"Who would make such a thing?" Twenty minutes later I was shivering by the fireplace in our main first-floor room, clutching a beaker of herbal tea. "It's gruesome."
Like most manuscripts, Ashmole 782 was made of vellum-specially prepared skin that had been soaked in lime to remove the hair, scraped to take away the subcutaneous layers of flesh and fat, then soaked again before being stretched on a frame and scraped some more.
The difference here was that the creatures used to make the vellum were not sheep, calves, or goats but daemons, vampires, and witches.
"It must have been kept as a record." Matthew was still trying to come to terms with what we had seen.
"But it has hundreds of pages," I said in disbelief. The thought of someone flaying so many daemons, vampires, and witches and making vellum from their skins was incomprehensible. I wasn't sure I would ever sleep through the night again.
"Which means the book contains hundreds of distinct pieces of DNA." Matthew had run his fingers through his hair so many times he was starting to resemble a porcupine.
"The threads twisting between us and Ashmole 782 looked like double helices," I said. We'd had to explain modern genetics to Gallowglass, who, without the intervening four and a half centuries of biology and chemistry, was doing his best to follow it.
"So D-N-A is like a family tree, but its branches cover more than just one family?" Gallowglass sounded out "DNA" slowly, with a break between each letter.
"Yes," Matthew said. "That's about it."
"Did you see the tree on the first page?" I asked Matthew. "The trunk was made of bodies, and the tree was flowering, fruiting, and leafing out just like the arbor Dianæ we made in Mary's laboratory."
"No, but I saw the creature with its tail in its mouth," Matthew said.
I tried feverishly to recall what I'd seen, but my photographic memory failed me when I needed it most. There was too much new information to absorb.
"The picture showed two creatures fighting-or embracing, I couldn't tell which. I didn't have a chance to count their legs. Their falling blood was generating hundreds of creatures. Although if one of them was not a four-legged dragon but a snake . . ."
"And one was a two-legged firedrake, then those alchemical dragons could symbolize you and me." Matthew swore, briefly but with feeling.
Gallowglass listened patiently until we were through, then went back to his original topic. "And this D-N-A, it lives in our skin?"
"Not just your skin, but your blood, bones, hair, nails-it's throughout your entire body," Matthew explained.
"Huh." Gallowglass rubbed his chin. "And what question is it you have in mind, exactly, when you say this book might have all the answers?"
"Why we're different from the humans," Matthew said simply. "And why a witch like Diana might carry a wearh's child."
Gallowglass gave us a radiant smile. "You mean your child, Matthew. I knew full well Auntie was capable of that back in London. She never smelled like anyone but herself-and you. Did Philippe know?"
"Few people knew," I said quickly.
"Hancock did. So did Françoise and Pierre. My guess is Philippe was told all about it." Gallowglass stood. "I'll just go fetch Auntie's book, then. If it has to do with de Clermont babes, we must have it."
"Rudolf will have locked it up tight or tucked it into bed with him," Matthew predicted. "It's not going to be easy to get it out of the palace, especially not if they've found Pistorius and he's out casting spells and making mischief."
"Speaking of Emperor Rudolf, can we get that necklace off Auntie's shoulders? I hate that bloody insignia."
"Gladly," I said, plucking at the chain and tossing the garish object onto the table. "What, exactly, does the Order of the Defeated Dragon have to do with the de Clermonts? I assume that they must not be friends with the Knights of Lazarus, given the fact that the poor ouroboros has been partially skinned and is strangling itself."
"They hate us and wish us dead," Matthew said flatly. "The Drăculeşti disapprove of my father's broad-minded views on Islam and the Ottomans and have vowed to bring us all down. That way they can fulfill their political aspirations unchecked."
"And they want the de Clermont money," Gallowglass observed.
"The Drăculeşti?" My voice was faint. "But Dracula is a human myth- one meant to spread fear about vampires." It was the human myth about vampires.
"That would come as some surprise to the patriarch of the clan, Vlad the Dragon," Gallowglass commented, "though he would be pleased to know he will go on terrifying people."
"The humans' Dracula-the Dragon's son known as the Impaler-was only one of Vlad's brood," Matthew said.
"The Impaler was a nasty bastard. Happily, he's dead now, and all we have to worry about are his father, his brothers, and their Bathory allies." Gallowglass looked somewhat cheered and poured himself a glass of wine.
"According to human accounts, Dracula lived on for centuries-he may still be living. Are you sure he's really dead?"
