He blew his nose with resolution, tucked away his mangled handkerchief, and went downstairs to fetch the basket his mother had sent. He couldn’t swallow a thing, himself, but feeding Sister Joan would maybe keep his mind off things for one minute more.

‘That’s how ye do it,’ his brother Ian had told him, as they leant together on the rail of their mother’s sheep pen, the winter’s wind cold on their faces, waiting for their da to find his way through dying. ‘Ye find a way to live for just one more minute. And then another. And another.’ Ian had lost a wife, too, and knew.

He’d wiped his face – he could weep before Ian, while he couldn’t in front of his elder brother or the girls, and certainly not in front of his mother. He’d asked, ‘And it gets better after a time; is that what ye’re telling me?’

His brother had looked at him straight on, the quiet in his eyes showing through the outlandish Mohawk tattoos.

‘No,’ he’d said softly. ‘But after a time, ye find ye’re in a different place than ye were. A different person than ye were. And then ye look about, and see what’s there with ye. Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself. That helps.’

‘Aye, fine,’ he said, under his breath, and squared his shoulders. ‘We’ll see, then.’

To Rakoczy’s surprise, there was a familiar face behind the rough bar. If Maximilian the Great was surprised to see him, the Spanish dwarf gave no indication of it. The other drinkers – a pair of jugglers, each missing an arm (but the opposing arm), a toothless hag who smacked and muttered over her mug of arrack, and something that looked like a ten-year-old girl but almost certainly wasn’t – turned to stare at him, but seeing nothing remarkable in his shabby clothing and burlap bag, turned back to the business of getting sufficiently drunk as to do what needed to be done tonight.

He nodded to Max and pulled up one of the splintering kegs to sit on.

‘What’s your pleasure, señor?’

Rakoczy narrowed his eyes; Max had never served anything but arrack. But times had changed; there was a stone bottle of something that might be beer, and a dark glass bottle with a chalk scrawl on it, standing next to the keg of rough liquor.

‘Arrack, please, Max,’ he said – better the devil you know – and was surprised to see the dwarf’s eyes narrow in return.

‘You knew my honoured father, I see, señor,’ the dwarf said, putting the cup on the board. ‘It’s some time since you’ve been in Paris?’

‘Pardon,’ Rakoczy said, accepting it and tossing it back. If you could afford more than one cup, you didn’t let it linger on the tongue. ‘Your honoured – late? – father, Max?’

‘Maximiliano el Maximo,’ the dwarf corrected him firmly.

‘To be sure.’ Rakoczy gestured for another drink. ‘And whom have I the honour to address?’

The Spaniard – though perhaps his accent wasn’t as strong as Max’s had been – drew himself up proudly. ‘Maxim Le Grande, monsieur, à votre service!’

Rakoczy saluted him gravely, and threw back the second cup, motioning for a third and with a gesture, inviting Maxim to join him.

‘It has been some time since I was last here,’ he said. No lie there. ‘I wonder if another old acquaintance might be still alive – Maître Raymond, otherwise called “the frog”?’

There was a tiny quiver in the air, a barely perceptible flicker of attention, gone almost as soon as he’d sensed it – somewhere behind him?

‘A frog,’ Maxim said, meditatively pouring himself a drink. ‘I don’t know any frogs myself, but should I hear of one, who shall I say is asking for him?’

Should he give his name? No, not yet.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘But word can be left with Madame Fabienne. You know the place? In the Rue Antoine?’

The dwarf’s sketchy brows rose, and his mouth turned up at one corner.

‘I know it.’

Doubtless he did, Rakoczy thought. ‘El Maximo’ hadn’t referred to Max’s stature, and probably ‘Le Grande’ didn’t, either. God had a sense of justice, as well as a sense of humour.

‘Bon.’ He wiped his lips on his sleeve and put down a coin that would have bought the whole keg. ‘Merci.’

He stood up, the hot taste of the arrack bubbling at the back of his throat, and belched. Two more places to visit, maybe, before he went to Fabienne’s. He couldn’t visit more than that and stay upright; he was getting old.

‘Good night.’ He bowed to the company and gingerly pushed open the cracked wooden door; it was hanging by one leather hinge, and that looked ready to give way at any moment.

‘Ribbit,’ someone said very softly, just before the door closed behind him.

