The Space Between

Introduction to

The Space Between

This is an odd one. I could tell from the final chapters of An Echo in the Bone, wherein Michael Murray arrives from France, freshly widowed, to be there for his father’s approaching death, that this was a very vulnerable man, and one wide open to the winds of fate. Echo wasn’t his story, though.

Neither was it Joan’s story, though she too is plainly headed for adventure when she masterminds her escape from her mother’s Highland home, bound for a convent and determined to become a nun – though she’s never seen either a convent or a nun.

If you have a widower and a postulant headed off to Paris together, plainly you can expect Something Interesting to happen – and it does, but this story doesn’t belong only to Michael and Joan.

Did you ever wonder what happened after the Comte St Germain collapsed in King Louis’s Star Chamber, in Dragonfly in Amber? Step into the space between and find out.

The Space Between

Paris, June 1778

He still didn’t know why the frog hadn’t killed him. Paul Rakoczy, Comte St Germain, picked up the vial, pulled the cork and sniffed cautiously for the third time, but then recorked it, still dissatisfied. Maybe. Maybe not. The scent of the dark grey powder in the vial held the ghost of something familiar – but it had been thirty years.

He sat for a moment, frowning at the array of jars, bottles, flasks and pelicans on his workbench. It was late afternoon, and the late spring sun of Paris was like honey, warm and sticky on his face, but glowing in the rounded globes of glass, throwing pools of red and brown and green on the wood from the liquids contained therein. The only discordant note in this peaceful symphony of light was the body of a large rat, lying on its back in the middle of the workbench, a pocket-watch open beside it.

The comte put two fingers delicately on the rat’s chest and waited patiently. It didn’t take so long this time; he was used to the coldness as his mind felt its way into the body. Nothing. No hint of light in his mind’s eye, no warm red of a pulsing heart. He glanced at the watch: half an hour.

He took his fingers away, shaking his head.

‘Mélisande, you evil bitch,’ he murmured, not without affection. ‘You didn’t think I’d try anything you sent me on myself, did you?’

Still . . . he himself had stayed dead a great while longer than half an hour, when the frog had given him the dragon’s-blood. It had been early evening when he went into Louis’s Star Chamber thirty years before, heart beating with excitement at the coming confrontation – a duel of wizards, with a king’s favour as the stakes – and one he’d thought he’d win. He remembered the purity of the sky, the beauty of the stars just visible, Venus bright on the horizon, and the joy of it in his blood. Everything always had a greater intensity, when you knew life could cease within the next few minutes.

And an hour later, he thought his life had ceased, the cup falling from his numbed hand, the coldness rushing through his limbs with amazing speed, freezing the words I’ve lost, an icy core of disbelief in the centre of his mind. He hadn’t been looking at the frog; the last thing he had seen through darkening eyes was the woman – La Dame Blanche – her face over the cup she’d given him appalled and white as bone. But what he recalled, and recalled again now, with the same sense of astonishment and avidity, was the great flare of blue, intense as the colour of the evening sky beyond Venus, that had burst from her head and shoulders as he died.

He didn’t recall any feeling of regret or fear; just astonishment. This was nothing, however, to the astonishment he’d felt when he regained his senses, naked on a stone slab in a revolting subterranean chamber next to a drowned corpse. Luckily, there had been no one alive in that disgusting grotto, and he had made his way – reeling and half-blind, clothed in the drowned man’s wet and stinking shirt – out into a dawn more beautiful than any twilight could ever be. So – ten to twelve hours from the moment of apparent death to revival.

He glanced at the rat, then put out a finger and lifted one of the small, neat paws. Nearly twelve hours. Limp, the rigor had already passed; it was warm up here at the top of the house. Then he turned to the counter that ran along the far wall of the laboratory, where a line of rats lay, possibly insensible, probably dead. He walked slowly along the line, prodding each body. Limp, limp, stiff. Stiff. Stiff. All dead, without doubt. Each had had a smaller dose than the last, but all had died – though he couldn’t yet be positive about the latest. Wait a bit more, then, to be sure.

