The Empire: Prague
"Where are my red hose?" Matthew clomped downstairs and scowled at the boxes scattered all over the ground floor. His mood had taken a decided turn for the worse halfway through our four-week journey when we parted ways with Pierre, the children, and our luggage in Hamburg. We'd lost ten additional days by virtue of traveling from England into a Catholic country that reckoned time by a different calendar. In Prague, it was now the eleventh of March and the children and Pierre had yet to arrive.
"I'll never find them in this mess!" Matthew said, taking out his frustration on one of my petticoats.
After we'd lived out of saddlebags and a single shared trunk for weeks, our belongings had arrived three days after we did at the tall, narrow house perched on the steep avenue leading to Prague Castle known as Sporrengasse. Our German neighbors presumably dubbed it Spur Street because that was the only way you could persuade a horse to make the climb.
"I didn't know you owned red hose," I said, straightening up.
"I do." Matthew started rooting around in a box that contained my linen.
"Well, they won't be in there," I said, pointing out the obvious.
The vampire ground his teeth. "I've looked everywhere else."
"I'll find them." I eyed his perfectly respectable black leggings. "Why red?"
"Because I am trying to catch the Holy Roman Emperor's attention!" Matthew dove into another pile of my clothes.
Bloodred stockings would do more than capture a wandering eye, given that the man who proposed to wear them was a six-foot-three vampire, and most of his height was leg. Matthew's commitment to the plan was unwavering, however. I focused my mind, asked for the hose to show themselves, and followed the red threads. The ability to keep track of people and objects was an unforeseen fringe benefit of being a weaver, and one I'd had several opportunities to use on the trip.
"Has my father's messenger arrived?" Matthew contributed another petticoat to the snowy mountain growing between us and resumed digging.
"Yes. It's over by the door-whatever it is." I fished through contents of an overlooked chest: chain-mail gauntlets, a shield with a double-headed eagle on it, and an elaborately chased cup-and-stick gizmo. Triumphant, I brandished the long red tubes. "Found them!"
Matthew had forgotten the hosiery crisis. His father's package now held his complete attention. I looked to see what had him so amazed.
"Is that . . . a Bosch?" I knew Hieronymus Bosch's work because of his bizarre use of alchemical equipment and symbolism. He covered his panels with flying fish, insects, enormous household implements, and eroticized fruit. Long before psychedelic was stylish, Bosch saw the world in bright colors and unsettling combinations.
Like Matthew's Holbeins at the Old Lodge, however, this work was unfamiliar. It was a triptych, assembled from three hinged wooden panels. Designed to sit on an altar, triptychs were kept closed except for special religious celebrations. In modern museums the exteriors were seldom on display. I wondered what other stunning images I'd been missing.
The artist had covered the outside panels with a velvety black pigment. A wizened tree shimmering in the moonlight spanned the two front panels. A tiny wolf crouched in its roots, and an owl perched in the upper branches. Both animals gazed at the viewer knowingly. A dozen other eyes shone out from the dark ground around the tree, disembodied and staring. Behind the dead oak, a stand of deceptively normal trees with pale trunks and iridescent green branches shed more light on the scene. Only when I took a closer look did I see the ears growing out of them, as though they were listening to the sounds of the night.
"What does it mean?" I asked, staring at Bosch's work in wonder.
Matthew's fingers fiddled with the fastenings on his doublet. "It's an old Flemish proverb: 'The forest has eyes, and the woods have ears; therefore I will see, be silent, and hear.'" The words perfectly captured the secretive life Matthew led and reminded me of Elizabeth's current choice of motto.
The triptych's interior showed three interrelated scenes: an image of the fallen angels, painted against the same velvety black background. At first glance they looked more like dragonflies with their shimmering double wings, but they had human bodies, with heads and legs that twisted in torment as the angels fell through the heavens. On the opposite panel, the dead rose for the Last Judgment in a scene far more gruesome than the frescoes at Sept-Tours. The gaping jaws of fish and wolves provided entrances to hell, sucking in the damned and consigning them to an eternity of pain and agony.
