me. "Marthe tel s me you slept."
"Yes, thank you," I shifted from one foot to the other as if waiting to see the school principal to explain my misbehavior.
Marthe saved me from further discomfort by arriving with a pot of tea. She, too, surveyed me from head to foot.
"You are better today," she final y announced, handing me a mug. She stood there frowning until Matthew's mother put down her paper, and then she departed.
When I was finished with my tea, we went to the stables.
Ysabeau had to help with my boots, since they were stil too stiff to slide on and off easily, and she watched careful y while I put on my turtle shel of a vest and the helmet. Clearly safety equipment had been part of Matthew's instructions.
Ysabeau, of course, wore nothing more protective than a brown quilted jacket. The relative indestructibility of vampire flesh was a boon if you were a rider.
In the paddock Fiddat and Rakasa stood side by side, mirror images right down to the armchair-style saddles on their backs.
"Ysabeau," I protested, "Georges put the wrong tack on Rakasa. I don't ride sidesaddle."
"Are you afraid to try?" Matthew's mother looked at me appraisingly.
"No!" I said, tamping down my temper. "I just prefer to ride astride."
"How do you know?" Her emerald eyes flickered with a touch of malice.
We stood for a few moments, staring at each other.
Rakasa stamped her hoof and looked over her shoulder.
Are you going to ride or talk? she seemed to be asking.
Behave, I replied brusquely, walking over and putting her fetlock against my knee.
"Georges has seen to this," Ysabeau said in a bored tone.
"I don't ride horses I haven't checked myself." I examined Rakasa's hooves, ran my hands over her reins, and slid my fingers under the saddle.
"Philippe never did either." Ysabeau's voice held a note of grudging respect. With poorly concealed impatience, she watched me finish. When I was done, she led Fiddat over to a set of steps and waited for me to fol ow. After she'd helped me get into the strange contraption of a saddle, she hopped onto her own horse. I took one look at her and knew I was in for quite a morning. Judging from her seat, Ysabeau was a better rider than Matthew-and he was the best I'd ever seen.
"Walk around," Ysabeau said. "I need to make sure you won't fal off and kil yourself."
"Show a little faith, Ysabeau." Don't let me fall, I bargained with Rakasa, and I' ll make sure you get an apple a day for the rest of your life. My mount's ears shot forward, then back, and she nickered gently. We circled the paddock twice before I drew to a gentle stop in front of Matthew's mother. "Satisfied?"
"You're a better rider than I expected," she admitted. "You could probably jump, but I promised Matthew we would not."
"He managed to wheedle a fair number of promises out of you before he left," I muttered, hoping she wouldn't hear me.
"Indeed," she said crisply, "some of them harder to keep than others."
We passed through the open paddock gate. Georges touched his cap to Ysabeau and shut the gate behind us, grinning and shaking his head.
Matthew's mother kept us on relatively flat ground while I got used to the strange saddle. The trick was to keep your body square despite how off-kilter you felt.
"This isn't too bad," I said after about twenty minutes.
"It is better now that the saddles have two pommels,"
Ysabeau said. "Before, al sidesaddles were good for was being led around by a man." Her disgust was audible. "It was not until the Italian queen put a pommel and stirrup on her saddle that we could control our own horses. Her husband's mistress rode astride so she could go with him when he exercised. Catherine was always being left at home, which is most unpleasant for a wife." She shot me a withering glance. "Henry's whore was named after the goddess of the hunt, like you."
"I wouldn't have crossed Catherine de' Medici." I shook my head.
"The king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, was the dangerous one," Ysabeau said darkly. "She was a witch."
"Actual y or metaphorical y?" I asked with interest.
"Both," Matthew's mother said in a tone that could strip paint. I laughed. Ysabeau looked surprised, then joined in.
We rode a bit farther. Ysabeau sniffed the air and sat tal er in the saddle, her face alert.
"What is it?" I asked anxiously, keeping Rakasa under a tight rein.
"Rabbit." She kicked Fiddat into a canter. I fol owed closely, reluctant to see if it was as difficult to track a witch in the forest as Matthew had suggested.
We streaked through the trees and out into the open field. Ysabeau held Fiddat back, and I pul ed alongside her.
"Have you ever seen a vampire kil ?" Ysabeau asked, watching my reaction careful y.
"No," I said calmly.
"Rabbits are smal . That's where we wil begin. Wait here." She swung out of the saddle and dropped lightly to the ground. Fiddat stood obediently, watching her mistress.
"Diana," she said sharply, never taking her eyes off her prey, "do not come near me while I'm hunting or feeding.
Do you understand?"
"Yes." My mind raced at the implications. Ysabeau was going to chase down a rabbit, kil it, and drink its blood in front of me? Staying far away seemed an excel ent suggestion.
Matthew's mother darted across the grassy field, moving so fast it was impossible to keep her in focus. She slowed just as a falcon does in midair before it swoops in for the kil , then bent and grabbed a frightened rabbit by the ears.
Ysabeau held it up triumphantly before sinking her teeth directly into its heart.
Rabbits may be smal , but they are surprisingly bloody if you bite into them while they're stil alive. It was horrifying.
Ysabeau sucked the blood out of the animal, which quickly ceased struggling, then wiped her mouth clean on its fur and tossed its carcass into the grass. Three seconds later she was swinging herself back into the saddle. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, and her eyes sparkled more than usual. Once mounted, she looked at me.
"Wel ?" she asked. "Shal we look for something more fil ing, or do you need to return to the house?"
