Dragonfly in Amber (Page 18)

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2)(18)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

I was musing on the odd tendency of the French to bring food into virtually any kind of discussion, when the shop door banged suddenly open. Reinforcements swept in behind the footman, in the guise of a rouged and flounced Personage of some sort.

"Ah," murmured Raymond, peering interestedly beneath my arm at the drama unfolding in his shop. "La Vicomtesse de Rambeau."

"You know her?" The shopgirl evidently did, for she abandoned her attack on the footman and shrank back against the cabinet of purges.

"Yes, madonna," said Raymond, nodding. "She’s rather expensive."

I saw what he meant, as the lady in question picked up the evident source of altercation, a small jar containing a pickled plant of some kind, took aim, and flung it with considerable force and accuracy into the glass front of the cabinet.

The crash silenced the commotion at once. The Vicomtesse pointed one long, bony finger at the girl.

"You," she said, in a voice like metal shavings, "fetch me the black potion. At once."

The girl opened her mouth as though to protest, then, seeing the Vicomtesse reaching for another missile, shut it and fled for the back room.

Anticipating her entrance, Raymond reached resignedly above his head and thrust a bottle into her hand as she came through the door.

"Give it to her," he said, shrugging. "Before she breaks something else."

As the shopgirl timidly returned to deliver the bottle, he turned to me, pulling a wry face.

"Poison for a rival," he said. "Or at least she thinks so."

"Oh?" I said. "And what is it really? Bitter cascara?"

He looked at me in pleased surprise.

"You’re very good at this," he said. "A natural talent, or were you taught? Well, no matter." He waved a broad palm, dismissing the matter. "Yes, that’s right, cascara. The rival will fall sick tomorrow, suffer visibly in order to satisfy the Vicomtesse’s desire for revenge and convince her that her purchase was a good one, and then she will recover, with no permanent harm done, and the Vicomtesse will attribute the recovery to the intervention of the priest or a counterspell done by a sorcerer employed by the victim."

"Mm," I said. "And the damage to your shop?" The late-afternoon sun glinted on the shards of glass on the counter, and on the single silver écu that the Vicomtesse had flung down in payment.

Raymond tilted a palm from side to side, in the immemorial custom of a man indicating equivocation.

"It evens out," he said calmly. "When she comes in next month for an abortifacient, I shall charge her enough not only to repair the damage but to build three new cases. And she’ll pay without argument." He smiled briefly, but without the humor he had previously shown. "It’s all in the timing, you know."

I was conscious of the black eyes flickering knowledgeably over my figure. I didn’t show at all yet, but I was quite sure he knew.

"And does the medicine you’ll give the Vicomtesse next month work?" I asked.

"It’s all in the timing," he replied again, tilting his head quizzically to one side. "Early enough, and all is well. But it is dangerous to wait too long."

The note of warning in his voice was clear, and I smiled at him.

"Not for me," I said. "For reference only."

He relaxed again.

"Ah. I didn’t think so."

A rumble from the street below proclaimed the passing of the Vicomtesse’s blue-and-silver carriage. The footman waved and shouted from behind as pedestrians were forced to scramble for the shelter of doors and alleyways to avoid being crushed.

"A la lanterne," I murmured under my breath. It was rare that my unusual perspective on current affairs afforded me much satisfaction, but this was certainly one occasion when it did.

"Ask not for whom the tumbril calls," I remarked, turning to Raymond. "It calls for thee."

He looked mildly bewildered.

"Oh? Well, in any case, you were saying that black betony is what you use for purging? I would use the white, myself."

"Really? Why is that?"

And with no further reference to the recent Vicomtesse, we sat down to complete our business.

9

THE SPLENDORS OF VERSAILLES

I closed the door of the drawing room quietly behind me and stood still a moment, gathering courage. I essayed a restorative deep breath, but the tightness of the whalebone corseting made it come out as a strangled gasp.

Jamie, immersed in a handful of shipping orders, glanced up at the sound and froze, eyes wide. His mouth opened, but he made no sound.

"How do you like it?" Handling the train a bit gingerly, I stepped down into the room, swaying gently as the seamstress had instructed, to show off the filmy gussets of silk plissé let into the overskirt.

