Ian, I thought. Oh, God. He hasn’t come back.
“As I’ll ever be,” I managed, already imagining the stench of burning flesh. Mine.
If the bullet was resting near one of the large vessels, Denny’s probing and grasping could rupture it and I’d hemorrhage internally. The cauterization might cause shock suddenly to set in and assassinate me without warning. Most likely, I’d survive the surgery but die of lingering infection. Consoling thought . . . At least in that case I’d have time to write a brief note to Brianna—and perhaps warn Jamie to be more careful about who he married next time. . . .
“Wait,” Jamie said. He didn’t raise his voice, but there was enough urgency in it to freeze Denny.
I closed my eyes, rested a hand gingerly on the dressing, and tried to envision just where the damned bullet might be. Was it only in the liver, or had it gone all the way through? There was so much trauma and swelling, though, that the pain was generalized over the whole right side of my abdomen; I couldn’t pick out a single, vivid line of bright pain leading to the ball.
“What is it, Jamie?” Denny asked, impatient to be about his business.
“Your betrothed,” Jamie said, sounding bemused. “Coming up the road with a gang of soldiers.”
“Does thee think she is under arrest?” Denny asked, with a fair assumption of calm. I saw his hand tremble slightly as he picked up a linen napkin, though.
“I dinna think so,” Jamie said doubtfully. “She’s laughing wi’ a couple of them.”
Denny took his spectacles off and wiped them carefully.
“Dorothea is a Grey,” he pointed out. “Any member of her family would pause on the gallows to exchange witty banter with the hangman before graciously putting the noose about his neck with his own hands.”
That was so true that it made me laugh, though my humor was cut off at once by a jolt of pain that took my breath away. Jamie looked at me sharply, but I flapped a hand weakly at him, and he went to open the door.
Dorothea popped in, turning to wave over her shoulder and call goodbye to her escort, and I heard Denny sigh in relief as he put his spectacles back on.
“Oh, good,” she said, going to kiss him. “I hoped you hadn’t started yet. I’ve brought a few things. Mrs. Fraser—Claire—how are you? I mean, how is thee?” She put down the large basket she was carrying and came at once to the table I was lying on, to take my hand and gaze sympathetically at me with her big blue eyes.
“I’ve been slightly better,” I said, making an effort not to grit my teeth. I felt clammy and nauseated.
“General La Fayette was most concerned to hear that you’d been hurt,” she said. “He has all of his aides telling their rosary beads for you.”
“How kind,” I said, meaning it, but rather hoping the marquis hadn’t sent a complicated greeting that I might need to compose a reply to. Having got this far, I wanted to get the bloody business over with, no matter what happened.
“And he sent this,” she said, a rather smug look on her face as she held up a squat green-glass bottle. “Thee will want this first, I think, Denny.”
“What—” Denny began, reaching for the bottle, but Dorothea had pulled the cork, and the sweet cough-syrup smell of sherry rolled out—with the ghost of a very distinctive herbal scent beneath it, something between camphor and sage.
“Laudanum,” said Jamie, and his face took on such a startling look of relief that only then did I realize how frightened he had been for me. “God bless ye, Dottie!”
“It occurred to me that Friend Gilbert might just possibly have a few things that might be useful,” she said modestly. “All the Frenchmen I know are dreadful cranks about their health and have enormous collections of tonics and pastilles and clysters. So I went and asked.”
Jamie had me half sitting, with his arm braced behind my back and the bottle at my lips, before I could add my own thanks.
“Wait, will you?” I said crossly, putting my hand over the bottle’s open mouth. “I haven’t any idea how strong this stuff is. You won’t do me any good by killing me with opium.”
It cost me something to say so; my instinct was to drain the bottle forthwith, if it would stop the beastly pain. That nitwit Spartan who allowed the fox to gnaw his vitals had nothing on me. But, come right down to it, I didn’t want to die, either of gunshot, fever, or medical misadventure. And so Dottie borrowed a spoon from Mrs. Macken, who watched in grisly fascination from the door while I took two spoonfuls, lay down, and waited an interminable quarter of an hour to judge the effects.
