"Not on the earth, madonna. Under it. They came from a peat bog, buried many feet down."
Looking closely, I could see the differences between these skulls and the newer, whiter ones on the opposite wall. These animals had been larger than ordinary wolves, with jaws that might have cracked the leg bones of a running elk or torn the throat from a fallen deer.
I shuddered slightly at the touch, reminded of the wolf I had killed outside Wentworth Prison, and its pack-mates who had stalked me in the icy twilight, barely six months ago.
"You do not care for wolves, madonna?" Raymond asked. "Yet the bears and the foxes do not trouble you? They also are hunters, eaters of flesh."
"Yes, but not mine," I said wryly, handing him back the age-dark skull. "I feel a good deal more sympathy with our friend the elk." I patted the high jutting nose with some affection.
"Sympathy?" The soft black eyes regarded me curiously. "It is an unusual emotion to feel for a bone, madonna."
"Well…yes," I said, slightly embarrassed, "but they don’t really seem like just bones, you know. I mean, you can tell something about them, and get a feeling for what the animal was like, looking at these. They aren’t just inanimate objects."
Raymond’s toothless mouth stretched wide, as though I had inadvertently said something that pleased him, but he said nothing in reply.
"Why do you have all these?" I asked abruptly, suddenly realizing that racks of animal skulls were hardly the usual appurtenances of an apothecary’s shop. Stuffed crocodiles, possibly, but not all this lot.
He shrugged good-naturedly.
"Well, they are company, of a sort, while I pursue my work." He gestured toward a cluttered workbench in one corner. "And while they may talk to me of many things, they are not so noisy as to attract the attention of the neighbors. Come here," he said, changing subjects abruptly. "I have something for you."
I followed him toward a tall cabinet at the end of the room, wondering.
He was not a naturalist, certainly not a scientist, as I understood the term. He kept no notes, made no drawings, no records that others might consult and learn from. And yet I had the odd conviction that he wanted very much to teach me the things that he knew—a sympathy for bones, perhaps?
The cabinet was painted with a number of odd signs, tailed and whorled, among what appeared to be pentagons and circles; Cabbalistic symbols. I recognized one or two, from some of Uncle Lamb’s historical references.
"Interested in the Cabbala, are you?" I asked, eyeing the symbols with some amusement. That would account for the hidden workroom. While there was a strong interest in occult matters among some of the French literati and the aristocracy, it was an interest kept highly clandestine, for fear of the Church’s cleansing wrath.
To my surprise, Raymond laughed. His blunt, short-nailed fingers pressed here and there on the front of the cabinet, touching the center of one symbol, the tail of another.
"Well, no, madonna. Most Cabbalists tend to be rather poor, so I do not seek their company often. But the symbols do keep curious people out of my cabinet. Which, if you think of it, is no small power for a bit of paint to exercise. So perhaps the Cabbalists are right, after all, when they say these signs hold power?"
He smiled mischievously at me, as the cabinet door swung open. I could see that it was in fact a double cabinet; if a nosy person ignored the warning of the symbols and merely opened the door, he or she would no doubt see only the harmless contents of an apothecary’s closet. But if the proper sequence of hidden catches was pressed, then the inner shelves swung out as well, revealing a deep cavity behind them.
He pulled out one of the small drawers that lined the cavity, and upended it into his hand. Stirring the contents, he plucked out a single large white crystalline stone and handed it to me.
"For you," he said. "For protection."
"What? Magic?" I asked cynically, tilting the crystal from side to side in my palm.
Raymond laughed. He held his hand over the desk and let a handful of small colored stones trickle through his fingers, to bounce on the stained felt blotting-pad.
"I suppose you can call it so, madonna. Certainly I can charge more for it when I do." One fingertip nudged a pale greenish crystal free from the pile of colored stones.
"They have no more—and surely no less—magic than the skulls. Call them the bones of the earth. They hold the essence of the matrix in which they grew, and whatever powers that held, you may find here as well." He flicked a small yellowish nodule in my direction.
"Sulfur. Grind it with a few other small things, touch it with a match, and it will explode. Gunpowder. Is that magic? Or is it only the nature of sulfur?"
