That night marked the true beginning of our marriage. Matthew was more centered than I had ever seen him. Gone were the sharp retorts, abrupt changes of direction, and impulsive decisions that had characterized our time together thus far. Instead Matthew was methodical, measured- but no less deadly. He fed more regularly, hunting in the city and the villages nearby. As his muscles gained in weight and strength, I came to see what Philippe had already observed: Unlikely though it might seem given his size, his son had been wasting away from lack of proper nourishment.

I was left with a silvery moon on my breast marking the place where he

drank. It was unlike any other scar on my body, lacking the tough buildup of protective tissue that formed over most wounds. Matthew told me that this was due to a property in his saliva, which sealed the bite without letting it heal completely.

The vampire's ritual taking of a mate's blood from a vein near the heart and my new ritual of the witch's kiss that gave me access to his thoughts provided us with a deeper intimacy. We didn't make love every time he joined me in bed, but when we did, it was always preceded and followed by those two searing moments of absolute honesty that removed not only Matthew's greatest worry but mine: that our secrets would somehow destroy us. And even when we didn't make love, we talked in the open, easy way that lovers dream of doing.

The next morning, Matthew told Gallowglass and Pierre about Benjamin. Gallowglass's fury was shorter-lived than Pierre's fear, which rose to the surface whenever someone knocked on the door or approached me in the market. The vampires searched for him day and night, with Matthew planning the expeditions.

But Benjamin could not be found. He had simply vanished. Easter came and went, and our plans for Rudolf's spring festival the following Saturday reached their final stages. Master Hoefnagel and I transformed the palace's Great Hall into a blooming garden with pots of tulips. I was in awe of the place, with its graceful curved vaults supporting the arched roof like the branches of a willow tree.

"We'll move the emperor's orange trees here as well," Hoefnagel said, his eyes gleaming with possibilities. "And the peacocks."

On the day of the performance, servants dragged every spare candelabrum in the palace and cathedral into the echoing expanse of stone to provide the illusion of a starry night sky and spread fresh rushes on the floor. For the stage we used the base of the stairs leading up to the royal chapel. It was Master Hoefnagel's idea, since then I could appear at the top of the staircase, like the moon, while Matthew charted my changing position with one of Master Habermel's astrolabes.

"You don't think we're being too philosophical?" I wondered aloud, worrying at my lip with my fingers.

"This is the court of Rudolf II," Hoefnagel said drily. "There is so such thing as too philosophical."

On the night of the celebration, the court filed in for the banquet and gasped in amazement at the scene we'd set.

"They like it," I whispered to Matthew from behind the curtain that concealed us from the crowd. Our grand entrance was scheduled for the dessert course, and we were holed up in the Knights' Staircase off the hall until then. Matthew had been keeping me occupied with tales of olden times, when he had ridden his horse up the wide stone stairs for a joust. When I'd questioned the room's suitability for this particular purpose, he quirked an eyebrow at me.

"Why do you think we made the room so big and the ceiling so high? Prague winters can be damn long, and bored young men with weapons are dangerous. Far better to have them run at each other at high speed than start wars with neighboring kingdoms."

With the free pouring of wine and the liberal serving of food, the din in the room was soon deafening. When the desserts went by, Matthew and I slipped into our places. Master Hoefnagel had painted some lovely pastoral scenery for Matthew and grudgingly allotted him one of the orange trees to sit beneath on his felt-covered stool meant to look like a rock. I would wait for my cue and then come out of the chapel and stand behind an old wooden door turned on its side and painted to resemble a chariot.

"Don't you dare make me laugh," I warned Matthew when he kissed me on the cheek for luck.

"I do love a challenge," he whispered back.

As strains of music filled through the room, the courtiers gradually hushed. When the room was fully quiet, Matthew lifted his astrolabe to the heavens and the masque began.

I had decided that our best approach to the production involved minimal dialogue and maximum dancing. For one thing, who wanted to sit around after a big dinner and listen to speeches? I'd been to enough academic events to know that wasn't a good idea. Signor Pasetti was delighted to teach some of the court ladies a "dance of the wandering stars," which would provide Matthew something heavenly to observe while he waited for his beloved moon to appear. With famous court beauties given a role in the entertainment and wearing fabulously spangled and jeweled costumes, the masque quickly took on the tone of a school play, complete with admiring parents. Matthew made agonized faces as though he weren't sure he could endure the spectacle for one more moment.

When the dance ended, the musicians cued my entrance with a crash of drums and blare of trumpets. Master Hoefnagel had rigged up a curtain over the chapel doors, so that all I had to do was push my way through them with a goddess's eclat (and without spearing my moon headdress on the fabric as I had done in rehearsal) and stare wistfully down at Matthew. He, goddess willing, would stare raptly at me without crossing his eyes or looking suggestively at my breasts.

