‘Joan Mac—’ she said. ‘Er . . . Sister Gregory, I mean.’ She pulled hard against Rakoczy’s grip. ‘Um. If I’m not the concern of either of you gentlemen . . .’

‘She’s my concern, gentlemen.’ The voice was high with nerves, but firm. Rakoczy looked round, shocked to see the young wine merchant walk into the chamber, dishevelled and dirty, but eyes fixed on the girl. At his side, the nun gasped.

‘Sister.’ The merchant bowed. He was white-faced, but not sweating. He looked as though the chill of the cavern had seeped into his bones, but put out a hand from which the beads of a wooden rosary swung. ‘You dropped your rosary.’

Joan thought she might faint from sheer relief. Her knees wobbled from terror and exhaustion, but she summoned enough strength to wrench free of the comte and run, stumbling, into Michael’s arms. He grabbed her and hauled her away from the comte, half-dragging her.

The comte made an angry sound and took a step in her direction, but Michael said, ‘Stop right there, ye wicked bugger!’ just as the little froggy-faced man said sharply, ‘Stop!’

The comte swung first toward one and then the other. He looked . . . crazed. Joan swallowed and nudged Michael, urging him toward the chamber’s door, only then noticing the pen-knife in his hand.

‘What were ye going to do wi’ that?’ she whispered, half-hysterical. ‘Shave him?’

‘Let the air out of him,’ Michael muttered. He lowered his hand, but didn’t put the knife away, and kept his eyes on the two men.

‘Your daughter,’ the comte said hoarsely to the man who called himself Master Raymond. ‘You were looking for your lost daughter. I’ve found her for you.’

Raymond’s brows shot up, and he glanced at Joan.

‘Mine?’ he said, astonished. ‘She isn’t one of mine. Can’t you tell?’

The comte drew a breath so deep it cracked in his throat.

‘Tell? But—’

The frog looked impatient.

‘Can you not see auras? The electrical fluid that surrounds people,’ he elucidated, waving a hand around his own head. The comte rubbed a hand hard over his face.

‘I can’t— she doesn’t—’

‘For goodness sake, come in here!’ Raymond stepped to the edge of the star, reached across and seized the comte’s hand.

Rakoczy stiffened at the touch. Blue light exploded from their linked hands, and he gasped, feeling a surge of energy such as he had never before experienced. It ran like water, like lightning! through his veins. Raymond pulled hard, and he stepped across the line into the pentagram.

Silence. The buzzing had stopped. He nearly wept with the relief of it.

‘I— you—’ he stammered, looking at the linked hands, where the blue light now pulsed gently, with the rhythm of a beating heart. Connection. He felt the other. Felt him in his own blood, his bones, and astonished exaltation filled him. Another. By God, another!

‘You didn’t know?’ Raymond looked surprised.

‘That you were a—’ He waved at the pentagram. ‘I thought you might be.’

‘Not that,’ Raymond said, almost gently. ‘That you were one of mine.’

‘Yours?’ Rakoczy looked down again at their linked fingers, bathed in blue.

‘Everyone has an aura of some kind,’ Raymond said. ‘But only my . . . people – my sons and daughters – have this.’

In the blessed silence, it was possible to think again. And the first thing that came to mind was the Star Chamber, the king looking on as they had faced each other over a poisoned cup. And now he knew why the frog hadn’t killed him.

Rakoczy’s mind bubbled with questions. La Dame Blanche, blue light, Mélisande and Madeleine . . . The thought of Madeleine and what grew in her womb nearly stopped him asking, but the urge to find out, to know at last, was too strong.

‘Can you— can we— go forward?’

Raymond hesitated a moment, then nodded.

‘Yes. But it’s not safe. Not safe at all.’

‘Will you show me?’

‘I mean it.’ The frog’s grip tightened on his. ‘It’s not a safe thing to know, let alone to do.’

br />

‘Joan Mac—’ she said. ‘Er . . . Sister Gregory, I mean.’ She pulled hard against Rakoczy’s grip. ‘Um. If I’m not the concern of either of you gentlemen . . .’