"I suppose it depends who you’re talking to," I observed, and his face split in a delighted grin.
"If you ever seek to leave your husband, madonna," he said, chuckling, "be assured that you won’t starve. I said you were a professional, did I not?"
"My husband!" I exclaimed, paling. My mind suddenly made sense of the muffled noises coming from the distant shop. There was a loud thump, as of a large fist brought down with considerable force on a countertop, and the deep rumble of a voice inclined to brook no interference made itself heard amid the babble of other sounds.
"Bloody Christ! I forgot Jamie!"
"Your husband is here?" Raymond’s eyes went wider even than usual, and had he not already been so pale, I imagine he would have gone white, too.
"I left him outside," I explained, stooping to cross back through the secret opening. "He must have got tired of waiting."
"Wait, madonna!" Raymond’s hand gripped my elbow, stopping me. He put his other hand over mine, the one that held the white crystal.
"That crystal, madonna. I said it is for your protection."
"Yes, yes," I said impatiently, hearing my name being shouted outside with increasing volume. "What does it do, then?"
"It is sensitive to poison, madonna. It will change color, in the presence of several harmful compounds."
That stopped me. I straightened up and stared at him.
"Poison?" I said, slowly. "Then…"
"Yes, madonna. You may be still in some danger." Raymond’s froglike face was grim. "I cannot say for sure, or from which direction, for I do not know. If I find out, be assured I will tell you." His eyes flicked uneasily toward the entrance through the hearth. A thunder of blows sounded on the outer wall. "Assure your husband as well, please, madonna."
"Don’t worry," I told him, ducking under the low lintel. "Jamie doesn’t bite—I don’t think."
"I was not worried about his teeth, madonna" came from behind me as I walked duckfooted over the ashes of the hearth.
Jamie, in the act of raising his dagger-hilt to hammer again on the paneling, caught sight of me emerging from the fireplace and lowered it.
"Och, there ye are," he observed mildly. He tilted his head to one side, watching me brush soot and ashes from the hem of my gown, then scowled at the sight of Raymond peeping cautiously out from under the drying table.
"Ah, and there’s our wee toadling, as well. Has he some explanation, Sassenach, or had I best pin him up wi’ the rest?" Not taking his eyes off Raymond, he nodded toward the wall of the outer workshop, where a number of dried toads and frogs were pinned to a long strip of hanging felt.
"No, no," I said hastily as Raymond made to duck back into his sanctuary. "He’s told me everything. In fact, he’s been most helpful."
With some reluctance, Jamie put up his dirk, and I reached down a hand to draw Raymond out of hiding. He flinched slightly at the sight of Jamie.
"This man is your husband, madonna?" he asked, in the tones of someone hoping the answer would be "no."
"Yes, of course," I answered. "My husband, James Fraser, my lord Broch Tuarach," I said, waving at Jamie, though I could scarcely have been referring to anyone else. I waved in the other direction. "Master Raymond."
"So I gathered," said Jamie dryly. He bowed and extended a hand toward Raymond, whose head reached a few inches past Jamie’s waist. Raymond touched the outstretched hand briefly and yanked his own back, unable to repress a mild shiver. I stared at him in amazement.
Jamie merely raised one eyebrow, then leaned back and settled himself against the edge of the table. He crossed his arms across his chest.
"All right, then," he said. "What about it?"
I made most of the explanations, Raymond contributing only monosyllables of confirmation from time to time. The little apothecary seemed deprived of all his normal sly wit, and huddled on a stool near the fire, shoulders hunched in wariness. Only when I had finished with an explanation of the white crystal—and the presumed need for it—did he stir and seem to take on a little life once more.
"It is true, milord," he assured Jamie. "I do not know, in fact, whether it is your wife or yourself that may be in danger, or perhaps the two of you together. I have heard nothing specific; only the name ‘Fraser,’ spoken in a place where names are seldom named in blessing."
Jamie glanced sharply at him. "Aye? And you frequent such places, do you, Master Raymond? Are the people you speak of associates of yours?"
Raymond smiled, a little wanly. "I should be inclined to describe them more as a business rivals, milord."