Madeleine’s face lighted when she saw him, and his heart warmed. She wasn’t very bright, poor creature, but she was pretty and amiable, and had been a whore long enough to be grateful for small kindnesses.

‘Monsieur Rakoczy!’ She flung her arms about his neck, nuzzling affectionately.

‘Madeleine, my dear.’ He cupped her chin and kissed her gently on the lips, drawing her close so that her belly pressed against his. He held her long enough, kissing her eyelids, her forehead, her ears – so that she made high squeaks of pleasure – that he could feel his way inside her, hold the weight of her womb in his mind, evaluate her ripening.

It felt warm, the colour in the heart of a dark crimson rose, the kind called ‘sang-de-dragon’. A week before, it had felt solid, compact as a folded fist; now it had begun to soften, to hollow slightly as she readied. Three more days? he wondered. Four?

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He blew his nose with resolution, tucked away his mangled handkerchief, and went downstairs to fetch the basket his mother had sent. He couldn’t swallow a thing, himself, but feeding Sister Joan would maybe keep his mind off things for one minute more.

‘That’s how ye do it,’ his brother Ian had told him, as they leant together on the rail of their mother’s sheep pen, the winter’s wind cold on their faces, waiting for their da to find his way through dying. ‘Ye find a way to live for just one more minute. And then another. And another.’ Ian had lost a wife, too, and knew.

He’d wiped his face – he could weep before Ian, while he couldn’t in front of his elder brother or the girls, and certainly not in front of his mother. He’d asked, ‘And it gets better after a time; is that what ye’re telling me?’

His brother had looked at him straight on, the quiet in his eyes showing through the outlandish Mohawk tattoos.

‘No,’ he’d said softly. ‘But after a time, ye find ye’re in a different place than ye were. A different person than ye were. And then ye look about, and see what’s there with ye. Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself. That helps.’

‘Aye, fine,’ he said, under his breath, and squared his shoulders. ‘We’ll see, then.’

To Rakoczy’s surprise, there was a familiar face behind the rough bar. If Maximilian the Great was surprised to see him, the Spanish dwarf gave no indication of it. The other drinkers – a pair of jugglers, each missing an arm (but the opposing arm), a toothless hag who smacked and muttered over her mug of arrack, and something that looked like a ten-year-old girl but almost certainly wasn’t – turned to stare at him, but seeing nothing remarkable in his shabby clothing and burlap bag, turned back to the business of getting sufficiently drunk as to do what needed to be done tonight.

He nodded to Max and pulled up one of the splintering kegs to sit on.

‘What’s your pleasure, señor?’

Rakoczy narrowed his eyes; Max had never served anything but arrack. But times had changed; there was a stone bottle of something that might be beer, and a dark glass bottle with a chalk scrawl on it, standing next to the keg of rough liquor.

‘Arrack, please, Max,’ he said – better the devil you know – and was surprised to see the dwarf’s eyes narrow in return.

‘You knew my honoured father, I see, señor,’ the dwarf said, putting the cup on the board. ‘It’s some time since you’ve been in Paris?’

‘Pardon,’ Rakoczy said, accepting it and tossing it back. If you could afford more than one cup, you didn’t let it linger on the tongue. ‘Your honoured – late? – father, Max?’

‘Maximiliano el Maximo,’ the dwarf corrected him firmly.

‘To be sure.’ Rakoczy gestured for another drink. ‘And whom have I the honour to address?’

The Spaniard – though perhaps his accent wasn’t as strong as Max’s had been – drew himself up proudly. ‘Maxim Le Grande, monsieur, à votre service!’

Rakoczy saluted him gravely, and threw back the second cup, motioning for a third and with a gesture, inviting Maxim to join him.

‘It has been some time since I was last here,’ he said. No lie there. ‘I wonder if another old acquaintance might be still alive – Maître Raymond, otherwise called “the frog”?’

There was a tiny quiver in the air, a barely perceptible flicker of attention, gone almost as soon as he’d sensed it – somewhere behind him?

‘A frog,’ Maxim said, meditatively pouring himself a drink. ‘I don’t know any frogs myself, but should I hear of one, who shall I say is asking for him?’

Should he give his name? No, not yet.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘But word can be left with Madame Fabienne. You know the place? In the Rue Antoine?’

The dwarf’s sketchy brows rose, and his mouth turned up at one corner.

‘I know it.’