I took a moment to get in character, drew in a deep breath, and pushed confidently through the curtains, trying to glide and float like the moon.

The court gasped in wonder.

Pleased that I had made such a convincing entrance, I looked down at Matthew. His eyes were round as saucers.

Oh, no. I felt with my toe for the floor, but as I suspected, I was already a few inches above it-and rising. I reached out a hand to anchor myself to the edge of my chariot and saw that a distinctively pearly gleam was emanating from my skin. Matthew jerked his head up in the direction of my little silver crescent moon. I'd worn my hair loose, the waves rippling down my back and the front caught up with a tiara-like band of wire that held the moon. Without a mirror I had no idea what it was doing, but I feared the worst.

"La Diosa!" Rudolf said, standing up and applauding. "Wonderful! A wonderful effect!"

Uncertainly, the court joined in. A few of them crossed themselves first. Holding the room's complete attention, I clasped my hands to my bosom and batted my eyes at Matthew, who returned my admiring looks with a grim smile. I concentrated on lowering myself to the floor so that I could make my way to Rudolf's throne. As Zeus, he occupied the most splendid carved piece of furniture we could find in the palace attics. It was unbelievably ugly, but it suited the occasion.

Happily, I was not glowing so much anymore as I approached the emperor, and the audience had stopped looking at my head as if it were a Roman candle. I sank into a curtsy.

"Greetings, La Diosa," Rudolf boomed in what was meant to be a godlike tone but was only a classic example of overacting.

"I am in love with the beautiful Endymion," I said, rising and gesturing back to the staircase, where Matthew had sunk into a downy nest of feather beds and was feigning sleep. I had written the lines myself. (Matthew suggested I say, "If you do not agree to leave me in peace, Endymion will tear your throat out." I vetoed that, along with the Keats.) "He looks so peaceful. And though I am a goddess and will never age, fair Endymion will soon grow old and die. I beg of you, make him immortal so that he can stay with me always."

"On one condition!" Rudolf shouted, abandoning all pretense of godlike sonorousness in favor of simple volume. "He must sleep for the rest of time, never waking. Only then will he remain young."

"Thank you, mighty Zeus," I said, trying not to sound too much like a member of a British comedy troupe. "Now I can gaze upon my beloved forevermore."

Rudolf scowled. It was a good thing he hadn't been granted script approval.

I withdrew to my chariot and walked slowly backward through the curtains while the court ladies performed their final dance. When it was over, Rudolf led the court in a round of loud stomping and clapping that almost brought the roof down. What it did not do was rouse Endymion.

"Get up!" I hissed as I went past to thank the emperor for providing us an opportunity to entertain his royal self. All I got in response was a theatrical snore.

And so I curtsied alone in front of Rudolf and made speeches in praise of Master Habermel's astrolabe, Master Hoefnagel's sets and special effects, and the quality of the music.

"I was greatly entertained, La Diosa-much more than I expected to be. You may ask Zeus for a reward," Rudolf said, his eyes drifting over my shoulder and down to the swell of my breasts. "Whatever you wish. Name it and it shall be yours."

The room's idle chatter stopped. In the silence I heard Abraham's words: The book will come to you, if only you ask for it. Could it really be that simple?

Endymion stirred in his downy bed. Not wanting him to interfere, I flapped my hands behind my back to encourage him to return to his dreams. The court held its breath, waiting for me to name a prestigious title, a piece of land, a fortune in gold.

"I would like to see Roger Bacon's alchemical book, Your Majesty."

"You have balls of iron, Auntie," Gallowglass said in a tone of hushed admiration on the way home. "Not to mention a way with words." "Why, thank you," I said, pleased. "By the way, what was my head doing during the masque? People were staring at it."

"Wee stars rose out of the moon and then faded away. I wouldn't worry. It looked so real that everybody will assume it was an illusion. Most of Rudolf's aristocrats are human, after all."

Matthew's response was more guarded. "Don't be too pleased yet, mon coeur. Rudolf may have had no other choice than to agree, given the situation, but he hasn't produced the manuscript. This is a very complicated dance you're doing. And you can be sure the emperor will want something from you in return for a glimpse of his book."

"Then we will have to be long gone before he can insist upon it," I said.

But it turned out that Matthew was right to be cautious. I had imagined that he and I would be invited to view the treasure the next day, in private. Yet no such invitation arrived. Days passed before we received a formal summons to dine at the palace with some up-and-coming Catholic theologians. Afterward, the note promised, a select group would be invited back to Rudolf's rooms to see items of particular mystical and religious import from the emperor's collections. Among the visitors was one Johannes Pistorius, who had grown up Lutheran, converted to Calvinism, and was about to become a Catholic priest.

"We're being set up," Matthew said, fingers running back and forth through his hair. "Pistorius is a dangerous man, a ruthless adversary, and a witch. He will be back here in ten years to serve as Rudolf's confessor."

