"Hunting and women," Jamie said succinctly, and declined firmly to elaborate further. Either politics did not weigh as heavily on Charles’s mind as did Louise de La Tour, or else he was capable of discretion, even in the absence of his tutor Mr. Sheridan.
The second thing that happened was that Monsieur Duverney, the Minister of Finance, lost at chess to Jamie. Not once, but repeatedly. As Jamie had foreseen, the effect of losing was merely to make Monsieur Duverney more determined to win, and we were invited frequently to Versailles, where I circulated, collecting gossip and avoiding alcoves, and Jamie played chess, generally collecting an admiring crowd to watch, though I didn’t myself consider it much of a spectator sport.
Jamie and the Minister of Finance, a small, round man with stooped shoulders, were bent over the chessboard, both apparently so intent on the game as to be oblivious to their surroundings, despite the murmur of voices and the clink of glasses just beyond their shoulders.
"I have seldom seen anything so wearisome as chess," murmured one of the ladies to another. "Amusement, they call it! I should be more amused watching my maid pick fleas off the black pageboys. At least they squeal and giggle a bit."
"I shouldn’t mind making the red-haired lad squeal and giggle a bit," said her companion, smiling charmingly at Jamie, who had lifted his head and was gazing absently past Monsieur Duverney. Her companion caught sight of me, and dug the lady, a luscious blonde, in the ribs.
I smiled pleasantly at her, rather nastily enjoying the deep flush that rose from her low neckline, leaving her complexion in rosy blotches. As for Jamie, she could have twined her plump fingers in his hair for all the notice he would have paid, so abstracted did he seem.
I wondered just what was occupying his concentration. Surely it wasn’t the game; Monsieur Duverney played a dogged game of cautious positioning, but used the same gambits repeatedly. The middle two fingers of Jamie’s right hand moved slightly against his thigh, a brief flutter of quickly masked impatience, and I knew that whatever he was thinking of, it wasn’t the game. It might take another half-hour, but he held Monsieur Duverney’s king in the palm of his hand.
The Duc de Neve was standing next to me. I saw his dark little eyes fix on Jamie’s fingers, then flick away. He paused meditatively for a moment, surveying the board, then glided away to increase his wager.
A footman paused by my shoulder and dipped obsequiously, offering me yet another glass of wine. I waved him away; I had had enough during the evening that my head was feeling light and my feet dangerously far away.
Turning to look for a place to sit down, I caught sight of the Comte St. Germain across the room. Perhaps he was what Jamie had been looking at. The Comte in turn was looking at me; staring at me, in fact, with a smile on his face. It wasn’t his normal expression, and it didn’t suit him. I didn’t care for it at all, in fact, but bowed as graciously as I could in his direction, and then pushed off into the throng of ladies, chatting of this and that, but trying wherever possible to lead the conversation in the direction of Scotland and its exiled king.
By and large, the prospects for a Stuart restoration did not seem to be preoccupying the aristocracy of France. When I mentioned Charles Stuart now and then, the usual response was a rolling of the eyes or a shrug of dismissal. Despite the good offices of the Earl of Mar and the other Paris Jacobites, Louis was stubbornly refusing to receive Charles at Court. And a penniless exile who was not in the King’s favor was not going to find himself invited out in society to make the acquaintance of wealthy bankers.
"The King is not particularly pleased that his cousin should have arrived in France without seeking his permission," the Comtesse de Brabant told me when I had introduced the topic. "He has been heard to say that England can stay Protestant, so far as he himself is concerned," she confided. "And if the English burn in hell with George of Hanover, so much the better." She pursed her lips in sympathy; she was a kindly sort. "I am sorry," she said. "I know that must be disappointing to you and your husband, but really…" She shrugged.
I thought we might be able to accommodate this sort of disappointment, and scouted eagerly for further bits of gossip along these lines, but met with little success this evening. Jacobites, I was given to understand, were a bore.
"Rook to queen’s pawn five," Jamie mumbled later that evening as we prepared for bed. We were staying as guests in the palace once more. As the chess game had lasted well past midnight, and the Minister would not hear of our undertaking the journey back to Paris at such an hour, we had been accommodated in a small appartement—this one a notch or two above the first, I noted. It had a featherbed, and a window overlooking the south parterre.
