Having made her way up from Spain to France and left (she hopes!) her life as a prostitute behind her, the half-Scottish half-Spanish Mariana de la Mar (Marian MacElpin) is now an unofficial student at the university in Paris. Unofficial, because women are not admitted to lectures, so she has to pretend to be a man. But it is to her that the other students turn when one is charged with the murder of his rich uncle, a miser and reputed alchemist.
Mariana quickly discovers that the murder (and a second related murder) had their roots far away on the island of Ibiza eighteen years earlier, and involve not only alchemy and the tarot and (of course, with Mariana there) witchcraft (one of the witches, known as La Fille d'Or, turns out to have been for years the secret mistress of Charles VI, King of France), but also a one-armed Albanian "king" of the Paris underworld, and such well-known historical figures as Christine de Pisan (then a girl of thirteen), and Nicolas Flamel.
In a darkened room, on a black-draped bed, somewhere in the heart of the city, lies an old witch. Like an ancient spider, her withered body seems lifeless. But inside that body, her mind seethes as she reaches out like Death, scheming, controlling, manipulating ...
Christmas in Paris.
A quiet time, at least ostensibly, a time of good-will, of peace and love. Yet by the time dawn breaks next day, gloomy and grey, one man has been hanged, and another, seemingly quite unconnected with the first, has died the exotic Death by a Thousand Cuts. Nor was the hanging any ordinary hanging, for the man was hanged as he is supposed to be hanged according to the tarocchi card: upside-down by the left foot, the right leg crossed behind the left in an almost casual manner.
I learn of the Hanged Man only later.
The victim of the Death by a Thousand Cuts is the uncle of a friend of mine. I hear all about that – and about my friend's arrest – as soon as I enter the Lutetia.
'Mariana!' someone shouts. Raoul, the shy one.
'Ah! La voilà!Mariana!'
That is Evrard, who is not shy.
The tap-room is packed with people celebrating Christmas. Someone by the door is playing a guitar, softly, sadly. No one is listening. I put my hand on his head, ruffle his hair a little. He reminds me of home, of Spain. He grins up at me.
Evrard makes his way over. He kisses me on both cheeks, introduces me to the woman who is sitting with them. 'Mariana, this is Mère Henriette, mother of Jaquet – you know? Jaquet le Breton?'
'Of course I know Jaquet. But what – ?'
'And this, Mère Henriette, is Doña Mariana de la Mar – she's actually half Scottish and half Spanish. But we call her La Belle Marianne.'
Which was certainly better than Mariana la Puta, a name which was beginning to haunt me.
'Mariana reads palms, and casts horoscopes,' Kateline, one of the girls in our group, explains. 'She knows things.'
They pour me a drink and sit me opposite the woman. Then Evrard says, 'Now, Mère Henriette: tell Mariana the story. Start again, from the beginning.'
She is Jaquet's mother and she keeps the apothecary's shop at the sign of the Mortar & Pestle in the rue du Dragon, off the rue Saint-Denis. Jaquet is a friend of Marc's. Marc is a friend of Raoul's. He is sitting beside Raoul now. Marc's girlfriend, douce Kateline, is sitting next to him on the other side.
I like the Lutetia. It is in the rue des Carmes, on the university side of the river; it is clean, the food is good; and it is, they tell me, one of the few taverns anywhere in Paris with a welcoming attitude to women. In this, it contrasts markedly with the Sorbonne, where I am obliged to pursue my studies in theology clandestinely. I also sometimes attend lectures (again under false colours) at the School of Medicine, and at the College of Astrology, founded not long ago by the King, Charles V.
I met Jaquet through Evrard, but now, because we both attend courses on pharmacology and astrology, he is one of the few who know me, not just as a girl, but as the boy I seem to be when I am in the lecture hall, dressed in my long black gown, hood pulled over my eyes and thumbs hooked into the belt, the same as all the others.
But what is she saying? Jaquet has been arrested? Is being held in the Grand Châtelet on a charge of murder?