"James," she gasped his name, instantly at his side.
"You're a sight, hen." A smile warmed his face, but she noticed the lines etched at the corners of his eyes and the tightness around his mouth, visible even through the week-long growth of his beard, many shades darker than the light brown of his hair.
"We don't have much time," she whispered, frantic. She dug clumsily in the pouch tied at her waist and pulled out a small stoppered vial. "Take this." She shoved it into his hand. "A witch, Gormshuil, gave it to me. It's henbane. It'll act like a poison. She said three sips will make a person appear dead. Sort of like Romeo and Juliet, right?"
"I think not, love." James gingerly placed the bottle back in her hands. "You forget, poison is what got me here, and I fear one poisoning is enough in this lifetime."
"Dammit, James," she hissed. " This lifetime is about to come to an end. Now take it," she commanded, slapping the vial back into his hand. "I don't know what you'll do when you wake up, or where you'll wake up, but… I can't think of anything else to do."
"I see it's unwise to cross you," he said, smiling at her verve, "Henbane, aye?" He rolled the vial in his palm. "I knew I'd gotten to the heart of it with my name for you."
The scrape of wood on stone rumbled down the passageway as a guard opened the door to their wing.
James leaned down to take her mouth with his, and she clawed at the front of his coat, pulling him wildly to her. She poured her whole self, her whole focus into the knowing of him. The stubble of his beard, just long enough to be soft on her face. His lips dry on her mouth. The long press of his body, solid against her. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she thought that, if he couldn't escape, this would be their last kiss, the one most seared into her, the one she'd be left with to kiss over and over again in her memory.
The dull clack of boot heels sounded on stone, and James pulled away. "You've not seen the last of me," he whispered, and he dashed the tears from her cheeks.
After the guard escorted Tom and Magda away, Ainslie's voice came from across the darkened corridor. "If ever I find my way free of this place, it seems I must convert."
James's response was uncharacteristically grave. "Faith is a powerful thing," he said, feeling the cool of the glass vial in his palm.
"Guard!'" Other prisoners joined Ainslie's chant. Many men in the Tolbooth may have longed for their own death, but it didn't mean they felt comfortable living among it. Having a dead body in the cellblock aroused feelings ranging from mild superstition to all -out hysteria.
"Bloody hell," the guard muttered, realizing his poor luck at being the one to discover a body. Clapping a hand over his mouth and nose, he kicked at James, lying cold and motionless on the slab floor of his cell. The henbane brought with it a terrible stench, a foulness easily mistaken for the stink of death.
"How is he?" Ainslie asked. He'd grown increasingly agitated since James's collapse. They'd been chatting amiably when his speech began to slur heavily, and James lost consciousness soon thereafter.
" How is he?" the guard mimicked. "He's dead as a rail." Cursing, he laid James out flat, arms at his side. "And that Campbell will be angrier than a wet cat too. Dead as a rail," he muttered, quickly rifling through James's pockets.
"What will you do with him then?" Ainslie spoke rapidly, his voice holding a note of alarm. He rubbed the near-empty vial where it hid in his coat pocket. James had tossed it to him, with a warning not to drink it. Ainslie fretted, not knowing if it was a soporific, or worse, he had in his possession.
"What we do with all you corpses. Aye," he said with a wink, "that's what you are to me. A corpse, or about to be one. Some get sold to the barber surgeons at Dickson's Close, for cutting." The guard grinned at this last bit, seeing Ainslie's obvious chagrin. "But first," he said with one last kick to James's side, "it's down to the vaults."
James opened his eyes to utter blackness, and for a horrified moment thought he'd been buried alive. Shifting, he felt the crunch and slip of dry bones underneath him, and bolting up, slammed his head on the low ceiling. His stomach came to life roiling, and a wave of nausea stole his breath. Spinning onto his hands and knees, he vomited into the darkness. Mysterious hard edges cut into his hands, and knobs of bone dug into his shins and the tops of his feet, now stripped bare of his boots. Wiping the corner of his tartan along his mouth, James sent up a silent apology to the restless souls whose remains he'd just defiled.
The full memory of what he'd done came to him. Realizing he had no other choice, he'd choked down Magda's potion. It had been foul and sickly sweet, and he was now finding it to be all the more odious on the way back up. He spat into the blackness. His gut was completely empty, but he still couldn't eradicate the lingering taste of henbane from his mouth and nose.
