The composed face of a male saint stared gravely at me from over Matthew's right shoulder. He held a carpenter's square and a long-stemmed white lily. It was Joseph, the man who asked no questions when he took a pregnant virgin for a wife.
"We have to talk, Matthew." I surveyed the church again. "Maybe we should move this conversation to the chateau. There's nowhere to sit." I had never thought of wooden pews as inviting until I entered a church without them.
"Churches weren't built for comfort," Matthew said.
"No. But making the faithful miserable couldn't have been their only purpose." I searched the murals. If faith and hope were intertwined as closely as Philippe suggested, then there might be something here to lighten Matthew's mood.
I found Noah and his ark. A global disaster and the narrowly avoided extinction of all life-forms were not auspicious. A saint heroically slew a dragon, but it was too reminiscent of hunting for my comfort. The entrance of the church was dedicated to the Last Judgment. Rows of angels at the top blew golden trumpets as the tips of their wings swept the floor, but the image of hell at the bottom-positioned so that you couldn't leave the church without making eye contact with the damned-was horrifying. The resurrection of Lazarus would be little comfort to a vampire. The Virgin Mary wouldn't help either. She stood across from Joseph at the entrance to the apse, otherworldy and serene, another reminder of all that Matthew had lost.
"At least it's private. Philippe seldom sets foot in here," Matthew said tiredly.
"We'll stay, then." I took a few steps toward him and plunged in. "What's wrong, Matthew? At first I thought it was the shock of being immersed in a former life, then the prospect of seeing your father again while keeping his death a secret." Matthew remained kneeling, head bowed, his back to me. "But your father knows his future now. So there must be another reason for it."
The air in the church was oppressive, as if my words had removed all the oxygen from the place. There wasn't a sound except for the cooing of the birds in the belfry.
"Today is Lucas's birthday," Matthew said at last.
His words hit me with the force of a blow. I sank to my knees behind him, cranberry skirts pooling around me. Philippe was right. I didn't know Matthew as well as I should.
His hand rose and pointed to a spot on the floor between him and Joseph. "He's buried there, with his mother."
No inscription on the stone marked what rested underneath. Instead there were smooth hollows, the kind made by the steady passage of feet on stair treads. Matthew's fingers reached out, fit into the grooves perfectly, stilled, withdrew.
"Part of me died when Lucas did. It was the same for Blanca. Her body followed a few days later, but her eyes were empty and her soul already flown. Philippe chose his name. It's Greek for 'Bright One.' On the night he was born, Lucas was so white and pale. When the midwife held him up in the darkness, his skin caught the light from the fire the way the moon catches her light from the sun. Strange how after so many years my memory of that night is still clear." Matthew paused in his ramblings, wiped at his eye. His fingers came away red.
"When did you and Blanca meet?"
"I threw snowballs at her during her first winter in the village. I'd do anything to get her attention. She was delicate and remote, and many of us sought her company. By the time spring came, Blanca would let me walk her home from the market. She liked berries. Every summer the hedge outside the church was full of them." He examined the red streaks on his hand. "Whenever Philippe saw the stains from their juice on my fingers, he'd laugh and predict a wedding come autumn."
"I take it he was right."
"We wed in October, after the harvest. Blanca was already more than two months pregnant." Matthew could wait to consummate our marriage but hadn't been able to resist Blanca's charms. It was far more than I had wanted to know about their relationship.
"We made love for the first time during the heat of August," he continued. "Blanca was always concerned with pleasing others. When I look back, I wonder if she was abused when she was a child. Not punished-we were all punished, and in ways no modern parent would dream of-but something more. It broke her spirit. My wife had learned to give in to what someone older, stronger, and meaner wanted. I was all of those things, and I wanted her to say yes that summer night, so she did."
"Ysabeau told me the two of you were deeply in love, Matthew. You didn't force her to do anything against her will." I wanted to offer him what comfort I could, in spite of the sting his memories inflicted.
"Blanca didn't possess a will. Not until Lucas. Even then she only exercised it when he was in danger or when I was angry with him. All her life she wanted someone weaker and smaller to protect. Instead Blanca had a succession of what she saw as failures. Lucas wasn't our first child, and with every miscarriage she grew softer and sweeter, more tractable. Less likely to say no."
Except in its general outlines, this was not the tale Ysabeau had told of her son's early life. Hers had been a story of deep love and shared grief. Matthew's version was one of unmitigated sorrow and loss.
I cleared my throat. "And then there was Lucas."
"Yes. After years of filling her with death, I gave her Lucas." He fell silent.
"There was nothing you could do, Matthew. It was the sixth century, and there was an epidemic. You couldn't save either of them."
