But at what cost to the duchess, I wonder, as I watch all the color drain from her young face. Duval’s mention of the man’s six former wives rustles through my head, as does Nemours’s disturbing whispers of his cousin’s marriage to a d’Albret.

There is a disturbance in the middle of the room as the French emissary Gisors steps forward. The crowd opens up around him, much as it would if a wolf were emerging from its lair. “It seems to me,” he says into all that silence, “that this would be a good time to remind you of the Treaty of Verger, which clearly states that Anne may not marry without France’s approval. I’m afraid her marriage to Count d’Albret is out of the question. She is a ward of the French Crown and thus everything must be negotiated through us.”

And praise the saints for that small mercy, I think.

“How did he get in?” Duval asks no one in particular. To Beast and de Lornay, he says, “Get him out of here.” with grim, satisfied smiles they begin making their way through the throng of nobles. Before they can reach Gisors, however, he turns and heads to the back door. Before him, the crowd moves aside quickly, eager to get out of his path before de Lornay or Beast catch up to him.

It is as elegant and unhurried a retreat as one can imagine, but it is a retreat nonetheless.

“And see that he is confined to his chambers!” Duval calls out after them. By the way the councilors on the dais snap their heads around to stare at Duval, I am guessing this is a great overstep of his duties or a disregard of protocol.

D’Albret moves smoothly into the breach created by Gisors’s departure. Ignoring Anne, he speaks once more to the nobles. “If you wish to keep your independence, you must support my marriage with the duchess. I will keep you safe from the French.” He smiles, but there is no warmth or humor it in. “Me and my five thousand troops.”

He turns to face the duchess and council, his voice growing hard. “But if you do not support this marriage, I will have no choice but to hold the house of Montfort in breach of contract and will use all of my considerable resources to get by force what I could not gain by reason.”

The room explodes in an uproar. I lean forward slightly, hoping that the count will now bear a marque. But there is nothing. I turn my attention to the dais, hoping that a marque will at least appear on whoever called this meeting and set this trap for the duchess, but again, nothing.

Chancellor Crunard rises to his feet, his cheeks flushed with anger. “You are but one of many who was promised the duchess’s hand in marriage; there is no way we can honor all such agreements. Indeed, if we were to take them in the order they were made, yours would be the fifth in line.”

D’Albret’s face is expressionless, but his eyes burn with an intensity that is most disturbing. “But do all those others have an army of five thousand just outside your borders?”

The blood drains from Chancellor Crunard’s face. Satisfied at the effect his words have had, d’Albret turns on his heel and quits the chamber.

The newly adjourned courtiers erupt in excited, nervous voices. Crunard motions for the guards and they throw open the large doors at the back of the chamber so the nobles may begin filing out of the room. I do not have a clear plan, but unable to help myself, I move to follow d’Albret. I am like a small boat moving against the tide of the crowd, but I ignore the bumps and stares that come my way, my attention never leaving my target.

A practical knight at arms opens the small door to the side of the chamber in order to allow some people out that way. D’Albret moves in that direction, and so I too begin making for that door, silently cursing the laggards and dullards who stand between me and d’Albret. I cannot accept that Mortain has not seen fit to marque d’Albret for his threat — for after all, he is half Breton and owes some allegiance to the rightful duchess.

When d’Albret steps out into the hall beyond, he is surrounded by nearly a score of his own men-at-arms. Merde. I cannot take on that many armed men.

“Demoiselle Rienne!” There is a tug on my skirt and I glance down to find a young page. "What is it?” I ask.

“Chancellor Crunard requests you attend him immediately.”

I cast one last frustrated glance at d’Albret’s retreating back, then give my full attention to the boy. “Did he say what it was about?”

“No, milady, but please come.”

Hoping that the chancellor has received news from the convent, I let the boy lead me to his chamber. The page knocks once on the door, then opens it. If Chancellor Crunard is ruffled by the disastrous estates meeting, he hides it well. “Come in, demoiselle,” he says as the page scampers away.

