The Runaway Queen Page 2

"There is a man here to see you, Monsieur Bane."

Claude understood that in Magnus's business it was not necessary to take names.

"All right," Magnus said with a sigh. "Show him in."

"Will monsieur be receiving his visitor in the bath?"

"Monsieur is considering it," Magnus said, with an even deeper sigh. It was annoying, but professional appearances had to be kept. He stepped out, dripping, and put on a silk dressing gown embroidered on the back with the picture of a peacock. He threw himself petulantly into a chair by the window.

"Claude!" he yelled. "Now! Send him in!"

A moment later the door opened again, and there stood a very attractive man with black hair and blue eyes. He wore clothes of an obviously fine quality. The tailoring was absolutely delicious. This was the sort of thing Magnus wanted to happen more often. How generous the universe could be, when she wanted to be! After denying him his balloon ride and giving him such an unpleasant encounter with Henri.

"You are Monsieur Magnus Bane," the man said with certainty. Magnus was rarely misidentified. Tall, golden-skinned, cat-eyed men were rare.

"I am," Magnus replied.

Many nobles Magnus had met had the absentminded air of people who had never had to take care of any matters of importance. This man was different. He had a very erect bearing, and a look of purpose. Also, he spoke French with a faint accent, but what kind of accent, Magnus could not immediately place.

"I have come to speak to you on a matter of some urgency. I wouldn't normally . . . I . . ."

Magnus knew this hesitation well. Some people were nervous in the presence of warlocks.

"You are uncomfortable, monsieur," Magnus said with a smile. "Allow me to make you comfortable. I have a great talent in these matters. Please sit. Have some champagne."

"I prefer to stand, monsieur."

"As you wish. But may I have the pleasure of learning your name?" Magnus asked.

"My name is Count Axel von Fersen."

A count! Named Axel! A military man! With black hair and blue eyes! And in a state of distress! Oh, the universe had outdone herself. The universe would be sent flowers.

"Monsieur Bane, I have heard of your talents. I can't say whether I believe what I've heard, but rational, intelligent, sensible people swear to me that you are capable of wonderful things beyond my understanding."

Magnus spread his hands in false modesty.

"It's all true," he said. "As long as it was wonderful."

"They say you can alter a person's appearance by some sort of . . . conjuring trick."

Magnus allowed this insult to pass.

"Monsieur," von Fersen said, "what are your feelings on the revolution?"

"The revolution will happen regardless of my feelings on the matter," Magnus said coolly. "I am not a native son of France, so I do not presume to have opinions on how the nation conducts itself."

"And I am not a son of France either. I am from Sweden. But I do have feelings on this, very strong feelings. . . ."

Magnus liked it when von Fersen talked about his very strong feelings. He liked it very much.

"I come here because I must, and because you are the only person who can help. By coming here today and telling you what I am going to tell you, I put my life in your hands. I also risk lives much more valuable than mine. But I do not do so blindly. I have learned much about you, Monsieur Bane. I know you have many aristocratic friends. I know you have been in Paris for six years, and you are well liked and well known. And you are said to be a man of your word. Are you, monsieur, a man of your word?"

"It really depends upon the word," Magnus said. "There are so many wonderful words out there . . ."

Magnus silently cursed himself on his poor knowledge of Swedish. He could have added another witty line. He tried to learn seductive phrases in all languages, but the only Swedish he had ever really needed was, "Do you serve anything aside from pickled fish?" and "If you wrap me in furs, I can pretend to be your little fuzzy bear."

Von Fersen visibly steadied himself before speaking again.

"I need you to save the king and queen. I need you to preserve the royal family of France."

Well. That was certainly an unexpected turn. As if in reply, the sky darkened again and there was another rumble of thunder.

"I see," Magnus replied after a moment.

"How does that statement make you feel, monsieur?"

"Quite the same as always," Magnus replied, making sure to keep his calm demeanor. "With my hands."

But he felt anything but calm. The peasant women had broken into the palace of Versailles and thrown out the king and queen, who now lived at the Tuileries, that broken-down old palace in the middle of Paris. The people had produced pamphlets detailing the supposed crimes of the royal family. They seemed to focus quite heavily on Queen Marie Antoinette, accusing her of the most terrible things-often sexual. (There was no way possible she could have done all of the things the pamphleteers claimed. The crimes were too gross, too immoral, and far too physically challenging. Magnus himself had never attempted half of them.)

