Dragonfly in Amber (Page 26)

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2)(26)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

I saw the boy Fergus’s eyes focus at a spot somewhat past the bilboquet, where a tray of iced cakes stood on a table near the wall. A small, pointed pink tongue darted out across his lower lip.

"I think your protégé is hungry," I said. "Why don’t you feed him, and then you can tell me just what in bloody hell happened this afternoon."

"Well, I was on my way to the docks," he began, obediently rising to his feet, "and just past the Rue Eglantine, I began to have a queer feeling up the back of my neck."

Jamie Fraser had spent two years in the army of France, fought and stolen with a gang of Scottish "broken men," and been hunted as an outlaw through the moors and mountains of his native land. All of which had left him with an extreme sensitivity to the sensation of being followed.

He couldn’t have said whether it was the sound of a footfall, too close behind, or the sight of a shadow that shouldn’t be there, or something less tangible—the scent of evil on the air, perhaps—but he had learned that the prickle of warning among the short hairs of his neck was something to be ignored at his peril.

Promptly obeying the dictates of his cervical vertebrae, he turned left instead of right at the next corner, ducked around a whelk-seller’s stall, cut between a barrow filled with steamed puddings and another of fresh vegetable marrows, and into a small charcuterie.

Pressed against the wall near the doorway, he peered out through a screen of hanging duck carcasses. Two men entered the street no more than a second later, walking close together, glancing quickly from side to side.

Every workingman in Paris carried the marks of his trade upon his person, and it didn’t take much of a nose to detect the whiff of sea-salt on these two. If the small gold hoop in the shorter man’s ear had not been a dead giveaway, the deep reddish-brown of their faces would have made it clear they were deep-water sailors.

Accustomed to the cramped quarters of shipboard and quay taverns, seamen seldom walked in a straight line. These two slid through the crowded alley like eels through rocks, eyes flicking past beggars, servingmaids, housewives, merchants; sea wolves assessing potential prey.

"I let them get well past the shop," Jamie explained, "and I was just about to step out and go back the other way, when I saw another of them at the mouth of the alley."

This man wore the same uniform as the other two; sidelocks heavily coated with grease, a fish knife at his side and a marlinspike the length of a man’s forearm thrust through his belt. Short and thickset, the man stood still at the end of the alley, holding his ground against the buffeting waves of commerce that ebbed and flowed through the narrow passage. Clearly he had been left on guard, while his fellows quested ahead.

"So I was left wondering what best to do," Jamie said, rubbing his nose. "I was safe enough where I was, but there was no back way from the shop, and the moment I stepped from the doorway, I’d be seen." He glanced down reflectively, smoothing the crimson fabric of his kilt across his thigh. An enormous red barbarian was going to be conspicuous, no matter how thick the crowd.

"So what did you do?" I asked. Fergus, ignoring the conversation, was stuffing his pockets methodically with cakes, pausing for a hasty bite every so often in the process. Jamie caught my glance at the boy and shrugged.

"He’ll not have been in the habit of eating regularly," he said. "Let him be."

"All right," I said. "But go on—what did you do?"

"Bought a sausage," he said promptly.

A Dunedin, to be exact. Made of spiced duck, ham and venison, boiled, stuffed and sun-dried, a Dunedin sausage measured eighteen inches from end to end and was as hard as seasoned oakwood.

"I couldna step out wi’ my sword drawn," Jamie explained, "but I didna like the idea of stepping past the fellow in the alleyway wi’ no one at my back, and empty hands."

Bearing the Dunedin at port arms, and keeping a weather eye on the passing crowd, Jamie had stepped boldly down the alley, toward the watcher at its mouth.

The man had met his gaze quite calmly, showing no sign of any malign intent. Jamie might have thought his original premonition mistaken, had he not seen the watcher’s eyes flick briefly to something over Jamie’s shoulder. Obeying the instincts that had kept him alive thus far, he had dived forward, knocking the watcher down and sliding on his face across the filthy cobbles of the street.

The crowd scattered before him with shrieks of alarm, and he rolled to his feet to see the flung knife that had missed him, quivering in the boards of a ribbon stall.

"If I’d had a bit of doubt it was me they wanted, I didna fret about it longer," he said dryly.

