She was curled behind him then, kissing the back of his neck, and he reached back, groping, but his hands were heavy, drifting; they slid helpless over her. Hers on him were firm, more than firm; she had him by the cock, was working him. Working him hard, fast and hard. He bucked and heaved, suddenly released from the dream-swamp of immobility. She loosed her grip, tried to pull away, but he folded his hand round hers and rubbed their folded hands hard up and down with joyous ferocity, spilling himself convulsively, hot wet spurts against his belly, running thick over their clenched knuckles.

She made a sound of horrified disgust and his eyes flew open. A pair of huge, bugging eyes stared into his, over a gargoyle’s mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth. He shrieked.

Plonplon leaped off the bed and ran to and fro, barking hysterically. There was a body behind him in bed. Michael flung himself off the bed, tangled in a winding-sheet of damp, sticky bedclothes, fell and rolled in panic.

‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!’

On his knees, he gaped, shook his head. Could not make sense of it, couldn’t.

‘Lillie,’ he gasped. ‘Lillie!’

But the woman in his bed, tears running down her face, wasn’t Lillie; he realised it with a wrench that made him groan, doubling up in the desolation of fresh loss.

‘Oh, Jesus!’

‘Michel, Michel, please, please forgive me!’

‘You . . . what . . . for God’s sake . . . !’ Belatedly, he seized a sheet and hastily wiped himself.

Léonie was weeping frantically, reaching out toward him.

‘I couldn’t help it. I’m so lonely, I wanted you so much!’

Plonplon had ceased barking and now came up behind Michael, nosing his bare backside with a blast of hot, moist breath.

‘Va-t’en!’

The pug backed up and started barking again, eyes bulging with offence.

Unable to find any words suitable to the situation, he grabbed the dog and muffled it with a handful of sheet. He got unsteadily to his feet, still holding the squirming pug.

‘I—’ he began. ‘You— I mean . . . oh, Jesus Christ!’ He leaned over and put the dog carefully on the bed. Plonplon instantly wriggled free of the sheet and rushed to Léonie, licking her solicitously. Michael had thought of giving her the dog after Lillie’s death, but for some reason this had seemed a betrayal of the pug’s former mistress, and brought Michael near to weeping.

‘I can’t,’ he said simply. ‘I just can’t. You go to sleep now, lass. We’ll talk about it later, aye?’

He went out, walking carefully, as though very drunk, and closed the door gently behind him. He got halfway down the main stair before realising he was naked. He just stood there, his mind blank, watching the colours of the Murano lamp fade as the daylight grew outside, until Paul saw him and ran up to wrap him in a cloak and lead him off to a bed in the guest rooms.

Rakoczy’s favourite gaming club was the Golden Cockerel, and the wall in the main salon was covered by a tapestry featuring one of these creatures, worked in gold thread, wings spread and throat swollen as it crowed in triumph at the winning hand of cards laid out before it. It was a cheerful place, catering to a mix of wealthy merchants and lesser nobility, and the air was spicy with the scents of candlewax, powder, perfume, and money.

He’d thought of going to the offices of Fraser et Cie, making some excuse to speak to Michael Murray, and manoeuvre his way into an inquiry about the whereabouts of the young man’s aunt. Upon consideration, though, he thought such a move might make Murray wary – and possibly lead to word getting back to the woman, if she was somewhere in Paris. That was the last thing he wanted to happen.

Better, perhaps, to instigate his inquiries from a more discreet distance. He’d learned that Murray occasionally came to the Cockerel, though he himself had never seen him there. But if he was known . . .

It took several evenings of play, wine, and conversation, before he found Charles Pépin. Pépin was a popinjay, a reckless gambler, and a man who liked to talk. And to drink. He was also a good friend of the young wine merchant’s.

‘Oh, the nun!’ he said, when Rakoczy had – after the second bottle – mentioned having heard that Murray had a young relative who had recently entered the convent. Pépin laughed, his handsome face flushed.

‘A less likely nun I’ve never seen – an arse that would make the Archbishop of Paris forget his vows, and he’s eighty-six if he’s a day. Doesn’t speak any sort of French, poor thing – the girl, not the Archbishop. Not that I for one would be wanting to carry on a lot of conversation if I had her to myself, you understand . . . she’s Scotch, terrible accent . . .’

