"Meet me in the hay barn on your way back from the village." Philippe had resumed his annoying habit of appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye and was standing before us in the library.
I looked up from my book and frowned. "What's in the hay barn?" "Hay." Matthew's revelations in the church had only made him more restless and short-tempered. "I'm writing to our new pope, Father. Alain tells me that the conclave will announce today that poor Niccol?? has been elected despite begging to be spared the burdens of office. What are the wishes of one man when weighed against the aspirations of Philip of Spain and Philippe de Clermont?"
Philippe reached for his belt. A loud clap exploded from Matthew's direction. Matthew held a dagger between his palms, the point of the blade resting against his breastbone.
"His Holiness can wait." Philippe considered the position of his weapon. "I should have targeted Diana. You would have moved faster."
"You must forgive me for ruining your sport." Matthew was coldly furious. "It's been some time since I've had a knife thrown at me. I fear I am out of practice."
"If you are not at the barn before the clock strikes two, I will come looking for you. And I will be carrying more than this dagger." He plucked it out of Matthew's hands and bellowed for Alain, who was right behind him.
"No one should go to the lower barn until told otherwise," Philippe said as he rammed his weapon back into its leather sheath.
"I had apprehended as much, sieur." It was as close to a reproach as Alain was ever likely to utter.
"I'm tired of living with so much testosterone. No matter what Ysabeau thinks of witches, I wish she were here. And before you ask what testosterone is, it's you," I said, jabbing my finger at Philippe. "And your son is not much better."
"The company of women, eh?" Philippe pulled on his beard and looked at Matthew, openly calculating just how much further he could push his son. "Why did I not think of it before? While we wait for Diana's witch to arrive from Lyon, we should send her to Margot for instruction on how to behave like a proper French lady."
"What Louis and Margot get up to at Usson is worse than anything they did in Paris. That woman isn't a proper role model for anyone, least of all my wife," Matthew told his father with a withering look. "Unless they're more careful, people are going to know that Louis's carefully managed, very expensive assassination was a sham."
"For someone wedded to a witch you are quick to judge the passions of others, Matthaios. Louis is your brother."
Goddess bless us, another brother.
"Passions?" Matthew's eyebrow lifted. "Is that what you call taking a string of men and women to bed?"
"There are countless ways to love. What Margot and Louis do is not your concern. Ysabeau's blood runs in Louis's veins, and he will always have my loyalty-as will you, in spite of your own considerable transgressions." Philippe disappeared in a blur of movement.
"Just how many de Clermonts are there? And why do you all have to be men?" I demanded when there was silence once more.
"Because Philippe's daughters were so terrifying we held a family council and begged him to stop making them. Stasia can strip the paint from walls simply by looking at them, and Verin makes her look meek. As for Freyja . . . well, Philippe named her after the Norse goddess of war for a reason."
"They sound wonderful." I gave him a perfunctory peck on the cheek. "You can tell me about them later. I'll be in the kitchen, trying to stop up that leaky cauldron that Marthe calls a still."
"I could take a look at it for you. I'm good with lab equipment," Matthew offered. He was eager to do anything that would keep him from Philippe and the mysterious hay barn. I understood, but there was no way for him to evade his father. Philippe would simply invade my stillroom and harass him there.
"Not necessary," I said over my shoulder as I departed. "Everything is under control."
Everything was not, as it turned out. My eight-year-old bellows boys had let the fire go out, but not before the flames had burned too high and produced a thick black residue in the bottom of the distillation apparatus. I made notes in the margins of one of the de Clermonts' alchemical books about what had gone wrong and how it could be fixed, while Thomas, the more trustworthy of my two young assistants, stoked the fire. I was not the first to make use of the book's wide, clean borders, and some of the earlier scribblings had been quite useful. In time maybe mine would be, too.
etienne, my other errant assistant, ran into the room, whispered in his partner's ear, and received something shiny in exchange.
"Milord encore," the boy whispered back.
"What are you betting on, Thomas?" I demanded. The two of them looked at me blankly and shrugged. Something about their studied innocence made me concerned for Matthew's welfare. "The hay barn. Where is it?" I said, ripping off my apron.