He had kept hold of the sausage, and now found use for it, swinging it smartly across the face of one attacker.

"I broke his nose, I think," he said meditatively. "Anyway, he reeled back, and I shoved past and took off running, down the Rue Pelletier."

The inhabitants of the street scattered before him like geese, startled by the sight of a hurtling Scotsman, kilts flying around his churning knees. He didn’t stop to look behind; by the shouts of indignant passersby, he could tell that the assailants were still in pursuit.

This part of the city was seldom patrolled by the King’s Guard, and the crowd itself offered little protection other than a simple obstruction that might slow his pursuers. No one was likely to interfere in a matter of violence on a foreigner’s behalf.

"There are no alleys off the Rue Pelletier. I needed at least to get to a place where I could draw my sword and have a wall at my back," Jamie explained. "So I pushed at the doors as I passed, ’til I hit one that opened."

Dashing into a gloomy hallway, past a startled porter, and through a hanging drape, he had shot into the center of a large, well-lighted room, and come to a screeching halt in the middle of one Madame Elise’s salon, the scent of perfume heavy in his nostrils.

"I see," I said, biting my lip. "I, um, trust you didn’t draw your sword in there?"

Jamie narrowed his eyes at me, but didn’t deign to reply directly.

"I’ll leave it to you, Sassenach," he said dryly, "to imagine what it feels like to arrive unexpectedly in the midst of a brothel, in possession of a verra large sausage."

My imagination proved fully equal to this task, and I burst out laughing.

"God, I wish I could have seen you!" I said.

"Thank God ye didn’t!" he said fervently. A furious blush glowed on his cheekbones.

Ignoring remarks from the fascinated inmates, Jamie had made his way awkwardly through what he described, shuddering, as "tangles o’ bare limbs," until he had spotted Fergus against one wall, regarding the intruder with a round-eyed astonishment.

Seizing upon this unexpected manifestation of maleness, Jamie had gripped the lad by the shoulder, and fervently implored him to show the way to the nearest exit, without loss of a moment.

"I could hear a hurly-burly breakin’ out in the hallway," he explained, "and I kent they were in after me. I didna want to be having to fight for my life wi’ a lot of nak*d women getting in the way."

"I can see that the prospect might be daunting," I agreed, rubbing my upper lip. "But obviously he got you out."

"Aye. He didna hesitate a moment, the dear lad. ‘This way, Monsieur!’ he says, and it was up the stair, and through a room, and out a window onto the roof, and awa’ wi’ us both." Jamie cast a fond glance at his new employee.

"You know," I observed, "there are some wives who wouldn’t believe one word of a story like that."

Jamie’s eyes opened wide in astonishment.

"They wouldna? Whyever not?"

"Possibly," I said dryly, "because they aren’t married to you. I’m pleased that you escaped with your virtue intact, but for the moment, I’m rather more interested in the chaps who chased you in there."

"I didna have a great deal of leisure to think about it at the time," Jamie replied. "And now that I have, I still couldna say who they were, or why they were hunting me."

"Robbery, do you think?" The cash receipts of the wine business were conveyed between the Fraser warehouse, the Rue Tremoulins, and Jared’s bank by strongbox, under heavy guard. Still, Jamie was very visible among the crowds near the river docks, and was undoubtedly known to be a wealthy foreign merchant—wealthy by contrast with most of the denizens of that neighborhood, at any rate.

He shook his head, flicking crumbs of dried mud off his shirtfront.

"It might be, I suppose. But they didna try to accost me; it was straightout murder they meant."

His tone was quite matter-of-fact, but it gave me rather a wobbly feeling in the knees, and I sank down onto a settee. I licked my lips, gone suddenly dry.

"Who—who do you think…?"

He shrugged, frowning as he scooped up a dab of icing from the plate and licked it off his finger.

"The only man I could think of who’s threatened me is the Comte St. Germain. But I canna think what he’d gain from having me killed."

"He’s Jared’s business rival, you said."

"Oh, aye. But the Comte’s no interest in German wines, and I canna see him going to the trouble of killing me, only to ruin Jared’s new enterprise by bringing him back to Paris. That seems a trifle extreme," he said dryly, "even for a man wi’ the Comte’s temper."

