Two unfamiliar female vampires who appeared to be sisters glided past Clairmont and came to a stop among the local-history shelves under the window, picking up volumes about the early settlement of Bedfordshire and Dorset and writing notes back and forth on a single pad of paper. One of them whispered something, and Clairmont's head swiveled so fast it would have snapped the neck of a lesser being. He made a soft hissing sound that ruffled the hair on my own neck. The two exchanged looks and departed as quietly as they had appeared.
The third creature was an elderly man who stood in a ful beam of sunlight and stared raptly at the leaded windows before turning his eyes to me. He was dressed in familiar academic garb-brown tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, corduroy pants in a slightly jarring tone of green, and a cotton shirt with a button-down col ar and ink stains on the pocket-and I was ready to dismiss him as just another Oxford scholar before my skin tingled to tel me that he was a witch. Stil , he was a stranger, and I returned my attention to my manuscript.
A gentle sensation of pressure on the back of my skul made it impossible to keep reading, however. The pressure flitted to my ears, growing in intensity as it wrapped around my forehead, and my stomach clenched in panic. This was no longer a silent greeting, but a threat.
Why, though, would he be threatening me?
The wizard strol ed toward my desk with apparent casualness. As he approached, a voice whispered in my now-throbbing head. It was too faint to distinguish the words. I was sure it was coming from this male witch, but who on earth was he?
My breath became shal ow. Get the hell out of my head, I said fiercely if silently, touching my forehead.
Clairmont moved so quickly I didn't see him round the desks. In an instant he was standing with one hand on the back of my chair and the other resting on the surface in front of me. His broad shoulders were curved around me like the wings of a falcon shielding his prey.
"Are you al right?" he asked.
"I'm fine," I replied with a shaking voice, utterly confused as to why a vampire would need to protect me from another witch.
In the gal ery above us, a reader craned her neck to see what al the fuss was about. She stood, her brow creased.
Two witches and a vampire were impossible for a human to ignore.
"Leave me alone. The humans have noticed us," I said between clenched teeth.
Clairmont straightened to his ful height but kept his back to the witch and his body angled between us like an avenging angel.
"Ah, my mistake," the witch murmured from behind Clairmont. "I thought this seat was available. Excuse me."
Soft steps retreated into the distance, and the pressure on my head gradual y subsided.
A slight breeze stirred as the vampire's cold hand reached toward my shoulder, stopped, and returned to the back of the chair. Clairmont leaned over. "You look quite pale," he said in his soft, low voice. "Would you like me to take you home?"
"No." I shook my head, hoping he would go sit down and let me gather my composure. In the gal ery the human reader kept a wary eye on us.
"Dr. Bishop, I real y think you should let me take you home."
"No!" My voice was louder than I intended. It dropped to a whisper. "I am not being driven out of this library-not by you, not by anyone."
Clairmont's face was disconcertingly close. He took a slow breath in, and once again there was a powerful aroma of cinnamon and cloves. Something in my eyes convinced him I was serious, and he drew away. His mouth flattened into a severe line, and he returned to his seat.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon in a state of detente. I tried to read beyond the second folio of my first manuscript, and Clairmont leafed through scraps of paper and closely written notebooks with the attention of a judge deciding on a capital case.
By three o'clock my nerves were so frayed that I could no longer concentrate. The day was lost.
I gathered my scattered belongings and returned the manuscript to its box.
Clairmont looked up. "Going home, Dr. Bishop?" His tone was mild, but his eyes glittered.
"Yes," I snapped.
The vampire's face went careful y blank.
Every creature in the library watched me on my way out- the threatening wizard, Gil ian, the vampire monk, even the daemon. The afternoon attendant at the col ection desk was a stranger to me, because I never left at this time of day. Mr. Johnson pushed his chair back slightly, saw it was me, and looked at his watch in surprise.
In the quadrangle I pushed the glass doors of the library open and drank in the fresh air. It would take more than fresh air, though, to turn the day around.
Fifteen minutes later I was in a pair of fitted, calf-length pants that stretched in six different directions, a faded New Col ege Boat Club tank, and a fleece pul over. After tying on my sneakers I set off for the river at a run.
When I reached it, some of my tension had already abated. "Adrenaline poisoning," one of my doctors had cal ed these surges of anxiety that had troubled me since childhood. The doctors explained that, for reasons they could not understand, my body seemed to think it was in a constant state of danger. One of the specialists my aunt consulted explained earnestly that it was a biochemical leftover from hunter-gatherer days. I'd be al right so long as I rid my bloodstream of the adrenaline load by running, just as a frightened ibex would run from a lion.
Unfortunately for that doctor, I'd gone to the Serengeti with my parents as a child and had witnessed such a pursuit. The ibex lost. It had made quite an impression on me.
Since then I'd tried medication and meditation, but nothing was better for keeping panic at bay than physical activity. In Oxford it was rowing each morning before the col ege crews turned the narrow river into a thorough-fare.
