"The painting worked, milord," Pierre said apologetically.
"It figures. I loved that altarpiece. Now I'll have a hell of a time getting my hands on it again," Matthew said, sitting back in his chair. The wood creaked in protest. Matthew reached out for the letter. The penmanship was elaborate, with so many swirls and curlicues that the letters were practically unrecognizable.
"Why is the handwriting so ornate?" I wondered.
"The Hoefnagels have arrived from Vienna and have nothing to occupy their time. The fancier the handwriting, the better, as far as His Majesty is concerned," Pierre replied cryptically.
"I'm to go to Rudolf this afternoon," Matthew said with a satisfied smile, folding up the message. "My father will be pleased. He sent some money and jewels, too, but it would appear that the de Clermonts got off lightly this time."
Pierre held out another, smaller letter, addressed in a plainer style. "The emperor added a postscript. In his own hand."
I looked over Matthew's shoulder as he read it.
"Bringen das Buch. Und die Hexe." The emperor's swirling signature, with its elaborate R, looping d and l, and double f's, was at the bottom.
My German was rusty, but the message was clear: Bring the book. And the witch.
"I spoke too soon," Matthew muttered.
"I told you to hook him with Titian's great canvas of Venus that Grandfather took off King Philip's hands when his wife objected to it," Gallowglass observed. "Like his uncle, Rudolf has always been unduly fond of redheads. And saucy pictures."
"And witches," my husband said under his breath. He threw the letter on the table. "It wasn't the painting that baited him, but Diana. Maybe I should refuse his invitation."
"That was a command, Uncle." Gallowglass's brow lowered.
"And Rudolf has Ashmole 782," I said. "It's not going to simply appear in front of the Three Ravens on Sporrengasse. We're going to have to find it."
"Are you calling us ravens, Auntie?" Gallowglass said with mock offense.
"I'm talking about the sign on the house, you great oaf." Like every other residence on the street, ours had a symbol over the door rather than a house number. After the neighborhood caught fire in the middle of the century, the emperor's grandfather had insisted on having some way to tell houses apart besides the popular sgraffito decorations scratched into the plaster.
Gallowglass grinned. "I knew very well what you were talking about. But I do love seeing you go all shiny like that when your glaem's raised."
I pulled my disguising spell around me with a harrumph, dimming my shininess to more acceptable, human levels.
"Besides," Gallowglass continued. "Among my people it's a great compliment to be likened to a raven. I'll be Muninn, and Matthew we'll call Huginn. Your name will be Gondul, Auntie. You'll make a fine Valkyrie."
"What is he talking about?" I asked Matthew blankly.
"Odin's ravens. And his daughters."
"Oh. Thank you, Gallowglass," I said awkwardly. It couldn't be a bad thing to be likened to a god's daughter.
"Even if this book of Rudolf's is Ashmole 782, we're not sure it contains answers to our questions." Our experience with the Voynich manuscript still worried Matthew.
"Historians never know if a text will provide answers. If it doesn't, though, we'll still have better questions as a result," I replied.
"Point taken." Matthew's lips quirked. "As I can't get in to see the emperor or his library without you, and you won't leave Prague without the book, there is nothing for it. We'll both go to the palace."
"You've been hoist by your own petard, Uncle," Gallowglass said cheerfully. He gave me a broad wink.
When compared to our visit to Richmond, the trip up the street to see the emperor seemed almost like popping next door to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor-though it required a more formal costume. The papal ambassador's mistress was much my size, and her wardrobe had provided me with a suitably luxurious and circumspect garment for the wife of an English dignitary-or a de Clermont, she quickly added. I loved the style of clothing worn by well-heeled women in Prague: simple gowns with high necks, bell-shaped skirts, embroidered coats with hanging sleeves trimmed in fur. The small ruffs they wore served as another welcome barrier between the elements and me.
Matthew had happily abandoned his dreams of red hose in favor of his usual gray and black, accented with a deep green that was the most attractive color I had ever seen him wear. This afternoon it provided flashes of color peeking through the slashes on his bulbous britches and the lining peeking around the open collar of his jacket.
"You look splendid," I said after inspecting him.
"And you look like a proper Bohemian aristocrat," he replied, kissing me on the cheek.
"Can we go now?" Jack said, dancing with impatience. Someone had found him a suit of black-and-silver livery and put a cross and crescent moon on the sleeve.
"So we are going as de Clermonts, not as Roydons," I said slowly.
"No. We are Matthew and Diana Roydon," Matthew replied. "We're just traveling with the de Clermont family servants."
"That should confuse everybody," I commented as we left the house.
"Exactly," Matthew said with a smile.
Had we been going as ordinary citizens, we would have climbed the new palace steps, which clung to the ramparts and provided a safe way for pedestrians. Instead we wended our way up Sporrengasse on horseback as befitted a representative of the queen of England, which gave me a chance to fully take in the houses with their canted foundations, colorful sgraffito, and painted signs. We passed the house of the Red Lion, the Golden Star, the Swan, and the Two Suns. At the top of the hill, we took a sharp right into a neighborhood filled with the mansions of aristocrats and court appointees, called Hradčany.