"Is it true he's being groomed for the Congregation?" Gallowglass asked quietly.

"Yes. He's just the kind of intellectual thug that the witches want representing them. No offense meant, Diana. It is a difficult time for witches," he conceded.

"None taken," I said mildly. "But he's not a member of the Congregation yet. You are. What are the chances he'll want to cause trouble with you watching him, if he has those aspirations?"

"Excellent-or Rudolf wouldn't have asked him to dine with us. The emperor is drawing his battle lines and rallying his troops."

"What, exactly, is he planning to fight over?"

"The manuscript-and you. He won't give up either."

"I told you before that I wasn't for sale. I'm not war booty either."

"No, but you're unclaimed territory so far as Rudolf's concerned. Rudolf is an Austrian archduke, king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, margrave of Moravia, and Holy Roman Emperor. He is also Philip of Spain's nephew. The Hapsburgs are an acquisitive and competitive family and will stop at nothing to get what they want."

"Matthew's not coddling you, Auntie," Gallowglass said somberly when I started to protest. "If you were my wife, you'd have been out of Prague the day the first gift arrived."

Because of the delicacy of the situation, Pierre and Gallowglass accompanied us to the palace. Three vampires and a witch caused the expected ripples of interest as we went toward the Great Hall, which, once upon a time, Matthew had helped to design.

Rudolf seated me near him, and Gallowglass took up a position behind my chair like a well-mannered servant. Matthew was placed at the opposite end of the banqueting table with an attentive Pierre. To a casual observer, Matthew was having a grand time among a raucous group of ladies and young men who were eager to find a role model with more dash than the emperor. Gales of laughter occasionally drifted in our direction from Matthew's rival court, which did nothing to brighten His Majesty's dour mood.

"But why does there have to be so much bloodshed, Father Johannes?" Rudolf complained to the fleshy, middle-aged physician sitting to his left. Pistorius's ordination was still several months away, but, with the zeal typical of the convert, he made no objection to his premature elevation to the priesthood.

"Because heresy and unorthodoxies must be rooted out completely, Your Majesty. Otherwise they find fresh soil in which to grow." Pistorius's heavy-lidded eyes fell on me, his glance probing. My witch's third eye opened, indignant at his rude attempts to capture my attention, which was strikingly similar to Champier's method for ferreting out my secrets. I was beginning to dislike university-educated wizards. I put down my knife and returned his stare. He was the first to break it.

"My father believed that tolerance was a wiser policy," Rudolf replied. "And you have studied the Jewish wisdom of the kabbalah. There are men of God who would call that heresy."

Matthew's keen hearing allowed him to zero in on my conversation as intensely as Ĺ arka had pursued her grouse. He frowned.

"My husband tells me you are a physician, Herr Pistorius." It was not a smooth conversational segue, but it did the job.

"I am, Frau Roydon. Or I was, before I turned my attention from the preservation of bodies to the salvation of souls."

"Father Johannes's reputation is based on his cures for the plague," Rudolf said.

"I was merely a vehicle for God's will. He is the only true healer," Pistorius said modestly. "Out of love for us, He created many natural remedies that can effect miraculous results in our imperfect bodies."

"Ah, yes. I remember your advocacy of bezoars as panaceas against illness. I sent La Diosa one of my stones when she was lately ill." Rudolf smiled at him approvingly.

Pistorius studied me. "Your cure evidently worked, Your Majesty."

"Yes. La Diosa is fully recovered. She looks very well," Rudolf said, his lower lip jutting out even further as he examined me. I wore a simple black gown embroidered in white covered with a black velvet robe. A gauzy ruff winged away from my face, and the red ruby of Matthew's salamander necklace was arranged to hang in the notch of my throat, providing the only splash of color in my otherwise somber outfit. Rudolf's attention fixed on the beautiful piece of jewelry. He frowned and motioned to a servant.

"It's hard to say whether the bezoar stone or Emperor Maximilian's electuary was the more beneficial," I said, looking to Dr. Hajek for assistance while Rudolf held his whispered conversation. He was tucking into the third game course, and after a startled cough to free the bit of venison he had just swallowed, Hajek rose to the occasion.

"I believe it was the electuary, Dr. Pistorius," Hajek admitted. "I prepared it in a cup made from the unicorn's horn. Emperor Rudolf believed this would increase its efficacy."

"La Diosa took the electuary from a horn spoon, too," Rudolf said, his eyes lingering on my lips now, "for additional surety."

"Will this cup and spoon be among the specimens we see tonight in your cabinet of wonders, Your Majesty?" Pistorius asked. The air between me and the other witch came to sudden, crackling life. Threads surrounding the physician-priest exploded in violent red and orange hues, warning me of the danger. Then he smiled. I do not trust you, witch, he whispered into my mind. Nor does your would-be lover, Emperor Rudolf.

Tags: Deborah Harkness All Souls Trilogy Fantasy