The wild boar that I was chewing-a delicious dish flavored with rosemary and black pepper that, according to the emperor, was supposed to heat the blood-turned to dust in my mouth. Instead of its achieving its desired effect, my blood ran cold.
"Is something wrong?" Gallowglass murmured, bending low over my shoulder. He handed me a shawl, which I hadn't asked for and didn't know he was carrying.
"Pistorius has been invited upstairs to see the book," I said, turning my head toward him and speaking in rapid English to reduce the risk of being understood. Gallowglass smelled of sea salt and mint, a bracing and reassuring combination. My nerves steadied.
"Leave it to me," he replied, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "By the way, you're a bit shiny, Auntie. It would be best if no one saw stars tonight."
Having delivered his warning shot across the bow, Pistorius turned the conversation to other topics and engaged Dr. Hajek in a lively debate about the medical benefits of theriac. Rudolf divided his time between sneaking melancholic looks at me and glaring at Matthew. The closer we got to seeing Ashmole 782, the less appetite I had, so I made small talk with the noblewoman next to me. It was only after five more courses-including a parade of gilded peacocks and a tableau of roast pork and suckling pigs- that the banquet finally concluded.
"You look pale," Matthew said, whisking me away from the table.
"Pistorius suspects me." The man reminded me of Peter Knox and Champier, and for similar reasons. "Intellectual thug" was the perfect description for both of them. "Gallowglass said he would take care of it."
"No wonder Pierre followed on his heels, then."
"What is Pierre going to do?"
"Make sure Pistorius gets out of here alive," Matthew said cheerfully. "Left to his own devices, Gallowglass would strangle the man and throw him into the Stag's Moat for the lions' midnight snack. My nephew is almost as protective of you as I am."
Rudolf's invited guests accompanied him to his inner sanctum: the private gallery where Matthew and I viewed the Bosch altarpiece. Ottavio Strada met us there to guide us through the collection and answer our questions.
When we entered the room, Matthew's altarpiece still sat in the center of the green-covered table. Rudolf had scattered other objects around it for our viewing pleasure. While the guests oohed and aahed over Bosch's work, I scanned the room. There were some stunning cups made out of semiprecious stones, an enameled chain of office, a long horn reputedly from a unicorn, some statuary, and a carved Seychelles nut-a nice mix of the expensive, the medicinal, and the exotic. But no alchemical manuscript.
"Where is it?" I hissed to Matthew. Before he could respond, I felt the touch of a warm hand on my arm. Matthew stiffened.
"I have a gift for you, querida diosa." Rudolf's breath smelled of onions and red wine, and my stomach flopped over in protest. I turned, expecting to see Ashmole 782. Instead the emperor was holding up the enameled chain. Before I could protest, he draped it over my head and settled it on my shoulders. I looked down and saw a green ouroboros hanging from a circle of red crosses, thickly encrusted with emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and pearls. The color scheme reminded me of the jewel Herr Maisel gave to Benjamin.
"That is a strange gift to give my wife, Your Majesty," Matthew said softly. He was standing right behind the emperor and looking at the necklace with distaste. This was my third such chain, and I knew there must be a meaning behind the symbolism. I lifted the ouroboros so that I could study the enameling. It wasn't an ouroboros, exactly, because it had feet. It looked more like a lizard or a salamander than a snake. A bloody red cross emerged from the lizard's flayed back. Most important, the tail was not held in the creature's mouth but wrapped around the lizard's throat, strangling it.
"It is a mark of respect, Herr Roydon." Rudolf placed a subtle emphasis on the name. "This once belonged to King Vladislaus and was passed on to my grandmother. The insignia belongs to a brave company of Hungarian knights known as the Order of the Defeated Dragon."
"Dragon?" I said faintly, looking at Matthew. With its stumpy legs, this might well be a dragon. But it was otherwise strikingly similar to the de Clermont family's ouroboros-except this ouroboros was dying a slow, painful death. I remembered Herr Fuchs's oath-Benjamin's oath-to slay dragons wherever he found them.
"The dragon symbolizes our enemies, especially those who might wish to interfere with our royal prerogatives." Rudolf said it in a civilized tone, but it was a virtual declaration of war on the whole de Clermont clan. "It would please me if you would wear it next time you come to court." Rudolf 's finger touched the dragon at my breast lightly and lingered there. "Then you can leave your little French salamanders at home."
Matthew's eyes, which were glued to the dragon and the imperial finger, went black when Rudolf made his insulting remark about French salamanders. I tried to think like Mary Sidney and come up with a response that was appropriate for the period and likely to calm the vampire. I'd deal with my outraged sense of feminism later.
"Whether or not I wear your gift will be up to my husband, Your Majesty," I said coolly, forcing myself not to step away from Rudolf's finger. I heard gasps, a few hushed whispers. But the only reaction I cared about was Matthew's.
