Duval’s hand tightens on my arm and he quickens our pace, propelling me to the duchess and her entourage. I am heartened to see Chancellor Crunard has arrived, as we need every ally we can find. even better, he stands behind the duchess, one hand on her shoulder, as if steadying her. My heart warms toward him.

To the duchess’s credit, when Duval introduces us, she greets me as if we have never met, shows not so much as a flicker of recognition. She is well made for these games of deception. “My lord Duval tells me you are fond of hunting,” the duchess says politely. "Will you indulge in the sport while you are here?” As she speaks, she glances over at d’Albret, then lets her hand drift to her neck and gracefully runs one finger along the base of her throat, as if adjusting the heavy jeweled cross that hangs there.

I nearly laugh out loud and am very careful not to look at d’Albret. “If the opportunity arises, Your Grace, I would happily partake in the hunt.”

“Let us hope, then, that the opportunity presents itself,” she says graciously.

As we murmur pleasantries, a man-at-arms approaches and bows before Captain Dunois, then speaks quietly in his ear. The captain nods, then moves to Duval and takes him aside. “Your prisoner is awake, my lord.”

Duval turns to me with an eager gleam in his eye. “I must go and question him.”

“Surely I should come with you.”

“Surely you should not. How would I explain allowing either my young cousin or my mistress to be in the presence of such a criminal?” As he speaks, he searches among the gathered nobles. “No, you will stay here and play your part and keep your ears open.” He releases my arm and to my utter horror calls out, “De Lornay!”

“No!” I whisper to Duval, but too late. The young lord disentangles himself from a group of admiring women and heads our way.

Duval glances down at me in surprise. “You cannot just stroll about unattended. People may turn a blind eye to a discreet liaison, but a lone woman wandering on her own is no lady and will quickly find herself with a reputation that keeps her from the duchess’s presence.”

His words feel like the bars of a cage clanging down around me, and I suddenly feel trapped in a prison of silk and velvet. He looks faintly amused. “Do not act as if you’ve been consigned to the executioner’s block. Most women are quite fond of de Lornay’s company.”

“I am not most women, my lord,” I say, and I assume his snort is one of agreement.

De Lornay bows in front of us, and I am gratified when his eyes move past me, then sharpen.

Duval gives his friend a wry grin. “She cleans up nicely, does she not? I have something I must see to and I would leave her in your tender care.”

De Lornay’s dismayed look mirrors my own. "What, pray tell, am I to do with her?”

Duval waves his hand in the air. “I don’t know. whatever it is you do with your lady friends — ”

“Not that, surely,” de Lornay murmurs.

“Dance then.” Duval casts a worried look at me. “You do know how to dance, do you not?” he asks.

“Yes, but — ”

“Good.” Before de Lornay or I can issue another protest, Duval abandons us and walks away.

De Lornay and I stare at each other with twin expressions of distress before we both quickly look elsewhere. even as I plot an escape, the music starts up and the dancers move to the floor. with an ungracious sigh, de Lornay gives me a perfunctory bow. “Let us dance then.”

I dip a shallow curtsy but do not take his offered hand. “I appreciate this noble sacrifice you are making, but rest assured, it is not necessary. I have as little desire to dance with you as you do with me.”

He reaches out and snags my hand. “Nevertheless, Duval said dance, so dance we shall.”

I try to pull my hand away, but his grip turns to iron. I set my teeth and tug harder. “Do you always do what he tells you?”

“Always,” de Lornay says as he begins dragging me toward the dance floor. “I would ride into the fires of hell itself upon his command.”

Forgetting our tug of war, I glance at his face to see if he is serious. “Does he demand such things of you?”

De Lornay looks at me then with a fierce expression on his face. “If he did, I would do it gladly and welcome the chance.”