With great reluctance, Thomas and etienne led me through the castle's front gate and toward a wood-and-stone structure with a steeply pitched roof. A ramp sloped up to the wide, barred entrance doors, but the boys pointed instead to a ladder pushed against the far end. The rungs disappeared into fragrant darkness.
Thomas went up first, making quieting gestures with his hands and imploring me to be silent with facial contortions worthy of an actor in a silent film. etienne held the ladder while I climbed, and the village blacksmith hauled me into the dusty loft.
My appearance was met with interest, but not surprise, by half of the Sept-Tours staff. I had thought it odd that only one guard was on duty at the front gate. The rest of them were here, along with Catrine, her older sister Jehanne, most of the kitchen crew, the blacksmith, and the grooms.
A softly keening whoosh, unlike anything I'd heard before, captured my attention. The sharp clang and the shriek of metal against metal were more recognizable. Matthew and his father had dispensed with sniping and progressed to armed combat. My hand rose to stifle a gasp when the point of Philippe's sword pierced Matthew's shoulder. Bloody slashes covered their shirts, breeches, and hose. They'd evidently been fighting for some time, and this was no genteel fencing match.
Alain and Pierre stood silently against the opposite wall. The ground around them looked like a pincushion, bristling with a variety of discarded weapons stabbed into the packed soil. Both of the de Clermont servants were acutely aware of what was happening around them, including my arrival. They lifted their eyes a fraction to the loft and slid a worried glance at each other. Matthew was oblivious. His back was to me, and the other strong scents in the barn masked my presence. Philippe, who was facing my way, seemed either not to notice or not to care.
Matthew's blade went straight through Philippe's arm. When Philippe winced, his son gave him a mocking smile. "'Don't consider painful what's good for you,'" Matthew muttered.
"I should never have taught you Greek-or English either. Your knowledge of them has caused me no end of trouble," Philippe replied, unperturbed. He pulled his arm free from the blade.
Swords struck, clashed, and swung. Matthew had a slight height advantage, and his longer arms and legs increased his reach and the span of his lunges. He was fighting with a long, tapering blade, sometimes using one hand, sometimes two. The hilt was constantly shifting in his grip so that he could counter his father's moves. But Philippe had more strength and delivered punishing strikes with a shorter sword that he wielded easily in one hand. Philippe also held a round shield, which he used to deflect Matthew's blows. If Matthew had held such a defensive asset, it was gone now. Though the two men were well matched physically, their styles of fighting were entirely different. Philippe was enjoying himself and kept up a running commentary while he sparred. Matthew, on the other hand, remained largely silent and focused, not betraying by so much as the quirk of an eyebrow that he was listening to what his father was saying.
"I've been thinking of Diana. Neither earth nor ocean produces a creature as savage and monstrous as woman," Philippe said sorrowfully.
Matthew lunged at him, the blade whooshing with amazing speed in a wide arc toward his father's neck. I blinked, during which time Philippe managed to slip beneath the blade. He reappeared on Matthew's other side, slicing at his son's calf.
"Your technique is wild this morning. Is something wrong?" Philippe inquired. This direct question got his son's attention.
"Christ, you are impossible. Yes. Something is wrong," Matthew said between clenched teeth. He swung again, the sword glancing off Philippe's quickly raised shield. "Your constant interference is driving me insane."
"Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad." Philippe's words caused Matthew to falter. Philippe took advantage of the misstep and slapped him on the backside with the flat of his sword.
Matthew swore. "Did you give away all of your best lines?" he demanded. Then he saw me.
What happened next took place in a heartbeat. Matthew began to straighten from his fighting crouch, his attention fixed on the hayloft where I stood. Philippe's sword plunged, circled, and lifted Matthew's weapon out of his hand. With both swords in his possession, Philippe threw one against the wall and leveled the other at Matthew's jugular.
"I taught you better, Matthaios. You do not think. You do not blink. You do not breathe. When you are trying to survive, all you do is react." Philippe raised his voice. "Come down here, Diana."
The blacksmith regretfully helped me to another ladder. You're in for it now, promised his expression. I lowered myself onto the floor behind Philippe.
