"I like being married," I said drowsily. Since surviving the day-after feast and the receiving of gifts last week-most of them mooing or clucking- we'd done nothing but make love, talk, sleep, and read. Occasionally Chef sent up a tray of food and drink to sustain us. Otherwise we were left alone. Not even Philippe interrupted our time together.
"You seem to be taking to it well," Matthew said, nuzzling the tip of his cold nose behind my ear. I was lying, facedown and legs sprawled, in a room used to store spare weaponry above the smithy. Matthew was on top of me, shielding me from the draft coming through the gaps in the wooden door. Though I was unsure of how much of my own body would be exposed if someone walked in, Matthew's posterior and bare legs were certainly on view. He moved against me suggestively.
"You can't possibly want to do that again." I laughed happily when he repeated the movement. I wondered if this sexual stamina was a vampire thing or a Matthew thing.
"Are you criticizing my creativity already?" He turned me over and settled between my thighs. "Besides, I was thinking of this instead." He lowered his mouth to mine and slid gently inside me.
"We came out here to work on my shooting," I said sometime later. "Is this what you meant by target practice?"
Matthew rumbled with laughter. "There are hundreds of Auvergnat euphemisms for making love, but I don't believe that's one of them. I'll ask Chef if he's familiar with it."
"You will not."
"Are you being prim, Dr. Bishop?" he asked with mock surprise, picking a piece of straw from the hair tangled at the small of my back. "Don't bother. No one is under any illusions about how we're spending our time."
"I see your point," I said, pulling the hose that were formerly his over my knees. "Now that you've lured me here, you might as well try to figure out what I'm doing wrong."
"You're a novice and can't expect to hit the mark every time," he said, getting to his feet and rummaging for his own hose. One leg was still attached to his breeches, which were lying close by, but the other was nowhere to be seen. I reached underneath my shoulder and handed him the wadded-up ball they'd become.
"With good coaching I could become an expert." I'd now seen Matthew shoot, and he was a born archer with his long arms and fine, strong fingers. I picked up the curved bow, a burnished crescent of horn and wood propped up against a nearby pile of hay. The twisted leather bowstring swung free.
"Then you should be spending time with Philippe, not with me. His handling of the bow is legendary."
"Your father told me Ysabeau is a better shot." I was using her bow, but so far her skills had not rubbed off on me.
"That's because Maman is the only creature who has ever landed an arrow in his side." He beckoned at the bow. "Let me string it for you."
There was already a pink stripe across my cheek from the first time I'd tried to attach the bowstring to its ring. It required enormous strength and dexterity to bend back the upper and lower limbs of the bow into proper alignment. Matthew braced the lower limb against his thigh, bent the upper limb back with one hand, and used the other to tie off the bowstring. "You make that look easy." It had looked easy when he'd twisted the cork from a bottle of champagne back in modern Oxford, too. "It is-if you're a vampire and have had roughly a thousand years of practice." Matthew handed me the bow with a smile. "Remember, keep your shoulders in a straight line, don't think too long about the shot, and make the release soft and smooth."
He made it sound easy, too. I turned to face the target. Matthew had used a few daggers to pin a soft cap, a doublet, and a skirt to a pile of hay. At first I thought the goal was to hit something: the hat, the doublet, the skirt. Matthew explained that the goal was to hit what I was aiming for. He demonstrated his point by shooting a single arrow into a haystack, encircling it clockwise with five other arrows, then splitting the center shaft down the middle with a sixth.
I drew an arrow out of the quiver, nocked it, looked down the line of sight provided by my left arm, and pulled the bowstring back. I hesitated. The bow was already misaligned.
"Shoot," Matthew said sharply.
When I released the string, the arrow whizzed by the hay and fell flat on the ground.
"Let me try again," I said, reaching for the quiver by my feet.
"I've seen you shoot witchfire at a vampire and blow a hole straight through her chest," Matthew said quietly.
"I don't want to talk about Juliette." I tried to set the arrow in place, but my hands shook. I lowered the bow. "Or Champier. Or the fact that my powers seem to have totally disappeared. Or how I can make fruit wither and see colors and lights around people. Can't we just leave it-for one week?" Once again, my magic (or lack thereof) was a regular topic of conversation.