The music begins in earnest, and the other bodies around us fall into the steps of the dance. even though my mind still mulls over de Lornay’s fearsome loyalty, I move easily into the opening reverence. As I go through the steps of the dance, I cannot help but wonder why de Lornay dislikes me so very much. Indeed, I have never found dancing so painful. He glares at me over the other dancers’ heads and I am surprised our mutual loathing does not set their hair on fire.

when the music finally ends, I nearly shout with joy. De Lornay takes my arm and escorts me from the dance floor. “You dance very prettily.” For a lowborn assassin.

The actual words do not cross his lips, but I hear them all the same. I pay them little mind, for we have danced as Duval has commanded and surely now he will leave me to my own devices.

I curtsy with as much gratitude as I can muster. “Thank you for the courtesy you have shown me.” I keep my head down so he does not see the resentment in my eyes, and I begin to move away.

Once again, his hand clamps down on mine. “Oh, we are not done, demoiselle.”

I jerk my head up and snatch my hand away. "We most certainly are.”

He shakes his head. “Listen. The musicians are readying their instruments for another dance — a basse dance, I think. I am quite fond of the basse dance. Are you?”

I stare at him. Does he intend to blindly follow Duval’s orders until he returns? “No,” I say flatly. “I am not.” Then, before he can reach out and grab my hand again, I turn and leap away from him, putting as much distance between us as I can and hoping that he will not lunge after me and cause a scene.

I quickly worm deeper into the crowd and lose myself among the gathered nobles. As I move through the richly dressed and heavily perfumed bodies, I try to decide how best to make use of my hard-won freedom. I wish a marque of Mortain would appear on any one of these silly, vain nobles, but alas, it does not.

I spy François flirting with a venomous-looking lady dressed in peacock blue. His mother is in the far corner, laughing gaily and flirting with the half-dozen barons who surround her. Is that why Duval is so angry with her? Because she is not wasting any time finding a new paramour? If he was close with his father, then mayhap he considers it a betrayal of his memory that his mother is seeking a new bed to warm so soon after his death.

Madame Dinan, Count d’Albret, and Marshal Rieux have left the duchess and now stand together, buzzing among themselves like busy little bees. That could prove a most interesting conversation.

I shift directions and move toward them, determined to hear what they are plotting. I am nearly halfway there when a tall figure steps boldly in front of me and I must stop suddenly or plow right into him.

The French envoy Gisors looks down at me from his towering height. “Demoiselle Rienne,” he says.

“Milord Gisors.” I give a small curtsy.

“It occurs to me that I did not greet you as warmly as you deserved yesterday. You must forgive me, as I had weighty matters on my mind.”

“But of course, my lord ambassador. I understand completely.” Indeed, I am a marvel of restraint and cunning.

“You are young and innocent of the ways of court, even such a small court as this one. I would be honored if you would allow me to act as your guide in some matters.”

“That is very kind of you, my lord, but that is what Lord Duval has promised to do.”

Gisors’s green eyes seek out Duval. “And yet he is not at your side. And you may not realize it, but a small flock of young cockerels are lining up behind you even as we speak. I would help you learn who it is wise to associate with when your Duval is otherwise occupied.”

I open my mouth to demur, but he steps closer — far too close — and places his hand across my mouth. The boldness of the gesture shocks me into silence. “Do not say no, demoiselle. I only ask that you think about it. I can make it worth your while. Living at court is very expensive, and no woman should be without her own resources. especially since you cannot be sure just how long Duval’s protection will last.”

I push his hand away. "What do you mean?”

“I mean, once it becomes widely known that Duval’s mother is plotting to put her son on Anne’s throne, you will find yourself a pariah at court. I wager you will not be too proud to accept my friendship then.” And then he moves away, back to whatever rock he has crawled out from, and I am left breathing hard, shock simmering in my veins.

Duval and his family are plotting treason.