"Is she why you lost?" he demanded, pressing the blade against his son's flesh until a dark ribbon of blood appeared.
"I don't know what you mean. Let me go." Some strange emotion overtook Matthew. His eyes went inky, and he clawed at his father's chest. I took a step toward him.
A shining object flew at me with a whistle, sliding between my left arm and my torso. Philippe had thrown a weapon at me without so much as a backward glance to check his aim, yet it had not even nicked my skin. The dagger pinned my sleeve to a rung of the ladder, and when I wrenched my arm free, the fabric tore across the elbow, exposing my jagged scar.
"That's what I mean. Did you take your eyes off your opponent? Is that how you nearly died, and Diana with you?" Philippe was angrier than I'd ever seen him.
Matthew's concentration flickered to me again. It took no more than a second, but it was long enough for Philippe to find yet another dagger tucked into his boot. He plunged it into the flesh of Matthew's thigh.
"Pay attention to the man with the blade at your throat. If you don't, she's dead." Then Philippe addressed me without turning. "As for you, Diana, stay clear of Matthew when he is fighting."
Matthew looked up at his father, black eyes shining with desperation as the pupils dilated. I'd seen the reaction before, and it usually signaled he was losing his control. "Let me go. I need to be with her. Please."
"You need to stop looking over your shoulder and accept who you are- a manjasang warrior with responsibilities to his family. When you put your mother's ring on Diana's finger, did you take time to consider what it promises?" Philippe said, his voice rising.
"My whole life, and the end of it. And a warning to remember the past." Matthew tried to kick his father, but Philippe anticipated the move and reached down to twist the knife still embedded in his son's leg. Matthew hissed with pain.
"It's always the dark things with you, never the light." Philippe swore. He dropped the sword and kicked it out of Matthew's reach, his fingers tightening on his son's throat. "Do you see his eyes, Diana?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"Take another step toward me."
When I did, Matthew began to thrash, though his father was exerting a crushing pressure on his windpipe. I cried out, and the thrashing worsened.
"Matthew is in a blood rage. We manjasang are closer to nature than other creatures-pure predators, no matter how many languages we speak or what fine clothes we wear. This is the wolf in him trying to free himself so that he can kill."
"A blood rage?" My words came out in a whisper.
"Not all of our kind are prone to it. The sickness is in Ysabeau's blood, passed from her maker and on to her children. Ysabeau and Louis were spared, but not Matthew or Louisa. And Matthew's son Benjamin has the affliction, too."
Though I knew nothing of this son, Matthew had told me hair-raising stories about Louisa. The same blood-borne tendency to excess was in Matthew as well-and he could pass it down to any children we might have. Just when I thought I knew all the secrets that kept Matthew from my bed, here was another: the fear of hereditary illness.
"What sets it off?" I forced the words past the tightness in my throat.
"Many things, and it is worse when he is tired or hungry. Matthew does not belong to himself when the rage is upon him, and it can make him act against his true nature."
Eleanor. Could this be how one of Matthew's great loves had died, trapped between an enraged Matthew and Baldwin in Jerusalem? His repeated warnings about his possessiveness, and the danger that would result, didn't seem idle anymore. Like my panic attacks, this was a physiological reaction that Matthew might never be entirely able to control.
"Is this why you ordered him down here today? To force him into showing his vulnerabilities to the world?" I demanded furiously of Philippe. "How could you? You're his father!"
"We are a treacherous breed. I might turn against him one day." Philippe shrugged. "I might turn on you, witch."
At that, Matthew reversed their positions and was pressing Philippe back toward the far wall. Before he could gain the advantage, Philippe grabbed him by the neck. The two of them stood, locked nose to nose. "Matthew," Philippe said sharply.
His son kept pushing, his humanity gone. Matthew's only desire was to beat his opponent, or kill him if he must. There had been moments in our brief relationship when the frightening human legends about vampires made sense, and this was one of them. But I wanted my Matthew back. I took a step in his direction, but it only made his rage worse.
"Don't come closer, Diana."