"The archery was supposed to help jostle your witchfire into action," Matthew pointed out. "Talking about Juliette may help."
"Why can't this just be about me getting some exercise?" I asked impatiently.
"Because we need to understand why your power is changing," Matthew said calmly. "Raise the bow, pull the arrow back, and let it fly."
"At least I hit the hay this time," I said after the arrow landed in the upper right corner of the haystack.
"Too bad you were aiming for the stomach."
"You're taking all the fun out of this."
Matthew's expression turned serious. "There's nothing lighthearted about survival. This time nock the arrow but close your eyes before you aim."
"You want me to use my instincts." My laugh was shaky as I placed the arrow in the bow. The target was in front of me, but rather than focus on it I closed my eyes as Matthew suggested. As soon as I did, the weight of the air distracted me. It pressed on my arms, my thighs, and settled like a heavy cloak on my shoulders. The air held the tip of the arrow up, too. I adjusted my stance, shoulders widening as they pushed the air aside. A breeze, a caress of movement, pulled a few strands of hair away from my ear in response.
What do you want? I asked the breeze crossly.
Your trust, it whispered in reply.
My lips parted in astonishment, my mind's eye opened, and I saw the tip of the arrow burning gold with the heat and pressure that had been beaten into it at the forge. The fire that was trapped there wanted to fly free again, but it would stay where it was unless I let go of my fear. I puffed out a soft exhalation, making room for faith. My breath passed along the arrow's shaft, and I released the bowstring. Held aloft on my breath, the arrow flew.
"I hit it." My eyes remained closed, but I didn't need to see to know that my arrow had reached its target.
"You did. The question is how." Matthew took the bow from my fingers before it could fall.
"Fire was trapped in the arrow, and the weight of the air was wrapped around the shaft and the tip." I opened my eyes.
"You felt the elements just as you did the water under Sarah's orchard in Madison and the sunlight in the quince at the Old Lodge." Matthew sounded thoughtful.
"Sometimes it seems like the world is full of some invisible potential that is just beyond my grasp. Maybe if I were like Thetis and could shift my shape at will, I would know what to do with it all." I reached for the bow and another arrow. So long as I kept my eyes closed, I hit the target. As soon as I peeked at my surroundings, however, my shots went wide or fell short.
"That's enough for today," Matthew said, working on a knot that was forming next to my right shoulder blade. "Chef expects rain later this week. Maybe we should go riding while we can." Chef was not only a dab hand with pastry but a decent meteorologist, too. He usually sent up a forecast with the breakfast tray.
We rode out into the countryside and spotted several bonfires burning in the fields on our way home, and Sept-Tours blazed with torches. Tonight was Saturnalia, the official beginning of the holiday season at the chateau. The ecumenical Philippe wanted no one to feel left out and so gave equal time to Roman and Christian traditions. There was even a strand of Norse Yule running through the mix, which I felt sure could be traced to the absent Gallowglass.
"You two can't be tired of each other's company so soon!" Philippe boomed from the minstrels' gallery when we returned. He was wearing a splendid set of antlers atop his head, making him look like a bizarre combination of lion and stag. "We didn't expect to see you for another fortnight. But now that you're here, you can make yourself useful. Take some stars and moons and hang them wherever there is an empty spot."
The great hall was draped in so much greenery that it looked and smelled like the forest. Several wine barrels stood unattended so that revelers could have a cup whenever the spirit moved them. Cheers greeted our return. The decorating crew wanted Matthew to climb up the chimneypiece and affix a large tree limb to one of the beams. He scampered up the stone with an agility that suggested it was not his first time.
It was impossible to resist the holiday spirit, and when supper rolled around, the two of us volunteered to serve the meal to the guests in a ritual of topsy-turvy that made the servants into lords and the lords their servants. My champion Thomas drew the long straw and presided over the celebrations as the Lord of Misrule. He was seated in Philippe's place on a stack of cushions, wearing the priceless gold-and-ruby crown from upstairs as though it were a stage prop. Whatever harebrained request Thomas made was granted by Philippe in his role as court fool. His favors this night included a romantic dance with Alain (Matthew's father opted to take the part of the woman), driving the dogs into a frenzy by playing a whistling flute, and making shadow dragons climb up the wall accompanied by the screams of the children.
