The Empire: Prague

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Where are my red hose?" Matthew clomped downstairs and scowled at the boxes scattered all over the ground floor. His mood had taken a decided turn for the worse halfway through our four-week journey when we parted ways with Pierre, the children, and our luggage in Hamburg. We'd lost ten additional days by virtue of traveling from England into a Catholic country that reckoned time by a different calendar. In Prague, it was now the eleventh of March and the children and Pierre had yet to arrive.

"I'll never find them in this mess!" Matthew said, taking out his frustration on one of my petticoats.

After we'd lived out of saddlebags and a single shared trunk for weeks, our belongings had arrived three days after we did at the tall, narrow house perched on the steep avenue leading to Prague Castle known as Sporrengasse. Our German neighbors presumably dubbed it Spur Street because that was the only way you could persuade a horse to make the climb.

"I didn't know you owned red hose," I said, straightening up.

"I do." Matthew started rooting around in a box that contained my linen.

"Well, they won't be in there," I said, pointing out the obvious.

The vampire ground his teeth. "I've looked everywhere else."

"I'll find them." I eyed his perfectly respectable black leggings. "Why red?"

"Because I am trying to catch the Holy Roman Emperor's attention!" Matthew dove into another pile of my clothes.

Bloodred stockings would do more than capture a wandering eye, given that the man who proposed to wear them was a six-foot-three vampire, and most of his height was leg. Matthew's commitment to the plan was unwavering, however. I focused my mind, asked for the hose to show themselves, and followed the red threads. The ability to keep track of people and objects was an unforeseen fringe benefit of being a weaver, and one I'd had several opportunities to use on the trip.

"Has my father's messenger arrived?" Matthew contributed another petticoat to the snowy mountain growing between us and resumed digging.

"Yes. It's over by the door-whatever it is." I fished through contents of an overlooked chest: chain-mail gauntlets, a shield with a double-headed eagle on it, and an elaborately chased cup-and-stick gizmo. Triumphant, I brandished the long red tubes. "Found them!"

Matthew had forgotten the hosiery crisis. His father's package now held his complete attention. I looked to see what had him so amazed.

"Is that . . . a Bosch?" I knew Hieronymus Bosch's work because of his bizarre use of alchemical equipment and symbolism. He covered his panels with flying fish, insects, enormous household implements, and eroticized fruit. Long before psychedelic was stylish, Bosch saw the world in bright colors and unsettling combinations.

Like Matthew's Holbeins at the Old Lodge, however, this work was unfamiliar. It was a triptych, assembled from three hinged wooden panels. Designed to sit on an altar, triptychs were kept closed except for special religious celebrations. In modern museums the exteriors were seldom on display. I wondered what other stunning images I'd been missing.

The artist had covered the outside panels with a velvety black pigment. A wizened tree shimmering in the moonlight spanned the two front panels. A tiny wolf crouched in its roots, and an owl perched in the upper branches. Both animals gazed at the viewer knowingly. A dozen other eyes shone out from the dark ground around the tree, disembodied and staring. Behind the dead oak, a stand of deceptively normal trees with pale trunks and iridescent green branches shed more light on the scene. Only when I took a closer look did I see the ears growing out of them, as though they were listening to the sounds of the night.

"What does it mean?" I asked, staring at Bosch's work in wonder.

Matthew's fingers fiddled with the fastenings on his doublet. "It's an old Flemish proverb: 'The forest has eyes, and the woods have ears; therefore I will see, be silent, and hear.'" The words perfectly captured the secretive life Matthew led and reminded me of Elizabeth's current choice of motto.

The triptych's interior showed three interrelated scenes: an image of the fallen angels, painted against the same velvety black background. At first glance they looked more like dragonflies with their shimmering double wings, but they had human bodies, with heads and legs that twisted in torment as the angels fell through the heavens. On the opposite panel, the dead rose for the Last Judgment in a scene far more gruesome than the frescoes at Sept-Tours. The gaping jaws of fish and wolves provided entrances to hell, sucking in the damned and consigning them to an eternity of pain and agony.