"I watched Baldwin rip his head off and bury it thirty miles away from the rest of his body. He was really dead then, and he's really dead now." Gallowglass looked at me reprovingly. "You should know better than to believe these human stories, Auntie. They've never got more than a speck of truth in them."
"I think Benjamin had one of these dragon emblems. Herr Maisel gave it to him. I noticed the similarity in colors when the emperor first held it out."
"You told me Benjamin left Hungary," Matthew said accusingly to his nephew.
"He did. I swear it. Baldwin ordered him to leave or face the same fate as the Impaler. You should have seen Baldwin's face. The devil himself wouldn't have disobeyed your brother."
"I want us all as far from Prague as possible by the time the sun rises," Matthew said grimly. "Something is very wrong. I can smell it."
"That may not be such a good idea. Do you not know what night it is?" Gallowglass asked. Matthew shook his head. "Walpurgisnacht. They are lighting bonfires all around the city and burning effigies of witches- unless they can find a real one, of course."
"Christ." Matthew drove his fingers through his hair, giving it a good shake as he did. "At least the fires will provide some distraction. We have to figure out how to circumvent Rudolf's guards, get into his private chambers, and find the book. Then, fires or no fires, we are getting out of the city."
"We're wearhs, Matthew. If anyone can steal it, we can," Gallowglass said confidently.
"It's not going to be as easy as you think. We may get in, but will we get out?"
"I can help, Master Roydon." Jack's voice sounded like a flute compared to Gallowglass's rumbling bass and Matthew's baritone. Matthew turned and scowled at him.
"No, Jack," he said firmly. "You aren't to steal anything, remember? Besides, you've only been to the palace stables. You wouldn't have any idea where to look."
"Er . . . that's not strictly true." Gallowglass looked uncomfortable. "I took him to the cathedral. And the Great Hall to see the cartoons you once drew on the walls of the Knights' Staircase. And he's been to the kitchens. Oh," Gallowglass said as an afterthought, "he's been to the menagerie, too, of course. It would have been cruel not to let him see the animals."
"He has been there with me as well," Pierre said from the doorway. "I didn't want him to go adventuring one day and get lost."
"And where did you take him, Pierre?" Matthew's tone was icy. "The throne room, so he could jump up and down on the royal seat?"
"No, milord. I took him to the blacksmith's shop and to meet Master Hoefnagel." Pierre drew himself up to his full, relatively diminutive height and stared his employer down. "I thought he should show his drawings to someone with real skill in these matters. Master Hoefnagel was most impressed and drew a pen-and-ink portrait of him on the spot for a reward."
"Pierre also took me to the guards' chamber," Jack said in a small voice. "That's where I got these." He held up a ring of keys. "I only wanted to see the unicorn, for I couldn't imagine how a unicorn climbed the stairs and thought they must have wings. Then Master Gallowglass showed me the Knights' Staircase-I like your drawing of the running deer very much, Master Roydon. The guards were talking. I couldn't understand everything, but the word einhorn stuck out, and I thought maybe they knew where it was, and-"
Matthew took Jack by the shoulders and crouched down so that their eyes met. "Do you know what they would have done if they'd caught you?" My husband looked as fearful as the child did.
"And seeing a unicorn was worth being beaten?"
"I've been beaten before. But I've never seen a magical beast. Except for the lion in the emperor's menagerie. And Mistress Roydon's dragon." Jack looked horrified and clapped his hand over his mouth.
"So you've seen that, too? Prague has been an eye-opening experience for all concerned, then." Matthew stood and held out his hand. "Give me the keys." Jack did so, reluctantly. Matthew bowed to the boy. "I am in your debt, Jack."
"But I was bad," Jack whispered. He rubbed his backside, as if he had already felt the punishment Matthew was bound to dole out.
"I'm bad all the time," Matthew confessed. "Sometimes good comes of it."
"Yes, but nobody beats you," Jack said, still trying to understand this strange world where grown men were in debt to little boys and his hero was not perfect after all.
"Matthew's father beat him with a sword once. I saw it." The firedrake's wings fluttered softly within my rib cage in silent agreement. "Then he knocked him over and stood on him."
"He must be as big as the emperor's bear Sixtus," Jack said, awed at the thought of anyone conquering Matthew.
"He is," Matthew said, growling like the bear in question. "Back to bed. Now."
