Duval is breaking his fast in the winter parlor. At my entrance, a servant pulls out a chair. I sit stiffly, filled with shame that Duval has seen me having a nightmare as if I were nothing but a child. Nor can I forget the feel of his skin beneath my fingers as I tended his wound. even worse, I am afraid all of this will show on my face.

“How did you sleep?” he asks politely.

I risk glancing at him, expecting to see a glint of amusement or a smirk. Instead, there is a hint of concern. It is this kindness of his that unsettles me most. I can dodge a blow or block a knife. I am impervious to poison and know a dozen ways to escape a chokehold or garrote wire. But kindness? I do not know how to defend against that.

“Like a babe,” I answer. The lie falls easily from my lips as I glance pointedly at his throat.

He fingers the small ruff on the high collar he is wearing this morning. “Mayhap I will set a new fashion at court.”

His words prick my conscience. I raise my chin slightly and refuse to utter the apology that hovers on my tongue. It is his own fault for skulking about my room at night. “I have not yet received any message from the reverend mother. Have you word from Chancellor Crunard?”

His face sobers immediately. “No, why?”

I shrug and take a pear from the platter on the table. “I have been in Guérande three days. As urgently as the abbess wanted me here, I would think there should be someone who needed killing by now.”

Duval throws back his head and laughs. “You are a bloodthirsty thing, I’ll give you that.”

I stab a knife into my pear. The golden skin splits, and fragrant juice drips onto the plate. “Not bloodthirsty, merely eager to do Mortain’s work. It is why I am here, after all.”

“True enough.”

"What are our tasks for the day?”

He raises one of his eyebrows at me. “I have received word that a messenger has arrived at the palace and requests a meeting with me.”

My hand stills. "Who is it?”

“I do not know, as the messenger has cloaked himself in secrecy. He claims he will speak only to me, which is why you will stay here and entertain yourself this morning.”

I clench my knife. “I can easily hide, my lord. That will not be a problem.”

“Yes, but I have promised the man a private meeting and I would keep my word.”

“But what of your promise to the abbess?” I begin cutting the pear with quick, clean strokes.

“I have not said that I will not inform you of what transpires, merely that I have promised him a private audience. Besides, there is still much you are keeping from — sweet Jesu!”

I look up, alarmed. "What?”

He nods at my plate. “You are supposed to eat it, not disembowel it.”

I look down and see that I have sliced my pear to ribbons. I carefully set the knife aside and reach for the bread.

“If it is activity you crave, one of my groomsmen can accompany you if you care to ride. Or you can occupy yourself with” — he waves his hand, searching for some activity he deems appropriate — “needlework.”

I stare at him coldly. “I do not care for needlework.” I pause. “Unless it involves the base of the skull.”

His mouth lifts in amusement and I hold my breath, wondering if he will laugh again. I ignore the small nick of disappointment when he does not. “Then occupy yourself reading some of the histories in my study. I assume the convent taught you how to entertain yourself for a morning. Put some of that excellent training to use.” And with that, he removes himself from the table, leaving me to seethe over my breakfast.

Stay, he bids me. As if I am some hound to follow or not, at his command. As if it is he, not I, who is in charge of my actions. I know in my bones that the abbess will want to be informed of any urgent secret meeting. Besides, does not his very desire to keep this meeting secret prove he is up to some deception? when it is over, I will have only his word as to what took place.

Renewed purpose flowing through me, I rise and hurry to find my cloak.

I travel on foot. Saddling a mount would waste precious time and risk drawing questions. I do not know how loyal Duval’s servants are or to what lengths they will go to enforce his wishes.

The morning air is crisp and clean; Guérande’s merchants are only just beginning to open their shutters. Industrious maids and housewives are already shopping for their day’s provisions. No one pays any attention to my passing. when I reach the palace, it is easy enough to gain admittance, as courtiers, nobles, and petitioners come and go as they please. I also suspect the guard recognizes me from last night, although I cannot be certain. My biggest obstacle is finding where Duval’s mysterious meeting is taking place.