The center, however, showed a very different image of death: the resurrected Lazarus calmly climbing out of his coffin. With his long legs, dark hair, and serious expression, he looked rather like Matthew. All around the borders of the center panel, lifeless vines produced strange fruits and flowers. Some dripped blood. Others gave birth to people and animals. And no Jesus was in sight.
"Lazarus resembles you. No wonder you don't want Rudolf to have it." I handed Matthew his hose. "Bosch must have known you were a vampire, too."
"Jeroen-or Hieronymus as you know him-saw something he shouldn't have," Matthew said darkly. "I didn't know that Jeroen had witnessed me feeding until I saw the sketches he made of me with a warmblood. From that day on, he believed all creatures had a dual nature, part human and part animal."
"And sometimes part vegetable," I said, studying a naked woman with a strawberry for a head and cherries for hands running away from a pitchfork-wielding devil wearing a stork as a hat. Matthew made a soft sound of amusement. "Does Rudolf know you're a vampire, as Elizabeth does and Bosch did?" I was increasingly concerned by the number of people who were in on the secret.
"Yes. The emperor knows I'm a member of the Congregation, too." He twisted his bright red hose into a knot. "Thank you for finding these."
"Tell me now if you have a habit of losing your car keys, because I'm not putting up with this kind of panic every morning when you get ready for work." I slid my arms around his waist and rested my cheek on his heart. That slow, steady beat always calmed me.
"What are you going to do, divorce me?" Matthew returned the embrace, resting his head on mine so that we fit together perfectly.
"You promised me vampires don't do divorce." I gave him a squeeze. "You're going to look like a cartoon character if you put those red socks on. I'd stick to the black if I were you. You'll stand out regardless."
"Witch," Matthew said, releasing me with a kiss.
He went up the hill to the castle, wearing sober black hose and carrying a long, convoluted message (partially in verse) offering Rudolf a marvelous book for his collections. He came back down four hours later empty-handed, having delivered the note to an imperial flunky. There had been no audience with the emperor. Instead Matthew had been kept waiting along with all the other ambassadors seeking audience.
"It was like being stuck in a cattle truck with all those warm bodies cooped up together. I tried to go somewhere with clear air to breathe, but the nearby rooms were full of witches."
"Witches?" I climbed down from the table I was using to put Matthew's sword safely on top of the linen cupboard in preparation for Jack's arrival.
"Dozens of them," Matthew said. "They were complaining about what's happening in Germany. Where's Gallowglass?"
"Your newphew is buying eggs and securing the services of a housekeeper and a cook." Françoise had flatly refused to join our expedition to Central Europe, which she viewed as a godless land of Lutherans. She was now back at the Old Lodge, spoiling Charles. Gallowglass was serving as my page and general dogsbody until the others arrived. He had excellent German and Spanish, which made him indispensable when it came to provisioning our household. "Tell me more about the witches."
"The city is a safe haven for every creature in Central Europe who fears for his safety-daemon, vampire, or witch. But the witches are especially welcome in Rudolf's court, because he covets their knowledge. And their power."
"Interesting," I said. No sooner had I started wondering about their identities than a series of faces appeared to my third eye. "Who is the wizard with the red beard? And the witch with one blue and one green eye?"
"We aren't going to be here long enough for their identities to matter," Matthew said ominously on his way out the door. Having concluded the day's business for Elizabeth, he was headed across the river to Prague's Old Town on behalf of the Congregation. "I'll see you before dark. Stay here until Gallowglass returns. I don't want you getting lost." More to the point, he didn't want me stumbling upon any witches.
Gallowglass returned to Sporrengasse with two vampires and a pretzel. He handed the latter to me and introduced me to my new servants.