His desk is nearly as large as a bed and has a neat stack of correspondence on one side and three maps on the other; there is also a small pot of ink and a handful of quills. He does not offer me a seat. Instead, he rises and moves to the window. After a long moment of silence, he turns to face me, his expression impassive. "Where were you hurrying off to?”

I meet his gaze steadily. Only my promise to Duval of utmost secrecy prevents me from telling him of the duchess’s newest suitor and the hope he offers her. “To see if I could convince Mortain to give me permission to remove Count d’Albret.”

He blinks in surprise. whatever he expected me to say, it was not this. His face relaxes and I detect a glint of humor in his eyes. “By all means, search d’Albret for one of those marques. Then we can be done with him and move on to equally pressing problems.”

while I am surprised to learn that Crunard knows of the marques — he is even more in the abbess’s confidence than I realized — I am pleased that we are in agreement on this. He turns back to the window. “Have you learned anything further of Duval and his true motives?” he asks.

“No, my lord. I have found nothing to warrant your or the abbess’s suspicions.” I am aware that I must tread carefully here. “He seems most devoted to the duchess, and she seems to trust him above all others.”

“And does that not seem highly suspect to you?” he asks. “That she would trust her bastard brother above all her others? It speaks to me of undue influence.”

“Or perhaps he just puts her interests before his own,” I suggest, thinking of Madame Dinan and Marshal Rieux.

Crunard’s head whips around and he fixes me with a piercing stare. “As do we all.”

“I meant no disrespect, my lord, only that Duval appears to have her best interests at heart.”

“And you trust his word on this?”

“No, my lord. I trust my own eyes and ears. everything I have seen and heard speaks of his absolute loyalty to his sister.”

“But is that not the best way to avert suspicion? To profess deep and abiding loyalty?”

I do not know what to say to this. I have no words with which to convince Chancellor Crunard of what I feel in my heart to be true.

“Nevertheless, it is not wise to place too much trust in Duval.” His voice drips with contempt. “I know him to be an oath breaker.”

I bite back a gasp. That is no small thing. "What oath did he break?” I ask before I can stop myself.

The chancellor brings his steepled fingers to his lips and studies me. “The one he made to his saint,” he says. “I was there when he broke it, saw his blasphemy with my own eyes.” when I say nothing more, he nods his head curtly. “You are dismissed. Inform me as soon as you hear anything from the convent.”

For a moment, the briefest moment, I consider telling him of the wonderful new possibility Duval has found for his sister, but something holds me back. what if the chancellor fears that I, like the duchess, have fallen under Duval’s spell and sends me back to the convent? Instead, I promise him I will keep him informed, and then take my leave.

If the duchess is still up to the task, it is time for her to meet Nemours.

Chapter Twenty-seven

The duchess has withdrawn to her solar, surrounded by her ladies of the court. Her younger sister, Isabeau, is well enough to join them and reclines on a couch that has been pulled next to Anne’s chair. The atmosphere in the room is tense and nervous, everyone’s mind on the claims and accusations heard in this morning’s meeting. even though the duchess’s face is pale and the skin around her eyes drawn tight, she greets me as if we are old friends. “Demoiselle Rienne! Come join us and let us see your pretty handiwork.”

Would that I had thought to warn the duchess of my inept fingers. “Thank you, Your Grace. You do me great honor, but my handiwork is not worthy of such compliments.”

She pats the chair next to her. “Come. Sit. It cannot be that bad.”

From behind her sister’s shoulder, Isabeau gives me an impish grin, and I wonder if her sister has confided in her. I return the smile and take my place next to the duchess.

"What are you working on, demoiselle?” she asks.

"Well.” I pull the basket onto my lap and begin to rummage through it, looking for a suitable project. “Ah, here it is. An altar cloth for milord Duval, to thank him for sponsoring me here at court.” I stumble painfully through my words, like a toddler learning to walk. I have less talent for small talk than I do for embroidery.

