why, then, would he not discuss this in front of me? Unless he truly does not trust the convent? I bite back a sigh of frustration. Things would be much easier if I could just prove him traitor and be done with it. But no matter how I turn each word and gesture upside down, looking for hidden meaning and betrayal, I can find none.
We are up early and on the road before dawn. Duval has sent Beast and de Lornay on ahead. I know that he chafes at our slower pace, but there is naught I can do about it.
Recent rains have made the countryside wet and muddy, which further hampers our progress. As dusk falls, it becomes clear that in spite of Duval’s best efforts, we will not make Guérande by nightfall. Resigned, he turns off the main road and heads toward La Roche Bernard.
La Roche Bernard sits on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Vilaine River. Its greatest feature is the new chateau the Geffoy family built after their last castle had been razed to the ground in the first war of succession.
At the chateau, we are escorted to a great hall filled with rich, colorful tapestries and a roaring fire. A rotund man with sandy hair and beard leans in close to an elegant woman as if he’s hanging on every word she says. when the steward announces us, the woman pulls back and looks demurely into the fireplace, while the gentleman — the baron, I presume — rises to his feet and hurries to greet us.
“Duval! what a pleasant surprise this is,” Baron Geffoy says, but his face gives lie to his words. In truth, there is a harried look about him that has me wondering if Duval isn’t precisely the last person he wishes to see right now. "We are graced with all sorts of visitors from court. Madame Hivern is staying with us for a few days.”
Duval’s head snaps up, and his cold gray eyes zero in on the lovely woman by the fireplace.
The baron lowers his voice. “Being at court right now is too painful for her, as you well know.”
“So she keeps claiming,” Duval murmurs. There is an angry, bitter note in his voice that I have not heard before. I glance again to the fireplace. Madame Hivern sits with her head bowed, the very picture of pious contemplation — indeed, it is the same pose I adopt at the convent when I fear I have been caught whispering to Annith or Sybella.
“Baron, I would like you to meet my cousin Demoiselle Rienne.”
Geffoy smiles knowingly at the word cousin. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” he says. An unsavory gleam appears in his eye. “Please make yourself comfortable in my home, my dear,” he says. "Will you be joining us for dinner, Duval? Or are you too exhausted from your journey?”
Duval’s eyes are still pinned on Madame Hivern when he answers. "We would join you and hear the news at court.” Surely the woman can feel him looking at her. why does she not glance up?
Almost as if hearing my thoughts, she lifts her head just then. Although her charming expression never changes, her hostility toward Duval is palpable.
"Excellent! I will have someone show you to your rooms so you may refresh yourselves.” The baron leans in close to Duval. “I will be sure you and your cousin have adjoining rooms, mais oui?”
His vile wink has my hand itching for my dagger. Perhaps sensing this, Duval grabs my elbow and escorts me to the stairs.
My chamber is large and well appointed. I cast a longing glance at the immense canopied bed that I cannot enjoy for hours yet. I sigh with regret, then turn to make myself ready for the evening. As I disrobe, my mind returns to the baron’s unease at seeing Duval, Hivern’s hostility, and Duval’s tightly controlled reaction. Mayhap I will learn something of importance tonight.
At least the mystery of what lies between Duval and Hivern will provide some small measure of entertainment during dinner. I cannot help but wonder how much of Duval’s wish to dine in the great room has to do with her. even from far away, I could tell she is very beautiful; her skin pale, her hair the color of spun gold and dressed in an artful style. The elegant Hivern has made me exquisitely aware of every lesson on court manners and womanly charms I have missed.
I catch my reflection in the small oval of polished silver hanging on the wall. we could not be more different. She has the feel of a delicately wrought treasure. I, on the other hand, am dark and serious; a faint frown draws my brows together. In my mind, I can almost hear the mocking laughter when the baron and his wife learn of my fakery and deception. I will not let that happen. I relax my scowl, which improves my looks somewhat but not nearly enough.
I dip the linen cloth into the warm water — scented faintly with rose petals, a true luxury — and take the opportunity to wash my face and arms and anywhere else I can reach.