Karolina (the cook) and Tereza (the housekeeper) were members of a sprawling clan of Bohemian vampires dedicated to serving the aristocracy and important foreign visitors. Like the de Clermont retainers, they earned their reputation-and an unusually large salary-because of their preternatural longevity and wolfish loyalty. For the right price, we were also able to buy assurances of secrecy from the clan's elder, who had removed the women from the household of the papal ambassador. The ambassador graciously consented out of deference to the de Clermonts. They had, after all, been instrumental in rigging the last papal election, and he knew who buttered his bread. I cared only that Karolina knew how to make omelets.
Our household established, Matthew loped up the hill each morning to the castle while I unpacked, met my neighbors in the neighborhood below the castle walls called Mala Strana, and watched for the absent members of the household. I missed Annie's cheerfulness and wide-eyed approach to the world, as well as Jack's unfailing ability to get himself into trouble. Our winding street was packed with children of all ages and nationalities, since most of the ambassadors lived there. It turned out that Matthew was not the only foreigner in Prague to be kept at arm's length by the emperor. Every person I met regaled Gallowglass with tales of how Rudolf had snubbed some important personage only to spend hours with a bookish antiquarian from Italy or a humble miner from Saxony.
It was late afternoon on the first day of spring, and the house was filling with the homely scents of pork and dumplings when a scrappy eight-yearold tackled me.
"Mistress Roydon!" Jack crowed, his face buried in my bodice and his arms wrapped tightly around me. "Did you know that Prague is really four towns in one? London is only one town. And there is a castle, too, and a river. Pierre will show me the watermill tomorrow."
"Hello, Jack," I said, stroking his hair. Even on the grueling, freezing journey to Prague, he had managed to shoot up in height. Pierre must have been shoveling food into him. I looked up and smiled at Annie and Pierre. "Matthew will be so glad that you've all arrived. He's missed you."
"We've missed him, too," Jack said, tilting his head back to look at me. He had dark circles under his eyes, and in spite of his growth spurt he looked wan.
"Have you been ill?" I asked, feeling his forehead. Colds could turn deadly in this harsh climate, and there was talk of a nasty epidemic in the Old Town that Matthew thought was a strain of flu.
"He's been having trouble sleeping," Pierre said quietly. I could tell from his serious tone that there was more to the story, but it could wait.
"Well, you'll sleep tonight. There is an enormous featherbed in your room. Go with Tereza, Jack. She'll show you where your things are and get you washed up before supper." In the interests of vampire propriety, the warmbloods would be sleeping with Matthew and me on the second floor, since the house's narrow layout permitted only a keeping room and kitchen on the ground floor. That meant that the first floor was dedicated to formal rooms for receiving guests. The rest of the household's vampires had staked their claim on the lofty third floor, with its expansive views and windows that could be flung open to the elements.
"Master Roydon!" Jack shrieked, hurling himself at the door and flinging it open before Tereza could stop him. How he detected Matthew was a mystery, given the growing darkness and Matthew's head-to-toe adoption of slate-colored wool.
"Easy," Matthew said, catching Jack before he hurt himself running into a pair of solid vampire legs. Gallowglass snatched at Jack's cap as he went by, ruffling the boy's hair.
"We almost froze. In the river. And the sled turned over once, but the dog was not hurt. I ate roasted boar. And Annie caught her skirt in the wagon wheel and almost tumbled out." Jack couldn't get the details of their journey out of his mouth fast enough. "I saw a blazing star. It was not very big, but Pierre told me I must share it with Master Harriot when we return home. I drew a picture of it for him." Jack's hand slid inside his grimy doublet and pulled out an equally grimy slip of paper. He presented this to Matthew with the reverence normally accorded to a holy relic.
"This is quite good," Matthew said, studying the drawing with appropriate care. "I like how you've shown the curve of the tail. And you put the other stars around it. That was wise, Jack. Master Harriot will be pleased at your powers of observation."