‘She’s my concern, gentlemen.’ The voice was high with nerves, but firm. Rakoczy looked round, shocked to see the young wine merchant walk into the chamber, dishevelled and dirty, but eyes fixed on the girl. At his side, the nun gasped.

‘Sister.’ The merchant bowed. He was white-faced, but not sweating. He looked as though the chill of the cavern had seeped into his bones, but put out a hand from which the beads of a wooden rosary swung. ‘You dropped your rosary.’

Joan thought she might faint from sheer relief. Her knees wobbled from terror and exhaustion, but she summoned enough strength to wrench free of the comte and run, stumbling, into Michael’s arms. He grabbed her and hauled her away from the comte, half-dragging her.

The comte made an angry sound and took a step in her direction, but Michael said, ‘Stop right there, ye wicked bugger!’ just as the little froggy-faced man said sharply, ‘Stop!’

The comte swung first toward one and then the other. He looked . . . crazed. Joan swallowed and nudged Michael, urging him toward the chamber’s door, only then noticing the pen-knife in his hand.

‘What were ye going to do wi’ that?’ she whispered, half-hysterical. ‘Shave him?’

‘Let the air out of him,’ Michael muttered. He lowered his hand, but didn’t put the knife away, and kept his eyes on the two men.

‘Your daughter,’ the comte said hoarsely to the man who called himself Master Raymond. ‘You were looking for your lost daughter. I’ve found her for you.’

Raymond’s brows shot up, and he glanced at Joan.

‘Mine?’ he said, astonished. ‘She isn’t one of mine. Can’t you tell?’

The comte drew a breath so deep it cracked in his throat.

‘Tell? But—’

The frog looked impatient.

‘Can you not see auras? The electrical fluid that surrounds people,’ he elucidated, waving a hand around his own head. The comte rubbed a hand hard over his face.

‘I can’t— she doesn’t—’

‘For goodness sake, come in here!’ Raymond stepped to the edge of the star, reached across and seized the comte’s hand.

Rakoczy stiffened at the touch. Blue light exploded from their linked hands, and he gasped, feeling a surge of energy such as he had never before experienced. It ran like water, like lightning! through his veins. Raymond pulled hard, and he stepped across the line into the pentagram.

Silence. The buzzing had stopped. He nearly wept with the relief of it.

‘I— you—’ he stammered, looking at the linked hands, where the blue light now pulsed gently, with the rhythm of a beating heart. Connection. He felt the other. Felt him in his own blood, his bones, and astonished exaltation filled him. Another. By God, another!

‘You didn’t know?’ Raymond looked surprised.

‘That you were a—’ He waved at the pentagram. ‘I thought you might be.’

‘Not that,’ Raymond said, almost gently. ‘That you were one of mine.’

‘Yours?’ Rakoczy looked down again at their linked fingers, bathed in blue.

‘Everyone has an aura of some kind,’ Raymond said. ‘But only my . . . people – my sons and daughters – have this.’

In the blessed silence, it was possible to think again. And the first thing that came to mind was the Star Chamber, the king looking on as they had faced each other over a poisoned cup. And now he knew why the frog hadn’t killed him.

Rakoczy’s mind bubbled with questions. La Dame Blanche, blue light, Mélisande and Madeleine . . . The thought of Madeleine and what grew in her womb nearly stopped him asking, but the urge to find out, to know at last, was too strong.

‘Can you— can we— go forward?’

Raymond hesitated a moment, then nodded.

‘Yes. But it’s not safe. Not safe at all.’

‘Will you show me?’

‘I mean it.’ The frog’s grip tightened on his. ‘It’s not a safe thing to know, let alone to do.’

Rakoczy laughed, exhilarated, full of joy. Why should he fear knowledge? Perhaps the passage would kill him – but he had a pocket full of gems, and besides, what was the point of waiting to die slowly?

