“Are you still a knight, or have you become a coward in your old age?”
Baldwin turned purple—and not from lack of oxygen.
“Careful, Marcus,” Matthew warned. “I will have to let him go eventually.”
“Knight.” Baldwin looked at Marcus with loathing.
“Then start behaving like one and treat my father with the respect he’s earned.” Marcus looked around the church. “Matthew and Diana want to establish a scion, and the Knights of Lazarus will support them when they do. Anybody who disagrees is welcome to formally challenge my leadership.
Otherwise the matter is not up for discussion.”
The church was absolutely silent.
Matthew’s lips lifted into a smile. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Marcus said. “We’ve still got the Congregation to contend with.”
“An unpleasant task, to be sure, but not an unmanageable one,” Russell said drily. “Let Baldwin go, Matthew. Your brother has never been very fast, and Oliver is at your left elbow. He’s been longing to teach Baldwin a lesson ever since your brother broke his daughter’s heart.”
Several of the guests chuckled and the winds of opinion began to blow in our favor.
Slowly Matthew did as Russell suggested. He made no attempt to get away from his brother or to shield me. Baldwin remained on his knees for a few moments, then climbed to his feet. As soon as he did, Matthew knelt before him.
“I place my trust in you, sieur, ” Matthew said, bowing his head. “I ask for your trust in return.
Neither I nor mine will dishonor the de Clermont family.”
“You know I cannot, Matthew,” Baldwin said. “A vampire with blood rage is never in control, not absolutely.” His eyes flickered to Jack, but it was Benjamin he was thinking of—and Matthew.
“And if a vampire could be?” I demanded.
“Diana, this is no time for wishful thinking. I know that you and Matthew have been hoping for a cure, but—”
“If I gave you my word, as Philippe’s blood-sworn daughter, that any of Matthew’s kin with blood rage can be brought under control, would you recognize him as the head of his family?” I was inches away from Baldwin, and my power was humming. My suspicion that my disguising spell had burned away was borne out by the curious looks I received.
“You can’t promise that,” Baldwin said.
“Diana, don’t—” Matthew began, but I cut him off with a look.
“I can and I do. We don’t have to wait for science to come up with a solution when a magical one already exists. If any member of Matthew’s family acts on their blood rage, I will spellbind them,” I said. “Agreed?”
Matthew stared at me in shock. And with good reason. This time last year I was still clinging to the belief that science was superior to magic.
“No,” Baldwin said with a shake of his head. “Your word is not good enough. You would have to prove it. Then we would all have to wait and see if your magic is as good as you think it is, witch.”
“Very well,” I said promptly. “Our probation starts now.”
Baldwin’s eyes narrowed. Matthew looked up at his brother.
“Queen checks king,” Matthew said softly.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, brother.” Baldwin hoisted Matthew to his feet. “Our game is far from over.”
“It was left in Père Antoine’s office,” Fernando said. “No one saw who brought it.”
Matthew looked down at the preserved stillborn fetus. A girl.
“He’s even more insane than I thought.” Baldwin looked pale, and not just because of what had happened in the church.
Matthew read the note again.
“Congratulations on your children’s birth,” it said. “I wanted you to have my daughter, since I will soon possess yours.” The note was signed simply “Your son.”
“Someone is reporting your every move to Benjamin,” Baldwin said.
“The question is who.” Fernando put his hand on Matthew’s arm. “We won’t let him take Rebecca—or Diana.”
The prospect was so chilling that Matthew could only nod.
In spite of Fernando’s assurances, Matthew would not know another moment’s peace until Benjamin Fuchs was dead.
After the drama of the christening, the rest of the winter holiday was a quiet family affair. Our guests departed, except for the extended Wilson family, who remained at Sept-Tours to enjoy what Agatha Wilson described as “very merry mayhem.” Chris and Miriam returned to Yale, still committed to reaching a better understanding of blood rage and its possible treatment. Baldwin took off for Venice at the earliest opportunity to try to manage the Congregation’s response to any news trickling in from France.
Matthew flung himself into Christmas preparations, determined to banish any lingering sourness after the christening. He went off into the woods on the other side of the moat and came back with a tall fir tree for the great hall, which he draped with tiny white lights that shone like fireflies.
Remembering Philippe and his decorations for Yule, we cut moons and stars out of silver and gold paper. With the combination of a flying spell and a binding charm, I swirled them into the air and let them settle onto the branches, where they winked and sparkled in the firelight.
Matthew went to Saint-Lucien for mass on Christmas Eve. He and Jack were the only vampires in attendance, which pleased Père Antoine. After the christening he was understandably reluctant to have too many creatures in his pews.
The children were fed and sleeping soundly when Matthew returned, stomping the snow from his shoes. I was sitting by the fire in the great hall with a bottle of Matthew’s favorite wine and two glasses.
Marcus had assured me that a single glass every now and again wouldn’t affect the babies, provided I waited a couple of hours before I nursed.
“Peace, perfect peace,” Matthew said, cocking his head for signs that the babies were stirring.
“Silent night, holy night,” I agreed with a grin, leaning over to switch off the baby monitor. Like blood-pressure cuffs and power tools, such equipment was optional in a vampire household.
While I fiddled with the controls, Matthew tackled me. Weeks of separation and standing up to Baldwin had brought out his playful side.
“Your nose is freezing,” I said, giggling as he drew its tip along the warm skin of my neck. I gasped. “Your hands, too.”
“Why do you think I took a warmblood for a wife?” Matthew’s icy fingers rummaged around underneath my sweater.
“Wouldn’t a hot-water bottle have been less trouble?” I teased. His fingers found what they sought, and I arched into his touch.
“Perhaps.” Matthew kissed me. “But not nearly so much fun.”