Jack flushed. "That was my last piece of paper. Do they sell paper in Prague?" Back in London, Matthew had taken to supplying Jack with a pocketful of paper scraps every morning. How Jack went through them was a matter of some speculation.
"The city is awash in the stuff," Matthew said. "Pierre will take you to the shop in Mala Strana tomorrow."
After that exciting promise, it was hard to get the children upstairs, but Tereza proved to possess the precise mix of gentleness and resolve to accomplish the task. That gave the four grown-ups a chance to talk freely.
"Has Jack been sick?" Matthew asked Pierre with a frown.
"No, milord. Since we left you, his sleep has been troubled." Pierre hesitated. "I think the evils in his past haunt him."
Matthew's forehead smoothed out, but he still looked concerned. "And otherwise the journey was as you expected?" This was his cagey way of asking whether they had been set upon by bandits or plagued by supernatural or preternatural beings.
"It was long and cold," Pierre said matter-of-factly, "and the children were always hungry."
Gallowglass bellowed with laughter. "Well, that sounds about right."
"And you, milord?" Pierre shot a veiled glance at Matthew. "Is Prague as you expected?"
"Rudolf hasn't seen me. Rumor has it that Kelley is on the uppermost reaches of the Powder Tower blowing up alembics and God-knows-whatelse," Matthew reported.
"And the Old Town?" Pierre asked delicately.
"It is much as it ever was." Matthew's tone was breezy and light-a dead giveaway that he was concerned about something.
"So long as you ignore the gossip coming from the Jewish quarter. One of their witches has made a creature from clay who prowls the streets at night." Gallowglass turned innocent eyes on his uncle. "Saving that, it is practically unchanged from the last time we were here to help Emperor Ferdinand secure the city in 1547."
"Thank you, Gallowglass," Matthew said. His tone was as chilly as the wind off the river.
Surely it would require more than an ordinary spell to construct a creature from mud and set it in motion. Such a rumor could mean only one thing: Somewhere in Prague was a weaver like me, one who could move between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But I didn't have to call Matthew on his secret. His nephew beat me to it.
"You didn't think you could keep news of the clay creature from Auntie?" Gallowglass shook his head in amazement. "You don't spend enough time at the market. The women of Mala Strana know everything, including what the emperor is having for breakfast and that he's refused to see you."
Matthew ran his fingers over the painted wooden surface of the triptych and sighed. "You'll have to take this up to the palace, Pierre."
"But that is the altarpiece from Sept-Tours," Pierre protested. "The emperor is known for his caution. Surely it is only a matter of time before he admits you."
"Time is the one commodity we lack-and the de Clermonts have altarpieces aplenty," Matthew said ruefully. "Let me write a note to the emperor, and you can be on your way."
Matthew dispatched Pierre and the painting shortly thereafter. His servant returned just as empty-handed as Matthew had, with no assurances of a future meeting.
All around me the threads that bound the worlds were tightening and shifting in a weaving whose pattern was too large for me to perceive or understand. But something was brewing in Prague. I could feel it.
That night I awoke to the sound of soft voices in the room adjoining our bedchamber. Matthew was not next to me, reading, as he had been when I'd dropped off to sleep. I padded to the door to see who was with him.
"Tell me what happens when I shade the side of the monster's face." Matthew's hand moved swiftly over the large sheet of foolscap before him.
"It makes him seem farther away!" Jack whispered, awestruck by the transformation.
"You try it," Matthew said, handing Jack his pen. Jack gripped the pen with great concentration, his tongue stuck slightly out. Matthew rubbed the boy's back with his hand, relaxing the taut muscles wrapped around his rangy frame. Jack was not quite sitting on his knee but leaning into the vampire's comforting bulk for support. "So many monsters," Matthew murmured, meeting my eyes.
"Do you want to draw yours?" Jack inched the paper in Matthew's direction. "Then you could sleep, too."
"Your monsters have frightened mine away," Matthew said, returning his attention to Jack, his face grave. My heart hurt for the boy and all he had endured in his brief, hard life.
