Duval gives a firm shake of his head. “No. There have been no troop sightings or even signs of scouting parties. Your information is mistaken. The duchess has the matter well in hand.”
Madame Hivern leans forward, eyes glittering. “Does she, Gavriel? Does she truly? For it does not appear that way from where I sit.”
Across the table their eyes meet. “That is because you choose not to see it, madame.” His words are tight and hard, like stones from a catapult. “As always, you see precisely what you want to see and no more.” He casts his unflinching regard toward the head of the table, where Baron Geffoy pays careful attention to the slices of pheasant on his plate. Duval stares at him for a long moment before returning his attention to Hivern. “Beware, madame,” he says softly. “Politics can be far more dangerous than you know.” It takes me a full beat to recognize that this is no general advice but a very specific warning. But of what?
She, too, appears puzzled by his words, but before she can speak, Duval turns to me. I barely keep from recoiling at the simmering fury in his gaze. “Since we leave at first light, it would be wise to retire early.” He rises and holds his arm out to me and I quickly get to my feet, thank Lady Katerine for her hospitality, and let Duval lead me away.
Duval escorts me from the room, his lightly banked fury propelling us at a rapid pace, and I am nearly breathless when we arrive at my chamber. I start to ask a question, but he cuts me off with a curt good night, opens my door, and fair shoves me inside, then shuts it with unmistakable finality.
I am alone, and grateful for it, but angry too. It is not my fault he and Hivern have nearly come to blows.
I cannot guess what lies between them, what sort of fallingout they have had. It seems far too heated a feud to be based on Duval’s resenting his mother’s affection for his brother. And how does Geffoy play into all this? For he sat there looking as guilty as Annith did when she was caught snooping through Sister Beatriz’s love poems.
Or was that it? Is the baron contemplating a liaison with Madame Hivern, and is Duval trying to discourage it? De Lornay claimed Duval had the morals of a monk, so perhaps that is at the heart of his and his mother’s animosity: he believes she is taking another lover far too soon after his father’s death.
My tired fingers are graceless and clumsy as I fight with the laces on my bodice. At last they come lose and I remove it, shivering as the cold air brushes my skin. I step out of my skirt and, clad only in my shift, hurry over to the enormous bed and climb under the thick covers, welcoming their warmth.
I can hear Duval pacing in the next room, restless and agitated, his anger rolling in under the door like some foul miasma off a fetid marsh. I push it from my mind. who his mother takes as a lover cannot be of interest to Mortain.
Sometime later, I am awakened by angry voices. At first, I think they are in the room with me, then realize they come from Duval’s chamber. The door is thick, so I catch only snatches.
“ . . . you will ruin everything for us . . .”
“Have you so little respect for my father that you would . . .”
“ . . . has nothing to do with . . .”
It is Madame Hivern. She and Duval are arguing. That brings me fully awake and just as I throw off the covers so I may go listen at the door, I hear another door slam with a thud. After a brief moment, there is a sharp, brittle crash from Duval’s room, a shatter of crystal that brings me to my feet. I have only ever heard that sound once before, in the abbess’s office, and before my head knows what my feet are doing, I am flying to the door, my hands fumbling at the bolt.
Duval sprawls in a chair by the fire, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. An open decanter sits at his elbow, and the rich fruity scent of wine mixes with the lingering traces of Madame Hivern’s rose perfume. Firelight glints off the shards of broken crystal on the floor, and I stop, afraid I’ll slice my feet to ribbons. “My lord?” I whisper, dread beating in my breast.
Duval’s head snaps up, his eyes filled with bleak despair. He quickly looks away, but too late. I have seen his expression, and sympathy for something I do not even understand pierces my heart. “I heard a crash . . .”
He raises one sardonic eyebrow at me, his face now a brittle mask. “And thought to save me from attacking crystal while clad only in your shift?”
I flinch at his mocking tone. Truly, why had I rushed in? even if he had been poisoned, what could I do? His soul, I think, relieved that a reason has come to me. If he were to die, I must learn all I can from his soul before it departs.