"Well, do you think…" The idea made me mildly ill, and I swallowed twice before going on. "Do you think it might have been…revenge? For the Patagonia being burned?"

Jamie shook his head, baffled.

"I suppose it could be, but it seems a long time to wait. And why me, come to that?" he added. "It’s you annoyed him, Sassenach. Why not kill you, if that’s what he meant?"

The sick feeling got slightly worse.

"Do you have to be so bloody logical?" I said.

He saw the look on my face, and smiled suddenly, putting an arm around me for comfort.

"Nay, mo duinne. The Comte’s a quick temper, but I canna see him going to the trouble and expense of killing either of us, only for revenge. If it might get him his ship back, then yes," he added, "but as it is, I expect he’d only think the price of three hired assassins throwing good money after bad."

He patted my shoulder and stood up.

"Nay, I expect it was only a try at robbery, after all. Dinna trouble yourself about it. I’ll take Murtagh with me to the docks from now on, to be safe."

He stretched himself, and brushed the last of the crumbling dirt from his kilt. "Am I decent to go in to supper?" he asked, looking critically down his chest. "It must be nearly ready by now."

"What’s ready?"

He opened the door, and a rich, spicy scent wafted up at once from the dining room below.

"Why, the sausage, of course," he said, with a grin over one shoulder. "Ye dinna think I’d let it go to waste?"

13

DECEPTIONS

Barberry leaves, three handfuls in a decoction, steeped overnight, poured over half a handful of black hellebore." I laid the list of…ingredients down on the inlaid table as though it were slightly slimy to the touch. "I got it from Madame Rouleaux. She’s the best of the angel-makers, but even she says it’s dangerous. Louise, are you sure you want to do this?"

Her round pink face was blotched, and the plump lower lip had a tendency to quiver.

"What choice do I have?" She picked up the recipe for the abortifacient and gazed at it in repulsed fascination.

"Black hellebore," she said, and shuddered. "The very name of it sounds evil!"

"Well, it’s bloody nasty stuff," I said bluntly. "It will make you feel as though your insides are coming out. But the baby may come, too. It doesn’t always work." I remembered Master Raymond’s warning—It is dangerous to wait too long—and wondered how far gone she might be. Surely no more than six weeks or so; she had told me the instant she suspected.

She glanced at me, startled, with red-rimmed eyes.

"You have used it yourself?"

"God, no!" I startled myself with the vehemence of my exclamation, and took a deep breath.

"No. I’ve seen women who have, though—at L’Hôpital des Anges." The abortionists—the angel-makers—practiced largely in the privacy of homes, their own or their clients’. Their successes were not the ones that came to the hospital. I laid a hand unobtrusively over my own abdomen, as though for protection of its helpless occupant. Louise caught the gesture and hurled herself into the sofa, burying her head in her hands.

"Oh, I wish I were dead!" she moaned. "Why, why couldn’t I be as fortunate as you—to be bearing the child of a husband I loved?" She clutched her own plump stomach with both hands, staring down at it as though expecting the child to peek out between her fingers.

There were any number of answers to that particular question, but I didn’t think she really wanted to hear any of them. I took a deep breath and sat down beside her, patting a heaving damask shoulder.

"Louise," I said. "Do you want the child?"

She lifted her head and stared at me in astonishment.

"But of course I want it!" she exclaimed. "It’s his—it’s Charles’s! It’s…" Her face crumpled, and she bowed her head once more over her hands, clasped so tightly over her belly. "It’s mine," she whispered. After a long moment, she raised her streaming face, and with a pathetic attempt to pull herself together, wiped her nose on a trailing sleeve.

"But it’s no good," she said. "If I don’t…" She glanced at the recipe on the table and swallowed heavily. "Then Jules will divorce me—he’ll cast me out. There would be the most terrible scandal. I might be excommunicated! Not even Father could protect me."

"Yes," I said. "But…" I hesitated, then cast caution to the winds. "Is there any chance Jules might be convinced the child is his?" I asked bluntly.

She looked blank for a moment, and I wanted to shake her.

"I don’t see how, unless—oh!" Light dawned, and she looked at me, horrified.