"I could have stopped myself from having her. Then there would have been no one to lose!" Matthew exclaimed. "She wouldn't say no, but her eyes always held some reluctance when we made love. Each time I promised her that this time the babe would survive. I would have given anything-"
It hurt to know that Matthew was still so deeply attached to his dead wife and son. Their spirits haunted this place, and him, too. But at least now I had an explanation for why he shied away from me: this deep sense of guilt and grief that he'd been carrying for so many centuries. In time, perhaps, I could help loosen Blanca's hold on Matthew. I stood and went to him. He flinched when my fingers came to rest on his shoulder. "There's more."
"I tried to give my own life, too. But God didn't want it." Matthew's head rose. He stared at the worn, grooved stone before him, then at the roof above.
"I'd been thinking about joining Lucas and Blanca for weeks, but I was worried that they would be in heaven and God would keep me in hell because of my sins," Matthew said, matter-of-fact. "I asked one of the women in the village for advice. She thought I was being haunted-that Blanca and Lucas were tied to this place because of me. Up on the scaffolding, I looked down and thought their spirits might be trapped under the stone. If I fell on it, God might have no choice but to release them. That or let me join them-wherever they were."
This was the flawed logic of a man in despair, not the lucid scientist I knew.
"I was so tired," he said wearily. "But God wouldn't let me sleep. Not after what I'd done. For my sins He gave me to a creature who transformed me into someone who cannot live, or die, or even find fleeting peace in dreams. All I can do is remember."
Matthew was exhausted again, and so very cold. His skin felt colder than the frigid air that surrounded us. Sarah would have known a spell to ease him, but all I could do was pull his resistant body into mine and lend him what little warmth I could.
"Philippe has despised me ever since. He thinks me weak-far too weak to marry someone like you." Here was the key to Matthew's feeling of unworthiness.
"No," I said roughly, "your father loves you." Philippe had exhibited many emotions toward his son in the brief time we'd been at Sept-Tours, but never any hint of disgust.
"Brave men don't commit suicide, except in battle. He said so to Ysabeau when I was newly made. Philippe said I lacked the courage to be a manjasang. As soon as my father could, he sent me away to fight. 'If you're determined to end your own life,' he said, 'at least it can be for some greater purpose than self-pity.' I've never forgotten his words."
Hope, faith, courage: the three elements of Philippe's simple creed. Matthew felt he possessed nothing but doubt, belief, and bravado. But I knew different.
"You've been torturing yourself with these memories for so long that you can't see the truth anymore." I moved around to face him and dropped to my knees before him. "Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see someone very like your father."
"We all want to see Philippe in those we love. But I'm nothing like him. It was Gallowglass's father, Hugh, who if he had lived would have-" Matthew turned away, his hand trembling on his knee. There was something more, a secret that he had yet to reveal.
"I've already granted you one secret, Matthew: the name of the de Clermont who is a member of the Congregation in the present. You can't keep two."
"You want me to share my darkest secret?" An interminable time passed before Matthew was willing to reveal it. "I took his life. He begged Ysabeau to do it, but she couldn't." Matthew turned away.
"Hugh?" I whispered, my heart breaking for him and Gallowglass.
The last barrier between us fell.
"The Nazis drove him insane with pain and deprivation. Had Hugh survived, he might have convinced Philippe that there was still hope for some kind of life in the wreckage that remained. But Philippe said he was too tired to fight. He wanted to sleep, and I . . . I knew what it was to want to close your eyes and forget. God help me, I did what he asked."
Matthew was shaking now. I gathered him in my arms again, not caring that he resisted, knowing only that he needed something-someone- to hold on to while the waves of memory crashed over him.
"After Ysabeau refused his pleas, we found Philippe trying to cut his wrists. He couldn't hold the knife securely enough to do the job. He'd cut himself repeatedly, and there was blood everywhere, but the wounds were shallow and healed quickly." Matthew was speaking rapidly, the words pouring from him at last. "The more blood Philippe shed, the wilder he became. He couldn't stand the sight of it after being in the camp. Ysabeau took the knife from him and said she would help him end his life. But Maman would never have forgiven herself."
"So you cut him," I said, meeting his eyes. I had never turned away from the knowledge of what he'd done to survive as a vampire. I couldn't turn away from the sins of the husband, the father, and the son either.
Matthew shook his head. "No. I drank every drop of his blood, so Philippe wouldn't have to watch as his life force was spilled."
"But then you saw . . ." I couldn't keep the horror out of my voice. When a vampire drank from another creature, that creature's memories came along with the fluid in fleeting, teasing glimpses. Matthew had freed his father from torment, but only after first sharing everything Philippe had suffered.
