Tall cast iron gates creaked open for the Baron's two coaches, the passengers noted the ragged peasant's wandering about outside the chateau's high walls, which appeared to have been specifically built to keep the rabble out. After entry the gates promptly closed. Hawkeye noted the many faces that stared between the bars of the gate to the pristine interior; they were all ragged peasants, their faces included those that were filthy, hungry and angry. Children were also among the bitter onlookers.
The inside grounds were a verdant picture of well manicured hedges, plush flower beds and many cherub statues atop high pedestals. A wigged footman greeted Munchausen's entourage as they alighted from the coaches. All guests were well groomed and in brilliant attire, even Chingachook was persuaded to wear a an ornamental variation of his buckskins. Alan Breck, resplendent in his tartan kilt, took Juliette's hand and followed the footman into the main lounge, Munchausen, Hawkeye, Chingachook, Redmond and Jean Baptiste trailed.
It was late afternoon and the chateau looked a like a grand mansion similar to the Chateau de Lune but without the moon motifs or the large outdoor steps to the upper floors. Mahogany furniture with frames blazoned in gold filled the lounge, their cushions were velvet with rich embroidery. Baroque paintings of people in passionate union adorned the walls and a large candlelight chandelier dominated the ceiling.
A whisper in the ear by the footman to the host had the latter wheel about to greet his guests. St Evremonde was about forty, handsomely dressed and with a face like a fine mask of transparent paleness beneath a plush wig.
"Well Hello." Said the Marquis. "My what a cosmopolitan bunch we have here and all in their own way dazzling. Welcome to my chateau all of you and may you partake of the party atmosphere with grand merriment."
Munchausen went through local greeting with the aristocrat, that of kissing both cheeks, then introduced his entourage one by one; the Marquis complimented each one, though with Juliette he seized her hand and kissed it ravishingly.
Their were many guest already present, the League members dispersed and began to mix with the crowd. Many servants manoeuvred through the party with trays or platters; wine stewards, waiters and pages; large fan holders stood next to couches and cooled the over dressed women. Glasses of both red and white wine appeared regularly on hand held trays, a smorgasbord of bakery delicacies and orderves filled the table tops, while some of the latter was also carried around on trays.
When Juliette individually mixed with the party guests she became a magnet for male attention; her dress had strips of bright red while displaying a pulsating cleavage and a risque measure of bare shoulder. A sweet fragrant perfume supplied by Jean Baptiste added to the courtesan's ample lure. One loud and forthright guest was the Marquis de Praille who dominated the male attention towards Juliette, he spoke as if he wanted to possess her; the wily courtesan placated him with promises of future encounters that would please him. In time the loud Marquis left her company to pursue other women, Juliette could tell there were many courtesan's mingling in the scene, most likely ring-ins commissioned by St Evremonde to spice up his party.
An Englishman approached Juliette speaking good French and vocalising with smooth ease, unlike the loud Marquis de Praille, he had a good figure and fine clothes, introducing himself as Squire Thornhill. All the common genteel topics of conversation were discussed and Juliette found them quite engaging. The subject of marriage worked its way into the conversation, where the Squire claimed he was not wed and matrimony with a beautiful woman like Juliette would be fortuitous for both. Juliette began a frenzied giggle at the Squire, who obviously didn't know about her, his demeanor changed from pleasant to rough. Fierce hands clutched the woman's forearms and pulled her in to Thornhill's lips.
"Married to me or not." Blurted the Squire. "I will have you, for as long as I deem fit."
An upward sweeping motion of Baron Munchausen's arm put an end to Thornhill's hold on Juliette. The refined soldier stood between the two and faced the Squire.
"So you're Squire Thornhill are you?" Said the Baron. "The villainous rake who seduces young girls in the English countryside with fake marriages, takes them to London and then abandons them to a life of prostitution."
Thornhill pulled off one of his gloves, but when he looked into eyes of the confident German soldier he backed off and re-donned his glove, realising he wouldn't last one minute in a duel with Munchausen. Juliette embraced the Baron kissed him several times before he tore himself loose and lost himself in the crowd.
Jean Baptiste Grenouille positioned himself near a group of women, a focused eye would have noticed that he was sampling the personal scent of each person; Juliette had such an eye, and felt relieved that the perfumer's attention was elsewhere. The women noticed Jean and welcomed him into their circle where he began to demonstrate his perfumes to a captive audience.
Redmond Barry took a glass of red wine from the tray of an approaching steward only to find it seized and placed back on the tray.