"Sleep with Jules, you mean? But Charles would be furious!"

"Charles," I said through my teeth, "is not pregnant!"

"Well, but he’s…that is…I couldn’t!" The look of horror was fading, though, being slowly replaced with the growing realization of possibility.

I didn’t want to push her; still, I saw no good reason for her to risk her life for the sake of Charles Stuart’s pride, either.

"Do you suppose Charles would want you to endanger yourself?" I said. "For that matter—does he know about the child?"

She nodded, mouth slightly open as she thought about it, hands still clenched together over her stomach.

"Yes. That’s what we quarreled about last time." She sniffed. "He was angry; he said it was all my fault, that I should have waited until he had reclaimed his father’s throne. Then he would be king someday, and he could come and take me away from Jules, and have the Pope annul my marriage, and his sons could be heirs to England and Scotlan.…" She gave way once more, sniveling and wailing incoherently into a fold of her skirt.

I rolled my eyes in exasperation.

"Oh, do be quiet, Louise!" I snapped. It shocked her enough to make her stop weeping, at least momentarily, and I took advantage of the hiatus to press my point.

"Look," I said, as persuasively as possible, "you don’t suppose Charles would want you to sacrifice his son, do you? Legitimate or not?" Actually, I rather thought Charles would be in favor of any step that removed inconvenience from his own path, regardless of the effects on Louise or his putative offspring. On the other hand, the Prince did have a marked streak of romanticism; perhaps he could be induced to view this as the sort of temporary adversity common to exiled monarchs. Obviously, I was going to need Jamie’s help. I grimaced at the thought of what he was likely to say about it.

"Well.…" Louise was wavering, wanting desperately to be convinced. I had a momentary pang of pity for Jules, Prince de Rohan, but the vision of a young servant-girl, dying in protracted, blood-smeared agony on a pallet spread in the stone hallway of L’Hôpital des Anges was brutally clear in my mind.

It was nearly sunset when I left the de Rohans’, footsteps dragging. Louise, palpitating with nervousness, was upstairs in her boudoir, her maid putting up her hair and arraying her in her most daring gown before she went down to a private supper with her husband. I felt completely drained, and hoped that Jamie hadn’t brought anyone home for supper; I could use a spot of privacy, too.

He hadn’t; when I entered the study, he was seated at the desk, poring over three or four sheets of close-written paper.

"Do you think ‘the fur merchant’ is more likely to be Louis of France, or his minister Duverney?" he asked, without looking up.

"Fine, thank you, darling, and how are you?" I said.

"All right," he said absently. The cowlicks on the top of his head were sticking up straight; he massaged his scalp vigorously as I watched, scowling down his long nose at the paper.

"I’m sure ‘the tailor from Vendôme’ must be Monsieur Geyer," he said, running a finger along the lines of the letter, "and ‘our mutual friend’—that could be either the Earl of Mar, or possibly the papal envoy. I think the Earl, from the rest of it, but the—"

"What on earth is that?" I peered over his shoulder, and gasped when I saw the signature at the foot of the letter. James Stuart, by the grace of God King of England and Scotland.

"Bloody Christ! It worked, then!" Swinging around, I spotted Fergus, crouched on a stool in front of the fire, industriously stuffing pastries into his face. "Good lad," I said, smiling at him. He grinned back at me, cheeks puffed like a chipmunk’s with chestnut tart.

"We got it from the papal messenger," Jamie explained, coming to the surface long enough to realize I was there. "Fergus took it from the bag while he was eating supper in a tavern. He’ll spend the night there, so we’ll have to put this back before morning. No difficulties there, Fergus?"

The boy swallowed and shook his head. "No, milord. He sleeps alone—not trusting his bedmates not to steal the contents of his bag." He grinned derisively at this. "The second window on the left, above the stables." He waved an airy hand, the deft, grubby fingers reaching for another pie. "It is nothing, milord."

I had a sudden vision of that fine-boned hand held squirming on a block, with an executioner’s blade raised above the broomstick wrist. I gulped, forcing down the sudden lurch of my stomach. Fergus wore a small greenish copper medal on a string about his neck; the image of St. Dismas, I hoped.