On the stroke of two, the conductor of the orchestra tapped his podium for attention. The musicians poised themselves. The conductor lifted his baton. It fell. The strains of Die Meistersinger swept across the chapel.
A German Field Marshal representing the Kaiser nodded his head in approval.
The President of France did not look as pleased.
All the guests were in place. Security guards impeccably dressed as though present by inscribed invitation were scattered throughout the assemblage. They were unremarkable because of their resemblance to everyone else.
Two were seated to the right of the altar, in front of the cello and base sections of the orchestra. They were assigned to protect a cubicle of trellises concealing Philo and Lucien.
The Empress sat with security on all sides except for the chair beside her. That was reserved for Picasso, standing in as father of the bride. She created a stir not only by the absence of her usual garments of mourning, but also for the exotic fabric from India. It did indeed turn the heads of queens.
Sunbeams danced from gem to gem across the congregation, reflected in a king's ransom of jewels.
The first Prelude ended.
Halfway through the second, from Lohengrin, Philo and Lucien emerged from the cubicle, taking up positions to the right of the altar as groom and best man. They turned to look toward the rear. A murmuring of whispers and rustling of silks was lost in Wagnerian crescendos when the audience followed suit.
All eyes turned to the mound.
Through the flower-bedecked arch, Romelle was seen at the summit standing in regal splendor, her chin lifted proudly, her gaze straight ahead. She carried seven long-stemmed callas in the crook of her arm as tenderly as if they were an infant. The lilies matched the pale ivory shade of her gown and Annie's pearls. The number seven symbolized perfection, the calla lilies, purity.
The sheer lace veiling, anchored by the ducal coronet, cascaded over her shoulders to the ground. Trimmed under the chin, it cut away down the front, revealing Annie's pearls at her throat and the magnificent ruby on her breast.
When the second Prelude ended, the voices of the choir lifted in the stately Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin.
Picasso hove into view at the summit. Romelle took his arm. They waited.
Kathy, in clouds of rose chiffon and a pink straw hat, appeared carrying the handsome gray flower basket used in Romelle's painting of the Empress. She began a stately progress to the music, scattering roses and carnations before her as she moved.
Behind Kathy came Cocteau, dressed in gray morning clothes and gloves. He bore the wedding ring on a gray silk pillow, walking in measured cadence to the Wagnerian strains.
Romelle and Picasso, also gloved and dressed in gray, began their march down the aisle.
As they neared the assembly, rays of sunlight converged in the depths of the huge ruby. It glowed with a pulse suggesting life. That it symbolized the heart to be given to the groom by the bride was the message clearly transmitted to all who saw. Not even the music of Wagner could drown out the universal inrush and expiration of breath taken by everyone there. The conductor lost a beat momentarily when he turned his head to find the source of this disturbance to his music.
Reaching the altar as the chorus ended, Kathy stepped to the left, Cocteau to Lucien's side. Picasso broke away and passed Romelle to Philo, taking her calla lilies to Kathy before joining Eugénie.
The chaplain came forward.
The ceremony began.
Every word rang clearly throughout the chapel.
When they were declared man and wife, a sigh went up from the congregation as Philo lifted away Romelle's veil. Her beauty was transcendent, her face luminous with love. Instead of kissing her on the lips, he knelt before her and kissed her hand in an act of such reverence and devotion that there were few women present, or men, who did not view the heartfelt gesture through misted eyes.
They turned to their guests, wreathed in smiles.
The trumpet fanfare of the Tannhäuser March sounded. The choir burst into song.
Philo took a first step forward, then froze, his face registering astonishment. He pitched forward.
As he fell, his body twisted.
All present saw the poniard projecting from his back.
To the right of the altar, the musicians had drawn away in horror from a cellist thus isolated from the group. He stood with his cello knocked aside, only the stick of his bow remaining in his hand. The entire heel of the bow formed the handle of the deadly triangular blade that had severed Philo's spine. The cellist had accomplished his goal with such finesse that none had seen the bow split into a deadly weapon or observed the resultant projectile catapulted through the air.
It had taken place in a span of time so short as to defy measurement. The unprepared human mind was at a loss to give it definition. When the realization finally sank in, Philo lay prostrate on the ground, the cellist was seen lifting a foot toward escape, and there was silence but for the stirring of a zephyr in the trees.
Then, one primal scream issued from more than two hundred throats, reverberating across the lawn to the crowd at the gates. It galvanized them into a mob that crashed through all barriers, flooding in a wall of humanity toward the chapel. Journalists and photographers, security men and gawkers, jostled one another in a mad dash to the scene.
They converged on the chapel as one of the security men who had been near Philo leapfrogged over musicians and singers in pursuit of the assailant. The choir scattered in terror when the two men broke through their ranks. Three shots were heard. The assailant fell dead where the grass met the rocky shore.
While this took place, Romelle, unable to comprehend the full horror of the tragedy that had occurred, backed away.
Suddenly, a small woman burst from the choir. Her feet hardly seemed to touch the dais as she raced toward Romelle.
But enough time had passed for one guest to observe and to deduce what might be taking place. The American Marine who sat with the consul was already on his feet. A trained warrior on the move, his feet left the ground in the same instant as the woman's left the dais. They met in mid-air and descended in a grapple on top of Romelle.
Despite his vigorous intrusion, the nimble little female reached out from the tangle of their legs and arms to snatch at the ruby on Romelle's breast. Her claw-like fingernails ripped the peau de soie, but caught in the ruching. Struggling against her, Romelle grabbed the woman's hand, managing to push it aside. But the hand moved upward in a fist, striking Romelle powerfully on the chin. The bride reeled backward and fell unconscious into Lucien's arms.