He needed to know. Because the Court of Miracles was talking. And they said the frog was back.

The English Channel

They did say that red hair was a sign of the Devil. Joan eyed her escort’s fiery locks consideringly. The wind on deck was fierce enough to make her eyes water, and it jerked bits of Michael Murray’s hair out of its binding so they danced round his head like flames, a bit. You might expect his face to be ugly as sin if he was one of the Devil’s, though, and it wasn’t.

Lucky for him, he looked like his mother in the face, she thought. His younger brother Ian wasn’t so fortunate, and that without the heathen tattoos. Michael’s was just a fairly pleasant face, for all it was blotched with windburn and the lingering marks of sorrow, and no wonder, him having just lost his father, and his wife dead in France no more than a month before that.

But she wasn’t braving this gale in order to watch Michael Murray, even if he might burst into tears or turn into Auld Horny on the spot. She touched her crucifix for reassurance, just in case. It was blessed by the priest and her mother’d carried it all the way to St Ninian’s Spring and dipped it in the water there, to ask the saint’s protection. And it was her mother she wanted to see, as long as ever she could.

She pulled her kerchief off and waved it, keeping a tight grip lest the wind make off with it. Her mother was growing smaller on the quay, waving madly herself, Joey behind her with his arm round her waist to keep her from falling into the water.

Joan snorted a bit at sight of her new stepfather, but then thought better and touched the crucifix again, muttering a quick Act of Contrition in penance. After all, it was she herself who’d made that marriage happen, and a good thing, too. If not, she’d still be stuck to home at Balriggan, not on her way at last to be a Bride of Christ in France.

A nudge at her elbow made her glance aside, to see Michael offering her a handkerchief. Well, so. If her eyes were streaming – aye, and her nose – it was no wonder, the wind so fierce as it was. She took the scrap of cloth with a curt nod of thanks, scrubbed briefly at her cheeks, and waved her kerchief harder.

None of his family had come to see Michael off, not even his twin sister, Janet. But they were taken up with all there was to do in the wake of Old Ian Murray’s death, and no wonder. No need to see Michael to the ship, either – Michael Murray was a wine merchant in Paris, and a wonderfully well-travelled gentleman. She took some comfort from the knowledge that he knew what to do and where to go, and had said he would see her safely delivered to the convent of the Angels, because the thought of making her way through Paris alone and the streets full of people all speaking French . . . Though she knew French quite well, of course; she’d been studying it all the winter, with Michael’s mother helping her. But perhaps she had better not tell the Reverend Mother about the sorts of French novels Jenny Murray had in her bookshelf . . .

‘Voulez-vous descendre, mademoiselle?’

‘Eh?’ She glanced at Michael, to see him gesturing toward the hatchway that led downstairs. She turned back, blinking – but the quay had vanished, and her mother with it.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not just yet. I’ll just . . .’ She wanted to see the land so long as she could. It would be her last sight of Scotland, ever, and the thought made her wame curl into a small, tight ball. She waved a vague hand toward the hatchway. ‘You go, though. I’m all right by myself.’

He didn’t go, but came to stand beside her, gripping the rail. She turned away from him a little, so he wouldn’t see her weep, but on the whole, she wasn’t sorry he’d stayed.

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The Space Between

Introduction to

The Space Between

This is an odd one. I could tell from the final chapters of An Echo in the Bone, wherein Michael Murray arrives from France, freshly widowed, to be there for his father’s approaching death, that this was a very vulnerable man, and one wide open to the winds of fate. Echo wasn’t his story, though.

Neither was it Joan’s story, though she too is plainly headed for adventure when she masterminds her escape from her mother’s Highland home, bound for a convent and determined to become a nun – though she’s never seen either a convent or a nun.

If you have a widower and a postulant headed off to Paris together, plainly you can expect Something Interesting to happen – and it does, but this story doesn’t belong only to Michael and Joan.