They would have put him in the vaults underneath the Tolbooth. James knew it to be a nest of coffin-sized crypts, except this mausoleum housed no refined sarcophagi. It was merely a repository for corpses to rot into bone and dust. Looking from side to side, he opened his eyes wide. In the back of his mind, he'd hoped they would adjust, but not a shred of light made it to the cellars below the Tolbooth.
The sound of a small creature scurrying reverberated through the vault, sending bones to topple and settle loudly behind him. James instinctively patted his hand to his side for his small blade before he remembered he had no weapon, and, he thought, the guards would have stripped his pockets clean as well.
He sensed other creatures, almost definitely rats, making their approach. The smell of his own vomit came to him, and his stomach gave a belated lurch as he realized rodents would soon bear down on him, come to feed. Hoping the vault wasn't any longer than a coffin , he edged back slowly until his feet hit open air. James eased backward, and when the lip of the cell was at his waist, his feet finally touched ground.
The scream of rusted metal rang through the chamber as someone opened a little-used door in the distance. His deprived senses quickly became aware of voices and the hint of a torch approaching. His surroundings emerged limned in faint gray light, gradually growing clearer as the torch drew closer.
He darted his eyes around him, taking in the small room and the crypts stacked in rows all around, three - high to the ceiling. The only exit from the chamber was the tunnel. A yellow glow flickered along its low walls, bobbing and swaying in time with the torchbearer's gait.
Even closer now, the voices assaulted hi m, and he realized how much the henbane had left his senses scraped raw. James shook his head and rubbed his hands roughly along his scalp to clear his mind. He focused on the sounds until he distinguished two distinct speakers. One would be a guard, he thought, at the sound of the thick accent. Rambling nonstop, cajoling a silent companion. The other man spoke infrequently, begrudgingly, in tones announcing him of an upper class. So the guard was selling him something. James's corpse, most like. He knew that many a guard turned a tidy profit selling bodies to teaching hospitals, or worse.
James opened his eyes wide, urging them to adjust to the approaching light. It would do him no good to be blinded by the torchlight. He stood on the hard-packed floor and swept his eyes over the wall of crypts. Desiccated remains emerged from the black shadows. Ashen silhouettes resolved into grimacing faces and empty sockets staring at him, crying a silent warning. He stifled a shudder, grateful that the vault he'd been placed in housed only bones. Reaching in, he took the largest one he could find.
Though its long smooth heft was reassuring in his hand, he knew it wouldn't be enough. James scanned the room, spotting a small chamber along the top edge. Just inside the entry, it was one of the first the men would walk past as they entered from the tunnel. James grasped the crumbling brick lip of the crypt, and planting his foot along the centermost vault, he hoisted himself into the pile of bones easily five feet off the ground.
"What was—" the more effete of the two men stammered.
"Ist!" the guard ordered, and their strained silence choked the still air. A sudden clatter of bones was met with a gasp, followed by the sound of tiny feet scuttling along the far wall.
"Just the rats, aye?" The guard spoke again. "Come now, in here."
The men drew closer, and James found their voices an almost unbearably loud booming in the confined space. He turned his focus inward, forcing his overwhelmed and still sickened body to reconcile with its surroundings. A musty smell like damp wool made his sinuses twinge, but otherwise the chamber was surprisingly void of scent. His breath gradually steadied, sweeping extraneous thoughts from his mind. James eased his knuckles, loosening his fingers around the bone so his grip was firm, but not choking.
"And you claim he's deceased no more than twenty hours past?"
The one buying the body spoke, and James found the sound was no longer a shrill assault.
"Oh, aye," the guard assured him, "he's fresh yet, and not even stiffened. Just through "—
James leapt just as the men entered the chamber, landing on the taller of the two. The smoothed hair and fine feel to his clothing announced him as the client. James barely hit him, his weapon striking the flesh of the man's shoulder with a dull crack. The bone in his hand was old and brittle, and James felt it splinter wide up the middle as he struck. The man collapsed, but if it was from James's blow or merely due to a dead faint, he couldn't tell.
The guard threw down his torch and was on him at once. James knew instantly that the man would pose a much greater challenge than his companion had. He was shorter than James, but scrappy and tenacious, and managed to land a flurry of punches to his abdomen and side before James got his bearings.
He thought he'd heard a clatter when the other man fell, and hoped he'd carried a gentleman's sword at his side. Such a blade was intended less for fighting than for show, but anything would be a step up from a dead man's thighbone. James grabbed the guard around the shoulders, and pinning him in a boxer's hold, began landing heavy blows on his side, all the while creeping sideways toward the unconscious nobleman.