“The marquis sent all sorts of delicacies and things to aid your recovery,” Dottie said encouragingly, turning to the basket and starting to lift things out by way of distraction. “Partridge in jelly, mushroom pâté, some terrible-smelling cheese, and—”
My sudden desire to vomit ceased just as suddenly, and I half-sat up, causing Jamie to emit a cry of alarm and grab me by the shoulders. Just as well that he did; I would have fallen onto the floor. I wasn’t attending, though, my attention fixed on Dottie’s basket.
“Roquefort,” I said urgently. “Is it Roquefort cheese? Sort of gray, with green and blue veins?”
“Why, I don’t know,” she said, startled by my vehemence. She gingerly plucked a cloth-wrapped parcel out of the basket and held it delicately in front of me. The odor wafting from it was enough, and I relaxed—very slowly—back down.
“Good,” I breathed. “Denzell—when you’ve finished . . . pack the wound with cheese.”
Used to me as he was, this still made Denny’s jaw drop. He glanced from me to the cheese, plainly thinking that fever must have set in with unusual speed and severity.
“Penicillin,” I said, swallowing and waving a hand at the cheese. My mouth felt sticky from the laudanum. “The mold that makes that sort of cheese is a species of Penicillium. Use the stuff from the veins.”
Denny shut his mouth and nodded, determined.
“I will. But we must begin soon, Claire. The light is going.”
The light was going, and the sense of urgency in the room was palpable. But Mrs. Macken brought more candles, and Denny assured me that it was a simple operation; he would do quite as well by candlelight.
More laudanum. I was beginning to feel it—a not unpleasant dizzy sensation—and I made Jamie lay me down again. The pain was definitely less.
“Give me a bit more,” I said, and my voice didn’t seem to belong to me.
I took as deep a breath as I could and eased myself into a good position, looking with distaste at the leather gag that lay beside me. Someone—perhaps Dr. Leckie—had slit my shift up the side earlier in the proceedings. I spread the edges of the opening wide and stretched out my hand to Jamie.
The shadows grew between the smoke-stained rafters. The kitchen fire was banked, but still live, and the glow of it began to show red on the hearth. Looking up at the flickering rafters in my drugged state reminded me too much of the time I had nearly died of bacterial poisoning, and I shut my eyes.
Jamie was holding my left hand, curled on my breast, his other hand gently stroking my hair, smoothing damp wisps of it off my face.
“Better now, a nighean?” he whispered, and I nodded—or thought I did. Mrs. Macken murmured some question to Dottie, received an answer, and went out. The pain was still there but distant now, a small, flickering fire that I could shut out by closing my eyes. The thud of my heartbeat was more immediate, and I was beginning to experience . . . not hallucinations, quite. Disconnected images, though—the faces of strangers that faded in and out behind my eyes. Some were looking at me, others seemed oblivious; they smiled and sneered and grimaced but had nothing, really, to do with me.
“Again, Sassenach,” Jamie whispered, lifting my head and putting the spoon to my lips, sticky with sherry and the bitter taste of opium. “One more.” I swallowed and lay back. If I died, would I see my mother again? I wondered, and experienced an urgent longing for her, shocking in its intensity.
I was trying to summon her face before me, bring her out of the floating horde of strangers, when I suddenly lost my grip on my own thoughts and began to float off into a sphere of dark, dark blue.
“Don’t leave me, Claire,” Jamie whispered, very close to my ear. “This time, I’ll beg. Dinna go from me. Please.” I could feel the warmth of his face, see the glow of his breath on my cheek, though my eyes were closed.
“I won’t,” I said—or thought I said—and went. My last clear thought was that I’d forgotten to tell him not to marry a fool.
THE SKY OUTSIDE was lavender, and Claire’s skin was washed with gold. Six candles burned around the room, the flames tall and still in the heavy air.
Jamie stood by her head, a hand on her shoulder as though he could comfort her. In fact, it was the sense of her, still alive under his hand, that was keeping him on his feet.
Denny made a small sound of satisfaction behind his highwayman’s mask, and Jamie saw the muscle of his bared forearm tense as he slowly drew the instrument out of Claire’s body. Blood gushed from the wound, and Jamie tensed like a cat, ready to spring forward with a pledget, but no spurt followed and the blood died to a trickle, with a final small blurt of blood as the jaws of the instrument emerged, something dark clamped between them.