Jamie shut his mouth and blinked several times.

"It’s…ah…red, isn’t it?" he observed.

"Rather." Sang-du-Christ, to be exact. Christ’s blood, the most fashionable color of the season, or so I had been given to understand.

"Not every woman could wear it, Madame," the seamstress had declared, speech unhampered by a mouthful of pins. "But you, with that skin! Mother of God, you’ll have men crawling under your skirt all night!"

"If one tries, I’ll stamp on his fingers," I said. That, after all, was not at all the intended effect. But I did mean to be visible. Jamie had urged me to have something made that would make me stand out in the crowd. Early-morning fog notwithstanding, the King had evidently remembered him from his appearance at the lever, and we had been invited to a ball at Versailles.

"I’ll need to get the ears of the men with the money," Jamie had said, making plans with me earlier. "And as I’ve neither great position nor power myself, it will have to be managed by making them seek my company." He heaved a sigh, looking at me, decidedly unglamorous in my woolen bedgown.

"And I’m afraid in Paris that means we’ll have to go out a bit in society; appear at Court, if it can be managed. They’ll know I’m a Scot; it will be natural for folk to ask me about Prince Charles, and whether Scotland is eagerly awaiting the return of the Stuarts. Then I can assure them discreetly that most Scots would pay a good price not to have the Stuarts back again—though it goes against the grain a bit to say so."

"Yes, you’d better be discreet," I agreed. "Or the Bonnie Prince may set the dogs on you next time you go to visit." In accordance with his plan to keep abreast of Charles’s activities, Jamie had been paying weekly duty calls on the small house at Montmartre.

Jamie smiled briefly. "Aye. Well, so far as His Highness, and the Jacobite supporters are concerned, I’m a loyal upholder of the Stuart cause. And so long as Charles Stuart is not received at Court and I am, the chances of his finding out what I’m saying there are not great. The Jacobites in Paris keep to themselves, as a rule. For the one thing, they haven’t the money to appear in fashionable circles. But we have, thanks to Jared."

Jared had concurred—for entirely different reasons—in Jamie’s proposal that we widen the scope of Jared’s usual business entertaining, so that the French nobility and the heads of the wealthy banking families might beat a path to our door, there to be seduced and cozened with Rhenish wine, good talk, fine entertainment, and large quantities of the good Scotch whisky that Murtagh had spent the last two weeks shepherding across the Channel and overland to our cellars.

"It’s entertainment of one kind or another that draws them, ye ken," Jamie had said, sketching out plans on the back of a broadsheet poem describing the scurrilous affair between the Comte de Sévigny and the wife of the Minister of Agriculture. "All the nobility care about is appearances. So to start with, we must offer them something interesting to look at."

Judging from the stunned look on his face now, I had made a good beginning. I sashayed a bit, making the huge overskirt swing like a bell.

"Not bad, is it?" I asked. "Very visible, at any rate."

He found his voice at last.

"Visible?" he croaked. "Visible? God, I can see every inch of ye, down to the third rib!"

I peered downward.

"No, you can’t. That isn’t me under the lace, it’s a fining of white charmeuse."

"Aye well, it looks like you!" He came closer, bending to inspect the bodice of the dress. He peered into my cl**vage.

"Christ, I can see down to your navel! Surely ye dinna mean to go out in public like that!"

I bristled a bit at this. I had been feeling a trifle nervous myself over the general revealingness of the dress, the fashionable sketches the seamstress had shown me notwithstanding. But Jamie’s reaction was making me feel defensive, and thus rebellious.

"You told me to be visible," I reminded him. "And this is absolutely nothing, compared to the latest Court fashions. Believe me, I shall be modesty personified, in comparison with Madame de Pérignon and the Duchesse de Rouen." I put my hands on my h*ps and surveyed him coldly. "Or do you want me to appear at Court in my green velvet?"

Jamie averted his eyes from my décolletage and tightened his lips.

"Mphm," he said, looking as Scotch as possible.

Trying to be conciliatory, I came closer and laid a hand on his arm.

"Come now," I said. "You’ve been at Court before; surely you know what ladies dress like. You know this isn’t terribly extreme by those standards."

He glanced down at me and smiled, a trifle shamefaced.