I stand in the main hallway for a moment, trying to create a map of the palace in my head. As I orient myself, I remember that Duval has private rooms assigned to him. That is surely where he will hold his meeting.

I ask a posted sentry for directions, then hurry up the staircase he points to. The palace is larger than the village where I grew up and far more confusing. Countless chamber doors line the endless hallways and corridors. In the end, I give up and bribe one of the many pages underfoot to show me the way to Duval’s chambers. I give him a coin — two when he promises silence — then study the door before me.

There is no antechamber. The door is in plain sight of anyone who walks by, which means I cannot simply stand with my ear to it. There is another door to the right of Duval’s, so I approach it, casting my senses out, trying to see if anyone is in there.

It feels empty, so I slip inside and hurry to the joint wall between the two rooms. I press my ear against it, but the stone is thick, and the men are speaking in low, cautious voices. I turn back to explore the chamber. It is filled with fine furnishings and elegant tapestries, none of which will help me in the least. There is a window, however, that overlooks a small enclosed courtyard. I stick my head out, pleased to see Duval’s room also has a window. It is easier to hear through glass than stone.

Once assured there is no one in the courtyard below, I remove my cloak so it will not trip me and step out onto the ledge. Carefully, I inch along the narrow casement until my hand grasps the wood that frames Duval’s window. I pause, then flatten myself against the wall so I cannot be seen from inside. I am quickly rewarded for my efforts by Duval’s voice, slightly muffled but audible through the thick glass. “If you cannot tell me who you are working for, then we have nothing more to discuss.” His voice is as cold and hard as the stone at my back.

“You know well that there are few to trust in the duchess’s court. If word of my liege lord’s identity were to fall into the wrong hands, it would put many people in jeopardy.”

“You cannot expect me to gallop off to a rendezvous with your mystery lord when it could so easily be a trap.”

“You may choose the time and place of the meeting, one to your own advantage. But my liege has a plan, a proposal” — his voice sounds like he is smiling — “that he thinks you’ll find most intriguing.”

There is a long pause as Duval considers, weighing the risks. My ears are firmly fixed on the room beyond, but my eyes search the courtyard below. My fingers and toes have grown numb in the bitter chill of the morning, but I will not leave my post before I hear Duval’s answer.

"Why me?” he finally asks. "Why has your liege sent you to me rather than to the chancellor or one of the duchess’s guardians?”

“Because blood is thicker than any chain of office. My liege believes that you more than anyone care for the young duchess’s well-being.”

Interesting that the mysterious lord would think such a thing. Is it empty flattery? Or does the man have personal knowledge of Duval?

The room is quiet as both men weigh and measure each other, and I nearly dance with impatience — I’m desperate to hear Duval’s answer and nearly as desperate to be gone from this place before I am discovered.

“Very well,” Duval says at last. “I will speak to this liege of yours and hear what he has to offer. Tell me where you are staying and I will have word sent as to when and where we shall meet.”

Satisfied that the main thrust of the meeting is over, I peel my fingers away from the window, flexing them to get the blood flowing again. Slowly, for fear of missing a step with my nearly numb feet, I begin inching back to the adjoining room. Stiff with cold, I half fall, half climb back into the chamber, then silently close the shutter. I grab my cloak and rub my arms, trying to get warm again, but only for a moment. I need to be well away from here before Duval concludes his meeting.

I hurry to the door, open it a crack, and peer out into the hallway, then nearly gasp in surprise when I spot Madame Hivern lurking outside Duval’s door. Hopefully, the door presented as thick an obstacle to her as it did to me.

I know Duval wanted this meeting to remain secret, but it is my own suspicion of the woman that propels me into the hall. I arrange my face in a flustered look, then step out of the office. “Madame Hivern?” I say, making my voice young and just a bit tremulous.

Startled, she whirls around. “Demoiselle Rienne? what are you doing here?” Her lovely face is wary.