"Rooks, eh?" I said, sliding into the bed and stretching out with a groan. "Are you going to dream about chess tonight?"
Jamie nodded, with a jaw-cracking yawn that made his eyes water.
"Aye, I’m sure I will. I hope it willna disturb ye, Sassenach, if I castle in my sleep."
My feet curled in the sheer joy of being unfettered and relieved of my increasing weight, and my lower spine sent out sharp jolts of a mildly pleasant pain as it readjusted to lying down.
"You can stand on your head in your sleep if you want," I said, yawning myself. "Nothing will bother me tonight."
I have seldom been more wrong.
I was dreaming of the baby. Grown almost to the birthing, it kicked and heaved in my swollen belly. My hands went to the mound, massaging the stretched skin, trying to quiet the turmoil within. But the squirming went on, and in the unexcited fashion of dreams, I realized that it was not a baby, but a snake that writhed in my belly. I doubled, drawing up my knees as I wrestled the serpent, my hands groping and pummeling, searching for the head of the beast that darted and thrust under my skin. My skin was hot to the touch, and my intestines coiled, turning into snakes themselves, biting and thrashing as they twined together.
"Claire! Wake up, lass! What’s amiss?" The shaking and calling roused me at last to a fuzzy apprehension of my surroundings. I was in bed, and it was Jamie’s hand on my shoulder, and the linen sheets over me. But the snakes continued to writhe in my belly, and I moaned loudly, the sound alarming me almost as much as it did Jamie.
He flung back the sheets and rolled me onto my back, trying to push my knees down. I stayed stubbornly rolled into a ball, clutching my stomach, trying to contain the pangs of sharp agony that stabbed through me.
He yanked the quilt back over me and rushed out of the room, barely pausing to snatch his kilt from the stool.
I had little attention to spare for anything other than my inner turmoil. My ears were ringing, and a cold sweat soaked my face.
I opened my eyes enough to see the maid assigned to our appartement, eyes frantic and hair awry, bending over the bed. Jamie, half-naked and still more frantic, was behind her. I shut my eyes, groaning, but not before I saw him grab the maid by the shoulder, hard enough to shake her curls loose from her nightcap.
"Is she losing the child? Is she?"
It seemed extremely likely. I twisted on the bed, grunting, and doubled tighter, as though to protect the burden of pain I contained.
There was an increasing babble of voices in the room, mostly female, and a number of hands poked and prodded at me. I heard a male voice speaking amid the babble; not Jamie, someone French. At the voice’s direction, a number of hands fastened themselves to my ankles and shoulders and stretched me flat upon the bed.
A hand reached under my nightdress and probed my belly. I opened my eyes, panting, and saw Monsieur Flèche, the Royal Physician, kneeling by the bed as he frowned in concentration. I should have felt flattered at this evidence of the King’s favor, but had little attention to spare for it. The character of the pain seemed to be changing; while it grew stronger in spasms, it was more or less constant, and yet it seemed to be almost moving, traveling from somewhere high up in my abdomen to a lower spot.
"Not a miscarriage," Monsieur Flèche was assuring Jamie, who hovered anxiously over his shoulder. "There is no bleeding." I saw one of the attending ladies staring in rapt horror at the scars on his back. She grasped a companion by the sleeve, calling her attention to them.
"Perhaps an inflammation of the gallbladder," Monsieur Flèche was saying. "Or a sudden chill of the liver."
"Idiot," I said through clenched teeth.
Monsieur Flèche stared haughtily down his rather large nose at me, belatedly adding his gold-rimmed pince-nez to increase the effect. He laid a hand upon my clammy brow, incidentally covering my eyes so that I could no longer glare at him.
"Most likely the liver," he was saying to Jamie. "Impaction of the gallbladder causes this accumulation of bilious humors in the blood, which cause pain—and temporary derangement," he added authoritatively, pressing down harder as I thrashed to and fro. "She should be bled at once. Plato, the basin!"
I yanked one hand free and batted the restraining hand off my head.