"Keep your wits about you Redmond." Said the Steward.
It was Karl, the Prussian spy had infiltrated the Chateau staff as a wine steward. Fritz appeared next to Karl carrying a tray of orderves.
"Try the food, it's good." Said Fritz. "But don't have any wine. We have spotted Fernand Wagner in the chateau grounds, he's a gardener here; we will make our move on him tonight; when the time comes we will signal you and you must excuse yourself and join us in our duty."
"We could finish this mission tonight." Added Karl "So you must be sober and ready for action. Do you understand?"
Redmond nodded in acceptance and helped himself to some orderves. The two Prussians resumed their servant roles.
Hawkeye and Chingachook settled in a smokers lounge and talked to seated Frenchmen of the wild life in the American wilderness. Chingachook had little trouble with the French language, the problem was he managed this by imagining he was Huron, a tribe he hated. Hawkeye's handling of French met with occasional tittering, he wasn't getting the language fully right; perhaps he should pretend he is Huron; no, he was having enough trouble pretending to be an Indian.
A page boy told Baron Munchausen that an associate was waiting for him upstairs on the middle balcony. The party had expanded beyond the lounge to the upper floor, some people even chatted on the large staircase as the Baron went up. It was late twilight on the marble balcony and the darkening sky revealed its stars. Guy Mannering was on the balcony reading those stars.
"Good Evening Baron." He said.
Munchausen returned the greeting and inquired as to the astrologer's reading of the stars.
"Look at the stars and the Earth Baron, for neither will be as they are if this evil goes unchecked for much longer. This sorcerer Joseph Curwen is close to unleashing an ancient force that will shake the entire cosmos like sand in an hourglass. You have to stop him Baron; I mean get him and soon. The Beast of Gevaudan is nothing more than a pet created through Curwen's infernal communion with dark omnipotent beings whose realms of existence have been brought dangerously close to ours. The stars speak of universal apocalypse with just a narrow avenue of salvation; that's you and your League Baron, you must succeed."
"My League has showed itself to be worthy." Said Munchausen. "Though Joseph Curwen remains elusive we will track him down and put a stop to this evil, you can be assured of that."
Guy Mannering simply gave a curt nod then resumed his examination of the firmament's grim portents. The German aristocrat charged with saving not just the Earth but the cosmos, walked back towards the party stopping to view a marble statue of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, a heavy and painful burden.
Alan Breck had much call to resent wearing the Kilt to this gathering, a lot of French men burst out in laughter at the sight of it, a few woman giggled at what they figured was a dandy in a tartan dress; but the highlander decided to bare this abuse till the day kilts were worn outside Scotland with respect.
A fellow Scot with a personal Indian manservant approached the Jacobite and called him by name. The fine silk threads and near regal bearing made recognition slow but Alan eventually remembered a fellow warrior at the battle of Culloden Moor twenty years ago.
"James Durie, the Master of Ballantrae."
It wasn't only that they were both Scots, Jacobites or fighters at Culloden, there was something indefinable that bonded the two, they embraced each other as if they were long lost brothers.
James introduced his Indian manservant, Secunda Dass who followed his Scottish master around like a shadow. The two Jacobites then sat down and talked of their lives over the last twenty years. James revealed that he had been a pirate in the Atlantic, an explorer in the Americas, a wealthy exile in France and a Maharajah in India where he acquired the loyal service of Secunda Dass. Recent years had seen James Durie back in Scotland contesting the title, Master of Ballantrae with his brother until the latter fled to America.
Alan told of his years as an active rebel in Scotland, giving an rough account of an adventure he had with a kidnapped teenage heir; battling the crew of a treacherous ship then once he got to land nearly got hung for the murder of an English overlord.
Redmond Barry had titillated several French women with his open Irish accent, perhaps his fortune hunting endeavers would find a bounty among these aristocrats. The Irish opportunist settled his efforts on a stoic looking women whose dress, make up and ornamentation suggested great wealth; she found him amusing at first, her title was Marquise de Merteuil. After apparently pleasant conversation and routine head nodding, the rogue spy; trained by the Prussian secret service to read people; detected a bitter malevolence hiding beneath the aristocratic woman's veneer of conformity and stereotype. Redmond wound down the conversation in the nicest way possible and backed off into the party crowd.
Jean Baptiste Grenouille went to the middle balcony in accordance with the page's message, Guy Mannering was there staring up into the starlit sky yet it wasn't quite night yet.