"Aye," he said. "Aye, that’s true. It’s only…well, you’re my wife, Sassenach. I dinna want other men to look at you the way I’ve looked at those ladies."

I laughed and put my hands behind his neck, pulling him down to kiss me. He held me around the waist, his thumbs unconsciously stroking the softness of the red silk where it sheathed my torso. His touch traveled upward, sliding across the slipperiness of the fabric to the nape of my neck. His other hand grasped the soft roundness of my breast, swelling up above the tethering grip of the corsets, voluptuously free under a single layer of sheer silk. He let go at last and straightened up, shaking his head doubtfully.

"I suppose ye’ll have to wear it, Sassenach, but for Christ’s sake be careful."

"Careful? Of what?"

His mouth twisted in a rueful smile.

"Lord, woman, have ye no notion what ye look like in that gown? It makes me want to commit rape on the spot. And these damned frog-eaters havena got my restraint." He frowned slightly. "You couldna…cover it up at bit at the top?" He waved a large hand vaguely in the direction of his own lace jabot, secured with a ruby stickpin. "A…ruffle or something? A handkerchief?"

"Men," I told him, "have no notion of fashion. But not to worry. The seamstress says that’s what the fan is for." I flipped the matching lace-trimmed fan open with a gesture that had taken fifteen minutes’ practice to perfect, and fluttered it enticingly over my bosom.

Jamie blinked meditatively at this performance, then turned to take my cloak from the wardrobe.

"Do me the one favor, Sassenach," he said, draping the heavy velvet over my shoulders. "Take a larger fan."

In terms of attracting notice, the dress was an unqualified success. In terms of the effects on Jamie’s blood pressure, it was somewhat more equivocal.

He hovered protectively at my elbow, glaring ferociously at any male who glanced in my direction, until Annalise de Marillac, spotting us from across the room, came floating in our direction, her delicate features wreathed in a welcoming smile. I felt the smile freezing on my own face. Annalise de Marillac was an "acquaintance"—he said—of Jamie’s, from his former residence in Paris. She was also beautiful, charming, and exquisitely tiny.

"Mon petit sauvage!" she greeted Jamie. "I have someone you must meet. Several someones, in fact." She tilted a head like a china doll in the direction of a group of men, gathered around a chess table in the corner, arguing heatedly about something. I recognized the Duc d’Orléans, and Gérard Gobelin, a prominent banker. An influential group, then.

"Come and play chess for them," Annalise urged, placing a mothlike hand on Jamie’s arm. "It will be a good place for His Majesty to meet you, later."

The King was expected to appear after the supper he was attending, sometime in the next hour or two. In the meantime, the guests wandered to and fro, conversing, admiring the paintings on the walls, flirting behind fans, consuming confits, tartlets, and wine, and disappearing at more or less discreet intervals into the odd little curtained alcoves. These were cleverly fitted into the paneling of the rooms, so that you scarcely noticed them, unless you got close enough to hear the sounds inside.

Jamie hesitated, and Annalise pulled a bit harder.

"Come along," she urged. "Have no fear for your lady"—she cast an appreciative glance at my gown—"she won’t be alone long."

"That’s what I’m afraid of," Jamie muttered under his breath. "All right, then, in a moment." He disengaged himself momentarily from Annalise’s grasp and bent to whisper in my ear.

"If I find ye in one of those alcoves, Sassenach, the man you’re with is dead. And as for you…" His hands twitched unconsciously in the direction of his swordbelt.

"Oh no you don’t," I said. "You swore on your dirk you’d never beat me again. What price the Holy Iron, eh?"

A reluctant grin tugged at his mouth.

"No, I wilna beat ye, much as I’d like to."

"Good. What do you mean to do, then?" I asked, teasing.

"I’ll think of something," he replied, with a certain grimness. "I dinna ken what, but ye wilna like it."

And with a final glare round and a proprietary squeeze of my shoulder, he allowed Annalise to lead him away, like a small but enthusiastic tug towing a reluctant barge.

Annalise was right. No longer deterred by Jamie’s glowering presence, the gentlemen of the Court descended upon me like a flock of parrots on a ripe passion fruit.