"But I'm nimble-and quick," Jack protested. "I can get Mistress Roydon's book without anyone seeing me."
"So can I, Jack," Matthew promised.
Matthew and Gallowglass returned from the palace covered with blood, dirt, and soot-and bearing Ashmole 782. "You got it!" I cried. Annie and I were waiting on the first floor. We had small bags packed with traveling essentials.
Matthew opened the cover. "The first three pages are gone."
The book that had been whole just hours before was now broken, the text racing across the page. I'd planned on running my fingers over the letters and symbols once it was in our possession to determine its meaning. Now that was impossible. As soon as my fingertips touched the page, the words skittered in every direction.
"We found Kelley with the book. He was bent over it and crooning like a madman." Matthew paused. "The book was talking back."
"He tells you true, Auntie. I heard the words, though I couldn't make them out."
"Then the book really is alive," I murmured.
"And really dead, too," Gallowglass said, touching the binding. "It's an evil thing as well as a powerful one."
"When Kelley spotted us, he screamed at the top of his lungs and started ripping pages from the book. Before I could reach him, the guards were there. I had to choose between the book and Kelley." Mathew hesitated. "Did I do the right thing?"
"I think so," I said. "When I found the book in England, it was broken. And it may be easier to find the fugitive pages in the future than it would be now." Modern search engines and library catalogs would be enormously helpful, now that I knew what I was seeking.
"Provided the pages weren't destroyed," Matthew said. "If that's the case . . ."
"Then we'll never know all of the book's secrets. Even so, your modern laboratory might reveal more about what's left than we imagined when we set out on this quest."
"So you're ready to go back?" Matthew asked. There was a spark of something in his eye. He smothered it quickly. Was it excitement? Dread?
I nodded. "It's time."
We fled Prague by the light of the bonfires. The creatures were in hiding on Walpurgisnacht, not wanting to be seen by the revelers in case they found themselves flung onto the pyre.
The frigid waters of the North Sea were just navigable, and the spring thaw had broken up the ice in the harbors. Boats were leaving the ports for England, and we were able to catch one without delay. Even so, the weather was stormy when we pulled away from the European shore.
In our cabin belowdecks, I found Matthew studying the book. He had discovered that it was sewn together with long strands of hair.
"Dieu," he murmured, "how much more genetic information might this thing contain?" Before I could stop him, he touched the tip of his pinkie to his tongue and then to the drops of blood showering down from the baby's hair on the first extant page.
"Matthew!" I said, horrified.
"The inks contain blood. And if that's the case, my guess is that the gold and silver leaf on these illustrations is applied to a glue base made from bones. Creature bones."
The boat lurched leeward, and my stomach went along with it. When I was through being sick, Matthew held me in his arms. The book lay between us, slightly open, the lines of text searching to find their place in the order of things.
"What have we done?" I whispered.
"We've found the Tree of Life and the Book of Life, all wrapped up in one." Matthew rested his cheek on my hair.
"When Peter Knox told me the book held all the witches' original spells, I told him he was mad. I couldn't imagine anyone being so foolish as to put so much knowledge in one place." I touched the book. "But this book contains so much more-and we still don't know what the words say. If this were to fall into the wrong hands in our own time-"
"It could be used to destroy us all," Matthew finished.
I craned my head to look at him. "What are we going to do with it, then? Take it back with us to the future or leave it here?"
"I don't know, mon coeur." He gathered me closer, muffling the sound of the storm as it lashed against the hull.
"But this book may well hold the key to all your questions." I was surprised that Matthew could part with it now that he knew what it contained.
"Not all," he said. "There's one only you can answer."
"What's that?" I asked with a frown.
"Are you seasick or are you with child?" Matthew's eyes were as heavy and stormy as the sky, with glints of bright lightning.
"You would know better than I." He had taken blood from my vein a few days ago, soon after I realized that my period was late.
"I didn't see the child in your blood or hear its heart-not yet. It's the change in your scent that I noticed. I remember it from last time. You can't be more than a few weeks pregnant."
"I would have thought my being pregnant would make you more eager than ever to keep the book with you."
"Maybe my questions don't need answers as urgently as I thought they did." To prove his point, Matthew put the book on the floor, out of sight. "I thought it would tell me who I am and why I'm here. Perhaps I already know."
I waited for him to explain.
"After all my searching, I discover that I am who I always was: Matthew de Clermont. Husband. Father. Vampire. And I am here for only one reason: To make a difference."
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