"Greetings Jean." Said the astrologer. "Thank you for coming. I have taken an interest in you since we met."
For someone who had dark secrets and foul deeds and designs to cover up, this was an unwelcome announcement.
"Why? I am just a perfumer."
"A gifted man with a grand design." Guy turned and faced Jean. "You have taken leave of that destiny to be part of this mission and for that I thank you."
Jean fidgeted anxiously; if not for the thanks he would have terminated the conversation and left the balcony. Nobody knew of his grand design.
"I don't care to know what that grand design is Jean." Guy continued. "I have read your future in the stars. Jean, you have the ability to create a splendid and prosperous future for yourself, but you must not complete this grand design, it will destroy you."
The perfumer decided not to explain that his scents gave him impulses that drew him to complete his chosen destiny; if that path were closed to him he would just lay down and die with or without smallpox. Jean's characteristic secretiveness got the better of him and asked for explanation of this dire prediction.
"It's written in the stars Jean, you will achieve your grand design; but it will not deliver happiness nor a sense of triumph, it will bring misery, sheer abject depression, and then, oblivion."
Juliette skillfully juggled her many admirers; their efforts to dominate her attention was simultaneous and competitive. A hand grabbed her arm and drew her away from the fawning aristocrats.
"I'll give her back. I promise." Said Viscomte de Valmont as he ushered Juliette to a private corner.
Valmont did not appear to be physically marked by his encounter with the giant wolf, she hadn't seen him since then.
"That was bold Viscomte." Said Juliette. "Don't you think you should stand in line after half the men in this chateau."
"I am just letting you know that the wolf didn't hurt me, I was so close I touched it, and the Beast breathed into me; yes I felt its essence enter me and become a part of me. From now on, I am going to do what the Beast of Gevaudan does, I'm going to prey upon women; in my own way of course. Much like the way I preyed upon you."
"Your'e going to end up being gutted in a duel or shot by an angry husband Viscomte, so enjoy the time you have and excuse me."
The beautiful courtesan fluttered back to her male admirers and resumed her centre of attention position. A view between the shoulders of her male flock showed the scrutinising stare of one of Valmont's female associates, the Marquise de Merteuil, who witnessed his recent exchange in the corner. Juliette had only shared a brief few words with the Marquise, but it was enough to tell that behind that stoic women's stare was a vindictive, calculating mind.
It was after much sifting, filtering and promises of future attention that Juliette had chosen her man of the hour, he was James Durie: it wasn't that he was a ruggedly handsome Scot like Alan Breck; not that he claimed to be master of a grand estate in Scotland; nor that he had an exotic manservant who had his own level of appeal; it was the stimulating wisdom he learnt while a Maharajah in India.
James Durie would monopolise Juliette's attention by talking about neotantric sex practices; how they would cultivate an ecstatic consciousness and increase spiritual awareness of erotic consciousness that pervaded her gifted body. The dazzled woman would take the engaging Scot, who spoke perfect French, aside and keep him with her in a corner while his manservant would form a one man barricade against gatecrashers.
Once the woman was hooked, the ex Maharajah would excite her with juicy quotes from the Kama Sutra, tactically including words in Sanskrit. When Juliette would ask for definition of these strange words, James would give a detailed account of an erotic act, which would have her rubbing her own thighs in keen anticipation. The potential of achieving expanded orgasm was thrown in for good measure.
Hawkeye noticed an old friend in a room lined with trophy animal heads, the French Canadian farmer and hunter was picking the best wall space for a future trophy.
"Francois Leroy." Greeted Hawkeye. "Must I cross the ocean to see my friends from home."
"Nathaniel." Returned Francois. "Are they so desperate to kill the Beast that they take from America their best hunter?"
"Two best hunters Francois."
The French Canadian began to feel complimented until Hawkeye continued his answer.
"Chingachook came along." He paused. "So we have the best of America and Canada here."
Taking a seat, the two trappers talked about their lives over the last eleven years and how they lasted through the French Indian War. Francois Leroy gave a particularly strong account of how he was at Fort Ticonderoga when it was attacked by Indian allies of the French. Whatever national loyalty Francois had to the French, it was destroyed before that, when those Indian allies killed his wife. It was only now, after the war, that the Canadian hunter saw fit to serve France.
After hearing of Hawkeye's adventures during the war, Francois explained that he was commissioned by the Marquis de St Evremonde to organise tomorrow's wolf hunt. A space on the trophy wall was pointed out to Hawkeye.
"This is where the Beast of Gevaudan's head will be."