My hand was kissed repeatedly and held lingeringly, dozens of flowery compliments were paid me, and cups of spiced wine were brought me in endless procession. After half an hour of this, my feet began to hurt. So did my face, from smiling. And my hand, from fan-wielding.

I had to admit some gratitude to Jamie for his intransigence in the matter of the fan. Bowing to his sensibilities, I had brought the largest I possessed, a foot-long whopper painted with what purported to be Scottish stags leaping through the heather. Jamie had been critical of the artistry, but approving of the size. Graciously fanning away the attentions of an ardent young man in purple, I then spread the thing inconspicuously beneath my chin to deflect crumbs while I nibbled at a piece of toast with salmon on it.

And not only toast crumbs. While Jamie, from his vantage point a foot above me, had claimed to be able to see my navel, my umbilicus was by and large safe from scrutiny by the French courtiers, most of whom were shorter than I was. On the other hand…

I had often enjoyed snuggling into Jamie’s chest, my nose fitting comfortably into the small hollow in the center. A few of the shorter and bolder souls among my admirers seemed bent on enjoying a similar experience, and I was kept busy, flapping my fan hard enough to blow their curls back from their faces, or if that didn’t suffice to discourage them, snapping the fan shut and rapping them smartly on the head with it.

It came as a considerable relief to hear the footman at the door suddenly draw himself up and intone, "Sa Majesté, Le Roi Louis!"

While the King might rise at dawn, apparently he blossomed at night. Not much taller than my own five feet six, Louis entered with the carriage of a much taller man, glancing left and right, nodding in gracious acknowledgment of his bowing subjects.

Now this, I thought, looking him over, was a good deal more in line with my ideas of what a king ought to look like. Not particularly handsome, he acted as though he were; an impression enhanced not only by the richness of his clothes, but by the attitude of those around him. He wore the latest backswept wig, and his coat was cut velvet, embroidered all over with hundreds of frivolous silk butterflies. It was cut away at the middle to display a waistcoat of voluptuous cream-colored silk with diamond buttons, matching the wide, butterfly-shaped buckles on his shoes.

The dark, hooded eyes swept restlessly over the crowd, and the haughty Bourbon nose lifted as though smelling out any item of interest.

Dressed in kilt and plaid, but with a coat and waistcoat of stiffened yellow silk, and with his flaming hair loose to his shoulders, a single small braid down one side in ancient Scots fashion, Jamie definitely qualified. At least I thought it was Jamie who had attracted the King’s attention, as Le Roi Louis purposefully changed direction and swerved toward us, parting the crowd before him like the waves of the Red Sea. Madame Nesle de La Tourelle, whom I recognized from a previous party, followed close behind him like a dinghy in his wake.

I had forgotten the red dress; His Majesty halted directly in front of me and bowed extravagantly, hand over his waist.

"Chère Madame!" he said. "We are enchanted!"

I heard a deep intake of breath from Jamie, and then he stepped forward and bowed to the King.

"May I present my wife, Your Majesty—my lady Broch Tuarach." He rose and stepped back. Attracted by a quick flutter of Jamie’s fingers, I stared at him for a moment of incomprehension, before suddenly realizing that he was signaling me to curtsy.

I dipped automatically, struggling to keep my eyes on the floor and wondering where I would look when I bobbed up again. Madame Nesle de la Tourelle was standing just behind Louis, watching the introduction with a slightly bored look on her face. Gossip said that "Nesle" was Louis’s current favorite. She was, in current vogue, wearing a gown cut below both br**sts, with a bit of supercedent gauze which was clearly meant for the sake of fashion, as it couldn’t possibly function for either warmth or concealment.

It was neither the gown nor the prospect it revealed that had rattled me, though. The br**sts of "Nesle," while reasonably adequate in size, pleasant in proportion, and tipped with large brownish areolae, were further adorned with a pair of nipple jewels that caused their settings to recede into insignificance. A pair of diamond-encrusted swans with ruby eyes stretched their necks toward each other, swinging precariously in their gold-hooped perches. The workmanship was superb and the materials stunning, but it was the fact that each gold hoop passed through her nipple that made me feel rather faint. The n**ples themselves were rather seriously inverted, but this fact was disguised by the large pearl that covered each one, dangling on a thin gold chain that looped from side to side of the main hoop.