The center, however, showed a very different image of death: the resurrected Lazarus calmly climbing out of his coffin. With his long legs, dark hair, and serious expression, he looked rather like Matthew. All around the borders of the center panel, lifeless vines produced strange fruits and flowers. Some dripped blood. Others gave birth to people and animals. And no Jesus was in sight.

"Lazarus resembles you. No wonder you don't want Rudolf to have it." I handed Matthew his hose. "Bosch must have known you were a vampire, too."

"Jeroen-or Hieronymus as you know him-saw something he shouldn't have," Matthew said darkly. "I didn't know that Jeroen had witnessed me feeding until I saw the sketches he made of me with a warmblood. From that day on, he believed all creatures had a dual nature, part human and part animal."

"And sometimes part vegetable," I said, studying a naked woman with a strawberry for a head and cherries for hands running away from a pitchfork-wielding devil wearing a stork as a hat. Matthew made a soft sound of amusement. "Does Rudolf know you're a vampire, as Elizabeth does and Bosch did?" I was increasingly concerned by the number of people who were in on the secret.

"Yes. The emperor knows I'm a member of the Congregation, too." He twisted his bright red hose into a knot. "Thank you for finding these."

"Tell me now if you have a habit of losing your car keys, because I'm not putting up with this kind of panic every morning when you get ready for work." I slid my arms around his waist and rested my cheek on his heart. That slow, steady beat always calmed me.

"What are you going to do, divorce me?" Matthew returned the embrace, resting his head on mine so that we fit together perfectly.

"You promised me vampires don't do divorce." I gave him a squeeze. "You're going to look like a cartoon character if you put those red socks on. I'd stick to the black if I were you. You'll stand out regardless."

"Witch," Matthew said, releasing me with a kiss.

He went up the hill to the castle, wearing sober black hose and carrying a long, convoluted message (partially in verse) offering Rudolf a marvelous book for his collections. He came back down four hours later empty-handed, having delivered the note to an imperial flunky. There had been no audience with the emperor. Instead Matthew had been kept waiting along with all the other ambassadors seeking audience.

"It was like being stuck in a cattle truck with all those warm bodies cooped up together. I tried to go somewhere with clear air to breathe, but the nearby rooms were full of witches."

"Witches?" I climbed down from the table I was using to put Matthew's sword safely on top of the linen cupboard in preparation for Jack's arrival.

"Dozens of them," Matthew said. "They were complaining about what's happening in Germany. Where's Gallowglass?"

"Your newphew is buying eggs and securing the services of a housekeeper and a cook." Fran├žoise had flatly refused to join our expedition to Central Europe, which she viewed as a godless land of Lutherans. She was now back at the Old Lodge, spoiling Charles. Gallowglass was serving as my page and general dogsbody until the others arrived. He had excellent German and Spanish, which made him indispensable when it came to provisioning our household. "Tell me more about the witches."

"The city is a safe haven for every creature in Central Europe who fears for his safety-daemon, vampire, or witch. But the witches are especially welcome in Rudolf's court, because he covets their knowledge. And their power."

"Interesting," I said. No sooner had I started wondering about their identities than a series of faces appeared to my third eye. "Who is the wizard with the red beard? And the witch with one blue and one green eye?"

"We aren't going to be here long enough for their identities to matter," Matthew said ominously on his way out the door. Having concluded the day's business for Elizabeth, he was headed across the river to Prague's Old Town on behalf of the Congregation. "I'll see you before dark. Stay here until Gallowglass returns. I don't want you getting lost." More to the point, he didn't want me stumbling upon any witches.

Gallowglass returned to Sporrengasse with two vampires and a pretzel. He handed the latter to me and introduced me to my new servants.