But the university was not yet in session, and the river would be clear this afternoon.
My feet crunched against the crushed gravel paths that led to the boathouses. I waved at Pete, the boatman who prowled around with wrenches and tubs of grease, trying to put right what the undergraduates mangled in the course of their training. I stopped at the seventh boathouse and bent over to ease the stitch in my side before retrieving the key from the top of the light outside the boathouse doors.
Racks of white and yel ow boats greeted me inside.
There were big, eight-seated boats for the first men's crew, slightly leaner boats for the women, and other boats of decreasing quality and size. A sign hung from the bow of one shiny new boat that hadn't been rigged yet, instructing visitors that NO ONE MAY TAKE THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN OUT OF THIS HOUSE WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE NCBC PRESIDENT. The boat's name was freshly stenciled on its side in a Victorian-style script, in homage to the New Col ege graduate who had created the character.
At the back of the boathouse, a whisper of a boat under twelve inches wide and more than twenty-five feet long rested in a set of slings positioned at hip level. God bless Pete, I thought. He'd taken to leaving the scul on the floor of the boathouse. A note resting on the seat read, "Col ege training next Monday. Boat wil be back in racks."
I kicked off my sneakers, picked two oars with curving blades from the stash near the doors, and carried them down to the dock. Then I went back for the boat.
I plopped the scul gently into the water and put one foot on the seat to keep it from floating away while I threaded the oars into the oarlocks. Holding both oars in one hand like a pair of oversize chopsticks, I careful y stepped into the boat and pushed the dock with my left hand. The scul floated out onto the river.
Rowing was a religion for me, composed of a set of rituals and movements repeated until they became a meditation. The rituals began the moment I touched the equipment, but its real magic came from the combination of precision, rhythm, and strength that rowing required. Since my undergraduate days, rowing had instil ed a sense of tranquil ity in me like nothing else.
My oars dipped into the water and skimmed along the surface. I picked up the pace, powering through each stroke with my legs and feeling the water when my blade swept back and slipped under the waves. The wind was cold and sharp, cutting through my clothes with every stroke.
As my movements flowed into a seamless cadence, it felt as though I were flying. During these blissful moments, I was suspended in time and space, nothing but a weightless body on a moving river. My swift little boat darted along, and I swung in perfect unison with the boat and its oars. I closed my eyes and smiled, the events of the day fading in significance.
The sky darkened behind my closed lids, and the booming sound of traffic overhead indicated that I'd passed underneath the Donnington Bridge. Coming through into the sunlight on the other side, I opened my eyes-and felt the cold touch of a vampire's gaze on my sternum.
A figure stood on the bridge, his long coat flapping around his knees. Though I couldn't see his face clearly, the vampire's considerable height and bulk suggested that it was Matthew Clairmont. Again.
I swore and nearly dropped one oar. The City of Oxford dock was nearby. The notion of pul ing an il egal maneuver and crossing the river so that I could smack the vampire upside his beautiful head with whatever piece of boat equipment was handy was very tempting. While formulating my plan, I spotted a slight woman standing on the dock wearing paint-stained overal s. She was smoking a cigarette and talking into a mobile phone.
This was not a typical sight for the City of Oxford boathouse.
She looked up, her eyes nudging my skin. A daemon.
She twisted her mouth into a wolfish smile and said something into the phone.
This was just too weird. First Clairmont and now a host of creatures appearing whenever he did? Abandoning my plan, I poured my unease into my rowing.
I managed to get down the river, but the serenity of the outing had evaporated. Turning the boat in front of the Isis Tavern, I spotted Clairmont standing beside one of the pub's tables. He'd managed to get there from the Donnington Bridge-on foot-in less time than I'd done it in a racing scul .
Pul ing hard on both oars, I lifted them two feet off the water like the wings of an enormous bird and glided straight into the tavern's rickety wooden dock. By the time I'd climbed out, Clairmont had crossed the twenty-odd feet of grass lying between us. His weight pushed the floating platform down slightly in the water, and the boat wiggled in adjustment.
"What the hel do you think you're doing?" I demanded, stepping clear of the blade and across the rough planks to where the vampire now stood. My breath was ragged from exertion, my cheeks flushed. "Are you and your friends stalking me?"
Clairmont frowned. "They aren't my friends, Dr. Bishop."
"No? I haven't seen so many vampires, witches, and daemons in one place since my aunts dragged me to a pagan summer festival when I was thirteen. If they're not your friends, why are they always hanging around you?" I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead and pushed the damp hair away from my face.
"Good God," the vampire murmured incredulously. "The rumors are true."
"What rumors?" I said impatiently.
"You think these . . . things want to spend time with me?"
Clairmont's voice dripped with contempt and something that sounded like surprise. "Unbelievable."