‘Tell me!’ he said, squeezing the other’s hand. ‘For the sake of our shared blood!’

Joan stood stock-still, amazed. Michael’s arm was still around her, but she scarcely noticed.

‘He is!’ she whispered. ‘He truly is! They both are!’

‘Are what?’ Michael gaped at her.

‘Auld Folk! Faeries!’

He looked wildly back at the scene before them. The two men stood face to face, hands locked together, their mouths moving in animated conversation – in total silence. It was like watching mimes, but even less interesting.

‘I dinna care what they are. Loons, criminals, demons, angels . . . come on!’ He dropped his arm and seized her hand, but she was planted solid as an oak sapling, her eyes growing wider and wider.

She gripped his hand hard enough to grind the bones and shrieked at the top of her lungs, ‘Don’t do it!’

He whirled round just in time to see the front of the comte’s coat explode in a fountain of sparks. And then they vanished.

They stumbled together down the long pale passages, bathed in the flickering light of dying torches, red, yellow, blue, green, a ghastly purple that made Joan’s face look drowned.

‘Des feux d’artifice,’ Michael said. His voice sounded queer, echoing in the empty tunnels. ‘A conjuror’s trick.’

‘What?’ Joan looked drugged, her eyes black with shock.

‘The fires. The . . . colours. Have ye never heard of fireworks?’

‘No.’

‘Oh.’ It seemed too much a struggle to explain, and they went on in silence, hurrying as much as they could, to reach the shaft before the light died entirely.

At the bottom, he paused to let her go first, thinking too late that he should have gone first – she’d think he meant to look up her dress . . . he turned hastily away, face burning.

‘D’ye think he was? That they were?’ She was hanging onto the ladder, a few feet above him. Beyond her, he could see the stars, serene in a velvet sky.

‘Were what?’ He looked at her face, so as not to risk her modesty. She was looking better now, but very serious.

‘Were they Auld Folk? Faeries?’

‘I suppose they must ha’ been.’ His mind was moving very slowly; he didn’t want to have to try to think. He motioned to her to climb, and followed her up, his eyes tightly shut. If they were Auld Ones, then likely so was Auntie Claire. He truly didn’t want to think about that.

He drew the fresh air gratefully into his lungs. The wind was toward the city now, coming off the fields, full of the resinous cool scent of pine trees and the breath of summer grass and cattle. He felt Joan breathe it in, sigh deeply, and then she turned to him, put her arms around him, and rested her forehead on his chest. He put his arms round her and they stood for some time, in peace.

Finally, she stirred and straightened up.

‘Ye’d best take me back, then,’ she said. ‘The Sisters will be half out o’ their minds.’

He was conscious of a sharp sense of disappointment, but turned obediently toward the coach, standing in the distance. Then he turned back.

‘Ye’re sure?’ he said. ‘Did your voices tell ye to go back?’

She made a sound that wasn’t quite a rueful laugh.

‘I dinna need a voice to tell me that.’ She brushed a hand through her hair, smoothing it off her face. ‘In the Highlands, if a man’s widowed, he takes another wife as soon as he can get one; he’s got to have someone to mend his shirt and rear his bairns. But Sister Philomène says it’s different in Paris; that a man might mourn for a year.’

‘He might,’ he said, after a short silence. Would a year be enough, he wondered, to heal the great hole where Lillie had been? He knew he would never forget – never stop looking for her in that space between heartbeats – but he didn’t forget what Ian had told him, either: 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.

Joan’s face was pale and serious in the moonlight, her mouth gentle.

‘It’s a year before a postulant makes up her mind. Whether to stay and become a novice, or . . . or leave. It takes time. To know.’

‘Aye,’ he said softly. ‘Aye, it does.’

He turned to go, but she stopped him, a hand on his arm.

‘Michael,’ she said. ‘Kiss me, aye? I think I should maybe know that, before I decide.’


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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