Matthew met my eyes again and indicated with a slight shift of his head that he had everything under control. I blew him a kiss and returned to the warm, feathery nest of our bed.
The next day we received a note from the emperor. It was sealed with thick wax and ribbons.
"The painting worked, milord," Pierre said apologetically.
"It figures. I loved that altarpiece. Now I'll have a hell of a time getting my hands on it again," Matthew said, sitting back in his chair. The wood creaked in protest. Matthew reached out for the letter. The penmanship was elaborate, with so many swirls and curlicues that the letters were practically unrecognizable.
"Why is the handwriting so ornate?" I wondered.
"The Hoefnagels have arrived from Vienna and have nothing to occupy their time. The fancier the handwriting, the better, as far as His Majesty is concerned," Pierre replied cryptically.
"I'm to go to Rudolf this afternoon," Matthew said with a satisfied smile, folding up the message. "My father will be pleased. He sent some money and jewels, too, but it would appear that the de Clermonts got off lightly this time."
Pierre held out another, smaller letter, addressed in a plainer style. "The emperor added a postscript. In his own hand."
I looked over Matthew's shoulder as he read it.
"Bringen das Buch. Und die Hexe." The emperor's swirling signature, with its elaborate R, looping d and l, and double f's, was at the bottom.
My German was rusty, but the message was clear: Bring the book. And the witch.
"I spoke too soon," Matthew muttered.
"I told you to hook him with Titian's great canvas of Venus that Grandfather took off King Philip's hands when his wife objected to it," Gallowglass observed. "Like his uncle, Rudolf has always been unduly fond of redheads. And saucy pictures."
"And witches," my husband said under his breath. He threw the letter on the table. "It wasn't the painting that baited him, but Diana. Maybe I should refuse his invitation."
"That was a command, Uncle." Gallowglass's brow lowered.
"And Rudolf has Ashmole 782," I said. "It's not going to simply appear in front of the Three Ravens on Sporrengasse. We're going to have to find it."
"Are you calling us ravens, Auntie?" Gallowglass said with mock offense.
"I'm talking about the sign on the house, you great oaf." Like every other residence on the street, ours had a symbol over the door rather than a house number. After the neighborhood caught fire in the middle of the century, the emperor's grandfather had insisted on having some way to tell houses apart besides the popular sgraffito decorations scratched into the plaster.
Gallowglass grinned. "I knew very well what you were talking about. But I do love seeing you go all shiny like that when your glaem's raised."
I pulled my disguising spell around me with a harrumph, dimming my shininess to more acceptable, human levels.
"Besides," Gallowglass continued. "Among my people it's a great compliment to be likened to a raven. I'll be Muninn, and Matthew we'll call Huginn. Your name will be Gondul, Auntie. You'll make a fine Valkyrie."
"What is he talking about?" I asked Matthew blankly.
"Odin's ravens. And his daughters."
"Oh. Thank you, Gallowglass," I said awkwardly. It couldn't be a bad thing to be likened to a god's daughter.
"Even if this book of Rudolf's is Ashmole 782, we're not sure it contains answers to our questions." Our experience with the Voynich manuscript still worried Matthew.
"Historians never know if a text will provide answers. If it doesn't, though, we'll still have better questions as a result," I replied.
"Point taken." Matthew's lips quirked. "As I can't get in to see the emperor or his library without you, and you won't leave Prague without the book, there is nothing for it. We'll both go to the palace."
"You've been hoist by your own petard, Uncle," Gallowglass said cheerfully. He gave me a broad wink.
When compared to our visit to Richmond, the trip up the street to see the emperor seemed almost like popping next door to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor-though it required a more formal costume. The papal ambassador's mistress was much my size, and her wardrobe had provided me with a suitably luxurious and circumspect garment for the wife of an English dignitary-or a de Clermont, she quickly added. I loved the style of clothing worn by well-heeled women in Prague: simple gowns with high necks, bell-shaped skirts, embroidered coats with hanging sleeves trimmed in fur. The small ruffs they wore served as another welcome barrier between the elements and me.