It was not my first glimpse of the castle, for I'd seen it looming over its surroundings when we came into Prague and could look up to its ramparts from our windows. But this was the closest I'd yet been to it. The castle was even larger and more sprawling at close range than it had appeared at a distance, like an entirely separate city full of trade and industry. Ahead were the Gothic pinnacles of St. Vitus Cathedral, with round towers punctuating the walls. Though built for defense, the towers now housed workshops for the hundreds of artisans who made their home at Rudolf's court.
The palace guard admitted us through the west gate and into an enclosed courtyard. After Pierre and Jack took charge of the horses, our armed escorts headed for a range of buildings tucked against the castle walls. They had been built relatively recently, and the stone was crisp-edged and gleaming. These looked like office buildings, but beyond them I could see high roofs and medieval stonework.
"What's happened now?" I whispered to Matthew. "Why aren't we going to the palace?"
"Because there's nobody there of any importance," said Gallowglass. He held the Voynich manuscript in his arms, safely wrapped in leather and bound with straps to keep the pages from warping in the cold weather.
"Rudolf found the old Royal Palace drafty and dark," Matthew explained, helping me over the slick cobbles. "His new palace faces south and overlooks a private garden. Here he's farther away from the cathedral-and the priests."
The halls of the residence were busy, with people rushing to and fro shouting in German, Czech, Spanish, and Latin depending on which part of Rudolf's empire they came from. The closer we got to the emperor, the more frenetic the activity became. We passed a room filled with people arguing over architectural drawings. Another room housed a lively debate about the merits of an elaborate gold-and-stone bowl fashioned to look like a seashell. Finally the guards left us in a comfortable salon with heavy chairs, a tiled stove that pumped out a significant amount of heat, and two men in deep conversation. They turned toward us.
"Good day, old friend," a kindly man of around sixty said in English. He beamed at Matthew.
"Tadeaš." Matthew gripped his arm warmly. "You are looking well."
"And you are looking young." The man's eyes twinkled. His glance caused no tell-tale reaction on my skin. "And here is the woman everyone is talking about. I am Tadeaš Hajek." The human bowed, and I curtsied in response.
A slender gentleman with an olive complexion and hair nearly as dark as Matthew's strolled over to us. "Master Strada," Matthew said with a bow. He was not as pleased to see this man as he was the first.
"Is she truly a witch?" Strada surveyed me with interest. "If so, my sister Katharina would like to meet her. She is with child, and the pregnancy troubles her."
"Surely Tadeaš-the royal physician-is better suited to seeing after the birth of the emperor's child," Matthew said, "or have matters with your sister changed?"
"The emperor still treasures my sister," Strada said frostily. "For that reason alone, her whims should be indulged."
"Have you seen Joris? He has been talking about nothing but the triptych since His Majesty opened it," Tadeaš asked, changing the subject.
"Not yet, no." Matthew's eyes went to the door. "Is the emperor in?"
"Yes. He is looking at a new painting by Master Spranger. It is very large and . . . ah, detailed."
"Another picture of Venus," Strada said with a sniff.
"This Venus looks rather like your sister, sir." Hajek smiled.
"Ist das Matthaus hore ich?" said a nasal voice from the far end of the room. Everyone turned and swept into deep bows. I curtsied automatically. It was going to be a challenge to follow the conversation. I had expected Rudolf to speak Latin, not German. "Und Sie das Buch und die Hexe gebracht, ich verstehe. Und die norwegische Wolf."
Rudolf was a small man with a disproportionately long chin and a pronounced underbite. The full, fleshy lips of the Hapsburg family exaggerated the prominence of the lower half of his face, although this was somewhat balanced by his pale, protruding eyes and thick, flattened nose. Years of good living and fine drink had given him a portly profile, but his legs remained thin and spindly. He tottered toward us on high-heeled red shoes ornamented with gold stamps.
"I brought my wife, Your Majesty, as you commanded," Matthew said, placing a slight emphasis on the word "wife." Gallowglass translated Matthew's English into flawless German, as if my husband didn't know the language-which I knew he did, after traveling with him from Hamburg to Wittenberg to Prague by sled.
"Y su talento para los juegos tambien," Rudolf said, switching effortlessly into Spanish as though that might convince Matthew to converse with him directly. He studied me slowly, lingering over the curves of my body with a thoroughness that made me long for a shower. "Es una lastima que se caso en absoluto, pero aun mas lamentable que ella esta casada con usted."
"Very regrettable, Majesty," Matthew said sharply, sticking resolutely to English. "But I assure you we are thoroughly wed. My father insisted upon it. So did the lady." This remark only made Rudolf scrutinize me with greater interest.
Gallowglass took mercy on me and thumped the book onto the table. "Das Buch."
That got their attention. Strada unwrapped it while Hajek and Rudolf speculated on just how wonderful this new addition to the imperial library might prove to be. When it was exposed to view, however, the air in the room thickened with disappointment.
"What joke is this?" Rudolf snapped in German.
"I am not sure I take Your Majesty's meaning," Matthew replied. He waited for Gallowglass to translate.