"You do not want to do this, milord," Pierre said, going to his master's side. He reached out an arm. I heard a snap, watched the arm drop uselessly to his side thanks to the break at the shoulder and elbow, and saw the blood pouring out of a wound at his neck. Pierre winced, his fingers rising to press against the savage bite.
"Matthew!" I cried.
It was the wrong thing to do. The sound of my distress made Matthew wilder. Pierre was nothing more than an obstacle to him now. Matthew flung him across the room, where he hit the wall of the hay barn, all the while retaining a one-handed grip on his father's throat.
"Silence, Diana. Matthew is beyond reason. Matthaios!" Philippe barked out his name. Matthew stopped trying to push his father away from me, though his grip never loosened.
"I know what you have done." Philippe waited while his words penetrated Matthew's awareness. "Do you hear me, Matthew? I know my future. You would have beaten back the rage if you could have."
Philippe had deduced that his son had killed him, but not how or why. The only explanation available to him was Matthew's illness.
"You don't know," Matthew said numbly. "You can't."
"You are behaving as you always do when you regret a kill: guilty, furtive, distracted," Philippe said. "Te absolvo, Matthaios."
"I'll take Diana away," Matthew said with sudden lucidity. "Let us both go, Philippe."
"No. We will face it together, the three of us," Philippe said, his face full of compassion. I had been wrong. Philippe had not been trying to break Matthew, but only his guilt. Philippe had not failed his son after all.
"No!" Matthew cried, twisting away. But Philippe was stronger.
"I forgive you," his father repeated, throwing his arms around his son in a fierce embrace. "I forgive you."
Matthew shuddered once, his body shaking from head to foot, then went limp as though some evil spirit had fled. "Je suis desole," he whispered, the words slurred with emotion. "So sorry."
"And I have forgiven you. Now you must put it behind you." Philippe released his son and looked at me. "Come to him, Diana, but move carefully. He still is not himself."
I ignored Philippe and went to Matthew in a rush. He took me into his arms and breathed in my scent as if it had the power to sustain him. Pierre moved forward, too, his arm already healed. He handed Matthew a cloth for his hands, which were slick with blood. Matthew's ferocious look kept his servant several paces away, the white cloth flapping like a flag of surrender. Philippe retreated a few steps, and Matthew's eyes darted at the sudden movement.
"That's your father and Pierre," I said, taking Matthew's face in my hands. Incrementally, the black in his eyes retreated as a ring of dark green iris appeared first, then a sliver of gray, then the distinctive pale celadon that rimmed the pupil.
"Christ." Matthew sounded disgusted. He reached for my hands and drew them from his face. "I haven't lost control like that for ages."
"You are weak, Matthew, and the blood rage is too close to the surface. If the Congregation were to challenge your right to be with Diana and you responded like this, you would lose. We cannot let there be any question whether she is a de Clermont." Philippe drew his thumb deliberately across his lower teeth. Blood, darkly purple, rose from the wound. "Come here, child."
"Philippe!" Matthew held me back, dumbfounded. "You have never-"
"Never is a very long time. Do not pretend to know more about me than you do, Matthaios." Philippe studied me gravely. "There is nothing to fear, Diana." I looked at Matthew, wanting to be sure this wasn't going to cause another outburst of rage.
"Go to him." Matthew released me as the creatures in the loft watched with rapt attention.
"The manjasang make families through death and blood," Philippe began when I stood before him. His words sent fear instinctively trilling through my bones. He smudged his thumb in a curve that started in the center of my forehead near my hairline, crept near my temple, and finished at my brow. "With this mark you are dead, a shade among the living without clan or kin." Philippe's thumb returned to the place where he began, and he made a mirror image of the mark on the other side, finishing between my brows. My witch's third eye tingled with the cool sensation of vampire blood. "With this mark you are reborn, my blood-sworn daughter and forever a member of my family."
Hay barns had corners, too. Philippe's words set them alight with shimmering strands of color-not just blue and amber but green and gold. The noise made by the threads rose to a soft keen of protest. Another family awaited me in another time after all. But the murmurs of approval in the barn soon drowned out the sound. Philippe looked up to the loft as if noticing his audience for the first time.