‘Scotch, you say.’ Rakoczy held a card consideringly, then put it down. ‘She is Murray’s cousin – would she perhaps be the daughter of his uncle James?’

Pépin looked blank for a moment.

‘I don’t really— oh, yes, I do know!’ He laughed heartily, and laid down his own losing hand. ‘Dear me. Yes, she did say her father’s name was Jay-mee, the way the Scotches do; that must be James.’

Rakoczy felt a ripple of anticipation go up his spine. Yes! This sense of triumph was instantly succeeded by a breathless realisation. The girl was the daughter of La Dame Blanche.

‘I see,’ he said casually. ‘And which convent did you say the girl has gone to?’

To his surprise, Pépin gave him a suddenly sharp look.

‘Why do you want to know?’

Rakoczy shrugged, thinking fast.

‘A wager,’ he said, with a grin. ‘If she is as luscious as you say . . . I’ll bet you five hundred louis that I can get her into bed before she takes her first vows.’

Pépin scoffed.

br />

She was curled behind him then, kissing the back of his neck, and he reached back, groping, but his hands were heavy, drifting; they slid helpless over her. Hers on him were firm, more than firm; she had him by the cock, was working him. Working him hard, fast and hard. He bucked and heaved, suddenly released from the dream-swamp of immobility. She loosed her grip, tried to pull away, but he folded his hand round hers and rubbed their folded hands hard up and down with joyous ferocity, spilling himself convulsively, hot wet spurts against his belly, running thick over their clenched knuckles.

She made a sound of horrified disgust and his eyes flew open. A pair of huge, bugging eyes stared into his, over a gargoyle’s mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth. He shrieked.

Plonplon leaped off the bed and ran to and fro, barking hysterically. There was a body behind him in bed. Michael flung himself off the bed, tangled in a winding-sheet of damp, sticky bedclothes, fell and rolled in panic.

‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!’

On his knees, he gaped, shook his head. Could not make sense of it, couldn’t.

‘Lillie,’ he gasped. ‘Lillie!’

But the woman in his bed, tears running down her face, wasn’t Lillie; he realised it with a wrench that made him groan, doubling up in the desolation of fresh loss.

‘Oh, Jesus!’

‘Michel, Michel, please, please forgive me!’

‘You . . . what . . . for God’s sake . . . !’ Belatedly, he seized a sheet and hastily wiped himself.

Léonie was weeping frantically, reaching out toward him.

‘I couldn’t help it. I’m so lonely, I wanted you so much!’

Plonplon had ceased barking and now came up behind Michael, nosing his bare backside with a blast of hot, moist breath.

‘Va-t’en!’

The pug backed up and started barking again, eyes bulging with offence.

Unable to find any words suitable to the situation, he grabbed the dog and muffled it with a handful of sheet. He got unsteadily to his feet, still holding the squirming pug.

‘I—’ he began. ‘You— I mean . . . oh, Jesus Christ!’ He leaned over and put the dog carefully on the bed. Plonplon instantly wriggled free of the sheet and rushed to Léonie, licking her solicitously. Michael had thought of giving her the dog after Lillie’s death, but for some reason this had seemed a betrayal of the pug’s former mistress, and brought Michael near to weeping.

‘I can’t,’ he said simply. ‘I just can’t. You go to sleep now, lass. We’ll talk about it later, aye?’

He went out, walking carefully, as though very drunk, and closed the door gently behind him. He got halfway down the main stair before realising he was naked. He just stood there, his mind blank, watching the colours of the Murano lamp fade as the daylight grew outside, until Paul saw him and ran up to wrap him in a cloak and lead him off to a bed in the guest rooms.

Rakoczy’s favourite gaming club was the Golden Cockerel, and the wall in the main salon was covered by a tapestry featuring one of these creatures, worked in gold thread, wings spread and throat swollen as it crowed in triumph at the winning hand of cards laid out before it. It was a cheerful place, catering to a mix of wealthy merchants and lesser nobility, and the air was spicy with the scents of candlewax, powder, perfume, and money.

He’d thought of going to the offices of Fraser et Cie, making some excuse to speak to Michael Murray, and manoeuvre his way into an inquiry about the whereabouts of the young man’s aunt. Upon consideration, though, he thought such a move might make Murray wary – and possibly lead to word getting back to the woman, if she was somewhere in Paris. That was the last thing he wanted to happen.