Matthew had happily abandoned his dreams of red hose in favor of his usual gray and black, accented with a deep green that was the most attractive color I had ever seen him wear. This afternoon it provided flashes of color peeking through the slashes on his bulbous britches and the lining peeking around the open collar of his jacket.
"You look splendid," I said after inspecting him.
"And you look like a proper Bohemian aristocrat," he replied, kissing me on the cheek.
"Can we go now?" Jack said, dancing with impatience. Someone had found him a suit of black-and-silver livery and put a cross and crescent moon on the sleeve.
"So we are going as de Clermonts, not as Roydons," I said slowly.
"No. We are Matthew and Diana Roydon," Matthew replied. "We're just traveling with the de Clermont family servants."
"That should confuse everybody," I commented as we left the house.
"Exactly," Matthew said with a smile.
Had we been going as ordinary citizens, we would have climbed the new palace steps, which clung to the ramparts and provided a safe way for pedestrians. Instead we wended our way up Sporrengasse on horseback as befitted a representative of the queen of England, which gave me a chance to fully take in the houses with their canted foundations, colorful sgraffito, and painted signs. We passed the house of the Red Lion, the Golden Star, the Swan, and the Two Suns. At the top of the hill, we took a sharp right into a neighborhood filled with the mansions of aristocrats and court appointees, called Hradčany.
It was not my first glimpse of the castle, for I'd seen it looming over its surroundings when we came into Prague and could look up to its ramparts from our windows. But this was the closest I'd yet been to it. The castle was even larger and more sprawling at close range than it had appeared at a distance, like an entirely separate city full of trade and industry. Ahead were the Gothic pinnacles of St. Vitus Cathedral, with round towers punctuating the walls. Though built for defense, the towers now housed workshops for the hundreds of artisans who made their home at Rudolf's court.
The palace guard admitted us through the west gate and into an enclosed courtyard. After Pierre and Jack took charge of the horses, our armed escorts headed for a range of buildings tucked against the castle walls. They had been built relatively recently, and the stone was crisp-edged and gleaming. These looked like office buildings, but beyond them I could see high roofs and medieval stonework.
"What's happened now?" I whispered to Matthew. "Why aren't we going to the palace?"
"Because there's nobody there of any importance," said Gallowglass. He held the Voynich manuscript in his arms, safely wrapped in leather and bound with straps to keep the pages from warping in the cold weather.
"Rudolf found the old Royal Palace drafty and dark," Matthew explained, helping me over the slick cobbles. "His new palace faces south and overlooks a private garden. Here he's farther away from the cathedral-and the priests."
The halls of the residence were busy, with people rushing to and fro shouting in German, Czech, Spanish, and Latin depending on which part of Rudolf's empire they came from. The closer we got to the emperor, the more frenetic the activity became. We passed a room filled with people arguing over architectural drawings. Another room housed a lively debate about the merits of an elaborate gold-and-stone bowl fashioned to look like a seashell. Finally the guards left us in a comfortable salon with heavy chairs, a tiled stove that pumped out a significant amount of heat, and two men in deep conversation. They turned toward us.
"Good day, old friend," a kindly man of around sixty said in English. He beamed at Matthew.
"Tadeaš." Matthew gripped his arm warmly. "You are looking well."
"And you are looking young." The man's eyes twinkled. His glance caused no tell-tale reaction on my skin. "And here is the woman everyone is talking about. I am Tadeaš Hajek." The human bowed, and I curtsied in response.
A slender gentleman with an olive complexion and hair nearly as dark as Matthew's strolled over to us. "Master Strada," Matthew said with a bow. He was not as pleased to see this man as he was the first.
"Is she truly a witch?" Strada surveyed me with interest. "If so, my sister Katharina would like to meet her. She is with child, and the pregnancy troubles her."