Doubtless he did, Rakoczy thought. ‘El Maximo’ hadn’t referred to Max’s stature, and probably ‘Le Grande’ didn’t, either. God had a sense of justice, as well as a sense of humour.

‘Bon.’ He wiped his lips on his sleeve and put down a coin that would have bought the whole keg. ‘Merci.’

He stood up, the hot taste of the arrack bubbling at the back of his throat, and belched. Two more places to visit, maybe, before he went to Fabienne’s. He couldn’t visit more than that and stay upright; he was getting old.

‘Good night.’ He bowed to the company and gingerly pushed open the cracked wooden door; it was hanging by one leather hinge, and that looked ready to give way at any moment.

‘Ribbit,’ someone said very softly, just before the door closed behind him.

Madeleine’s face lighted when she saw him, and his heart warmed. She wasn’t very bright, poor creature, but she was pretty and amiable, and had been a whore long enough to be grateful for small kindnesses.

‘Monsieur Rakoczy!’ She flung her arms about his neck, nuzzling affectionately.

‘Madeleine, my dear.’ He cupped her chin and kissed her gently on the lips, drawing her close so that her belly pressed against his. He held her long enough, kissing her eyelids, her forehead, her ears – so that she made high squeaks of pleasure – that he could feel his way inside her, hold the weight of her womb in his mind, evaluate her ripening.

It felt warm, the colour in the heart of a dark crimson rose, the kind called ‘sang-de-dragon’. A week before, it had felt solid, compact as a folded fist; now it had begun to soften, to hollow slightly as she readied. Three more days? he wondered. Four?

He let her go, and when she pouted prettily at him, he laughed and raised her hand to his lips, feeling the same small thrill he had felt when he first found her, as the faint blue glow rose between her fingers in response to his touch. She couldn’t see it – he’d raised their linked hands to her face before and she had merely looked puzzled – but it was there.

‘Go and fetch some wine, ma belle,’ he said, squeezing her hand gently. ‘I need to talk to madame.’

Madame Fabienne was not a dwarf, but she was small, brown and mottled as a toadstool – and as watchful as a toad, round yellow eyes seldom blinking, never closed.

‘Monsieur le Comte,’ she said graciously, nodding him to a damask chair in her salon. The air was scented with candlewax and flesh – flesh of a far better quality than that on offer in the Court of Miracles. Even so, madame had come from that Court, and kept her connections there alive; she made no bones about that. She didn’t blink at his clothes, but her nostrils flared at him, as though she picked up the scent of the dives and alleys he had come from.

‘Good evening, madame,’ he said, smiling at her, and lifted the burlap bag. ‘I brought a small present for Leopold. If he’s awake?’

‘Awake and irritable,’ she said, eyeing the bag with interest. ‘He’s just shed his skin – you don’t want to make any sudden moves.’

Leopold was a remarkably handsome – and remarkably large – python; an albino, quite rare. Opinion of his origins was divided; half Madame Fabienne’s clientele held that she had been given the snake by a noble client – some said the late king himself – whom she had cured of impotence. Others said the snake had once been a noble client, who had refused to pay her for services rendered. Rakoczy had his own opinions on that one, but he liked Leopold, who was ordinarily tame as a cat and would sometimes come when called – as long as you had something he regarded as food in your hand.

‘Leopold! Monsieur le Comte has brought you a treat!’ Fabienne reached across to an enormous wicker cage and flicked the door open, withdrawing her hand with sufficient speed as to indicate just what she meant by ‘irritable’.

Almost at once, a huge yellow head poked out into the light. Snakes had transparent eyelids, but Rakoczy could swear the python blinked irritably, swaying up a coil of its monstrous body for a moment before plunging out of the cage and swarming across the floor with amazing rapidity for such a big creature, tongue flicking in and out like a seamstress’s needle.

He made straight for Rakoczy, jaws yawning as he came, and Rakoczy snatched up the bag just before Leopold tried to engulf it – or Rakoczy – whole. He jerked aside, hastily seized a rat and threw it. Leopold flung a coil of his body on top of the rat with a thud that rattled madame’s spoon in her tea-bowl, and before the company could blink, had whipped the rat into a half-hitch knot of coil.

‘Hungry as well as ill-tempered, I see,’ Rakoczy remarked, trying for nonchalance. In fact, the hairs were prickling over his neck and arms. Normally, Leopold took his time about feeding and the violence of the python’s appetite at such close quarters had shaken him.