"I see no reason you should not wear it for the rest of the evening, mon coeur," Matthew said agreeably. He was no longer concerned that the queen of England's ambassador sounded like a French aristocrat. "Salamanders and dragons are kin, after all. Both will endure the flames to protect those they love. And the emperor is being kind enough to show you his book." Matthew looked around. "Though it seems Signor Strada's incompetency continues, for the book is not here." Another bridge burned behind us.
"Not yet, not yet," Rudolf said testily. "I have something else to present to La Diosa first. Go see my carved nut from the Maldives. It is the only one of its kind." Everybody but Matthew trooped off obediently in the direction of Strada's pointing finger. "You, too, Herr Roydon."
"Of course," Matthew murmured, imitating his mother's tone perfectly. He slowly trailed after the crowd.
"Here is something I requested especially. Father Johannes helped to procure the treasure." Rudolf looked around the room but failed to locate Pistorius. He frowned. "Where has he gone, Signor Strada?"
"I have not seen him since we left the Great Hall, Your Majesty," Strada replied.
"You!" Rudolf pointed to a servant. "Go and find him!" The man left immediately, and at a run. The emperor gathered his composure and returned his attention to the strange object in front of us. It looked like a crude carving of a naked man. "This, La Diosa, is a fabled root from Eppendorf. A century ago a woman stole a consecrated host from the church and planted it by the light of the full moon to increase her garden's fertility. The next morning they discovered an enormous cabbage."
"Growing out of the host?" Surely something was being lost in translation, unless I very much misunderstood the nature of the Christian Eucharist. An arbor Dianæ was one thing. An arbor brassicæ was quite another.
"Yes. It was a miracle. And when the cabbage was dug up, its root resembled the body of Christ." Rudolf held out the item to me. It was crowned with a golden diadem studded with pearls. Presumably that had been added later.
"Fascinating," I said, trying to look and sound interested.
"I wanted you to see it in part because it resembles a picture in the book you requested. Fetch Edward, Ottavio."
Edward Kelley entered, clutching a leather-bound volume to his chest.
As soon as I saw it, I knew. My entire body was tingling while the book was still across the room. Its power was palpable-far more so than it had been at the Bodleian on that September night when my whole life changed.
Here was the missing Ashmole manuscript-before it belonged to Elias Ashmole and before it went missing.
"You will sit here, with me, and we will look at the book together." Rudolf gestured toward a table and two chairs that were set up in an intimate tete-a-tete. "Give me the book, Edward." Rudolf held out his hand, and Kelley reluctantly placed the book in it.
I shot Matthew a questioning look. What if the manuscript started to glow as it had in the Bodleian or behaved strangely in some other way? And what if I weren't able to stop my mind from wondering about the book or its secrets? An eruption of magic at this point would be disastrous.
This is why we're here, said his confident nod.
I sat down next to the emperor, and Strada ushered the courtiers around the room to the unicorn's horn. Matthew drifted still closer. I stared at the book in front of me, hardly daring to believe that the moment had come when I would at last see Ashmole 782 whole and complete.
"Well?" Rudolf demanded. "Are you going to open it?"
"Of course," I said, pulling the book closer. No iridescence escaped from the pages. For purposes of comparison, I rested my hand on the cover for just a moment, as I had when I'd retrieved Ashmole 782 from the stacks. Then it had sighed in recognition, as though it had been waiting for me to show up. This time the book lay still.
I flipped open the hide-bound wooden board of the front cover. A blank sheet of parchment. My mind raced back over what I'd seen months ago. This was the sheet on which Ashmole and my father would one day write the book's title.
I turned the page and felt the same sense of uncanny heaviness. When the page fell open, I gasped.
The first, missing page of Ashmole 782 was a glorious illumination of a tree. The tree's trunk was knotted and gnarled, thick and yet sinuous. Branches sprang from the top, twisting and turning their way across the page and ending in a defiant combination of leaves, bright red fruit, and flowers. It was like the arbor Dianæ that Mary had made using blood drawn from Matthew and me.
When I bent closer, my breath caught in my throat. The tree's trunk was not made of wood, sap, and bark. It was made of hundreds of bodies- some writhing and thrashing in pain, some serenely entwined, others alone and frightened.
At the bottom of the page, written in a late-thirteenth-century hand, was the title Roger Bacon had given it: The True Secret of Secrets.
Matthew's nostrils flared, as though he were trying to identify a scent. The book did have a strange odor-the same musty smell that I had noticed at Oxford.
I turned the page. Here was the image sent to my parents, the one the Bishop house had saved for so many years: the phoenix enfolding the chemical wedding in her wings, while mythical and alchemical beasts witnessed the union of Sol and Luna.
Matthew looked shocked, and he was staring at the book. I frowned. He was still too far away to see it clearly. What had surprised him?
Quickly, I flipped over the image of the alchemical wedding. The third missing page turned out to be two alchemical dragons, their tails intertwined and their bodies locked in either a battle or an embrace-it was impossible to tell which. A rain of blood fell from their wounds, pooling in a basin from which sprang dozens of naked, pale figures. I'd never seen an alchemical image like it.