Jamie grunted. "Mmmphm. Aye, well, and anyone who tries something may get a bit more of a blessing than he’s bargained for." He touched the dirk at his belt, and straightened up.
"Still, I thank ye for the warning, Master Raymond." He bowed to the apothecary, but didn’t offer his hand again. "As for the other"—he cocked an eyebrow at me—"if my wife is disposed to forgive your actions, then it isna my place to say more about it. Not," he added, "that I wouldna advise ye to pop back in your wee hole, the next time the Vicomtesse comes into your shop. Come along then, Sassenach."
As we rattled toward the Rue Tremoulins, Jamie was silent, staring out the window of the coach as the stiff fingers of his right hand tapped against his thigh.
"A place where names are seldom named in blessing," he murmured as the coach turned into the Rue Gamboge. "What might that be, I wonder?"
I remembered the Cabbalistic signs on Raymond’s cabinet, and a small shiver raised the hairs on my forearms. I remembered Marguerite’s gossip about the Comte St. Germain, and Madame de Ramage’s warning. I told Jamie about them, and what Raymond had said.
"He may regard it as paint and window dressing," I finished, "but plainly he knows people who don’t, or who is he looking to keep out of his cabinet?"
Jamie nodded. "Aye. I’ve heard a bit—only a bit—about such goings-on around the Court. I paid no attention at the time, thinking it only silliness, but now I’ll find out a bit more." He laughed, suddenly, and drew me close to his side. "I’ll set Murtagh to follow the Comte St. Germain. That’ll give the Comte a real demon to play with."
Murtagh was duly set to watch the comings and goings of the Comte St. Germain, but beyond reporting that the Comte entertained a remarkable number of persons in his home—of both sexes and all classes—detected nothing particularly mysterious. The Comte did have one visitor of note, though—Charles Stuart, who came one afternoon, stayed for an hour, and left.
Charles had begun to require Jamie’s company more frequently on his expeditions through the taverns and low places of the city. I personally thought this had more to do with Jules de La Tour de Rohan’s party, held to celebrate the announcement of his wife’s pregnancy, than it did with any sinister influence of the Comte’s.
These expeditions sometimes lasted well into the night, and I became accustomed to going to bed without Jamie, waking when he crawled in beside me, his body chilled with walking through the evening fog, and the smell of tobacco smoke and liquor clinging to his hair and skin.
"He’s so distraught about that woman that I dinna think he even remembers he’s the heir to the thrones of Scotland and England," Jamie said, returning from one of these expeditions.
"Goodness, he must be upset," I said, sarcastically. "Let’s hope he stays that way."
A week later, though, I woke to the cold gray light of dawn to find the bed beside me still vacant, the coverlet flat and undisturbed.
"Is milord Broch Tuarach in his study?" I leaned over the banister in my nightgown, startling Magnus, who was passing through the lower hall. Perhaps Jamie had chosen to sleep on the sofa in the study, so as not to disturb me.
"No, milady," he answered, staring up at me. "I came to unbolt the front door, and found that it had never been bolted. Milord did not come home last night."
I sat down heavily on the top step. I must have looked rather alarming, because the elderly butler nearly sprinted up the stairs to me.
"Madame," he said, anxiously chafing one of my hands. "Madame, are you all right?"
"I’ve been better, but it isn’t important. Magnus, send one of the footmen to Prince Charles’s house in Montmartre at once. Have him see if my husband is there."
"At once, milady. And I will send Marguerite up to attend you, as well." He turned and hurried down the stairs, the soft felt slippers he wore for his morning duties making a soft, shushing noise on the polished wood.
"And Murtagh!" I called after Magnus’s departing back. "My husband’s kinsman. Bring him to me, please!" The first thought that had sprung into my mind was that Jamie had perhaps stayed the night at Charles’s villa; the second, that something had happened to him, whether by accident or by someone’s deliberate intent.
"Where is he?" Murtagh’s cracked voice spoke at the foot of the stair. He had obviously just awakened; his face was creased from whatever he had been lying on, and there were bits of straw in the folds of his ratty shirt.
"How should I know?" I snapped. Murtagh always looked as though he suspected everyone of something, and being rudely wakened had not improved his habitual scowl. The sight of him was nonetheless reassuring; if anything rough was in the offing, Murtagh looked the person to be dealing with it.