The wine forgotten, we marked the hours until midnight in heartbeats rather than minutes. When the bells of the nearby churches in Dournazac and Châlus rang to celebrate the birth of a child in long-ago and far-away Bethlehem, Matthew paused to listen to the solemn yet still-exuberant sound.
“What are you thinking?” I asked as the bells died away.
“I was remembering how the village celebrated Saturnalia when I was a child. There were not many Christians, apart from my parents and a few other families. On the last day of the festival—the twenty-third of December—Philippe went to every house, pagan and Christian, and asked the children what they wished for the New Year.” Matthew’s smile was wistful. “When we woke up the next morning, we discovered that our wishes had been granted.”
“That sounds like your father,” I observed. “What did you wish for?”
“More food, usually,” Matthew said with a laugh. “My mother said the only way to account for the amount I ate was hollow legs. Once I asked for a sword. Every boy in the village idolized Hugh and Baldwin. We all wanted to be like them. As I recall, the sword I received was made of wood and broke the first time I swung it.”
“And now?” I whispered, kissing his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth.
“Now I want nothing more than to grow old with you,” Matthew said.
The family came to us on Christmas Day, saving us from having to bundle up Rebecca and Philip yet again. From the changes to their routine, the twins were aware that this was no ordinary day. They demanded to be part of things, and I finally took them to the kitchen with me to keep them quiet. There I constructed a magical mobile out of flying fruit to occupy them while I helped Marthe put the finishing touches on a meal that would make both vampires and warmbloods happy.
Matthew was a nuisance, too, picking at the dish of nuts I’d whipped up from Em’s recipe. At this point if any of them lasted till dinner, it was going to be a Christmas miracle.
“Just one more,” he wheedled, sliding his hands around my waist.
“You’ve eaten half a pound of them already. Leave some for Marcus and Jack.” I wasn’t sure if vampires got sugar highs, but I wasn’t eager to find out. “Still liking your Christmas present?”
I’d been trying to figure out what to get the man who had everything ever since the children were born, but when Matthew told me his wish was to grow old with me, I knew exactly what to do for his present.
“I love it.” He touched his temples, where a few silver strands showed in the black.
“You always said I was going to give you gray hairs.” I grinned.
“And I thought it was impossible. That was before I learned that impossible n’est pas Diana, ” he said, paraphrasing Ysabeau. Matthew grabbed a handful of nuts and went to the babies before I could react. “Hello, beauty.”
Rebecca cooed in response. She and Philip shared a complex vocabulary of coos, grunts, and other soft sounds that Matthew and I were trying to master.
“That’s definitely one of her happy noises,” I said, putting a pan of cookies in the oven. Rebecca adored her father, especially when he sang. Philip was less sure that singing was a good idea.
“And are you happy, too, little man?” Matthew picked Philip up from his bouncy seat, narrowly missing the flying banana I’d tossed into the mobile at the last minute. It was like a bright yellow comet, streaking through the other orbiting fruit. “What a lucky boy you are to have a mother who will make magic for you.”
Philip, like most babies his age, was all eyes as he watched the orange and the lime circle the grapefruit I’d suspended in midair.
“He won’t always think that having a witch for a mommy is so wonderful.” I went to the fridge and searched for the vegetables I needed for the gratin. When I closed the door, I discovered Matthew waiting for me behind it. I jumped in surprise.
“You have to start making a noise or giving me some other clue to warn me that you’re moving,” I complained, pressing my hand against my hammering heart.
Matthew’s compressed lips told me that he was annoyed.
“Do you see that woman, Philip?” He pointed to me, and Philip directed his wiggling head my way.
“She is a brilliant scholar and a powerful witch, though she doesn’t like to admit it. And you have the great good fortune to call her Maman. That means you are one of the few creatures who will ever learn this family’s most cherished secret.” Matthew drew Philip close to him and murmured something in his ear.
When Matthew finished and drew away, Philip looked up at his father—and smiled. This was the first time either of the babies had done so, but I had seen this particular expression of happiness before.
It was slow and genuine and lit his entire face from within.
Philip might have my hair, but he had Matthew’s smile.
“Exactly right.” Matthew nodded at his son with approval and returned Philip to his bouncy chair.
Rebecca looked at Matthew with a frown, slightly irritated at having been left out of the boys’
discussion. Matthew obligingly whispered in her ear as well, then blew a raspberry on her belly.
Rebecca’s eyes and mouth were round, as though her father’s words had impressed her—though I suspected that the raspberry might have something to do with it, too.
“What nonsense have you told them?” I asked, attacking a potato with a peeler. Matthew removed the two from my fingers.
“It wasn’t nonsense,” he said calmly. Three seconds later the potato was entirely without skin. He took another from the bowl.
“Come closer,” he said, beckoning to me with the peeler. I took a few steps in his direction. He beckoned again. “Closer.”
When I was standing right next to him, Matthew bent his face toward mine.
“The secret is that I may be the head of the Bishop-Clairmont family, but you are its heart,” he whispered. “And the three of us are in perfect agreement: The heart is more important.”
Matthew had already passed over the box containing letters between Philippe and Godfrey several times.
It was only out of desperation that he riffled through the pages.
“My most reverend sire and father,” Godfrey’s letter began.
“The most dangerous among The Sixteen have been executed in Paris, as you
ordered. As Matthew was unavailable for the job, Mayenne was happy to oblige, and thanks you for your assistance with the matter of the Gonzaga family. Now that he feels secure, the duke has decided to play both sides, negotiating with Henri of Navarre and Philip of Spain at the same time. But cleverness is not wisdom, as you are wont to say.”
So far the letter contained nothing more than references to Philippe’s political machinations.