Karolina (the cook) and Tereza (the housekeeper) were members of a sprawling clan of Bohemian vampires dedicated to serving the aristocracy and important foreign visitors. Like the de Clermont retainers, they earned their reputation-and an unusually large salary-because of their preternatural longevity and wolfish loyalty. For the right price, we were also able to buy assurances of secrecy from the clan's elder, who had removed the women from the household of the papal ambassador. The ambassador graciously consented out of deference to the de Clermonts. They had, after all, been instrumental in rigging the last papal election, and he knew who buttered his bread. I cared only that Karolina knew how to make omelets.

Our household established, Matthew loped up the hill each morning to the castle while I unpacked, met my neighbors in the neighborhood below the castle walls called Mala Strana, and watched for the absent members of the household. I missed Annie's cheerfulness and wide-eyed approach to the world, as well as Jack's unfailing ability to get himself into trouble. Our winding street was packed with children of all ages and nationalities, since most of the ambassadors lived there. It turned out that Matthew was not the only foreigner in Prague to be kept at arm's length by the emperor. Every person I met regaled Gallowglass with tales of how Rudolf had snubbed some important personage only to spend hours with a bookish antiquarian from Italy or a humble miner from Saxony.

It was late afternoon on the first day of spring, and the house was filling with the homely scents of pork and dumplings when a scrappy eight-yearold tackled me.

"Mistress Roydon!" Jack crowed, his face buried in my bodice and his arms wrapped tightly around me. "Did you know that Prague is really four towns in one? London is only one town. And there is a castle, too, and a river. Pierre will show me the watermill tomorrow."

"Hello, Jack," I said, stroking his hair. Even on the grueling, freezing journey to Prague, he had managed to shoot up in height. Pierre must have been shoveling food into him. I looked up and smiled at Annie and Pierre. "Matthew will be so glad that you've all arrived. He's missed you."

"We've missed him, too," Jack said, tilting his head back to look at me. He had dark circles under his eyes, and in spite of his growth spurt he looked wan.

"Have you been ill?" I asked, feeling his forehead. Colds could turn deadly in this harsh climate, and there was talk of a nasty epidemic in the Old Town that Matthew thought was a strain of flu.

"He's been having trouble sleeping," Pierre said quietly. I could tell from his serious tone that there was more to the story, but it could wait.

"Well, you'll sleep tonight. There is an enormous featherbed in your room. Go with Tereza, Jack. She'll show you where your things are and get you washed up before supper." In the interests of vampire propriety, the warmbloods would be sleeping with Matthew and me on the second floor, since the house's narrow layout permitted only a keeping room and kitchen on the ground floor. That meant that the first floor was dedicated to formal rooms for receiving guests. The rest of the household's vampires had staked their claim on the lofty third floor, with its expansive views and windows that could be flung open to the elements.

"Master Roydon!" Jack shrieked, hurling himself at the door and flinging it open before Tereza could stop him. How he detected Matthew was a mystery, given the growing darkness and Matthew's head-to-toe adoption of slate-colored wool.

"Easy," Matthew said, catching Jack before he hurt himself running into a pair of solid vampire legs. Gallowglass snatched at Jack's cap as he went by, ruffling the boy's hair.

"We almost froze. In the river. And the sled turned over once, but the dog was not hurt. I ate roasted boar. And Annie caught her skirt in the wagon wheel and almost tumbled out." Jack couldn't get the details of their journey out of his mouth fast enough. "I saw a blazing star. It was not very big, but Pierre told me I must share it with Master Harriot when we return home. I drew a picture of it for him." Jack's hand slid inside his grimy doublet and pulled out an equally grimy slip of paper. He presented this to Matthew with the reverence normally accorded to a holy relic.

"This is quite good," Matthew said, studying the drawing with appropriate care. "I like how you've shown the curve of the tail. And you put the other stars around it. That was wise, Jack. Master Harriot will be pleased at your powers of observation."

Jack flushed. "That was my last piece of paper. Do they sell paper in Prague?" Back in London, Matthew had taken to supplying Jack with a pocketful of paper scraps every morning. How Jack went through them was a matter of some speculation.

"The city is awash in the stuff," Matthew said. "Pierre will take you to the shop in Mala Strana tomorrow."