"Most creatures' memories come in a smooth stream, like a ribbon unwinding in the darkness. With Philippe it was like swallowing shards of glass. Even when I got past the recent events, his mind was so badly fractured that I almost couldn't continue." His shaking intensified. "It took forever. Philippe was broken, lost, and frightened, but his heart was still fierce. His last thoughts were of Ysabeau. They were the only memories that were still whole, still his."
"It's all right," I murmured again and again, holding him tightly until finally his limbs began to quiet.
"You asked me who I am at the Old Lodge. I'm a killer, Diana. I've killed thousands," Matthew said eventually, his voice muffled. "But I never had to look any of them in the face again. Only Ysabeau knows the truth, and she cannot look at me without remembering my father's death. Now I have to face you, too."
I cradled his head between my hands and drew him away so that our eyes met. Matthew's perfect face usually masked the ravages of time and experience. But all the evidence was on display now, and it only made him more beautiful to me. At last the man I loved made sense: his insistence that I face who and what I was, his reluctance to kill Juliette even to save his own life, his conviction that once I truly knew him, I could never love him.
"I love all of you, Matthew: warrior and scientist, killer and healer, dark and light."
"How can you?" he whispered, disbelieving.
"Philippe couldn't have gone on like that. Your father would have kept trying to take his own life, and from everything you say, he'd suffered enough." I couldn't imagine how much, but my beloved Matthew had witnessed it all. "What you did was an act of mercy."
"I wanted to disappear when it was over, to leave Sept-Tours and never come back," he confessed. "But Philippe made me promise to keep the family and the brotherhood together. I swore that I would take care of Ysabeau, too. So I stayed here, sat in his chair, pulled the political strings he wanted pulled, finished the war he gave his life to win."
"Philippe wouldn't have put Ysabeau's welfare in the hands of someone he despised. Or placed a coward in charge of the Order of Lazarus."
"Baldwin accused me of lying about Philippe's wishes. He thought the brotherhood would go to him. No one could fathom why our father had decided to give the Order of Lazarus to me instead. Perhaps it was his final act of madness."
"It was faith," I said softly, reaching down and lacing my fingers through his. "Philippe believes in you. So do I. These hands built this church. They were strong enough to hold your son and your father during their final moments on this earth. And they still have work to do."
High above there was a beating of wings. A dove had flown through the clerestory windows and lost its way among the exposed roof beams. It struggled, freed itself, and swooped down into the church. The dove landed on the stone that marked the final resting place of Blanca and Lucas and moved its feet in a deliberate circular dance until it faced Matthew and me. Then it cocked its head and studied us with one blue eye.
Matthew shot to his feet at the sudden intrusion, and the startled dove flew toward the other side of the apse. It beat its wings, slowing before the likeness of the Virgin. When I was convinced it was going to crash into the wall, it swiftly reversed direction and flew back out the way it had entered.
A long white feather from the dove's wing drifted and curled on the currents of air, landing on the pavement before us. Matthew bent to pick it up, his expression puzzled as he held it before him.
"I've never seen a white dove in the church before." Matthew looked to the half dome of the apse where the same bird hovered over Christ's head.
"It's a sign of of resurrection and hope. Witches believe in signs, you know." I closed his hands around the feather. I kissed him lightly on the forehead and turned to leave. Perhaps now that he had shared his memories, he could find peace.
"Diana?" Matthew called. He was still by his family's grave. "Thank you for hearing my confession."
I nodded. "I'll see you at home. Don't forget your feather."
He watched me as I passed the scenes of torment and redemption on the portal between the world of God and the world of man. Pierre was waiting outside, and he took me back to Sept-Tours without speaking a word. Philippe heard our approach and was waiting for me in the hall.
"Did you find him in the church?" he asked quietly. The sight of him- so hale and hearty-made my heart drop. How had Matthew endured it?
"Yes. You should have told me it was Lucas's birthday." I handed my cloak to Catrine.
"We have all learned to anticipate these black moods when Matthew is reminded of his son. You will, too."
"It's not just Lucas." Fearing I'd said too much, I bit my lip.
"Matthew told you about his own death, too." Philippe tugged his fingers through his hair, a rougher version of his son's habitual gesture. "I understand grief, but not this guilt. When will he put the past behind him?"
"Some things can never be forgotten," I said, looking Philippe squarely in the eye. "No matter what you think you understand, if you love him, you'll let him battle his own demons."
"No. He is my son. I will not fail him." Philippe's mouth tightened. He turned and stalked away. "And I've received word from Lyon, madame," he called over his shoulder. "A witch will arrive shortly to help you, just as Matthew wished."