Did you ever wonder what happened after the Comte St Germain collapsed in King Louis’s Star Chamber, in Dragonfly in Amber? Step into the space between and find out.

The Space Between

Paris, June 1778

He still didn’t know why the frog hadn’t killed him. Paul Rakoczy, Comte St Germain, picked up the vial, pulled the cork and sniffed cautiously for the third time, but then recorked it, still dissatisfied. Maybe. Maybe not. The scent of the dark grey powder in the vial held the ghost of something familiar – but it had been thirty years.

He sat for a moment, frowning at the array of jars, bottles, flasks and pelicans on his workbench. It was late afternoon, and the late spring sun of Paris was like honey, warm and sticky on his face, but glowing in the rounded globes of glass, throwing pools of red and brown and green on the wood from the liquids contained therein. The only discordant note in this peaceful symphony of light was the body of a large rat, lying on its back in the middle of the workbench, a pocket-watch open beside it.

The comte put two fingers delicately on the rat’s chest and waited patiently. It didn’t take so long this time; he was used to the coldness as his mind felt its way into the body. Nothing. No hint of light in his mind’s eye, no warm red of a pulsing heart. He glanced at the watch: half an hour.

He took his fingers away, shaking his head.

‘Mélisande, you evil bitch,’ he murmured, not without affection. ‘You didn’t think I’d try anything you sent me on myself, did you?’

Still . . . he himself had stayed dead a great while longer than half an hour, when the frog had given him the dragon’s-blood. It had been early evening when he went into Louis’s Star Chamber thirty years before, heart beating with excitement at the coming confrontation – a duel of wizards, with a king’s favour as the stakes – and one he’d thought he’d win. He remembered the purity of the sky, the beauty of the stars just visible, Venus bright on the horizon, and the joy of it in his blood. Everything always had a greater intensity, when you knew life could cease within the next few minutes.

And an hour later, he thought his life had ceased, the cup falling from his numbed hand, the coldness rushing through his limbs with amazing speed, freezing the words I’ve lost, an icy core of disbelief in the centre of his mind. He hadn’t been looking at the frog; the last thing he had seen through darkening eyes was the woman – La Dame Blanche – her face over the cup she’d given him appalled and white as bone. But what he recalled, and recalled again now, with the same sense of astonishment and avidity, was the great flare of blue, intense as the colour of the evening sky beyond Venus, that had burst from her head and shoulders as he died.

He didn’t recall any feeling of regret or fear; just astonishment. This was nothing, however, to the astonishment he’d felt when he regained his senses, naked on a stone slab in a revolting subterranean chamber next to a drowned corpse. Luckily, there had been no one alive in that disgusting grotto, and he had made his way – reeling and half-blind, clothed in the drowned man’s wet and stinking shirt – out into a dawn more beautiful than any twilight could ever be. So – ten to twelve hours from the moment of apparent death to revival.

He glanced at the rat, then put out a finger and lifted one of the small, neat paws. Nearly twelve hours. Limp, the rigor had already passed; it was warm up here at the top of the house. Then he turned to the counter that ran along the far wall of the laboratory, where a line of rats lay, possibly insensible, probably dead. He walked slowly along the line, prodding each body. Limp, limp, stiff. Stiff. Stiff. All dead, without doubt. Each had had a smaller dose than the last, but all had died – though he couldn’t yet be positive about the latest. Wait a bit more, then, to be sure.

He needed to know. Because the Court of Miracles was talking. And they said the frog was back.

The English Channel

They did say that red hair was a sign of the Devil. Joan eyed her escort’s fiery locks consideringly. The wind on deck was fierce enough to make her eyes water, and it jerked bits of Michael Murray’s hair out of its binding so they danced round his head like flames, a bit. You might expect his face to be ugly as sin if he was one of the Devil’s, though, and it wasn’t.