Anything relating to the royal family was bad and dangerous to know.

Which made it as appealing as it was frightening.

"Obviously, monsieur, I've just taken a great risk in saying that much to you."

"I realize that," Magnus said. "But save the royal family? No one has harmed them."

"It is only a matter of time," von Fersen said. His emotion brought a flush to his cheeks that made Magnus's heart flutter a bit. "They are prisoners. Kings and queens who are imprisoned are generally not freed to rule again. No . . . no. It is only a matter of time before the situation grows very dire. It is already intolerable, the conditions under which they are forced to live. The palace is dirty. The servants are cruel and mocking. Every day their possessions and natural entitlements are diminished. I am certain . . . I am quite, quite certain . . . if they are not freed, they shall not live. And I cannot live with that knowledge. When they were dragged from Versailles, I sold everything and followed them to Paris. I will follow them anywhere."

"What is it you want me to do?" Magnus said.

"I am told you can alter a person's appearance through . . . some kind of . . . marvel."

Magnus was happy to accept that description of his talents.

"Whatever price you wish, it shall be paid. The royal family of Sweden will also be informed of your great service."

"With all due respect, monsieur," Magnus said, "I do not live in Sweden. I live here. And if I do this . . ."

"If you do this, you do the greatest service to France. And when the family is restored to their proper place, you will be honored as a great hero."

Again, this made little difference. But what did make a difference was von Fersen himself. It was the blue eyes and the dark hair and the passion and the obvious courage. It was the way he stood, tall and strong . . .

"Monsieur, will you stand with us? Do we have your word, monsieur?"

It was also a very bad idea.

It was a terrible idea.

It was the worst idea he had ever heard.

It was irresistible.

"Your word, monsieur," Axel said again.

"You have it," Magnus said.

"Then I will come again tomorrow night and lay the plan out in front of you," von Fersen said. "I will show you what must happen."

"I insist we dine together," Magnus said. "If we are to undertake this great adventure together."

There was a momentary pause, and then Axel gave a sharp nod.

"Yes," he said. "Yes. I agree. We will dine together."

When von Fersen left, Magnus looked at himself in the mirror for a long time, looking for signs of madness. The actual magic involved was very simple. He could easily get himself in and out of the palace and cast a simple glamour. No one would ever know.

He shook his head. This was Paris. Everyone knew everything, somehow.

He took a long sip of the now warm violet champagne and swished it round his mouth. Any logical doubts he had were drowned out by the beating of his heart. It had been so long since he'd felt the rush. In his mind now there was only von Fersen.

The next night, Magnus had dinner brought in, courtesy of the chef at the Hôtel de Soubise. Magnus's friends permitted his use of the kitchen staff and their excellent foodstuffs when he needed to set an especially fine table. Tonight he had a delicate pigeon bisque, turbot, Rouen duckling with orange, spit-roasted veal, green beans au jus, artichokes, and a table full of cream puffs, fruit, and tiny cakes. The meal was simple enough to arrange-getting dressed, however, was not. Absolutely nothing was right. He needed something that was flirtatious and fetching, yet businesslike and serious. And at first it seemed that the lemon-yellow coat and breeches with the purple waistcoat fit the bill precisely, but these were discarded for the lime-green waistcoat, and then the violet breeches. He settled on an entire ensemble in a simple cerulean blue, but not before he had emptied out the entire contents of his wardrobe.

Waiting was a delicious agony. Magnus could only pace, looking out the window, waiting for von Fersen's carriage to appear. He made countless trips to the mirror, and then to the table Claude and Marie had so carefully laid before he'd sent them away for the evening. Axel had insisted on privacy, and Magnus was happy to oblige.

At precisely eight o'clock a carriage stopped in front of Magnus's door, and out he stepped. Axel. He even looked up, as if he knew that Magnus would be looking down, waiting for him. He smiled a greeting, and Magnus felt a pleasant kind of sickness, a panic. . . .

He hurried down the steps to admit Axel himself.