Philippe didn't forget the adults, setting up elaborate games of chance to occupy them while he entertained his smallest subjects. He gave each grown-up a bag of beans to make wagers and promised a sack of money to the person with the most at the end of the evening. The enterprising Catrine made a killing by exchanging kisses for beans, and had I been given any tokens, I would have bet them all on her taking the final prize.
Throughout the evening I would look up and see Matthew and Philippe standing side by side, exchanging a few words or sharing a joke. As they bent their heads together, one dark and one bright, the difference in their appearances was striking. But in so many other ways, they were alike. With every passing day, his father's unquenchable high spirits wore down some of Matthew's sharp edges. Hamish had been right: Matthew was not the same man here. He was even finer. And in spite of my fears at Mont SaintMichel, he was still mine.
Matthew felt my gaze and looked at me quizzically. I smiled and blew him a kiss across the hall. He dipped his head, shyly pleased.
Around five minutes before midnight, Philippe whisked the cover off an item standing by the fireplace.
"Christ. Philippe swore he'd have that clock up and running again, but I didn't believe him." Matthew joined me as the children and adults squealed in delight.
The clock was unlike any I'd ever seen before. A carved and gilded cabinet surrounded a water barrel. A long copper pipe stretched up from the barrel and dropped water into the hull of a splendid model ship suspended by a rope wound around a cylinder. As the ship grew incrementally heavier from the weight of the water, the cylinder turned and moved a single hand around a dial on the face of the clock, indicating the time. The whole structure was nearly as tall as I was.
"What happens at midnight?" I asked.
"No doubt whatever it is involves the gunpowder he asked for yesterday," Matthew said grimly.
Having displayed the clock with suitable ceremony, Philippe began a tribute to friends past and present and family new and old, as befitted a festival honoring the ancient god of time. He named every creature the community had lost over the past year, including (when prompted by the Lord of Misrule) Thomas's kitten, Prunelle, who had died tragically by misadventure. The hand continued to inch toward twelve.
At midnight precisely, the ship detonated with a deafening explosion. The clock shuddered to a stop in its splintered wooden case.
"Skata." Philippe looked sadly at his ruined clock.
"Monsieur Fine, God rest his soul, would not be pleased with your improvements to his design." Matthew waved the smoke from his eyes as he bent to take a closer look. "Every year Philippe tries something new: jets of water, chiming bells, a mechanical owl to hoot the hours. He's been tinkering with it ever since King François lost it to him in a card game."
"The cannon were supposed to fire little sparks and give a puff of smoke. It would have amused the children," said Philippe indignantly. "Something was amiss with your gunpowder, Matthaios."
Matthew laughed. "Evidently not, judging by the wreckage."
"C'est dommage," Thomas said with a sympathetic shake of the head. He was crouched next to Philippe, his crown askew and a look of adult concern on his face.
"Pas de probleme. Next year we will do better," Philippe assured Thomas breezily.
Shortly thereafter we left the people of Saint-Lucien to their gambling and revelry. Upstairs, I lingered by the fireside until Matthew doused the candles and got into bed. When I joined him, I hitched up my night rail and straddled his hips.
"What are you doing?" Matthew was surprised to find himself flat on his back in his own bed, his wife looking down at him.
"Misrule wasn't just for men," I said, running my nails down his chest. "I read an article about it in graduate school, called 'Women on Top.'"
"Accustomed as you are to being in charge, I cannot imagine you learned much from it, mon coeur." Matthew's eyes smoldered as I shifted my weight to trap him more securely between my thighs.
"Flatterer." My fingertips traveled from his trim hips up and over the ridges in his abdomen and across the muscles in his shoulders. I leaned over him and pinned his arms to the bed, giving him an excellent view of my body through the night rail's open neckline. He groaned.
"Welcome to the world turned upside down." I released him long enough to remove my night rail, then grasped his hands and lowered myself onto his chest so that the tips of my bare breasts brushed his skin.
"Christ. You're going to kill me."
"Don't you dare die now, vampire," I said, guiding him inside me, rocking gently, holding out the promise of more. Matthew reacted with a low moan. "You like that," I said softly.