Denny dropped the ball into the palm of his hand and peered at it, then made an irritable noise; his glasses were fogged with the sweat of his efforts. Jamie snatched them off the Quaker’s nose and rubbed them hastily on his shirttail, replacing them before Hunter could blink twice.
“I thank thee,” Denny said mildly, returning his attention to the musket ball. He turned it delicately and let out an audible breath.
“Whole,” he said. “Thank God.”
“Deo gratias,” Jamie echoed fervently, and reached out a hand. “Let me see it, will ye?”
Hunter’s brows rose, but he dropped the thing in Jamie’s hand. It was startlingly warm, warm from her body. Warmer even than the air or Jamie’s own sweating flesh, and the feel of it made him fold his fist over it. He stole a look at Claire’s chest: rising, falling, though with alarming slowness. Almost as slowly, he opened his hand.
“What is thee looking for, Jamie?” Denny asked, pausing to re-sterilize his beaked probe.
“Marks. A slit, a cross—any mark of tampering.” He rolled the ball carefully between his fingers, then relaxed, a small spurt of gratitude making him murmur, “Deo gratias,” again.
“Tampering?” There were vertical lines between Denny’s brows, deepening as he looked up. “To make the ball fragment, thee means?”
“That—or worse. Sometimes a man will rub something into the marks—poison, say, or . . . or shit. Just in case the wound itself isna fatal, aye?”
Hunter looked shocked, his appalled expression clear even behind the shielding handkerchief.
“If ye mean to kill a man, ye mean him harm,” Jamie said dryly.
“Yes, but . . .” Hunter looked down, laying his tool carefully on the towel as though it were made of porcelain, not metal. His breath fluttered the handkerchief tied over his mouth. “But it is one thing, surely, to kill in battle, to shoot at an enemy when it is a matter of one’s own life . . . and to form the cold-blooded intent that your enemy should die a horrible and lingering death . . .”
Claire made a ghastly moaning noise and twitched under his hands as Denny gently squeezed the flesh on either side of the wound. Jamie gripped her by the elbows, to keep her from turning. Denny picked up the jawed thing again.
“You wouldn’t do it yourself,” Hunter said with certainty. His eyes were intent on his delicate probing, a pledget held to catch the blood that dribbled slowly from the wound. Jamie felt the loss of each drop as though it left his own veins, and felt cold; how much could she lose and still live?
“No. It would be a cowardly thing.” But he spoke automatically, scarcely attending. She had gone limp; he saw her fingers uncurl, droop, and looked at her face, her throat, searching for a visible pulse. He felt one, in his thumb where it pressed the bone of her arm, but couldn’t tell whether it was her heart that beat there or his own.
He was acutely conscious of Denny’s breath, audible behind his mask. It stopped for an instant, and Jamie glanced up from his scrutiny of Claire’s face to see the Quaker’s look of intentness as he drew the thing free once more—this time clutching a tiny clump of something unrecognizable. Denny opened the jaws of his forceps and dropped the clump on the towel, then used the tool to poke at it, trying to spread it, and Jamie saw the prickle of tiny dark threads as the blood soaked away into a bright red stain on the towel. Cloth.
“What does thee think?” Denny asked him, frowning at the thing. “Is it a bit of her shift, or the—the bodice—or material from her stays? For from the hole in her stays, I should think . . .”
Jamie rootled hastily in his sporran, pulled out the little silk bag in which he kept the spectacles he used for reading, and clapped these on his nose.
“Ye’ve at least two separate bits there,” he announced, after an anxious perusal. “Canvas from the stays, and a lighter bit of cloth. See?” He took up a probe and delicately teased the fragments apart. “I think that one bit’s her shift.”
Denny glanced at the disconsolate pile of bloodstained garments on the floor, and Jamie, at once divining his intent, reached in, stirred about, and pulled out the remnants of her dress.
“It’s a clean hole,” Denny said, looking at the fabric Jamie spread out on the table. “Maybe . . .” He picked up the forceps and turned back, not finishing.
More probing, deeper, and Jamie gritted his teeth not to cry out in protest. “The liver is so vascular,” she’d said, talking Denny through what he must do. “The risk of hemorrhage . . .”