"Surely Tadeaš-the royal physician-is better suited to seeing after the birth of the emperor's child," Matthew said, "or have matters with your sister changed?"
"The emperor still treasures my sister," Strada said frostily. "For that reason alone, her whims should be indulged."
"Have you seen Joris? He has been talking about nothing but the triptych since His Majesty opened it," Tadeaš asked, changing the subject.
"Not yet, no." Matthew's eyes went to the door. "Is the emperor in?"
"Yes. He is looking at a new painting by Master Spranger. It is very large and . . . ah, detailed."
"Another picture of Venus," Strada said with a sniff.
"This Venus looks rather like your sister, sir." Hajek smiled.
"Ist das Matthaus hore ich?" said a nasal voice from the far end of the room. Everyone turned and swept into deep bows. I curtsied automatically. It was going to be a challenge to follow the conversation. I had expected Rudolf to speak Latin, not German. "Und Sie das Buch und die Hexe gebracht, ich verstehe. Und die norwegische Wolf."
Rudolf was a small man with a disproportionately long chin and a pronounced underbite. The full, fleshy lips of the Hapsburg family exaggerated the prominence of the lower half of his face, although this was somewhat balanced by his pale, protruding eyes and thick, flattened nose. Years of good living and fine drink had given him a portly profile, but his legs remained thin and spindly. He tottered toward us on high-heeled red shoes ornamented with gold stamps.
"I brought my wife, Your Majesty, as you commanded," Matthew said, placing a slight emphasis on the word "wife." Gallowglass translated Matthew's English into flawless German, as if my husband didn't know the language-which I knew he did, after traveling with him from Hamburg to Wittenberg to Prague by sled.
"Y su talento para los juegos tambien," Rudolf said, switching effortlessly into Spanish as though that might convince Matthew to converse with him directly. He studied me slowly, lingering over the curves of my body with a thoroughness that made me long for a shower. "Es una lastima que se caso en absoluto, pero aun mas lamentable que ella esta casada con usted."
"Very regrettable, Majesty," Matthew said sharply, sticking resolutely to English. "But I assure you we are thoroughly wed. My father insisted upon it. So did the lady." This remark only made Rudolf scrutinize me with greater interest.
Gallowglass took mercy on me and thumped the book onto the table. "Das Buch."
That got their attention. Strada unwrapped it while Hajek and Rudolf speculated on just how wonderful this new addition to the imperial library might prove to be. When it was exposed to view, however, the air in the room thickened with disappointment.
"What joke is this?" Rudolf snapped in German.
"I am not sure I take Your Majesty's meaning," Matthew replied. He waited for Gallowglass to translate.
"I mean that I already know this book," Rudolf sputtered.
"That doesn't surprise me, Your Majesty, since you gave it to John Dee-by mistake, I am told." Matthew bowed.
"The emperor does not make mistakes!" Strada said, pushing the book away in disgust.
"We all make mistakes, Signor Strada," Hajek said gently. "I am sure, though, that there is some other explanation as to why this book has been returned to the emperor. Perhaps Dr. Dee uncovered its secrets."
"It is nothing but childish pictures," retorted Strada.
"Is that why this picture book found its way into Dr. Dee's baggage? Did you hope he would be able to understand what you could not?" Matthew's words were having an adverse effect on Strada, who turned purple. "Perhaps you borrowed Dee's book, Signor Strada, the one with alchemical pictures from Roger Bacon's library, in hope that it would help you decipher this one. That is a far more pleasant prospect than imagining you would have tricked poor Dr. Dee out of his treasure. Of course his Majesty could not have known of such an evil business." Matthew's smile was chilling.
"And is this book that you say I have the only treasure of mine you wish to take back to England?" Rudolf asked sharply. "Or does your avarice extend to my laboratories?"