Matthew stood over the emperor's shoulder, and I expected his shock to turn to excitement at seeing these new images and getting closer to solving the book's mysteries. But he looked as if he'd seen a ghost. A white hand covered his mouth and nose. When I frowned with concern, Matthew nodded to me, a sign that I should keep going.
I took a deep breath and turned to what should be the first of the strange alchemical images I'd seen in Oxford. Here, as expected, was the baby girl with the two roses. What was unexpected was that every inch of space around her was covered in text. It was an odd mix of symbols and a few scattered letters. In the Bodleian this text had been hidden by a spell that transformed the book into a magical palimpsest. Now, with the book intact, the secret text was on full view. Though I could see it, I still couldn't read it. What did it say?
My fingers traced the lines of text. My touch unmade the words, transforming them into a face, a silhouette, a name. It was as though the text were trying to tell a story involving thousands of creatures.
"I would have given you anything you asked for," Rudolf said, his breath hot against my cheek. Once again I smelled onions and wine. It was so unlike Matthew's clean, spicy scent. And Rudolf's warmth was off-putting now that I was used to a vampire's cool temperature. "Why did you choose this? It cannot be understood, though Edward believes it contains a great secret."
A long arm reached between us and gently touched the page. "Why, this is as meaningless as the manuscript you foisted off on poor Dr. Dee." Matthew's face belied his words. Rudolf might not have seen the muscle ticking in Matthew's jaw or known how the fine lines around his eyes deepened when he concentrated.
"Not necessarily," I said hastily. "Alchemical texts require study and contemplation if you wish to understand them fully. Perhaps if I spent more time with it . . ."
"Even then one must have God's special blessing," Rudolf said, scowling at Matthew. "Edward is touched by God in ways you are not, Herr Roydon."
"Oh, he's touched all right," Matthew said, looking over at Kelley. The English alchemist was acting strange now that the book was not in his possession. There were threads connecting him and the book. But why was Kelley bound to Ashmole 782?
As the question went through my mind, the fine yellow and white threads tying Kelley to Ashmole 782 took on a new appearance. Instead of the normal tight twist of two colors or a weave of horizontal and vertical threads, these spooled loosely around an invisible center, like the curling ribbons on a birthday present. Short, horizontal threads kept the curls from touching. It looked like-
A double helix. My hand rose to my mouth, and I stared down at the manuscript. Now that I'd touched the book, its musty smell was on my fingers. It was strong, gamy, like-
Flesh and blood. I looked to Matthew, knowing that the expression on my face mirrored the shocked look I had seen on his.
"You don't look well, mon coeur," he said solicitously, helping me to my feet. "Let me take you home." Edward Kelley chose this moment to lose control.
"I hear their voices. They speak in languages I cannot understand. Can you hear them?"
He moaned in distress, his hands clapped over his ears.
"What are you chattering about?" Rudolf said. "Dr. Hajek, something is wrong with Edward."
"You will find your name in it, too," Edward told me, his voice getting louder, as if he were trying to drown out some other sound. "I knew it the moment I saw you."
I looked down. Curling threads bound me to the book, too-only mine were white and lavender. Matthew was bound to it by curling strands of red and white.
Gallowglass appeared, unannounced and uninvited. A burly guard followed him, clutching at his own limp arm.
"The horses are ready," Gallowglass informed us, gesturing toward the exit.
"You do not have permission to be here!" Rudolf shouted, his fury mounting as his careful arrangements disintegrated. "And you, La Diosa, do not have permission to leave."
Matthew paid absolutely no attention to Rudolf. He simply took my arm and strode in the direction of the door. I could feel the manuscript pulling on me, the threads stretching to bring me back to its side.
"We can't leave the book. It's-"
"I know what it is," Matthew said grimly.
"Stop them!" Rudolf screamed.
But the guard with the broken arm had already tangled with one angry vampire tonight. He wasn't going to tempt fate by interfering with Matthew. Instead his eyes rolled up into his head and he dropped to the floor in a faint.
Gallowglass threw my cloak over my shoulders as we pelted down the stairs. Two more guards-both unconscious-lay at the bottom.
"Go back and get the book!" I said to Gallowglass, breathless from my constrictive corset and the speed at which we were moving across the courtyard. "We can't let Rudolf have it now that we know what it is."
Matthew stopped, his fingers digging into my arm. "We won't leave Prague without the manuscript. I'll go back and get it, I promise. But first we are going home. You must have the children ready to leave the moment I get back."
"We've burned our bridges, Auntie," Gallowglass said grimly. "Pistorius is locked up in the White Tower. I killed one guard and injured three more. Rudolf touched you most improperly, and I have a strong desire to see him dead, too."
"You don't understand, Gallowglass. That book may be the answer to everything," I managed to squeak out before Matthew had me in motion again.
"Oh, I understand more than you think I do." Gallowglass's voice floated in the breeze next to me. "I picked up the scent of it downstairs when I knocked out the guards. There are dead wearhs in that book. Witches and daemons, too, I warrant. Whoever could have imagined that the lost Book of Life would stink to high heaven of death?"