The duchess and Isabeau make a kind fuss over my embroidery pattern while the other ladies eye me with distrust. To them, I am nothing but an interloper, a cuckoo bird who has come to nudge them from the duchess’s favor and take their spot.

At last everyone turns back to their needlework, and I am left to blunder on with my own. As I try to decide how best to approach it, the duchess leans close so that only I will hear her words. “It will cause the linen no pain if you stick it, demoiselle.”

I bite down on a small bubble of laughter.

“Have you no practice at needlework?” she asks.

“Only with a much larger needle,” I mutter.

She smiles grimly at my joke. “Ah. Perhaps we can find some larger pieces for you to practice on.”

I incline my head solemnly. “Any project you desire, Your Grace.”

Then she winks at me and adjusts her arms so that I may watch her hands at their work. Biting my lip, I study the angle at which she applies her needle, the twist of her wrist as she brings the thread through, the easy rhythm with which she sets the needle to the piece again.

I turn to try it on my own work. I am able to poke the needle through the cloth well enough, but when I try to pull the thread through, it snarls and knots so that I have to set the needle aside and untangle the mess. I catch Madame Dinan watching me with her cold eyes, a hundred questions lurking in their depths. Angling my shoulder to block her view of my clumsy work, I pray for the hour of the chapel visit to arrive.

In the end, I manage well enough, but I am heartily glad when the hourglass runs empty. The duchess notes the direction of my gaze and smiles. “Demoiselle, I would grant you a boon and free you from your embroidery so you may accompany me to chapel. Perhaps you can pray for more nimble fingers.”

“Your Grace,” Madame Dinan says sharply. “I do not think — ”

“And you, Madame Dinan, may sit with Isabeau,” the duchess says. Ignoring her governess’s raised eyebrows, she rises to her feet.

“Thank you, Your Grace.” My thanks are heartfelt enough as I set aside my embroidery, only too gladly follow her from the solar.

Once alone in the hallways, we exchange glances and some of the strain leaves her face. even so, I am compelled to ask, “Are you sure you wish to do this today?”

“Now more than ever,” she says, her voice firm. “The only path open to me is one I cannot take. It is weak of me, I know, but . . .” Her voice falters and she turns stricken eyes on me. “I cannot,” she whispers. “D’Albret terrifies me.”

“I do not blame you, Your Grace. He terrifies me as well. No one should ask such a sacrifice from you.”

She is somewhat comforted by my words, and we walk in silence a short way before she speaks again. “You have seen Lord Nemours, yes? How did you find him?” She is every bit the twelve-year-old girl eager to meet her new suitor.

"Were you not betrothed to him once before?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Yes, but I have not ever seen him.”

"We-ell, he is quite old, with a long white beard and crooked back. And his teeth are yellow.”

Her look of horror turns to one of exasperation when she realizes I am joking, and then she laughs. “You are as bad a tease as Duval,” she says. But my jest has worked. when we reach the chapel, the remnant of her laughter lingers in her eyes and plays about her lips.

The chapel is small and nearly empty, and I am pleased to see the nine niches under the crucifix honoring the old saints. The only other supplicant in the chapel wears a dark green cloak with the hood drawn close around his head. At our approach, he rises to his feet and pulls the hood from his face, revealing the red-gold hair and handsome face of Fedric of Nemours. He and the duchess stare at each other for a long moment, and then he gives an elaborate, courtly bow.

“Lord Nemours?” she says, a small spark of hope lighting her face. “You may wait by the door,” she murmurs to me, then lifts her skirts and joins Nemours in a pew at the front of the church.

I take up position at the door, folding my hands and trying to look as if I am praying rather than pining of curiosity.

Their voices are but soft murmurs, and Anne’s manner is somewhat awkward at first, but Nemours quickly puts the duchess at ease. Once I see their heads draw together and hear soft laughter, I turn my thoughts to my own plans.

Chancellor Crunard’s words still echo in my ears: By all means, search d’Albret for one of those marques. why had I not realized that I must search d’Albret before I can be certain there is no marque upon him?