Lucky for him, he looked like his mother in the face, she thought. His younger brother Ian wasn’t so fortunate, and that without the heathen tattoos. Michael’s was just a fairly pleasant face, for all it was blotched with windburn and the lingering marks of sorrow, and no wonder, him having just lost his father, and his wife dead in France no more than a month before that.

But she wasn’t braving this gale in order to watch Michael Murray, even if he might burst into tears or turn into Auld Horny on the spot. She touched her crucifix for reassurance, just in case. It was blessed by the priest and her mother’d carried it all the way to St Ninian’s Spring and dipped it in the water there, to ask the saint’s protection. And it was her mother she wanted to see, as long as ever she could.

She pulled her kerchief off and waved it, keeping a tight grip lest the wind make off with it. Her mother was growing smaller on the quay, waving madly herself, Joey behind her with his arm round her waist to keep her from falling into the water.

Joan snorted a bit at sight of her new stepfather, but then thought better and touched the crucifix again, muttering a quick Act of Contrition in penance. After all, it was she herself who’d made that marriage happen, and a good thing, too. If not, she’d still be stuck to home at Balriggan, not on her way at last to be a Bride of Christ in France.

A nudge at her elbow made her glance aside, to see Michael offering her a handkerchief. Well, so. If her eyes were streaming – aye, and her nose – it was no wonder, the wind so fierce as it was. She took the scrap of cloth with a curt nod of thanks, scrubbed briefly at her cheeks, and waved her kerchief harder.

None of his family had come to see Michael off, not even his twin sister, Janet. But they were taken up with all there was to do in the wake of Old Ian Murray’s death, and no wonder. No need to see Michael to the ship, either – Michael Murray was a wine merchant in Paris, and a wonderfully well-travelled gentleman. She took some comfort from the knowledge that he knew what to do and where to go, and had said he would see her safely delivered to the convent of the Angels, because the thought of making her way through Paris alone and the streets full of people all speaking French . . . Though she knew French quite well, of course; she’d been studying it all the winter, with Michael’s mother helping her. But perhaps she had better not tell the Reverend Mother about the sorts of French novels Jenny Murray had in her bookshelf . . .

‘Voulez-vous descendre, mademoiselle?’

‘Eh?’ She glanced at Michael, to see him gesturing toward the hatchway that led downstairs. She turned back, blinking – but the quay had vanished, and her mother with it.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not just yet. I’ll just . . .’ She wanted to see the land so long as she could. It would be her last sight of Scotland, ever, and the thought made her wame curl into a small, tight ball. She waved a vague hand toward the hatchway. ‘You go, though. I’m all right by myself.’

He didn’t go, but came to stand beside her, gripping the rail. She turned away from him a little, so he wouldn’t see her weep, but on the whole, she wasn’t sorry he’d stayed.

Neither of them spoke, and the land sank slowly, as though the sea swallowed it, and there was nothing round them now but the open sea, glassy grey and rippling under a scud of clouds. The prospect made her dizzy, and she closed her eyes, swallowing.

Dear Lord Jesus, don’t let me be sick!

A small shuffling noise beside her made her open her eyes, to find Michael Murray regarding her with some concern.

‘Are ye all right, Miss Joan?’ He smiled a little. ‘Or should I call ye Sister?’

‘No,’ she said, taking a grip on her nerve and her stomach and drawing herself up. ‘I’m no a nun yet, am I?’

He looked her up and down in the frank way Hieland men did, and smiled more broadly.

‘Have ye ever seen a nun?’ he asked.

‘I have not,’ she said, as starchily as she could. ‘I havena seen God or the Blessed Virgin, either, but I believe in them, too.’

Much to her annoyance, he burst out laughing. Seeing the annoyance, though, he stopped at once, though she could see the urge still trembling there behind his assumed gravity.

‘I do beg your pardon, Miss MacKimmie,’ he said. ‘I wasna questioning the existence of nuns. I’ve seen quite a number of the creatures with my own eyes.’ His lips were twitching, and she glared at him.

