He points to a larger cell. “In there, my lord.”
Duval leads me inside. If the guard thinks this odd, he is wise enough to keep it to himself.
The hellequin’s body has been laid on the floor, the crossbow bolt removed from his neck. No one has thought to remove the ugly red and black mask. I kneel on the hard stone floor and gently lift it from his face. what strikes me most about the man is his ordinariness. He is neither handsome nor plain, looks neither highborn nor of peasant stock. It is as if he is a blank canvas, waiting for an artist and his paints to bring him to life.
Duval comes to stand beside me and stares down at the body. “Do you know him?”
“No, my lord. I have never seen him before.”
Duval frowns as he ponders this. "Where did he come from then?”
“I will do my best to find out.”
It takes him a moment to realize my intent. “Is it safe, do you think? with someone as dangerous as this?”
even though his concern pleases me, I shrug, pretending a confidence I do not feel. “Anyone could have sent him. we are no closer to knowing who moves against the duchess than we were a sennight ago. what other path is open to us? Besides, he is dead now, what danger can he be?”
"Even so,” he says, his face grim. “You will be careful, Ismae.”
“Always, my lord.” I give him a reassuring smile, then turn back to the dead hellequin. I close my eyes, take a steadying breath, then slowly lift the barrier between life and death. At first, there is nothing, so I step more fully into death. Still, there is nothing but a great, black abyss and then I realize that the hellequin has no soul with which to communicate — I feel only a gaping void. Is that the price of acting without Mortain’s blessing? To be emptied of our divine spark?
There is a slow, deep tug from the void. To my horror, the darkness reaches out to me, embracing me and pulling me into its nothingness. I struggle to resist, but its grip is firm, unyielding. It is like night falling, only darker, blacker, more absolute. And so very chilling. Just as one’s skin sticks to ice atop a pond, so does my soul cleave to this freezing emptiness. In no time at all, the normal chill of death disappears, and in its place I feel numbness. emptiness.
Hands are on my face, slapping gently at my cheeks, a voice murmuring. I feel a faint trickle of warmth begin to work its way into my body. with immense effort, I open my eyes.
Duval is kneeling beside me, his eyes wild with concern. I shiver uncontrollably. “Praise God!” he says, then hauls me up into his arms and holds me close against his chest.
His heart beats strongly against my ribs, its rapid rate nearly matching my own. warmth pours from his body into mine.
“There is color in your face again,” he says. Indeed, I can feel the blood moving under my skin once more. He places a hand on my cheek and turns my face to his, searching to be certain I am all right.
I give him a reassuring smile that does nothing to ease my own dread. I have seen my own destiny now and know precisely what will happen to me if I step outside Mortain’s grace.
The corridors are empty as Duval escorts me to his chambers; all the feasters and revelers having returned to their own rooms. Once we reach his apartments, he tucks me up in a chair near the fire and orders hot spiced wine to warm me. Between the fire and Duval’s cloak, I finally stop shivering and am able to hold the wine when it arrives. I take a sip, savoring the rich, sweet taste on my tongue. "What is our next move?”
"We must finalize the betrothal agreement with the Holy Roman emperor and find a way to get the entire council to agree to it.”
My mind goes immediately to Madame Dinan and Marshal Rieux. "What if they will not?”
“Then we must get Anne crowned so she may act in her own sovereign interest.”
“Do you have a plan to evict Gisors from the palace so he will not interfere with her coronation?”
Duval snorts. “I am still puzzling that part out,” he says, then takes a sip of wine.
"Why can’t you simply evict him? escort him out and bar the door behind him? At least long enough to have Anne crowned?”
“The French regent has plenty of other spies who will inform her soon enough, and they will undoubtedly use that as an excuse to invade.”
There is a knock on the chamber door just then. Duval and I exchange a glance, then he goes to answer it.
It is Captain Dunois, looking uncomfortable as he nods to Duval. “I must speak with you. Alone,” he adds, shooting me a glance. Duval waves his hand in dismissal. “She will only listen at the door.”
Captain Dunois’s lips twitch ever so slightly. “The council continued to meet after you left,” he explains. “The news is not good. They feel that, whether by accident or by design, your counsel and influence have placed the duchess’s life in grave danger.”
If Duval feels any pain at being stabbed in the back by the council, he does not show it on his face. I set my wine down, afraid I might spill it or hurl it into the fireplace in outrage. “On what do they base this accusation?”
Dunois looks even more uncomfortable. “On the attempt made on the duchess’s life this evening.”