"If you mean Edward Kelley, the queen needs some assurance that he is here of his own free will. Nothing more," Matthew lied. He then took the conversation in a less trying direction. "Do you like your new altarpiece, Your Majesty?"
Matthew had provided the emperor just enough room to regroup-and save face. "The Bosch is exceptional. My uncle will be most aggrieved to learn that I have acquired it." Rudolf looked around. "Alas, this room is not suitable for its display. I wanted to show it to the Spanish ambassador, but here you cannot get far enough from the painting to view it properly. It is a work that you must come upon slowly, allowing the details to emerge naturally. Come. See where I have put it."
Matthew and Gallowglass arranged themselves so that Rudolf couldn't get too close to me as we trooped through the door and into a room that looked like the storeroom for an overstuffed and understaffed museum. Shelves and cabinets held so many shells, books, and fossils that they threatened to topple over. Huge canvases-including the new painting of Venus, which was not simply detailed but openly erotic-were propped up against bronze statues. This must be Rudolf's famed curiosity cabinet, his room of wonders and marvels.
"Your Majesty needs more space-or fewer specimens," Matthew commented, grabbing a piece of porcelain to keep it from smashing to the floor.
"I will always find a place for new treasures." The emperor's gaze settled on me once more. "I am building four new rooms to hold them all. You can see them working." He pointed out the window to two towers and the long building that was beginning to connect them to the emperor's apartments and another new piece of construction opposite. "Until then Ottavio and Tadeaš are cataloging my collection and instructing the architects on what I require. I do not want to move everything into the new Kunstkammer only to outgrow it again."
Rudolf led us through a warren of additional storerooms until we finally arrived at a long gallery with windows on both sides. It was full of light, and after the gloom and dust of the preceding chambers, entering it felt like taking in a lungful of clean air.
The sight in the center of the room brought me up short. Matthew's altarpiece sat open on a long table covered with thick green felt. The emperor was right: You couldn't fully appreciate the colors when you stood close to the work.
"It is beautiful, Dona Diana." Rudolf took advantage of my surprise to grasp my hand. "Notice how what you perceive changes with each step. Only vulgar objects can be seen at once, for they have no mysteries to reveal."
Strada looked at me with open animosity, Hajek with pity. Matthew was not looking at me at all, but at the emperor.
"Speaking of which, Majesty, might I see Dee's book?" Matthew's expression was guileless, but no one in the room was fooled for an instant. The wolf was on the prowl.
"Who knows where it is?" Rudolf had to drop my hand in order to wave vaguely at the rooms we had just left.
"Signor Strada must be neglecting his duties, if such a precious manuscript cannot be found when the emperor requires it," Matthew said softly.
"Ottavio is very busy at present, with matters of importance!" Rudolf glared at Matthew. "And I do not trust Dr. Dee. Your queen should beware his false promises."
"But you trust Kelley. Perhaps he knows its whereabouts?"
At this the emperor looked distinctly uneasy. "I do not want Edward disturbed. He is at a very delicate stage in the alchemical work."
"Prague has many charms, and Diana has been commissioned to purchase some alchemical glassware for the Countess of Pembroke. We will occupy ourselves with that task until Sir Edward is able to receive visitors. Perhaps Signor Strada will be able to find your missing book by then."
"This Countess of Pembroke is the sister of the queen's hero, Sir Philip Sidney?" Rudolf asked, his interest caught. When Matthew opened his mouth to answer, Rudolf stopped him with a raised hand. "It is Dona Diana's business. We will let her answer."
"Yes, Your Majesty," I responded in Spanish. My pronunciation was atrocious. I hoped that would diminish his interest.
"Charming," Rudolf murmured. Damn. "Very well then, Dona Diana must visit my workshops. I enjoy fulfilling a lady's wishes."
It was not clear which lady he meant.
"As for Kelley and the book, we shall see. We shall see." Rudolf turned back to the triptych. "'I will see, be silent, and hear.' Isn't that the proverb?"
P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com