‘Creatures, is it?’

‘A figure of speech, nay more, I swear it! Forgive me, Sister – I ken not what I do!’ He held up a hand, cowering in mock terror. The urge to laugh herself made her that much crosser, but she contented herself with a simple mmphm of disapproval.

Curiosity got the better of her, though, and after a few moments spent inspecting the foaming wake of the ship, she asked, not looking at him, ‘When ye saw the nuns, then – what were they doing?’

He’d got control of himself by now, and answered her seriously.

‘Well, I see the Sisters of Notre-Dame who work among the poor all the time in the streets. They always go out by twos, ken, and both nuns will be carrying great huge baskets, filled with food, I suppose – maybe medicines? They’re covered, though – the baskets – so I canna say for sure what’s in them. Perhaps they’re smuggling brandy and lace down to the docks—’ He dodged aside from her upraised hand, laughing.

‘Oh, ye’ll be a rare nun, Sister Joan! Terror daemonium, solatium miserorum . . .’

She pressed her lips tight together, not to laugh. Terror of demons, the cheek of him!

‘Not Sister Joan,’ she said. ‘They’ll give me a new name, likely, at the convent.’

‘Oh, aye?’ He wiped hair out of his eyes, interested. ‘D’ye get to choose the name, yourself?’

‘I don’t know,’ she admitted.

‘Well, though – what name would ye pick, if ye had the choosing?’

‘Er . . . well . . .’ She hadn’t told anyone, but after all, what harm could it do? She wouldn’t see Michael Murray again, once they reached Paris. ‘Sister Gregory,’ she blurted.

Rather to her relief, he didn’t laugh.

‘Oh, that’s a good name,’ he said. ‘After Saint Gregory the Great, is it?’

‘Well . . . aye. Ye don’t think it’s presumptuous?’ she asked, a little anxious.

‘Oh, no!’ he said, surprised. ‘I mean, how many nuns are named Mary? If it’s not presumptuous to be named after the Mother o’ God, how can it be high-falutin’ to call yourself after a mere pope?’ He smiled at that, so merrily that she smiled back.

‘How many nuns are named Mary?’ she asked, out of curiosity. ‘It’s common, is it?’

‘Oh, aye, ye said ye’d not seen a nun.’ He’d stopped making fun of her, though. ‘About half the nuns I’ve met seem to be called Sister Mary Something – ye ken, Sister Mary Polycarp, Sister Mary Joseph . . . like that.’

‘And ye meet a great many nuns in the course o’ your business, do ye?’ Michael Murray was the junior partner of Fraser et Cie, one of the biggest dealers in wines and spirits in Paris – and from the cut of his clothes, did well enough at it.

His mouth twitched, but he answered seriously.

‘Well, I do, really. Not every day, I mean, but the Sisters come round to my office quite often – or I go to them. Fraser et Cie supplies wine to most o’ the monasteries and convents in Paris, and some will send a pair of nuns to place an order or to take away something special; otherwise, we deliver it, of course. And even the orders who dinna take wine themselves – and most of the Parisian houses do, they bein’ French, aye? – need sacramental wine for their chapels. And the begging orders come round like clockwork to ask alms.’

‘Really?’ She was fascinated, sufficiently so as to put aside her reluctance to look ignorant. ‘I didna ken . . . I mean . . . so the different orders of nuns do quite different things, is that what ye’re saying? What other kinds are there?’

He shot her a brief glance, but then turned back, narrowing his eyes against the wind as he thought.

‘Well . . . there’s the sort of nun that prays all the time – contemplative, I think they’re called. I see them in the Cathedral all hours of the day and night. There’s more than one order of that sort, though; one kind wears grey habits and prays in the chapel of St Joseph, and another wears black; ye see them mostly in the chapel of Our Lady of the Sea.’ He glanced at her, curious. ‘Will it be that sort of nun that you’ll be?’

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