I travel with only one gown grand enough for this evening, so with reluctance I put it on. I have not grown any more fond of it since I wore it last. And while I have no fancy headdress such as Madame Hivern wears, I do have my hairnet with the pearls. I smile at this reminder of the dark skills I possess that Hivern does not.
As I poke the last stubborn tendril of hair into place, there is a knock at my door. I open it to find Duval, ready to escort me to dinner. He takes in my greatly altered appearance, much as I take in his. He has changed from his riding leathers to an elegant black doublet with fresh white linen at his neck. I wonder briefly if black is a signature color for him. He eyes me thoroughly, and I grow a bit flustered under the warmth of his gaze. “I am not certain I would let my cousin appear in public in such a gown,” he says at last.
“Your cousin has no other choice available to her, milord.”
A look of resignation settles over his face. “And so our lots are cast.” He holds out his arm. “Come, let us join the others.”
After a moment’s hesitation, I gingerly place my hand on his sleeve. Annoyed by these courtesies I must endure, I look for a way to torment him. “Madame Hivern did not look especially pleased to see you,” I point out. “Nor the baron, come to that.”
He snorts, and the earthy noise catches me off-guard. “Madame Hivern and I do not see eye to eye on many things. The baron’s discomfort is somewhat newer.” Then he looks down at me, a faint air of amusement touching his eyes. “You do know who she is, do you not?”
I curse my own ignorance. It is even worse than being assigned to Duval’s care. “No,” I say shortly. “I do not.”
Duval gives a short bark of a laugh. “That, dear assassin, is the late duke’s mistress.”
I gasp in surprise. “The French whore?”
He glances at me sharply. "Why do you call her that?”
I shrug as I try to peer ahead into the room, full of lewd curiosity now that I know who she is. “That is what the sisters at the convent called her,” I tell him.
There is a long, heavy moment of silence. when I look back at him, his whole demeanor has shifted and the amusement is gone from his face. “Yes,” he says. “And just so you are clear, I am the French whore’s son.”
I feel as if a giant cavern has just opened up at my feet as Duval’s words clang through my head like a great bell. He is one of the duke’s bastards. Half brother to the duchess.
Duval tugs my arm and pulls me into the great hall. It is ablaze with a roaring fire and candles burning brightly in heavy silver holders, but I hardly register any of this as my mind scrambles back to Sister Eonette’s tapestries. The French whore is listed there, along with her five children by the late duke, but they are listed by first name only, and the name Gavriel is common enough.
Did the abbess know that I was going into this blind? was this part of her test? Or was there merely a mistaken assumption that I would know the duke’s bastard by the name Duval?
As if from a great distance, I hear Baron Geffoy say, “Here they are now.” with effort, I try to concentrate on the introductions. “Viscount Duval, Demoiselle Rienne, this is my ladywife, Katerine.” She is a drab peahen of a woman with sharp, intelligent eyes, and I warm to her immediately.
“Her brother, Anthoine de Loris, and my steward, Guy de Picart. And of course, Duval, you already know the charming Madame Hivern.”
The clash of Duval’s and Hivern’s gazes as they meet is as loud as the opening parry of any duel, but what makes my breath catch is the brief glimpse of pain I see in Duval’s face before he shutters it. It is so fleeting, I cannot help but wonder if I have imagined it.
When Hivern puts her hand out for Duval to kiss, he dons his formal court manners like a suit of armor and bows over it. “As always, your presence leaves me speechless, madame.”
"Would that were so,” she mutters. Baron Geffoy shifts in discomfort while his wife’s brows rise slightly in surprise.
Duval’s eyes narrow. “I am glad to see you have taken my advice and removed yourself from court.”
Hivern’s smile is as sharp as a knife. “Oh, but I have not. I am only taking a little break to visit with my dear friends and draw comfort from their company.” She lifts a delicate linen handkerchief and dabs at her eye.
“My pardon.” Duval’s voice is drier than bone. “I did not mean to remind you of your loss.”