Baron Munchausen presented a coin to the page who delivered Guy Mannering's message, the boy, who was about eight years old, accepted the tip and placed it in his pocket.
"I hear you are a soldier Sir. A good soldier?" Asked the boy.
"Why yes lad, I've been a soldier for over twenty five years and one of the best."
"I'm going to be a soldier when I grow up, one of the best, like you."
"And what name is this brave and mighty soldier going to have?" Asked the Baron.
"Loup, Guy Loup. I'm going to be a General."
"Well then I should drink a toast to the soldier of the future."
Champagne seemed appropriate, but as the Baron reached for a wine stewards passing tray, the boy tugged his coat.
"I could get you a glass of tokay." Said Guy "That's better than champagne."
"Going above and beyond the call of duty." Said Munchausen. "OK. You will make a fine soldier some day."
Guy Loup left saying he will be back soon. A mild crowd filled the lounge and much chatter filled the air. The Baron noticed Guy Mannering leaving the premises with a look of disappointment; to M's left, along the wall about forty feet away, he saw Chingachook and Jean conversing; and on the far wall the two Prussian spies dressed as servants were discussing something clearly of dire importance.
"Here you are Sir." The page boy returned with a glimmering long stemmed glass of tokay, which Munchausen accepted gracefully.
"To the fine soldier you will be." Toasted the Baron as he raised the glass. "General Guy Loup."
Bringing the glass to his mouth, the Baron opened his lips to receive the fortified wine, that's when the crystal receptacle exploded, splashing M's face with shards and alcohol. A tomahawk had thudded into the wall near the soldier's head it had passed between his fingers and face destroying the glass, Chingachook had thrown it.
"Baron." Alarmed Jean. "Don't touch that tokay, I smell arsenic in it."
A general shock brought everyone in the lounge to a stunned silence. Jean rushed to the Baron, grabbed a table napkin and began to wipe the face of the stunned Munchausen. After spitting whatever fluid or glass shard that entered his mouth into the napkin M turned to face Guy Loup only to find him gone.
Marquis de St Evremonde demanded to know what was going on, but a cryptic signal from the recovering Baron Munchausen placated him, even the sight of an inappropriate tomahawk lodged in his wall elicited a minimal scowl at Chingachook. Party fever returned to the ebullient host who promptly appealed the crowd for a return to festive status.
M realised that the drink was poisoned by Guy Loup. Jean smelled the tokay, from a distance because it was an unusual scent for the party, and the arsenic, which was extremely out of place here. When the perfumer isolated the deadly scent in the glass Munchausen was toasting with, there was too much noise to yell a warning and too little time to run through the obstructing crowd and stop him drinking from it. A quick instruction from Jean to the Mohican warrior had Chingachook promptly find a clear trajectory to the Baron then hurl his tomahawk in such a way that it shatters the glass without harming Munchausen or those around him.
"Wolf." Said M. "I just trusted a boy whose surname Loup, means wolf. And how did he know I drank tokay?"
Redmond Barry took advantage of the distraction in the lounge to slip away from present company; he had just received the signal from Fritz and Karl. The two Prussian spies had dispensed with their serving trays and ushered Redmond to the side garden entrance. It was nightfall, the crickets began their nocturnal chant under the grounds illuminated by candlelight lampposts. Karl took a stashed musket, Fritz reached into the hiding spot and took a crossbow, he handed the Irishman a dagger and a lantern.
"He's here." Said Karl. "Fernand Wagner is here in this garden, we just noticed him lighting lampposts. There is no one else in this part of the grounds and no overlooking balcony; this is our chance. Although I have a firearm we best get this done without using it, it would bring too much attention."
"We each have our daggers." Added Fritz. "So if my crossbow misses we chase him till we get him."
Redmond nodded and began to follow Fritz's lead. A few steps into the garden, the stalking spies braced for an approaching presence coming out of the bushes, it was a page boy.
"You're not supposed to be out here." Yelled Fritz, exploiting his adult servant status. "Get back inside."
"Yes Sir." Answered the boy.
A brief look up at the night sky followed by a malign half grin at the three men and the kid ran towards the door. As the spies proceeded, Redmond alone looked back to see the boy had actually cut left from the door and was running towards the tradesmens' entrance at the perimeter wall.
"We keep going." said Fritz. "He's to small to be listened to."