Better, perhaps, to instigate his inquiries from a more discreet distance. He’d learned that Murray occasionally came to the Cockerel, though he himself had never seen him there. But if he was known . . .

It took several evenings of play, wine, and conversation, before he found Charles Pépin. Pépin was a popinjay, a reckless gambler, and a man who liked to talk. And to drink. He was also a good friend of the young wine merchant’s.

‘Oh, the nun!’ he said, when Rakoczy had – after the second bottle – mentioned having heard that Murray had a young relative who had recently entered the convent. Pépin laughed, his handsome face flushed.

‘A less likely nun I’ve never seen – an arse that would make the Archbishop of Paris forget his vows, and he’s eighty-six if he’s a day. Doesn’t speak any sort of French, poor thing – the girl, not the Archbishop. Not that I for one would be wanting to carry on a lot of conversation if I had her to myself, you understand . . . she’s Scotch, terrible accent . . .’

‘Scotch, you say.’ Rakoczy held a card consideringly, then put it down. ‘She is Murray’s cousin – would she perhaps be the daughter of his uncle James?’

Pépin looked blank for a moment.

‘I don’t really— oh, yes, I do know!’ He laughed heartily, and laid down his own losing hand. ‘Dear me. Yes, she did say her father’s name was Jay-mee, the way the Scotches do; that must be James.’

Rakoczy felt a ripple of anticipation go up his spine. Yes! This sense of triumph was instantly succeeded by a breathless realisation. The girl was the daughter of La Dame Blanche.

‘I see,’ he said casually. ‘And which convent did you say the girl has gone to?’

To his surprise, Pépin gave him a suddenly sharp look.

‘Why do you want to know?’

Rakoczy shrugged, thinking fast.

‘A wager,’ he said, with a grin. ‘If she is as luscious as you say . . . I’ll bet you five hundred louis that I can get her into bed before she takes her first vows.’

Pépin scoffed.

‘Oh, never! She’s tasty, but she doesn’t know it. And she’s virtuous, I’d swear it. And if you think you can seduce her inside the convent . . . !’

Rakoczy lounged back in his chair, and motioned for another bottle.

‘In that case . . . what do you have to lose?’

The Next Day

Joan could smell the Hôpital, long before the small group of new postulants reached the door. They walked two by two, practising custody of the eyes – that meant looking where you were told to and not gawking about like a chicken – but she couldn’t help a quick glance upward at the building, a three-storey chateau, originally a noble house that had – rumour said – been given to Mother Hildegarde by her father, as part of her dowry when she joined the church. It had become a convent house, and then gradually been given over more and more to the care of the sick, the nuns moving to the new chateau built in the park.

It was a lovely old house – on the outside. The odour of sickness, of urine and shit and vomit, hung about it like a cloying veil, though, and she hoped she wouldn’t vomit, too. The little postulant next to her, Sister Miséricorde de Dieu (known to all simply as Mercy), was as white as her veil, eyes fixed on the ground, but obviously not seeing it, as she stepped smack on a slug and gave a small cry of horror as it squished under her sandal.

Joan looked hastily away; she would never master custody of the eyes, she was sure. Nor yet custody of thought.

It wasn’t the notion of sick people that troubled her. She’d seen sick people before, and they wouldn’t be expecting her to do more than wash and feed them; she could manage that easily. It was fear of seeing those who were about to die – for surely there would be a great many of those in a hospital. And what might the voices tell her about them?

As it was, the voices had nothing to say. Not a word, and after a little, she began to lose her nervousness. She could do this, and in fact – to her surprise – quite enjoyed the sense of competence, the gratification of being able to ease someone’s pain, give them at least a little attention – and if her French made them laugh (and it did), that at least took their minds off of pain and fear for a moment.

There were those who lay under the veil of death. Only a few, though, and it seemed somehow much less shocking here than when she had seen it on Vhairi’s lad or the young man on the ship. Maybe it was resignation, perhaps the influence of the angels for whom the Hôpital was named . . . Joan didn’t know, but she found that she wasn’t afraid to speak to or touch the ones she knew were going to die. For that matter, she observed that the other sisters, even the orderlies, behaved gently toward these people, and it occurred to her that no particular Sight was needed to know that the man with the wasting sickness, whose bones poked through his skin, was not long for this world.

Touch him, said a soft voice inside her head. Comfort him.