He glances at the empty decanter at his elbow. “Unless you are checking to see if your poison worked? Am I one of your targets, then?” The weariness in his voice suggests he would not mind so very much.
And while I did not like Hivern before, now, for some inexplicable reason, I hate her. “Are you drunk?” I try to put as much scorn into my words as he did.
“No. Yes. Perhaps a little. Definitely not enough.” The bleakness is back and he turns to stare into the flames.
I am torn between wanting to leave him to wallow in his despair and wanting to rush to his side and chase that look from his eyes. That I long to do this appalls me, sets panic fluttering against my ribs.
“I suggest you return to your room,” Duval says, his gaze still fixed woodenly on the fire. “Unless you have come to practice your lessons of seduction on me?” His mouth twists in bitter amusement. “That could well entertain me till sunrise.”
I jerk my head back as if I have been slapped. “No, milord. I had thought only to pray for your soul if Madame Hivern had seen fit to poison you. Nothing more.” And with that, I turn and flee the room, then bolt the door against the disturbing glimpse of both his soul and mine. whatever games are being played here, he is a master at them, and I will do well to remember that.
Things are strained between us the next morning. I won’t meet Duval’s eyes nor he mine as we take our leave and gallop from the yard. The sun rises, and the early-morning mist swirls up off the ground in gentle eddies, like steam from a simmering pot. Our awkward silence follows us on the road to Guérande. Nocturne doesn’t like that I hold myself so rigidly, and she whinnies. I force myself to relax my shoulders.
For his part, Duval acts as if I don’t exist. At least as far as La Baule. Then he turns in his saddle, his face stiff with discomfort. “I am sorry I insulted you last night. I was angry with Madame Hivern, and you presented an easy target. Please accept my apologies.” Then he turns forward again, leaving me to gape at his back.
No one has ever apologized to me before. Certainly not my family, or the nuns. It is disturbing, this apology, as if my feelings matter when I know that they do not. It is what Mortain and the convent want that is important. even so, I cannot help but whisper, “I accept,” mostly to myself. Or so I think — until I see Duval nod once, then put his heels to his horse.
Even though I grew up only three leagues away, I have never been to Guérande. My father went, many times, and he used each of those to taunt me with what he had seen. I had thought he exaggerated in order to rub my nose in what I had missed. Now I see that he did not.
The town is entirely enclosed within thick stone walls that stretch as far as my eye can see. eight watchtowers loom at regular intervals. I understand now why the duchess has chosen this city for her headquarters. Surely those walls are impenetrable.
Provided the enemy comes from without.
As we draw closer to the city, I see a crowd near the gate tower. Legions of servants and carts piled high with household goods block the road. Knights and noble lords mill about on horseback, their horses prancing impatiently at the delay. Duval mutters an oath. “I will not reach the palace till midnight at this rate.”
“Are they refugees?” I ask, remembering the desperate families and townspeople who had been displaced by the Mad war.
Duval looks at me askance. “No. They are here for the estates Assembly. Come, we will try the north gate.”
Before he can wheel his mount around, a trumpet sounds from behind. A standard-bearer approaches, his gold and blue banner snapping briskly in the crisp autumn air. A long entourage snakes behind him on the road, the outriders and trumpeters heralding its arrival. People and horses do their best to make way, but it is a narrow road and there is nowhere to go.
The knights do not slow down. They gallop full tilt into the crowd, forcing people to leap from the bridge or risk being trampled. I recognize the banner at once; it is that of Count d’Albret, one of the wealthiest Breton nobles and one of the duchess’s suitors. A most insistent one, according to Sister Eonette.
The count is surrounded by men-at-arms, so my only impression of him is one of great girth and a lathered horse with far too many spur marks upon its flanks. It is enough for me to take an immediate dislike to the man. even so, I am surprised by the intensity of Duval’s reaction — his eyes grow dark and flinty, while his lip curls in disgust. I cannot help but note that there are now two people we both heartily dislike — Madame Hivern and Count d’Albret — and I am reminded of Sister Eonette’s maxim that our enemy’s enemy often makes a good ally.