Karl led the stalkers to the gardener's shed, just in time to see a figure approach it through the bushes, as it came out Redmond darted forward and shone the lamp at a man holding a ladder, it was Fernand Wagner. Fritz fired his crossbow, only to see the bolt lodge in the ladder's wooden rung. Startled, the gardener dropped his ladder and fled into the bushes; each of the three spies drew their daggers and gave chase.
Candle lamps lit up the night garden but there were many dark shadows, corners and bushes to hide in. Pursuing the ruffling of vegetation seemed the best way to catch up with the fugitive; they could not split up as Redmond had the only lantern. A path had the three stalkers stopping to scan the garden ahead for their quarry. Further illumination came as the full moon came out of its cloud cover and cast its light on the grounds; this revealed discarded clothing on the flower beds, which for some reason Fernand was shedding.
Karl ordered a split up, telling the Irish agent to cover the garden's left, he will take the right while Fritz, who had dropped his spent crossbow, will approach the centre; although Redmond still held the lantern, the ample moonlight made it unnecessary. The left end of the garden was made up of trees, ferns and earthwork retaining walls, it was on top of the highest of these that Redmond saw Fernand Wagner wearing nothing but a loose night shirt. Hide and ambush was not an option for the man with a lantern, he was noticed quickly by the German deserter, who was strangely twitching and convulsing.
"Go away you fool." Yelled Fernand awkwardly through his twitches. "You don't know Whaaaaaa." The word became a howl.
Redmond began to rush Fernand, but the apparently mad fugitive fled back to the centre.
Climbing the retaining walls were slowing the Irish pursuer down, so he yelled out an alert to the others.
"I've seen him, he's running into the centre."
Atop the second highest retaining wall, Redmond gave chase hoping he and Fritz will surround their quarry. Although his lantern's light was focused down, lest Wagner double back on him, the Irishman spotted the discarded nightshirt on the uppermost level.
"He's here." Yelled Fritz. "I've got him."
A brisk run brought the Irish spy close to the source of Fritz's cry
"Oh my God!" The Prussian shrieked out in horror.
Then the screams began, coupled with savage animal growls of such shocking ferocity that they drowned out the human cries. Redmond cast his lantern light on a dark patch of grass on the ground level; Fritz was dead, his throat ripped out, his eyes stuck in a look of terror. That which was mauling his chest and stomach was a monstrous figure of a wolf standing on its hind legs, pointing its jowls to the sky while they shredded and devoured internal organs torn from the victim. The lupine figure dropped on all fours to further mutilate Fritz, then it's attention shifted to the lantern.
In this instant of mutual awareness, Redmond wanted to know if this was the dreaded Beast of Gevaudan and where was Fernand Wagner. The creature pounced up the retaining walls one by one; Redmond new flight would only buy seconds and his dagger would do little, he had only one reasonable defence. A swinging motion of the lantern sent it smashing into the lupine ferocity as it reached the level beneath. The burning oil saturated the wolf's fur, while the impact knocked the beastly figure off the level into a hurtling tumble down the retaining walls to the ground. Flames covered the wolf as it shook in frenzied convulsions of agony while emitting a sharp howl that would have acoustically carried to indoors piercing the party atmosphere in the chateau. Whether by wisdom or frenzied movement, the creature's pressing itself against the ground extinguished the flames; the Irish rogue knew it would be after him again.
Running along the wall had Redmond looking desperately for a haven, no tree seemed to offer an easy climb. At the end of the earthworks was an obelisk with a Cupid statue on top. The pain crazed wolf thing was bearing down on the Irishman; with a short run up and a strong leap he reached the Obelisk's top and grasped the Cupid's bow, then wrapped his legs around the structure holding him to the apex. No means of ascent were available for any creature at its base; however the wolf thing, that was now on all fours, could pounce off the retaining wall and take a bite on way down, a vicious snarl indicated its temptation to do so.
A musket shot from Karl cut short the snarl and brought on a whelp as the projectile nicked the creature's neck. Many voices from the chateau, of guests and staff, coming out to investigate the noises, had the wounded beast flee the scene, as it ran through the grounds several people saw it with bloodied jowls and smoking fur.
"My God." Said a guest hysterically. "It's a hellhound come to claim the soul of the Marquis de St. Evremonde."
The French aristocrat knew his backlog of sins, but gave little concern or belief to that utterance, he had paid the church more than enough money for absolution, it was the next statement that disturbed him most.
"No. It's the Beast." Said another guest. "The Beast of Gevaudan, it's in your back yard Marquis."
"That's not the Beast." Corrected Munchausen. "That is a different wolf."
"You mean, there are two beasts?"