"I've dismissed my staff for the evening, as you asked," he said, trying to regain his composure. "Do come in. Our dinner is ready for us. You'll excuse the informality of my service."

"Of course, monsieur," Axel said.

But Axel did not linger over his food, or allow himself the pleasures of sipping his wine and taking in Magnus's charms. He launched right into the business at hand. He even had maps, which he unrolled on the sofa.

"The escape plan has been developed over several months," he said, picking an artichoke from a silver dish. "By me, some friends of the cause, and the queen herself."

"And the king?" Magnus asked.

"His Majesty has . . . removed himself from the situation somewhat. He is very despondent over the state of things. Her Majesty has assumed much responsibility."

"You seem to be very . . . fond of Her Majesty," Magnus noted carefully.

"She is to be admired," Axel said, dabbing at his lips with his napkin.

"And clearly she trusts you. You must be very close."

"She has graciously allowed me into her confidence."

Magnus could read between the lines. Axel didn't kiss and tell, which made him only more attractive.

"The escape is to be made on Sunday," Alex went on. "The plan is simple, but exacting. We have arranged it so the guards have seen certain people leaving by certain exits at certain times. On the night of the escape, we will substitute the family for these people. The children will be woken at ten thirty. The dauphin will be dressed as a young girl. He and his sister will be removed from the palace by the royal governess, the Marquise de Tourzel, and will walk to meet me at the Grand Carrousel. I will be driving the traveling carriage. We will then wait for Madame Elisabeth, sister of the king. She shall leave by the same door as the children. When His Majesty finishes his coucher for the evening and is left alone, he will leave as well, disguised as the Chevalier de Coigny. Her Majesty . . . will escape last."

"Marie Antoinette will leave last?"

"It was her decision," von Fersen said quickly. "She is extremely courageous. She demands to go last. If the others are discovered missing, she wishes to sacrifice herself in order to aid their escape."

There was that frisson of passion in his voice again. But this time when he looked at Magnus, his gaze stayed there for a moment, fixed on the catlike pupils.

"So why do you want only the queen glamoured?"

"Partially it has to do with timing," Axel said. "The order in which people must be seen coming and going. His Majesty will be with people right up until his coucher, and he departs instantly after that. Only Her Majesty will be alone in the palace for some time. She is also more recognizable."

"Than the king?"

"But of course! His Majesty is not . . . a handsome man. Gazes do not linger on his face. What people recognize are his clothes, and carriage, all the external signs of his royal status. But Her Majesty . . . her face is known. Her face is studied and drawn and painted. Her style is copied. She is beautiful, and her face has been committed to many a memory."

"I see," Magnus said, wanting to move away from the subject of the queen's beauty. "And what will happen to you?"

"I will drive the carriage as far as Bondy," he said, his gaze still fixed on Magnus. He continued to list details-troop movements, stations to change the horses, things of that nature. Magnus had no interest in these details. They could not hold his attention like the way the elegant ruff of shirt fabric brushed Axel's chin as he spoke. The heavy plumpness of his lower lip. No king or queen or palace or work of art had anything that could compare with that lower lip.

"As for your payment . . ."

These words drew Magnus back in.

"The matter of payment is quite simple," Magnus said. "I require no money-"

"Monsieur," Axel said, leaning forward, "you do this as a true patriot of France!"

"I do this," Magnus continued calmly, "to develop our friendship. I ask only to see you again when the thing is done."

"To see me?"

"To see you, monsieur."

Axel's shoulders drew back a bit, and he looked down at his plate. For a moment Magnus thought it was all for nothing, that he had made the wrong move. But then Axel looked back up, and the candlelight flickered in his blue eyes.

"Monsieur," he said, taking Magnus's hand across the table, "we shall be the closest of friends evermore."

This was precisely what Magnus wanted to hear.

On Sunday morning, the day of the escape, Magnus woke to the usual clamor of church bells ringing all over Paris. His head was a bit thick and clouded from a long evening with the Count de -- and a group of actors from the Comedie-Italienne. It seemed that during the night he had also acquired a monkey. It sat on the footboard of his bed, happily eating Magnus's morning bread. It had already tipped over the pot of tea that Claude had brought in, and there was a pile of shredded ostrich feathers in the middle of the floor.

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