As he rows, his chest strains against the fine velvet of his doublet. The muscles in his arms bunch, then stretch, with every pull on the oar, and I cannot help but think that even with all the training the convent has given me, he could easily best me in a hand-to-hand fight.
Not liking the direction of those thoughts, I cast my gaze out to sea, certain I have been consigned to a special version of hell.
The old sailor is at the beach waiting to help pull us ashore. Duval jumps off, then holds his hand out to me. I eye it warily. He raises one sardonic eyebrow. “My cloak?”
Flustered, I shove it at him, then leap from the boat, ignoring the hem of my gown as it drags in the water. He slips the cloak around his shoulders, then begins walking to the stables. “I have only one horse, as I was not counting on company. Do you prefer to ride in front or back?”
Both of those choices are unacceptable to me. “The convent keeps a stable of horses here on the mainland for assignments,” I inform him. “I will use one of those.”
"Excellent. we will make better time that way.”
I turn to the sailor. "Would you please saddle up Nocturne?”
The abbess and I did not discuss this specifically, but surely she does not expect me to ride behind Duval the entire way to Guérande. And even if she does, she is not here to gainsay me. The sailor nods and goes off to collect the horses. I can feel Duval studying me; it makes my skin itch. After a moment, he shakes his head, as if unable to believe the trap that has been sprung upon him. “They will think me a besotted fool.” I shrug and keep my attention fixed on the stables, willing the old sailor to return with our horses as quickly as possible. “If the boot fits, milord . . .”
He snorts. “I am many things, but besotted with you is not one of them.”
Before I can make a further thorn of myself, the old sailor appears leading both our horses, and we busy ourselves making ready for our journey.
Under Duval’s critically observant eye, I become all thumbs, and it takes me longer than it should to secure my satchel behind the saddle. when at last I am done, I lead Nocturne to the mounting block and, with the help of the old sailor, hoist myself into the saddle. Duval is already seated on his horse and waiting.
“Ready?” He does not bother to mask his impatience.
“Yes.” Before the word is halfway out of my mouth, Duval slaps his reins and his mount leaps forward.
Glowering at his back, I reach into the small pouch at my waist, take a pinch of salt, and toss it onto the ground, an offering to Saint Cissonius, the patron saint of crossroads and travelers. Only then do I urge Nocturne to follow.
Duval slows his horse long enough for me to draw alongside him. “Have you ever been to court before?” he asks. “Is there any chance you will be recognized by anyone?”
“No? You do not even ask who is in residence at court. How can you be so certain no one there will know you? If you are recognized, it will throw our plans into disarray.”
Stung that he thinks me so witless, I toss my low birth across his path like a challenge. “No one will recognize me, milord, because I am naught but a turnip farmer’s daughter. You may rest assured that none of those in residence in Nantes will have ever seen me before.”
“Guérande,” he corrects. “Anne’s court moved to Guérande in order to escape the plague in Nantes.”
"Even so, I will not be recognized.”
He shoots me a glance out of the corner of his eye. “I thought you were supposed to be the daughter of Death?”
“I am,” I say through clenched teeth. “But I was raised the daughter of a farmer. There was dirt under my fingernails for the first fourteen years of my life. It has most likely seeped into my blood.”
He gives another snort — of derision or disbelief, I cannot tell.
“It seems to me,” he says, “that being sired by one of the old saints puts your lineage into a class all its own, a class as untouchable by the nobility as the nobility is by turnip farmers. Now come, we must reach Quimper by nightfall.” ensuring he has the last word, he puts his heels to his horse and breaks into a
It takes me a while to catch up.
We ride all day. In the newly cleared fields, sheaves of wheat hang from a cross, begging for Dea Matrona’s blessing on the harvest. Cattle graze nearby, feasting on the remaining stubble in the ground, one last fattening before slaughter. Indeed, the slaughter of animals for the winter has already begun and I can smell the copper tang of blood in the air.