Ysabeau de Clermont was testing me.
"After you," I said grimly, touching Rakasa's flank with my heel.
The remainder of our ride was measured not by the movement of the sun, which was stil hidden behind clouds, but by the increasing amounts of blood Ysabeau's hungry mouth drew from her kil s. She was a relatively neat eater.
Stil , it would be some time before I was happy at the prospect of a large steak.
I was numb to the sight of blood after the rabbit, the enormous squirrel-like creature that Ysabeau told me was a marmot, the fox, and the wild goat-or so I thought. When Ysabeau gave chase to a young doe, however, something prickled inside me.
"Ysabeau," I protested. "You can't stil be hungry. Leave it."
"What? The goddess of the hunt objects to my pursuit of her deer?" Her voice mocked, but her eyes were curious.
"Yes," I said promptly.
"I object to your hunting of my son. See what good that has done." Ysabeau swung down from her horse.
My fingers itched to intervene, and it was al I could do to stay out of Ysabeau's way while she stalked her prey. After each kil , her eyes revealed that she wasn't completely in command of her emotions-or her actions.
The doe tried to escape. It almost succeeded by darting into some underbrush, but Ysabeau frightened the animal back into the open. After that, fatigue put the doe at a disadvantage. The chase touched off something visceral within me. Ysabeau kil ed swiftly, and the doe didn't suffer, but I had to bite my lip to keep from shouting.
"There," she said with satisfaction, returning to Fiddat.
"We can go back to Sept-Tours."
Wordlessly I turned Rakasa's head in the direction of the chateau.
Ysabeau grabbed my horse's reins. There were tiny drops of blood on her cream shirt. "Do you think vampires are beautiful now? Do you stil think it would be easy to live with my son, knowing that he must kil to survive?"
It was difficult for me to put "Matthew" and "kil ing" in the same sentence. Were I to kiss him one day, when he was just returned from hunting, there might stil be the taste of blood on his lips. And days like the one I was now spending with Ysabeau would be regular occurrences.
"If you're trying to frighten me away from your son, Ysabeau, you failed," I said resolutely. "You're going to have to do better than this."
"Marthe said this would not be enough to make you reconsider," she confessed.
"She was right." My voice was curt. "Is the trial over? Can we go home now?"
We rode toward the trees in silence. Once we were within the forest's leafy green confines, Ysabeau turned to me. "Do you understand why you must not question Matthew when he tel s you to do something?"
I sighed. "School is over for the day."
"Do you think our dining habits are the only obstacle standing between you and my son?"
"Spit it out, Ysabeau. Why must I do what Matthew says?"
"Because he is the strongest vampire in the chateau. He is the head of the house."
I stared at her in astonishment. "Are you saying I have to listen to him because he's the alpha dog?"
"You think you are?" Ysabeau chortled.
"No," I conceded. Ysabeau wasn't the alpha dog either.
She did what Matthew told her to do. So did Marcus, Miriam, and every vampire at the Bodleian Library. Even Domenico had ultimately backed down. "Are these the de Clermont pack rules?"
Ysabeau nodded, her green eyes glittering. "It is for your safety-and his, and everyone else's-that you must obey.
This is not a game."
"I understand, Ysabeau." I was losing my patience.
"No, you don't," she said softly. "You won't either, until you are forced to see, just as I made you see what it is for a vampire to kil . Until then these are only words. One day your wil fulness wil cost your life, or someone else's. Then you wil know why I told you this."
We returned to the chateau without further conversation.
When we passed through Marthe's ground-floor domain, she came out of the kitchen, a smal chicken in her hands. I blanched. Marthe took in the tiny spots of blood on Ysabeau's cuffs and gasped.
"She needs to know," Ysabeau hissed.
Marthe said something low and foul-sounding in Occitan, then nodded at me. "Here, girl, come with me and I wil teach you to make my tea."
Now it was Ysabeau's turn to look furious. Marthe made me something to drink and handed me a plate with a few crumbly biscuits studded with nuts. Eating chicken was out of the question.
Marthe kept me busy for hours, sorting dried herbs and spices into tiny piles and teaching me their names. By midafternoon I could identify them by smel with my eyes closed as wel as by appearance.
"Parsley. Ginger. Feverfew. Rosemary. Sage. Queen Anne's lace seeds. Mugwort. Pennyroyal. Angelica. Rue.
Tansy. Juniper root." I pointed to each in turn.
"Again," Marthe said serenely, handing me a bunch of muslin bags.
I picked the strings apart, laying them individual y on the table just as she did, reciting the names back to her one more time.
"Good. Now fil the bags with a pinch of each."
"Why don't we just mix it al together and spoon it into the bags?" I asked, taking a bit of pennyroyal between my fingers and wrinkling my nose at its minty smel .
"We might miss something. Each bag must have every single herb-al twelve."
"Would missing a tiny seed like this real y make a difference to the taste?" I held a tiny Queen Anne's lace seed between my index finger and thumb.
"One pinch of each," Marthe repeated. "Again."
The vampire's experienced hands moved surely from pile to pile, neatly fil ing the bags and tightening their strings. After we finished, Marthe brewed me a cup of tea using a bag I'd fil ed myself.
"It's delicious," I said, happily sipping my very own herbal tea.
"You wil take it back to Oxford with you. One cup a day. It wil keep you healthy." She started putting bags into a tin.
"When you need more, you wil know how to make it."
"Marthe, you don't have to give me al of it," I protested.