Two security men joined the Marine in subduing the woman. They pulled her away from him.
During the melée, the second security guard posted near the cubicle crouched over Philo's prostrate form, fending off a photographer trying to take a picture.
"Get away, you bastard," the guard ordered. "This is a dying man!"
"How do you know?" countered the thwarted photographer. "He looks like he's still alive!"
"I'm a doctor!" the guard shouted back. "Stand away before I shoot you!"
The guard yanked a revolver from his belt and trained it on the now terrified photographer, who quickly disappeared.
The Marine, leaving Romelle in the care of Lucien and Kathy, hovered at the guard's shoulder. He fell on his knees beside Philo.
"Please, sir," he beseeched the guard, "what can I do? Please let me help."
There was so profound a quality of sincerity and concern in his voice that the guard looked over at him. There were tears in the young man's eyes.
"I am sorry, son, there is nothing either of us can do. I have removed the dagger, but it will be impossible to stanch the flow of blood from the wound. His spinal cord has been severed. He is conscious, but paralyzed from the neck down. Here, lift his head and hold it up. That may prevent him from drowning in his own fluids."
The Marine tenderly did as he was asked.
Philo opened his eyes at the touch. He blinked, blinked again, and lifted his chin. He tried to speak. The Marine bent nearly double to get closer.
The guard who claimed to be a doctor watched the two with interest.
Philo whispered words the doctor could not hear. The Marine nodded and whispered back. Philo smiled and closed his eyes.
It was obvious to the doctor that death had come upon him.
The Marine shed tears of genuine emotion.
The Empress came toward them leaning heavily on Picasso. In a state of near collapse, she could hardly walk, but she insisted on seeing Philo.
The doctor rose and bowed.
"I am most dreadfully sorry, Your Imperial Majesty," he said sadly. "I have failed again. Captain Duncan is gone."
Her hand flew to her breast.
"It is you, Chavadzy!" she gasped. "You come back unannounced after all these years, and bring death as you have before! Fie! Why didn't you stay away with your cursed Dragon's Heart? How dare you so viciously toy with our lives!"
She looked down at Philo. "Oh, Captain, my friend, this was to have been a day when hearts are joined, the day of Saint Valentine! You are smiling? Oh, my dear, why? What joy could possibly have come to you at the end?"
Philo's head still cradled in his hands, the Marine slowly turned his tear-stained face to the Empress.
Their eyes met.
"Mon Dieu!" she cried. "Pas possible! This is not possible at all!"
She threw up her hands and swooned into Picasso's embrace.
Chavadzy stepped to her side and took up her wrist.
"She has only fainted," he said. "She will recover soon."
"I shall take her into the house," Picasso announced, gathering up her frail figure and carrying her away.
Chavadzy made as if to address the Marine, but a sudden scuffle diverted him.
The woman who had attacked Romelle had broken free of her guards. She stood backed up against the altar, her hands extended like the claws of a tigress, her lips parted in a snarl.
"Stay away from me!" she warned, suddenly tearing a strand of red beads from her throat.
Chavadzy leapt toward her. "No! No! Get those beads away from her! I want her alive!"
By the time he reached her, she had popped some of the beads into her mouth.
She glared at him, then clutched her stomach in agony, reeled while making a choking sound, and fell dead at his feet.
Chavadzy shook his head.
"Ho-ting-hung," he mused, "a virulent poison derived from blood found only beneath the red crest of the crane. The Chinese have used it for centuries as a means to quick death. Do not touch the beads remaining in her hand. They may all be capsules of self- destruction."
Cocteau gazed down with fascination at the supine form. "Ah, to capture such a scene on film! Chinese? This woman is not Chinese! Look at the eyes. They are like ours."
Chavadzy knelt beside her. "Look more closely at the edges. Do you see the tiny depressions, the scars? Her eyes have been rounded in surgery. It is a trick the Manchus have used for a long time. Such people are given the appearance of Westerners and trained to be culturally indistinguishable from us. I would venture to say that upon examination we shall find that her male colleague who lies dead of bullet wounds out there by the sea has undergone the same change."
"But why?" asked Cocteau. "What do the Manchus want from us?"
Chavadzy gave him a cynical smile. "Power, my friend. That is what the world is all about. The will to dominate, to control, to achieve one's own ends. They already control a quarter of the world's people, but they want more land, more mortals to enslave."
Chavadzy went to Romelle. The ruby remained in place, but the dress was badly torn and her skin had been pierced by the woman's sharp nails.
"She must be taken into the house," he instructed. "Thank God her attacker did not first handle those beads! One scratch with the poison would have killed this young lady, as well. I shall have to sedate her. The best tonic for her right now is rest. I shall also sedate the Empress. Her low opinion of me notwithstanding, her health and state of mind come first."
He stood back as Lucien lifted her and started away with Kathy at his side.
The Marine still knelt beside Philo, caressing the snowy hair.
"Young man," Chavadzy addressed him, "I shall have someone look after him. I think we should have a talk. Come with me, please."
"I will come with you, sir, but I cannot leave him here."
Gently, the Marine picked Philo up, and got to his feet. The body hardly seemed a burden, he handled it with such ease. He held it close to him as if he carried a sleeping child.
"There is no need for this, Marine," Chavadzy said. "My men can take care of him."
The Marine shook his head with grim determination. "No, sir, no one touches my grandfather but me."
"Ah!" Chavadzy breathed.
A look of sudden understanding lit the Russian's face.