I glance about, confused. “I was looking for milord Duval’s chambers. One of the footmen told me they were in this corridor, but I must have miscounted the doors.”

Her face relaxes and a smile that is pure condescension appears on her face. “Come, my dear.” She reaches out, tucks my arm in hers, and begins leading me down the hall, away from both doors. “Surely you know that the best way to lose a man is to chase him down?” She pats my hand. “Let me share with you the secrets of our trade.”

It is all I can do to keep from correcting her disturbing assumption. Nor do I trust this sudden charity of hers. “Madame is too kind.” I am pleased that I keep any whiff of irony from my words. In truth, the last thing I want is advice from Duval’s mother on how to be a good mistress. However, perhaps I can turn it to my advantage and use the opportunity to learn more about Duval.

The memory of his stricken face the night they argued flits through my mind, and I feel sick at my own deception, as if I am probing a gaping wound. Nevertheless, it is why I am here, and I know just what the reverend mother would think of such misplaced scruples.

Ignoring the nobles and courtiers gathered in clusters in the grand salon, Madame Hivern settles us in a corner away from the others. when we are alone, she turns considering eyes on me. “So.” She sets her graceful hands in her lap. "Where are you from, my dear, and how did you meet Gavriel?”

I lower my eyes — a young country miss would be nervous, would she not? — and begin twisting my hands in my lap. “My family is of modest means, madame, and would not be known to you.”

She tilts her head daintily, but the smile on her face is brittle as glass. “Then how did you come to meet?”

Stick close to the truth to give weight to the lie is what the convent drilled into our heads. “In a tavern, near Brest.” I do not fully trust Duval, but I trust his mother even less and will not serve up his secrets on a platter before her.

Her face blanches and she rears back a little, as if she has just been struck. “Please tell me you were not the serving wench.”

“No,” I say, careful not to smile. “I was passing through on my family’s business.”

I watch as she mentally combs through the coastal area of Brest, trying to determine what business Duval was up to. After another moment, her lovely mask falls back into place. “You must forgive me,” she says, “but my son has kept so completely to himself until now, I scarcely know how to credit your presence.”

I make my eyes wide and innocent. “But madame, clearly the two of you are estranged, so perhaps he has simply not mentioned such relationships to you.”

Her mouth grows ugly and flat at this blatant reminder, but she bites back her retort as a servant places a tray of spiced wine in front of us. By the time the servant leaves, she has composed herself. I pick up a wine goblet, and she leans forward, changing the subject. “Not all men are the same, you know. with someone such as Gavriel, I would suggest appearing aloof, not chasing too much. He might see that as suffocating rather than charming.” Her words are sharp, but her voice is sweet, like honey on the edge of a blade, and meant to be cutting. I comfort myself with the knowledge that if Duval ever feels smothered by me, it will be because I am holding a pillow over his face and commending his soul to Mortain.

She frowns and continues her prattling. "Why ever did you think it would be a good idea to chase him down? Is that what girls do in the village you come from?”

“I was not chasing him, madame, merely trying to deliver a message. It came after he left this morning and I thought to deliver it myself.”

Hivern holds up her hands in mock horror. “You are his paramour, not his servant. Do not follow him like a dog follows his master.”

My hand tightens on my wine goblet, and I am glad it is silver, not glass, for surely it would shatter under the force of my annoyance with this woman. “Madame, I assure you — ”

“Oh, call me Antoinette, won’t you? I think we shall be fast friends, you and I.”

“Do you think that is a good idea, given the breach between you and your son?”

A hint of cold fury flickers across her face, then is gone. “Perhaps you can help us to heal this rift.”

I set my goblet down on the table and give Madame Hivern my most innocent look. “Is that why you were looking for him? To call a truce?”

Annoyance crosses her face, and she casts about the room as if searching for a distraction. Apparently she finds one, for her expression softens and her eyes shine with the first true emotion she has shown. “My darling!” Hivern’s face is alight with pleasure. “Do come here, I have someone I would like you to meet.”