‘All right,’ she said, taking a deep breath. She had no idea how to comfort anyone, but bathed him, as gently as she could, and coaxed him to take a few spoonfuls of porridge. Then she settled him in his bed, straightening his nightshirt and the thin blanket over him.

‘Thank you, Sister,’ he said, and taking her hand, kissed it. ‘Thank you for your sweet touch.’

She went back to the postulants’ dormitory that evening feeling thoughtful, but with a strange sense of being on the verge of discovering something important.

That Night

Rakoczy lay with his head on Madeleine’s bosom, eyes closed, breathing the scent of her body, feeling the whole of her between his palms, a slowly pulsing entity of light. She was a gentle gold, traced with veins of incandescent blue, her heart deep as lapis beneath his ear, a living stone. And deep inside, her warm red womb, open, soft. Refuge and succour. Promise.

Mélisande had shown him the rudiments of sexual magic, and he’d read about it with great interest in some of the older alchemical texts. He’d never tried it with a whore, though – and in fact, hadn’t been trying to do it this time. And yet it had happened. Was happening. He could see the miracle unfolding slowly before him, under his hands.

How odd, he thought dreamily, watching the tiny traces of green energy spread upward through her womb, slowly but inexorably. He’d thought it happened instantly, that a man’s seed found its root in the woman and there you were. But that wasn’t what was happening, at all.

There were two types of seed, he now saw. She had one; he felt it plainly, a brilliant speck of light, glowing like a fierce, tiny sun. His own – the tiny green animalculae – were being drawn toward it, bent on immolation.

‘Happy, Chéri?’ she whispered, stroking his hair. ‘Did you have a good time?’

‘Most happy, sweetheart.’ He wished she wouldn’t talk, but an unexpected sense of tenderness toward her made him sit up and smile at her. She also began to sit up, reaching for the clean rag and douching syringe, and he put a hand on her shoulder, urging her to lie back down.

‘Don’t douche this time, ma belle,’ he said. ‘A favour to me.’

‘But—’ She was confused; usually he was insistent upon cleanliness. ‘Do you want me to get with child?’ For he had stopped her using the wine-soaked sponge beforehand, too.

‘Yes, of course,’ he said, surprised. ‘Did Madame Fabienne not tell you?’

Her mouth dropped open.

‘She did not. What— why, for God’s sake?’ In agitation, she squirmed free of his restraining hand and swung her legs out of bed, reaching for her wrapper. ‘You aren’t – what do you mean to do with it?’

‘Do with it?’ he said, blinking. ‘What do you mean, “Do with it”?’

She had the wrapper on, pulled crookedly round her shoulders, and had backed up against the wall, hands plastered against her stomach, regarding him with open fear.

‘You’re a magicien, everyone knows that. You take newborn children and use their blood in your spells!’

‘What?’ he said, rather stupidly. He reached for his breeches, but changed his mind. He got up and went to her instead, putting his hands on her shoulders.

‘No,’ he said, bending down to look her in the eye. ‘No, I do no such thing. Never.’ He used all the force of sincerity he could summon, pushing it into her, and felt her waver a little, still fearful, but less certain. He smiled at her.

‘Who told you I was a magicien, for heaven’s sake? I am a philosophe, Chérie – an inquirer into the mysteries of nature, no more. And I can swear to you, by my hope of Heaven—’ this being more or less nonexistent, but why quibble? ‘—that I have never, not once, used anything more than the water of a man-child in any of my investigations.’

‘What, little boys’ piss?’ she said, diverted. He let his hands relax, but kept them on her shoulders.

‘Certainly. It’s the purest water one can find. Collecting it is something of a chore, mind you.’ She smiled at that; good. ‘But the process does not the slightest harm to the infant, who will eject the water whether anyone has a use for it or not.’

‘Oh.’ She was beginning to relax a little, but her hands were still pressed protectively over her belly, as though she felt the imminent child already. Not yet, he thought, pulling her against him and feeling his way gently into her body. But soon! He wondered if he should remain with her until it happened; the idea of feeling it as it happened inside her – to be an intimate witness to the creation of life itself! – but there was no telling how long it might take. From the progress of his animalculae, it could be a day, even two.

Magic, indeed.

Why do men never think of that? he wondered. Most men – himself included – regarded the engendering of babies as necessity, in the case of inheritance, or nuisance – but this . . . But then, most men would never know what he now knew, or see what he had seen.

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