After that exciting promise, it was hard to get the children upstairs, but Tereza proved to possess the precise mix of gentleness and resolve to accomplish the task. That gave the four grown-ups a chance to talk freely.

"Has Jack been sick?" Matthew asked Pierre with a frown.

"No, milord. Since we left you, his sleep has been troubled." Pierre hesitated. "I think the evils in his past haunt him."

Matthew's forehead smoothed out, but he still looked concerned. "And otherwise the journey was as you expected?" This was his cagey way of asking whether they had been set upon by bandits or plagued by supernatural or preternatural beings.

"It was long and cold," Pierre said matter-of-factly, "and the children were always hungry."

Gallowglass bellowed with laughter. "Well, that sounds about right."

"And you, milord?" Pierre shot a veiled glance at Matthew. "Is Prague as you expected?"

"Rudolf hasn't seen me. Rumor has it that Kelley is on the uppermost reaches of the Powder Tower blowing up alembics and God-knows-whatelse," Matthew reported.

"And the Old Town?" Pierre asked delicately.

"It is much as it ever was." Matthew's tone was breezy and light-a dead giveaway that he was concerned about something.

"So long as you ignore the gossip coming from the Jewish quarter. One of their witches has made a creature from clay who prowls the streets at night." Gallowglass turned innocent eyes on his uncle. "Saving that, it is practically unchanged from the last time we were here to help Emperor Ferdinand secure the city in 1547."

"Thank you, Gallowglass," Matthew said. His tone was as chilly as the wind off the river.

Surely it would require more than an ordinary spell to construct a creature from mud and set it in motion. Such a rumor could mean only one thing: Somewhere in Prague was a weaver like me, one who could move between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But I didn't have to call Matthew on his secret. His nephew beat me to it.

"You didn't think you could keep news of the clay creature from Auntie?" Gallowglass shook his head in amazement. "You don't spend enough time at the market. The women of Mala Strana know everything, including what the emperor is having for breakfast and that he's refused to see you."

Matthew ran his fingers over the painted wooden surface of the triptych and sighed. "You'll have to take this up to the palace, Pierre."

"But that is the altarpiece from Sept-Tours," Pierre protested. "The emperor is known for his caution. Surely it is only a matter of time before he admits you."

"Time is the one commodity we lack-and the de Clermonts have altarpieces aplenty," Matthew said ruefully. "Let me write a note to the emperor, and you can be on your way."

Matthew dispatched Pierre and the painting shortly thereafter. His servant returned just as empty-handed as Matthew had, with no assurances of a future meeting.

All around me the threads that bound the worlds were tightening and shifting in a weaving whose pattern was too large for me to perceive or understand. But something was brewing in Prague. I could feel it.

That night I awoke to the sound of soft voices in the room adjoining our bedchamber. Matthew was not next to me, reading, as he had been when I'd dropped off to sleep. I padded to the door to see who was with him.

"Tell me what happens when I shade the side of the monster's face." Matthew's hand moved swiftly over the large sheet of foolscap before him.

"It makes him seem farther away!" Jack whispered, awestruck by the transformation.

"You try it," Matthew said, handing Jack his pen. Jack gripped the pen with great concentration, his tongue stuck slightly out. Matthew rubbed the boy's back with his hand, relaxing the taut muscles wrapped around his rangy frame. Jack was not quite sitting on his knee but leaning into the vampire's comforting bulk for support. "So many monsters," Matthew murmured, meeting my eyes.

"Do you want to draw yours?" Jack inched the paper in Matthew's direction. "Then you could sleep, too."

"Your monsters have frightened mine away," Matthew said, returning his attention to Jack, his face grave. My heart hurt for the boy and all he had endured in his brief, hard life.

Matthew met my eyes again and indicated with a slight shift of his head that he had everything under control. I blew him a kiss and returned to the warm, feathery nest of our bed.

The next day we received a note from the emperor. It was sealed with thick wax and ribbons.

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