Duval tears his gaze away from the count and looks to the road. “I think we can get through now,” he says, then puts his heels to his horse. It leaps forward. Caught off-guard, I do my best to follow, but I am not as quick. Nocturne balks, then bolts out in front of an approaching horse. My hands are so full trying to manage Nocturne that I barely spare a glance for the other rider. As she struggles to regain control, she utters a foul oath at her mount.
The familiar voice is like a pail of icy water down my back. I whip my head around, but she has already passed. All I can see is her slender shoulders and the defiant tilt of her head. Until she turns around to send me a scathing glance, annoyance writ plain on her face.
My heart begins to race even as the rest of the riders converge on the road between us and she is lost to my eyes. Jubilation surges through me. She is alive! And in Guérande! That is more than I knew before. It is enough to lighten my heart as I hurry to catch up to Duval.
Once we are inside the city, our horses clop down the cobbled streets. Stone and timber houses jut jauntily into the street, like gossiping housewives. Shops line the narrow lanes, their shutters drawn up to display bolts of wool and silk, perfumed oils, and all manner of goods. we pass candle makers’ stalls and food stalls. I look longingly at the latter. Our breakfast was hours ago. “Try not to gawk,” Duval says, amused.
“I am not gawking,” I say, piqued that he has caught me.
“You most certainly are. Have you never been to a town before?”
“Not one this size,” I admit reluctantly.
Duval shakes his head. “At least you will have no trouble playing the country rustic.”
It is clear that Duval wants to gallop through the town, straight to court. He holds himself in check, however, as we are boxed in by townspeople and pedestrians clogging the streets and hurrying about. Trying to avoid these, we turn down a side street. Duval mutters an oath as we come upon an overturned cart blocking the road. Bags of grain and flour spill out onto the cobbled street, and the driver studies the broken axle in dismay.
“This way,” Duval orders, turning into a narrow alley.
we have gone but a few paces when Duval gives a garbled shout. He reaches for his sword as three men drop seemingly from the sky into his path. Another one lands directly behind him, on the horse itself. The beast stumbles, but he is battle trained and quickly recovers. The stallion prances and snorts, nearly trampling one of the assailants. Duval shoves his elbow deep into the belly of the attacker behind him, dislodging him from the horse. “Turn back!” Duval shouts.
But I am not some simpering maid to flee at the threat of a fight. There is a ringing of steel as Duval draws his sword, then he is swinging at a second man who is trying to pull him from his saddle. even as the wet, soft thunk tells me the blade has connected with flesh and bone, I am reaching for the long knife at my ankle.
But too late.
Two — no, three — more men emerge from the shadows. Nocturne prances and rears. One of them grabs my bridle, then has to dance backwards to avoid Nocturne’s flailing hooves. I free my knife and regain my balance. I kick my right foot out of the stirrup, swing my leg over the saddle, and send both feet into the face of my attacker. He reels back, giving me just enough room to get my long knife between us.
But my movements have unbalanced me again and I am pitched from the saddle. I use the momentum and throw myself forward, landing neatly on my feet. I lunge to meet the bandit.
He does not see my knife in time.
His eyes widen as it sinks into his belly. I brace myself, but there is no whisper of soul. Not a killing blow, then. There is a sucking sound as I pull the blade out, but before I can strike again, another man is upon us.
I duck low to avoid his short sword and spin out from under his swing. There is a whinny from Nocturne as the blade misses me and cuts along her flank.
A hot wave of fury crashes through me and I straighten for my next strike but my hand explodes in pain as one of the men’s kicks finds its target. My knife clatters to the cobbles.
The two men draw together, silent but deadly, as their companion writhes on the ground, his hand clamped to his middle to keep his guts from spilling onto the street.
I reach through the slit in my skirt, hand closing around the smooth, worn handle. when I pull the misericorde free, the bandit on my left laughs at the puniness of my weapon.
One nick, the abbess said. Just one scratch. And while I am loath to use a weapon of grace on two men such as these, I am certain Mortain will forgive me, as we are allowed to kill in self-defense.