I worked my fleece pul over up above my shoulders and yanked it off. Clairmont's eyes flickered to my col arbones, over my bare arms, and down to my fingertips. I felt uncharacteristical y naked in my familiar rowing clothes.
"Yes," I snapped. "I've lived in Oxford. I visit every year.
The only thing that's been different this time is you. Since you showed up last night, I've been pushed out of my seat in the library, stared at by strange vampires and daemons, and threatened by unfamiliar witches."
Clairmont's arms rose slightly, as if he were going to take me by the shoulders and shake me. Though I was by no means short at just under five-seven, he was so tal that my neck had to bend sharply so I could make eye contact.
Acutely aware of his size and strength relative to my own, I stepped back and crossed my arms, cal ing upon my professional persona to steel my nerves.
"They're not interested in me, Dr. Bishop. They're interested in you. "
"Why? What could they possibly want from me?"
"Do you real y not know why every daemon, witch, and vampire south of the Midlands is fol owing you?" There was a note of disbelief in his voice, and the vampire's expression suggested he was seeing me for the first time.
"No," I said, my eyes on two men enjoying their afternoon pint at a nearby table. Thankful y, they were absorbed in their own conversation. "I've done nothing in Oxford except read old manuscripts, row on the river, prepare for my conference, and keep to myself. It's al I've ever done here.
There's no reason for any creature to pay this kind of attention to me."
"Think, Diana." Clairmont's voice was intense. A ripple of something that wasn't fear passed across my skin when he said my first name. "What have you been reading?"
His eyelids dropped over his strange eyes, but not before I'd seen their avid expression.
My aunts had warned me that Matthew Clairmont wanted something. They were right.
He fixed his odd, gray-rimmed black eyes on me once more. "They're fol owing you because they believe you've found something lost many years ago," he said reluctantly.
"They want it back, and they think you can get it for them."
I thought about the manuscripts I'd consulted over the past few days. My heart sank. There was only one likely candidate for al this attention.
"If they're not your friends, how do you know what they want?"
"I hear things, Dr. Bishop. I have very good hearing," he said patiently, reverting to his characteristic formality. "I'm also fairly observant. At a concert on Sunday evening, two witches were talking about an American-a fel ow witch- who found a book in Bodley's Library that had been given up for lost. Since then I've noticed many new faces in Oxford, and they make me uneasy."
"It's Mabon. That explains why the witches are in Oxford."
I was trying to match his patient tone, though he hadn't answered my last question.
Smiling sardonical y, Clairmont shook his head. "No, it's not the equinox. It's the manuscript."
"What do you know about Ashmole 782?" I asked quietly.
"Less than you do," said Clairmont, his eyes narrowing to slits. It made him look even more like a large, lethal beast.
"I've never seen it. You've held it in your hands. Where is it now, Dr. Bishop? You weren't so foolish as to leave it in your room?"
I was aghast. "You think I stole it? From the Bodleian?
How dare you suggest such a thing!"
"You didn't have it Monday night," he said. "And it wasn't on your desk today either."
"You are observant," I said sharply, "if you could see al that from where you were sitting. I returned it Friday, if you must know." It occurred to me, belatedly, that he might have rifled through the things on my desk. "What's so special about the manuscript that you'd snoop through a col eague's work?"
He winced slightly, but my triumph at catching him doing something so inappropriate was blunted by a twinge of fear that this vampire was fol owing me as closely as he obviously was.
"Simple curiosity," he said, baring his teeth. Sarah had not misled me-vampires don't have fangs.
"I hope you don't expect me to believe that."
"I don't care what you believe, Dr. Bishop. But you should be on your guard. These creatures are serious. And when they come to understand what an unusual witch you are?"
Clairmont shook his head.
"What do you mean?" Al the blood drained from my head, leaving me dizzy.
"It's uncommon these days for a witch to have so much . .
. potential." Clairmont's voice dropped to a purr that vibrated in the back of his throat. "Not everyone can see it -yet-but I can. You shimmer with it when you concentrate.
When you're angry, too. Surely the daemons in the library wil sense it soon, if they haven't already."
"I appreciate the warning. But I don't need your help." I prepared to stalk away, but his hand shot out and gripped my upper arm, stopping me in my tracks.
"Don't be too sure of that. Be careful. Please." Clairmont hesitated, his face shaken out of its perfect lines as he wrestled with something. "Especial y if you see that wizard again."
I stared fixedly at the hand on my arm. Clairmont released me. His lids dropped, shuttering his eyes.
My row back to the boathouse was slow and steady, but the repetitive movements weren't able to carry away my lingering confusion and unease. Every now and again, there was a gray blur on the towpath, but nothing else caught my attention except for people bicycling home from work and a very ordinary human walking her dog.
After returning the equipment and locking the boathouse, I set off down the towpath at a measured jog.
Matthew Clairmont was standing across the river in front of the University Boat House.
I began to run, and when I looked back over my shoulder, he was gone.