She waves her hand in the air and I cannot tell if she misses the irony in his tone or simply chooses to ignore it. “It is always with me. I am just so grateful to Baron and Lady Geffoy for offering their hospitality, far from the painful reminders of my dear Francis.” Her voice catches slightly, as if she is about to cry, and I am struck by the sense that they are acting out parts in a masque.
As if to distract from Madame Hivern’s sorrow, Lady Geffoy directs us to take our seats at the table, and I use the moment to try to collect my wits. with Duval’s revelation, so many small details fall into place. The abbess’s and Crunard’s incredulity that Duval would try to pass me off as his cousin; Beast and de Lornay’s reactions as well. In truth, remembering causes me to blush and squirm at how stupid they must have thought us. No wonder Beast thought me noble born, for although Duval is a bastard, he is a royal one.
Humiliation courses through my veins. I reach for my wine goblet and take a healthy swig, wishing I could drown my ignorance. As my thoughts begin to settle, I become aware of the tinkle of crystal, the smell of braised meat and strong wine. The table is laden with all manner of food and delicacies, but they are as tasteless to me as the dust kicked up by our horses.
Lady Katerine artfully steers the conversation to hunting and recent jousts, people and events I am not familiar with. I let it recede into the background until it is naught but the buzz of gnats hovering over a stagnant pond.
I try to remember everything the convent told us about the French whore, for that is how they referred to her always and why I did not recognize her by the name Hivern. She was the mistress of the old French king when she was but fourteen. when he died, she became mistress to our duke. Over their many years together, she bore him five children: three sons and two daughters.
Duval’s arm rests next to mine on the table, his long elegant fingers playing with the stem of his glass. when his fingers tighten suddenly, I force my thoughts to the conversation going on around me.
“That is the fourth tournament this year that my dear François has won,” Madame Hivern is saying to the baron. “He has few equals in the jousting lists.”
Baron Geffoy casts an admiring glance at Duval. "Except perhaps for his older brother. If I remember correctly, he was never beaten — ”
“Those days are long gone,” Duval says, abruptly dismissing the baron’s attempt at flattery. As Duval lifts his goblet and drains it, and there is a brief moment of awkward silence. Lady Katerine tries to brush over it.
"We have had uncommonly good hunting this year,” she says, but once again Madame Hivern turns the conversation and begins prattling of François and his prowess at hunting and how he speared a wild boar single handedly in last week’s hunt.
Is that what lies between them? Does she favor François so much that it has driven Duval to hate her? It happens thus in families sometimes, especially the noble ones, where favor translates into titles and holdings. I glance over at Duval, but he looks pointedly at his plate, cutting his venison with angry, precise movements.
I turn my attention across the table to Madame Hivern. Her gown is the color of emeralds and is cut even lower than mine, leaving her entire shoulders exposed as well as revealing the profuse swell of her womanly charms.
“Gavriel, dear,” she drawls. "Who is this maid of yours again and why is she staring at me as if I am a five-legged calf?”
I blush furiously, for I had thought them all so involved in their conversations and plots that they wouldn’t notice my scrutiny.
Duval tosses me a glance, as if to show he is bearing my presence with little grace. “Forgive her, madame. She was raised in the country and is no doubt struck dumb by your beauty and elegance.”
“As are we all,” Baron Geffoy adds, completely missing the deep irony in Duval’s voice. Lady Katerine, however, does not.
“Is she what caused you to stray so far from your young duchess’s side?” Hivern smirks.
Duval lifts his goblet and takes a sip of wine. “I did not stray anywhere. I had business to attend to on behalf of the duchess.”
Madame Hivern looks sharply at me. "Where did you say you were from?”
“She didn’t,” says Duval, and while I do not like that he is speaking for me, I cannot even pretend to understand what is going on between them.
“Have you news of the French?” Baron Geffoy asks. He is no longer jovial but tense and bristly, and for the first time since meeting him, I think I would not want to face him in pitched battle. “There have been rumors of their troops amassing in the north.”