A few stone cottages are scattered throughout the countryside, squat and stubborn against the encroaching wilderness. Most doors have a polished silver coin nailed to them, an attempt to discourage Mortain from casting His gaze on their households, since it is believed He will go to great lengths to avoid His own reflection. Those that are too poor to afford that small protection hang hazel twigs, in the hope that He will mistake them for the real bones He has come to collect.
The road is empty except for a handful of travelers heading to market in some nearby village. They carry bundles on their backs or push small carts. All of them step aside when they hear our horses coming.
There is little enough to distract my thoughts from circling back to Duval.
I am painfully aware of him riding in front of me, solid, commanding, angry. No matter where I steer my mind or my gaze, they always come back to him.
Mistress. The word whispers through me, taunting, beckoning, laughing. That I will have to pose as such is almost more than I can bear. And that I shall do so in front of half the Breton nobility is laughable. I pray that a messenger from the convent will come galloping up behind us to tell me it is a cruel jest and that Annith will go in my stead. But all I hear is the drip of the heavy mist as it falls upon the leaf mold on the forest floor, the creak of our saddles, and the faint jingle of harness.
Near midafternoon we reach a small wood. The thickness of the trees forces us to slow our horses to a walk so they may carefully pick their way through the branches and brambles. Under the canopy of leaves, it grows cool. I pull my cloak closer, but it does nothing to warm me.
It is not that kind of chill.
Death is nearby. I feel it in my bones, the way an old sailor’s aching joints warn him of a brewing storm.
"What?” Duval’s voice breaks through the shroud of quiet. He has noticed my distraction. His hand moves to his sword hilt. “Do you hear something?”
“No, but there is something dead nearby.”
His eyebrows shoot up and he reins in his horse. “Dead? A man? A woman?”
I shrug. This has never happened to me before and my own ignorance frustrates me. “It could be a deer, for all I know.”
“That way.” I point off to the side of the road, through a faint opening in the trees.
Duval nods, then steers his horse over and motions for me to take the lead. Surprised that he gives a hunch of mine so much weight, I move ahead and let my sense of death lead me.
The trees are closer here, their soft, delicate branches waving overhead like rich green feathers. Just past an ancient standing stone, its surface mottled with lichen and moss and corroded by time, the sense of Death grows stronger. The freshly dug grave is well hidden by dead branches and a scattering of leaves, but I could find my way to it blindfolded. “Martel,” I announce, certain of who is buried there.
I begin to dismount and immediately Duval is at my side, helping me. He reaches up and puts his hands on my waist. I bite back a gasp of surprise as the warmth from his hands seeps through his gloves and my gown to my skin, driving away some small portion of the chill Death has brought. He lifts me from the saddle and as soon as my feet touch the ground, I pull away from him. I am all business, as if he has not just touched me more intimately than I have ever been touched in my life, and I head toward the grave. “This must be where Crunard’s men buried Martel.”
Duval follows me and stares down at the freshly turned earth as if he would will Martel’s secrets to ooze up from the ground. “On the battlefield,” he tells me, “they say a man’s soul lingers for three days. Is that true?”
“Yes.” A plan is already taking shape in my mind, an idea that might remedy one of the mistakes of which I am accused.
"Would that you could speak with men’s souls,” he murmurs.
I glance up at him sharply. Has he pulled the very thought from my head?
He looks at me in surprise. “You can speak with souls?” he asks, as if the words are writ plain on my face.
while I do not like that he can read me in such a manner, I am eager to try this new skill and show him I am not as green or useless as he seems to think. “I can.”
“Can you communicate with Martel’s?”
And although I have been planning to do that very thing, his asking it of me makes me balk. “Are men subject to your probing even after death?”
He has the grace to look sheepish. “I mean no disrespect to the dead, nor would I ask you to break any of your vows. But if I am to find our duchess a way out of this mess, I must use every tool at my disposal.”
even souls. even me.
“I will try, but he has been dead for more than a day, and I am accustomed to dealing with souls when they are fresh.”