"Get away from me, you bloody quack! Jamie! Don’t let them touch me with that!" Plato, Monsieur Flèche’s assistant, was advancing upon me with lancet and basin, while the ladies in the background gasped and fanned each other, lest they be overcome with excitement at this drama.
Jamie, white-faced, glanced helplessly between me and Monsieur Flèche. Coming to a sudden decision, he grabbed the hapless Plato and pulled him back from the bed, turned him and propelled him toward the door, lancet stabbing the air. The maids and ladies fell back shrieking before him.
"Monsieur! Monsieur le chevalier!" The physician was expostulating. He had clapped his wig professionally upon his head when called, but had not taken time to dress, and the sleeves of his bedgown flapped like wings as he followed Jamie across the room, waving his arms like a demented scarecrow.
The pain increased once more, a vise squeezing my insides, and I gasped and doubled up once more. As it eased a bit, I opened my eyes and saw one of the ladies, her eyes fixed alertly on my face. A look of dawning realization passed over her features, and still looking at me, she leaned over to whisper to one of her companions. There was too much noise in the room to hear, but I read her lips clearly.
"Poison," she said.
The pain shifted abruptly lower with an ominous interior gurgle, and I realized finally what it was. Not a miscarriage. Not appendicitis, still less a chilled liver. Nor was it poison, precisely. It was bitter cascara.
"You," I said, advancing menacingly on Master Raymond, crouched defensively behind his worktable, beneath the protective aegis of his stuffed crocodile. "You! You bloody frog-faced little worm!"
"Me, madonna? I have done you no harm, have I?"
"Aside from causing me to have violent diarrhea in the presence of thirty-odd people, making me think I was having a miscarriage, and scaring my husband out of his skin, no harm at all!"
"Oh, your husband was present?" Master Raymond looked uneasy.
"He was," I assured him. It was in fact with considerable difficulty that I had succeeded in preventing Jamie from coming up to the apothecary’s shop and extracting, by force, such information as Master Raymond possessed. I had finally persuaded him to wait with the coach outside, while I talked to the amphibious proprietor.
"But you aren’t dead, madonna," the little herbalist pointed out. He had no brows to speak of, but one side of his wide, heavy forehead crinkled upward. "You could have been, you know."
In the stress of the evening and the physical shakiness that followed, I had rather overlooked this fact.
"So it wasn’t just a practical joke?" I said, a little weakly. "Someone really meant to poison me, and I’m not dead only because you have scruples?"
"Perhaps my scruples are not entirely responsible for your survival, madonna; it is possible that it was a joke—I imagine there are other purveyors from whom one might obtain bitter cascara. But I have sold that substance to two persons within the last month—and neither of them asked for it."
"I see." I drew a long breath, and wiped the perspiration from my brow with my glove. So we had two potential poisoners loose; just what I needed.
"Will you tell me who?" I asked bluntly. "They might buy from someone else, next time. Someone without your scruples."
He nodded, his wide, froggy mouth twitching in thought.
"It is a possibility, madonna. As for the actual purchasers, I doubt that information would help you. They were servants; plainly acting on the orders of a master. One was maid to the Vicomtesse de Rambeau; the other a man I did not recognize."
I drummed my fingers on the counter. The only person who had made threats against me was the Comte St. Germain. Could he have hired an anonymous servant to procure what he thought was poison, and then slipped it into my glass himself? Casting my mind back to the gathering at Versailles, I thought it certainly possible. The goblets of wine had been passed around on trays by servants; while the Comte had not come within arm’s length of me himself, it would have been no great problem to bribe a servant to give me a particular glass.
Raymond was eyeing me curiously. "I would ask you, madonna, have you done something to antagonize la Vicomtesse? She is a very jealous woman; this would not be the first time she has sought my aid in disposing of a rival, though fortunately her jealousies are short-lived. The Vicomte has a roving eye, you understand—there is always a new rival to displace her thoughts of the last one."
I sat down, uninvited.
"Rambeau?" I said, trying to attach the name to a face. Then the mists of memory cleared, revealing a stylishly dressed body and a homely round face, both liberally splashed with snuff.
"Rambeau!" I exclaimed. "Well, yes, I’ve met the man, but all I did was to smack him across the face with my fan when he bit my toes."