Chapter Twenty-three

I cannot sleep. My mind worries and gnaws at this newest revelation about Duval like a rat on a bone. A week ago, I would have been thrilled with the discovery, eager for the proof needed that would compel my god to act against him. But tonight — tonight it does not feel like a victory at all. I tell myself it is because the duchess trusts him so much and has so few allies left, but that is a lie. I fear my lack of pleasure has more to do with Duval himself, and it pains me that my heart has been so easily swayed.

It is also possible — likely, even — that he is not involved in his mother’s schemes. Indeed, it would go a long way to explaining the rift between them. So too would acting as if they were estranged prevent suspicion from falling on him.

There is a faint click at the door and everything inside me stills. I have no idea if I will confront Duval with what I have learned. I am torn between wanting to leap out of bed and rail at him for his duplicity and wishing to hide in shame because I was so easily misled. Instead, I pull the covers up under my chin and close my eyes, hoping he will think me asleep. I will my heart to slow its beating and my breathing to become deeper. My elaborate efforts are foiled by a muffled curse exploding out of the darkness. “God’s Teeth! what is this you have used to barricade the path to the window?”

His good-humored discomfiture befuddles me. "What?” Disoriented, I sit up and push the hair out of my eyes. “’Tis Vanth’s cage. You can just move it out of the way.”

“I already have,” he grumbles. "With my shin.” He flops into his customary chair and glares at me. "Who by the grace of God is Vanth, and why must he be kept in a cage?”

The darkness in the room is not absolute. I hug my knees while trying to read his face, but it is too hidden in shadow. “He is the crow sent by the abbess so that she and I can communicate.”

“Ah, did she have any news for you? Any assignments that I should know about?” Is that a note of concern I detect in his voice?

"Why, my lord? Are you afraid she has learned of your mother’s plot to put her son on the throne?”

His head snaps up and I can feel the intensity of his gaze. His silence is proof enough of their guilt.

"When were you planning on telling me? Or did you truly believe I would not find out?”

“No, I knew that you would eventually, and when you did, I hoped that you would ask me about it.”

“Then I am asking you.”

He leans his head back against the chair, and when he next speaks, his voice sounds impossibly weary. “My mother got it into her head that what our country needs is a duke, not a duchess. She does not believe that Anne will be able to weather the current crises with both France and the barons. Instead of risking the duchy going to one of them, Madame believes it should go to one of the duke’s sons, bastard or no.”

There have been bastard dukes before, but not in a long while. "Why François and not you?”

“Can you not guess?”

“I can, but I want to hear it from you.”

“Because I refused.” His words are clipped.

"Which is why you and she are estranged.”

"Exactly so.” He sighs and runs his hand through his hair.

“Then why did you not tell me?”

“And seal their death warrant? Perhaps I am not as coldblooded in my pursuit of justice as you and the convent. Until I understood your full orders and how you would act, I did not dare tell you.” There is a moment of silence, then he speaks again “So, are they marqued for death by your god?”

“No,” I say. “Not that I can see.”

He lets out a long slow breath. “Then how did you learn of their plans?”

“The French envoy, Gisors. He not only tried to purchase my loyalty tonight but also warned me that once your family’s plans were known, I would be a pariah at court.”

Duval swears. “If nothing else, this should prove to you how badly I want Anne crowned duchess. Aside from the love I bear her, it is also the only way I can be certain my mother and François will put aside their ill-conceived schemes.”

“But I have only your word that that is so.”

There is an impatient whisper of velvet as he leans forward. "We must call a truce, you and I. If we are constantly at each other’s throats, it will serve only our enemies, not our duchess. I would ask that you set aside your abbess’s suspicions and listen to your own heart, for even though you pretend you don’t have one, I know that you do. I ask not for my sake, but for my sister’s.

“D’Albret presses her to honor her father’s promises to him; the Holy Roman emperor wants her hand but does not have the troops to secure her realm once she agrees to that betrothal. The French are breathing down our necks, and there are very few options open to her that do not either plunge her country into war or consign her to a marriage too horrible to consider. If we do not work together, we further reduce those options.”