“Thank you.” The look of gratitude changes his face, softening the harsh planes and making him appear younger than I had thought. He moves a respectful distance away, and I kneel and bow my head.
In truth, I have never done this, have no idea how to do it. I know only that I am compelled to try. I am eager to understand what it was I felt with Martel’s soul yesterday. was it merely the richness of the experience, as the abbess claimed? Or did his soul truly share his last thoughts and feelings with me? I want to fully comprehend all the gifts Mortain has bestowed upon me. Besides, if Duval is a traitor, as the abbess and Chancellor Crunard suspect, perhaps Martel’s soul will reveal that to me.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I think of the thin veil that separates the living and the dead, of how tenuous it is, how very fragile. Once I have it pictured firmly in my mind, I search for an opening, a seam, any gap that might allow me to push aside that veil. There. A small corner turns up. I reach for it with my mind and gently peel back the barrier that exists between life and death.
Martel’s unhappy soul is just on the other side. A towering wave of cold crashes over me. Hungry for life, the soul rushes to me. It rolls against my warmth, much as a pig trying to coat itself in mud. It is happy to see me, pleased even. And then suddenly, it is not.
It has recognized me. Knows that it was my hand that sundered it from its earthly body. It grows agitated, writhing against me, trying to escape my will. But I do not give way. This is not some innocent dead who deserves grace and mercy, but a traitor who surely earned whatever punishment Mortain saw fit to administer.
The thoughts and images the soul contains have begun to disintegrate. There is nothing but fragments and snatches, nothing I can grasp as a true memory. I bear down with my mind, willing the soul to gather itself, its memories. For whom did you work?
There is an angry swirl, an eddy of ice. I see the purple and yellow of the French crown, a fleur-de-lis plain on a servant’s breast. Pleased with my success, I try again. Who were you to contact?
There is a brief flash of ships, and then the image is gone, broken into a thousand pieces as Martel’s soul shifts. Now it tries to force its will on me, but the power it holds over life is nothing compared to the power I hold over death. I shove the icy coldness of Martel’s lingering soul from me and bring down the barrier, so that it is once again solid between us.
when I open my eyes, I am shivering. I am so cold I cannot even feel the rays of sun, and then Duval is next to me, his hands on my elbows, pulling me to my feet. “Are you all right?” Concern is etched on his face, but I cannot stop my teeth from chattering long enough to assure him I am fine.
He lifts the woolen cloak from his own shoulders and places it around me. The heat from his body still clings to the rich fabric, and I close my eyes and let my body drink it in.
“Your face is so pale that, truly, you look as if you are dead too.” He pulls the cloak tighter around me, grabs me by the hand — how warm his fingers are! — and drags me to a larger patch of sunlight. And still I shiver. Duval places his hands on my arms and rubs them up and down, trying to work some warmth back into them.
I am too stunned to even breathe, and my arms tingle as if they have long been asleep and are only now awakening. Appalled, I pull away. “I am warm now,” I say, my voice stiff. I avoid his eyes, afraid he will see the confusion in mine. That he is good at playing the gallant is only to be expected. His kindness to me means nothing. He is kind to his horse as well. In truth, his chivalry could be a plan to lure me into a false sense of trust and security.
“I would never have asked that of you if I had known — ”
I cut him off. “I am fine.”
His eyes search my face to see if I am telling the truth. I try to shift his attention away from me. “He could tell me nothing,” I say.
"What?” Duval is clearly perplexed.
I nearly laugh at how thoroughly my discomfort has swept his purpose from his mind. “Martel told me very little.”
“A little is better than none,” Duval says, remembering. “Go on.”
I am still slow-witted from my encounter with the soul and try to decide just how much to tell him. I busy myself with removing his cloak from my shoulders. “Images. Fragments. Nothing that made much sense.” I pause; I want to clutch each bit of information to myself, gain any advantage I can over this man, but the reverend mother’s instructions still echo in my ears. “There was a fleet of ships — ”