"In some moods, that would be sufficient provocation for la Vicomtesse," Master Raymond observed. "And if so, then I believe you are likely safe from further attacks."
"Thanks," I said dryly. "And if it wasn’t the Vicomtesse?"
The little apothecary hesitated for a moment, his eyes narrowed against the glare of the morning sun that shone through the lozenged panes behind me. Then he made up his mind, and turned toward the stone table where his alembics simmered, jerking his head at me to follow.
"Come with me, madonna. I have something for you."
To my surprise, he ducked beneath the table and disappeared. As he didn’t come back, I bent down and peered under the table myself. A bed of charcoal was glowing on the hearth, but there was space to either side of it. And in the wall beneath the table, concealed by the shadows, was the darker space of an opening.
With only a little hesitation, I kilted up my skirts and waddled under the table after him.
On the other side of the wall, there was room to stand up, though the room was quite small. The building’s outer structure gave no hint of it.
Two walls of the hidden room were taken up by a honeycomb of shelves, each cell dustless and immaculate, each displaying the skull of a beast. The impact of the wall was enough to make me take a step backward; all the empty eyes seemed trained on me, teeth bared in gleaming welcome.
I blinked several times before I was able to locate Raymond, crouched cautiously at the foot of this ossuary like the resident acolyte. He held his arms raised nervously before him, eying me rather as though he expected me either to scream or to throw myself upon him. But I had seen sights a good deal more grisly than a mere rank of polished bone, and walked forward calmly to examine them more closely.
He had everything, it seemed. Tiny skulls, of bat, mouse and shrew, the bones transparent, little teeth spiked in pinpoints of carnivorous ferocity. Horses, from the huge Percherons, with massive scimitar-shaped jaws looking eminently suitable for flattening platoons of Philistines, down to the skulls of donkeys, as stubbornly enduring in their miniature curves as those of the enormous draft horses.
They had a certain appeal, so still and so beautiful, as though each object held still the essence of its owner, as if the lines of bone held the ghost of the flesh and fur that once they had borne.
I reached out and touched one of the skulls, the bone not cold as I would have expected, but strangely inert, as though the vanished warmth, long gone, hovered not far off.
I had seen human remains treated with far less reverence; the skulls of early Christian martyrs jammed cheek by bony jowl together in heaps in the catacombs, thigh bones tossed in a pile like jackstraws underneath.
"A bear?" I said, speaking softly. A big skull, this one, the canine teeth curved for ripping, but the molars oddly flattened.
"Yes, madonna." Seeing that I was not afraid, Raymond relaxed. His hand floated out, barely skimming the curves of the blunt, solid skull. "You see the teeth? An eater of fish, of meat"—a small finger traced the long, wicked curve of the canine, the flat serrations of molar—"but a grinder of berries, of grubs. They seldom starve, because they will eat anything."
I turned slowly from side to side, admiring, touching one here and there.
"They’re lovely," I said. We spoke in quiet tones, as though to speak loudly might rouse the silent sleepers.
"Yes." Raymond’s fingers touched them as mine did, stroking the long frontal bones, tracing the delicate squamosal arch of the cheek. "They hold the character of the animal, you see. You can tell much about what was, only from what is left."
He turned over one of the smaller skulls, pointing out the swelling bulges on the underside, like small, thin-walled balloons.
"Here—the canal of the ear enters into these, so that the sounds echo within the skull. Hence the sharp ears of the rat, madonna."
"Tympanic bullae," I said, nodding.
"Ah? I have but little Latin. My names for such things are…my own."
"Those…" I gestured upward. "Those are special, aren’t they?"
"Ah. Yes, madonna. They are wolves. Very old wolves." He lifted down one of the skulls, handling it with reverent care. The snout was long and canid, with heavy canines and broad carnassial teeth. The sagittal crest rose stark and commanding from the back of the skull, testimony to the heavy muscles of the brawny neck that had once supported it.
Not a soft dull white like the other skulls, these were stained and streaked with brown, and shone glossy with much polishing.
"Such beasts are no more, madonna."
"No more? Extinct, you mean?" I touched it once more, fascinated. "Where on earth did you get them?"