Fabienne was laughing, almost silently, her tiny sloping shoulders quivering beneath the green Chinese silk tunic she wore.

‘I thought for an instant he’d have you,’ she remarked at last, wiping her eyes. ‘If he had, I shouldn’t have had to feed him for a month!’

Rakoczy bared his teeth in an expression that might have been taken for a smile.

‘We cannot let Leopold go hungry,’ he said. ‘I wish to make a special arrangement for Madeleine – it should keep the worm up to his yellow arse in rats for some time.’

Fabienne put down her handkerchief and regarded him with interest.

‘Leopold has two cocks, but I can’t say I’ve ever noticed an arse. Twenty écus a day. Plus two extra if she needs clothes.’

He waved an easy hand, dismissing this.

‘I had in mind something longer.’ He explained what he had in mind, and had the satisfaction of seeing Fabienne’s face go quite blank with astonishment. It didn’t stay that way more than a few moments; by the time he had finished, she was already laying out her initial demands.

By the time they came to agreement, they had drunk half a bottle of decent wine, and Leopold had swallowed the rat. It made a small bulge in the muscular tube of the snake’s body, but hadn’t slowed him appreciably; the coils slithered restlessly over the painted canvas floor-cloth, glowing like gold, and Rakoczy saw the patterns of his skin like trapped clouds beneath the scales.

‘He is beautiful, no?’ Fabienne saw his admiration, and basked a little in it. ‘Did I ever tell you where I got him?’

‘Yes, more than once. And more than one story, too.’ She looked startled, and he compressed his lips. He’d been patronising her establishment for no more than a few weeks, this time. He’d known her fifteen years before – though only a couple of months, that time. He hadn’t given his name then, and a madam saw so many men that there was little chance of her recalling him. On the other hand, he also thought it unlikely that she troubled to recall to whom she’d told which story, and this seemed to be the case, for she lifted one shoulder in a surprisingly graceful shrug, and laughed.

‘Yes, but this one is true.’

‘Oh, well, then.’ He smiled, and reaching into the bag, tossed Leopold another rat. The snake moved more slowly this time, and didn’t bother to constrict its motionless prey, merely unhinging its jaw and engulfing it in a single-minded way.

‘He is an old friend, Leopold,’ she said, gazing affectionately at the snake. ‘I brought him with me from the West Indies, many years ago. He is a Mystère, you know.’

‘I didn’t, no.’ Rakoczy drank more wine; he had sat long enough that he was beginning to feel almost sober again. ‘And what is that?’ He was interested – not so much in the snake, but in Fabienne’s mention of the West Indies. He’d forgotten that she claimed to have come from there, many years ago, long before he’d known her the first time.

The afile powder had been waiting in his laboratory when he’d come back; no telling how many years it had sat there – the servants couldn’t recall. Mélisande’s brief note – ‘Try this. It may be what the frog used.’ – had not been dated, but there was a brief scrawl at the top of the sheet, saying ‘Rose Hall, Jamaica.’ If Fabienne retained any connections in the West Indies, perhaps . . .

‘Some call them loa,’ her wrinkled lips pursed as she kissed the word, ‘but those are the Africans. A Mystère is a spirit, one who is an intermediary between the Bondye and us. Bondye is le bon Dieu, of course,’ she explained to him. ‘The African slaves speak very bad French. Give him another rat; he’s still hungry, and it scares the girls if I let him hunt in the house.’

The third rat had made another bulge; the snake was beginning to look like a fat string of pearls, and was showing an inclination to lie still, digesting. The tongue still flickered, tasting the air, but lazily now.

Rakoczy picked up the bag again, weighing the risks – but after all, if news came from the Court of Miracles, his name would soon be known in any case.

‘I wonder, madame – as you know everyone in Paris – ’ he gave her a small bow, which she graciously returned, ‘are you acquainted with a certain man known as Maître Raymond? Some call him “the frog”,’ he added.

She blinked, then looked amused.

‘You’re looking for the frog?’

‘Yes. Is that funny?’ He reached into the sack, fishing for a rat.

‘Somewhat. I should perhaps not tell you, but since you are so accommodating . . .’ she glanced complacently at the purse he had put beside her tea-bowl, a generous deposit on account, ‘Maître Grenouille is looking for you.’

Diana Gabaldon Books | Suspense Books | Lord John Grey Series Books
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