"I mean that I already know this book," Rudolf sputtered.
"That doesn't surprise me, Your Majesty, since you gave it to John Dee-by mistake, I am told." Matthew bowed.
"The emperor does not make mistakes!" Strada said, pushing the book away in disgust.
"We all make mistakes, Signor Strada," Hajek said gently. "I am sure, though, that there is some other explanation as to why this book has been returned to the emperor. Perhaps Dr. Dee uncovered its secrets."
"It is nothing but childish pictures," retorted Strada.
"Is that why this picture book found its way into Dr. Dee's baggage? Did you hope he would be able to understand what you could not?" Matthew's words were having an adverse effect on Strada, who turned purple. "Perhaps you borrowed Dee's book, Signor Strada, the one with alchemical pictures from Roger Bacon's library, in hope that it would help you decipher this one. That is a far more pleasant prospect than imagining you would have tricked poor Dr. Dee out of his treasure. Of course his Majesty could not have known of such an evil business." Matthew's smile was chilling.
"And is this book that you say I have the only treasure of mine you wish to take back to England?" Rudolf asked sharply. "Or does your avarice extend to my laboratories?"
"If you mean Edward Kelley, the queen needs some assurance that he is here of his own free will. Nothing more," Matthew lied. He then took the conversation in a less trying direction. "Do you like your new altarpiece, Your Majesty?"
Matthew had provided the emperor just enough room to regroup-and save face. "The Bosch is exceptional. My uncle will be most aggrieved to learn that I have acquired it." Rudolf looked around. "Alas, this room is not suitable for its display. I wanted to show it to the Spanish ambassador, but here you cannot get far enough from the painting to view it properly. It is a work that you must come upon slowly, allowing the details to emerge naturally. Come. See where I have put it."
Matthew and Gallowglass arranged themselves so that Rudolf couldn't get too close to me as we trooped through the door and into a room that looked like the storeroom for an overstuffed and understaffed museum. Shelves and cabinets held so many shells, books, and fossils that they threatened to topple over. Huge canvases-including the new painting of Venus, which was not simply detailed but openly erotic-were propped up against bronze statues. This must be Rudolf's famed curiosity cabinet, his room of wonders and marvels.
"Your Majesty needs more space-or fewer specimens," Matthew commented, grabbing a piece of porcelain to keep it from smashing to the floor.
"I will always find a place for new treasures." The emperor's gaze settled on me once more. "I am building four new rooms to hold them all. You can see them working." He pointed out the window to two towers and the long building that was beginning to connect them to the emperor's apartments and another new piece of construction opposite. "Until then Ottavio and Tadeaš are cataloging my collection and instructing the architects on what I require. I do not want to move everything into the new Kunstkammer only to outgrow it again."
Rudolf led us through a warren of additional storerooms until we finally arrived at a long gallery with windows on both sides. It was full of light, and after the gloom and dust of the preceding chambers, entering it felt like taking in a lungful of clean air.
The sight in the center of the room brought me up short. Matthew's altarpiece sat open on a long table covered with thick green felt. The emperor was right: You couldn't fully appreciate the colors when you stood close to the work.
"It is beautiful, Dona Diana." Rudolf took advantage of my surprise to grasp my hand. "Notice how what you perceive changes with each step. Only vulgar objects can be seen at once, for they have no mysteries to reveal."
Strada looked at me with open animosity, Hajek with pity. Matthew was not looking at me at all, but at the emperor.
"Speaking of which, Majesty, might I see Dee's book?" Matthew's expression was guileless, but no one in the room was fooled for an instant. The wolf was on the prowl.
"Who knows where it is?" Rudolf had to drop my hand in order to wave vaguely at the rooms we had just left.
"Signor Strada must be neglecting his duties, if such a precious manuscript cannot be found when the emperor requires it," Matthew said softly.
"Ottavio is very busy at present, with matters of importance!" Rudolf glared at Matthew. "And I do not trust Dr. Dee. Your queen should beware his false promises."
"But you trust Kelley. Perhaps he knows its whereabouts?"
At this the emperor looked distinctly uneasy. "I do not want Edward disturbed. He is at a very delicate stage in the alchemical work."
"Prague has many charms, and Diana has been commissioned to purchase some alchemical glassware for the Countess of Pembroke. We will occupy ourselves with that task until Sir Edward is able to receive visitors. Perhaps Signor Strada will be able to find your missing book by then."
"This Countess of Pembroke is the sister of the queen's hero, Sir Philip Sidney?" Rudolf asked, his interest caught. When Matthew opened his mouth to answer, Rudolf stopped him with a raised hand. "It is Dona Diana's business. We will let her answer."
"Yes, Your Majesty," I responded in Spanish. My pronunciation was atrocious. I hoped that would diminish his interest.
"Charming," Rudolf murmured. Damn. "Very well then, Dona Diana must visit my workshops. I enjoy fulfilling a lady's wishes."
It was not clear which lady he meant.
"As for Kelley and the book, we shall see. We shall see." Rudolf turned back to the triptych. "'I will see, be silent, and hear.' Isn't that the proverb?"