"He went out with Prince Charles last night, and didn’t come back. That’s all I know." I pulled myself up by the banister railing and smoothed down the silk folds of my nightgown. The fires had been lit, but hadn’t had time to warm the house, and I was shivering.
Murtagh rubbed a hand over his face to assist thought.
"Mphm. Has someone gone to Montmartre?"
"Then I’ll wait ’til they come back with word. If Jamie’s there, well and good. If he isn’t, mayhap they’ll know when he parted company with His Highness, and where."
"And what if they’re both gone? What if the Prince didn’t come home either?" I asked. If there were Jacobites in Paris, there were also those who opposed the restoration of the Stuart line. And while assassinating Charles Stuart might not assure the failure of a potential Scottish Rising—he did, after all, have a younger brother, Henry—it might go some way toward damping James’s enthusiasm for such a venture—if he had any to start with, I thought distractedly.
I remembered vividly the story Jamie had told me, of the attempt on his life during which he had met Fergus. Street assassinations were far from uncommon, and there were gangs of ruffians who hunted the Paris streets after dark.
"You’d best go dress yourself, lassie," Murtagh remarked. "I can see the gooseflesh from here."
"Oh! Yes, I suppose so." I glanced down at my arms; I had been hugging myself as suppositions raced through my mind, but to little effect; my teeth were beginning to chatter.
"Madame! You will give yourself a chill, surely!" Marguerite came stumping rapidly up the stairs, and I allowed her to shoo me into the bedroom, glancing back to see Murtagh below, carefully examining the point of his dirk before ramming it home in its sheath.
"You should be in bed, Madame!" Marguerite scolded. "It isn’t good for the child, for you to let yourself be chilled like that. I will fetch a warming pan at once; where is your nightrobe? Get into it at once, yes, that’s right…" I shrugged the heavy woolen nightrobe over the thin silk of my nightgown, but ignored Marguerite’s clucking to go to the window and open the shutters.
The street outside was beginning to glow as the rising sun struck the upper facades of the stone houses along the Rue Tremoulins. There was a good deal of activity on the street, early as it was; maids and footmen engaged in scrubbing steps or polishing brass gate-fittings, barrowmen selling fruit, vegetables, and fresh seafood, crying their wares along the street, and the cooks of the great houses popping up from their basement doors like so many jinni, summoned by the cries of the barrowmen. A delivery cart loaded with coal clopped slowly along the street, pulled by an elderly horse who looked as though he would much rather be in his stable. But no sign of Jamie.
I at last allowed an anxious Marguerite to persuade me into bed, for the sake of warmth, but couldn’t go back to sleep. Every sound from below brought me to the alert, hoping that each footstep on the pavement outside would be followed by Jamie’s voice in the hall below. The face of the Comte St. Germain kept coming between me and sleep. Alone among the French nobility, he had some connection with Charles Stuart. He had, in all likelihood, been behind the earlier attempt on Jamie’s life…and on mine. He was known to have unsavory associations. Was it possible that he had arranged to have both Charles and Jamie removed? Whether his purposes were political or personal made little difference, at this point.
When at last the sound of steps below did come, I was so occupied with visions of Jamie lying in a gutter with his throat cut, that I didn’t realize he was home until the bedroom door opened.
"Jamie!" I sat up in bed with a cry of joy.
He smiled at me, then yawned immensely, making no effort to cover his mouth. I could see a goodly distance down his throat, and observed with relief that it wasn’t cut. On the other hand, he looked distinctly the worse for wear. He lay down on the bed next to me and stretched, long and rackingly, then settled with a half-contented groan.
"What," I demanded, "happened to you?"
He opened one red-rimmed eye.
"I need a bath," he said, and closed it again.
I leaned toward him and sniffed delicately. The nose detected the usual smoky smell of closed rooms and damp wool, underlying a truly remarkable combination of alcoholic stenches—ale, wine, whisky, and brandy—which matched the variety of stains on his shirt. And forming a high note to the mixture, a horrible cheap cologne, of a particularly penetrating and noxious pungency.