“I was born in November, not June,” Matthew muttered, his frown deepening. “On All Souls Day.
And why did we have to invite so many people?”
“You can grumble and nitpick all you want. It won’t change the fact that tomorrow is the anniversary of the day you were reborn a vampire and your family wanted to celebrate it with you.” I examined one of the floral arrangements. Matthew had picked the odd selection of plants, which included willow branches and honeysuckle, as well as the wide selection of music from different eras that the band was expected to play during the dancing. “If you don’t want so many guests, you should think twice before you make any more children.”
“But I like making children with you.” Matthew’s hand slid around my hip until it came to rest on my abdomen.
“Then you can expect an annual repeat of this event,” I said, giving him a kiss. “And more tables with each passing year.”
“Speaking of children,” Matthew said, cocking his head and listening to some sound inaudible to a warmblood, “your daughter is hungry.”
“Your daughter is always hungry,” I said, putting a gentle palm to his cheek.
Matthew’s former bedroom had been converted to a nursery and was now the twins’ special kingdom—complete with a zoo full of stuffed animals, enough equipment to outfit a baby army, and two tyrants to rule over it.
Philip turned his head to the door when we entered, his look triumphant as he stood and gripped the side of his cradle. He had been peering down into his sister’s bed. Rebecca had hauled herself to a seated position and was staring at Philip with interest, as if trying to figure out how he’d managed to grow so quickly.
“Good God. He’s standing.” Matthew sounded stunned. “But he’s not even seven months old.”
I glanced at the baby’s strong arms and legs and wondered why his father was surprised.
“What have you been up to?” I said, pulling Philip from the cradle and giving him a hug.
A stream of unintelligible sounds came from the baby’s mouth, and the letters under my skin surfaced to lend Philip assistance as he answered my question.
“Really? You’ve had a very lively day, then,” I said, handing him to Matthew.
“I believe you are going to be as much of a handful as your namesake,” Matthew said fondly, his finger caught in Philip’s fierce grip.
We got the children changed and fed, talking more about what I’d discovered in Robert Boyle’s papers that day and what new insights the presentations at the Royal Society had afforded Matthew into the problems of understanding the creature genomes.
“Give me a minute. I need to check my e-mail.” I received more of it than ever now that Baldwin had appointed me the official de Clermont representative so that he could devote more time to making money and bullying his family.
“Hasn’t the Congregation bothered you enough this week?” Matthew asked, his grouchiness returning. I’d spent too many evenings working on policy statements about equality and openness and trying to untangle convoluted daemon logic.
“There is no end in sight, I’m afraid,” I said, taking Philip with me into the Chinese Room, which was now my home office. I switched on my computer and held him on my knee while I scrolled through the messages.
“There’s a picture from Sarah and Agatha,” I called out. The two women were on a beach somewhere in Australia. “Come and see.”
“They look happy,” Matthew said, looking over my shoulder with Rebecca in his arms. Rebecca made sounds of delight at the sight of her grandmother.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a year since Em’s death,” I said. “It’s good to see Sarah smiling again.”
“Any news from Gallowglass?” Matthew asked. Gallowglass had left for parts unknown and hadn’t responded to our invitation to Matthew’s party.
“Not so far,” I said. “Maybe Fernando knows where he is.” I would ask him tomorrow.
“And what does Baldwin allow?” Matthew said, looking at the list of senders and seeing his brother’s name.
“He arrives tomorrow.” I was pleased that Baldwin was going to be there to wish Matthew well on his birthday. It lent additional weight to the occasion and would quiet any false rumors that Baldwin didn’t fully support his brother or the new Bishop-Clairmont scion. “Verin and Ernst will be with him.
And I should warn you: Freyja is coming, too.”
I hadn’t yet met Matthew’s middle sister. I was, however, looking forward to it after Janet Gowdie regaled me with tales of her past exploits.
“Christ, not Freyja, too.” Matthew groaned. “I need a drink. Do you want anything?”
“I’ll have some wine,” I said absently, continuing to scroll down through the list of messages from Baldwin, Rima Jaén in Venice, other members of the Congregation, and my department chair at Yale. I was busier than I’d ever been. Happier, too.
When I joined Matthew in his study, he was not fixing our drinks. Instead he was standing in front of the fireplace, Philip balanced on his hip, staring up at the wall above the mantel with a curious expression on his face. Following his stare, I could see why.
The portrait of Ysabeau and Philippe that usually hung there was gone. A small tag was pinned to the wall. SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS’S PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN MARRIED COUPLE TEMPORARILY REMOVED FOR THE EXHIBITION SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS AND HIS WORLD AT THE ROYAL GREENWICH PICTURE GALLERY.
“Phoebe Taylor strikes again,” I murmured. She was not yet a vampire but was already well known in vampire circles for her ability to identify the art in their possession that would provide considerable tax relief should they be willing to give the works to the nation. Baldwin adored her.
But the sudden disappearance of his parents was not the real reason Matthew was transfixed.
In place of the Reynolds was another canvas: a portrait of Matthew and me. It was clearly Jack’s work, with his trademark combination of seventeenth-century attention to detail and modern sensitivity to color and line. This was confirmed by the small card propped on the mantelpiece with “Happy birthday, Dad” scrawled on it.
“I thought he was painting your portrait. It was supposed to be a surprise,” I said, thinking of our son’s whispered requests that I occupy Matthew’s attention while he sketched.
“Jack told me he was painting your portrait,” Matthew said.
Instead Jack had painted the two of us together, in the formal drawing room by one of the house’s grand windows. I was sitting in an Elizabethan chair, a relic from our house in Blackfriars. Matthew stood behind me, his eyes clear and bright as they looked at the viewer. My eyes met the viewer’s too, touched by an otherworldliness that suggested I was not an ordinary human.
Matthew reached over my shoulder to clasp my raised left hand, our fingers woven tight. My head was angled slightly toward him, and his was angled slightly down, as though we had been interrupted in mid-conversation.
The pose exposed my left wrist and the ouroboros that circled my pulse. It sent a message of strength and solidarity, this symbol of the Bishop-Clairmonts. Our family had begun with the surprising love that developed between Matthew and me. It grew because our bond was strong enough to withstand the hatred and fear of others. And it would endure because we had discovered, like the witches so many centuries ago, that a willingness to change was the secret of survival.
More than that, the ouroboros symbolized our partnership. Matthew and I were an alchemical marriage of vampire and witch, death and life, sun and moon. That combination of opposites created something finer and more precious than either of us could ever have been separately.
We were the tenth knot.
Without beginning or end.