“How is that Duval’s fault?”
“I can speak for myself,” Duval mutters.
Dunois ignores us both. “They believe it is the inevitable result of all the decisions and moves Duval and Anne have made so far. Consorting with the known traitors Runnion and Martel, bringing an assassin to court without informing anyone, negotiating a betrothal agreement with Nemours without authorization that resulted in his death. And finally, encouraging the duchess to publicly repudiate one of our most powerful barons. Not to mention your mother’s planned treachery. They are still not convinced you are not part of it.”
Duval does not react to this long list of crimes until he hears the last one. "Who brought that up?” he asks sharply.
Duval buries his head in his hands, but whether in defeat or frustration, I cannot tell.
“Surely the duchess or the chancellor spoke on Duval’s behalf?” I ask. "Explained the true nature of his actions?”
“The duchess did,” Dunois replies, “but since the issue before the council was whether Duval was exercising undue influence over her, no one listened.”
“But what of Chancellor Crunard?” I ask. “It was largely his decision to install me in Duval’s household. He also knows the reason Duval was meeting with Runnion and Martel. And he voted for the Nemours alliance rather than the d’Albret one. Did he not explain any of that?”
“Not in detail, no. He argued forcefully on Duval’s behalf, but the others would not be swayed.”
"What do they plan to do?” Duval asks.
“They think to arrest you in the morning. At the chancellor’s suggestion, they are considering putting you under house arrest rather than sending you to a prison cell. we will meet first thing in the morning and take a vote.”
The rank unfairness of this has me gaping at Dunois. “How can they ignore all those who have moved so openly against the duchess but lock up Duval based on a thin web of unfounded accusations?”
Dunois glances uneasily at Duval. “Because they feel powerless and wish to take some action, even if it is not the right one.”
when Duval speaks again, it is as if he dredges up the words from some great hollow pit inside himself. “And that is the true danger,” he says. “They will think they have addressed the threat when they have not. whoever planned that attack will be free to act again.” He looks up and meets Dunois’s gaze. “Thank you for the warning.” Something solid and bittersweet passes between them.
when Dunois leaves, Duval rises to his feet and begins pacing in front of the fireplace. I wait for him to speak. when he doesn’t, I cannot keep silent. "Why did the chancellor not explain the reasons behind your actions to the council?”
Duval shrugs. “He is a wily old fox and plays a deep game. Perhaps he did not want the others to see his own hand in this and cause them to direct their accusations and suspicions his way. who would be left to see to Anne’s safety then? Or perhaps he simply knew he was greatly outnumbered and did not wish to fight a lost cause.”
“It was he who told me of your breaking your oath,” I blurt out.
Duval stops pacing and snaps up his head. “He told you of that? when?”
I shrug. "When I was in his office after the meeting of the estates.”
“And yet you said nothing.”
I shrug again, not sure I can explain my reasoning. Not even to myself. “I did not ask you because it was clear that he wanted me to.”
Duval barks out a laugh. “My little rebel.”
I ignore the small flush of pleasure his words bring. “But it also seemed to me that I had no right to ask you of your saint when I have refused to tell you anything of mine.”
The look he gives me is long and considering.
“And,” I am compelled to add, “the duchess herself told me of the incident. But later.”
“Yes, when I was tending to her after d’Albret’s attack.”
Duval’s eyes stay on mine a long moment before he pulls himself away and heads for the chessboard. I join him there and together we look down at the meager forces left protecting the white queen.
"What will happen if they remove you?” I ask.
Duval studies the board intensely, as if trying to conjure secrets from it. “Then there is no one left to speak on Anne’s behalf. Beast cannot do it, nor de Lornay. They are not high enough in rank to sway the council.”
"What of Dunois?”
“Captain Dunois is as solid and loyal a man you could ask for, but politics and treaties and the games of kingdoms are not his gifts. Leading men in battle, grasping tactics and strategies of war, those are his strengths.”
I stare at the board, thinking of the poor duchess surrounded by an entire council that has so little interest in her personal welfare. “Then you must not be taken,” I say.
“But if I leave, it ensures the same result, does it not? It is a brilliant plan they have concocted. Perhaps they even wished for Dunois to speak with me. whether I am arrested or leave of my own accord, the result is the same: I am unable to help Anne. Unless . . .” Duval begins tapping at his chin with his finger.
“Unless what?” I ask impatiently.
He turns to look at me, his face alight with a touch of unholy glee. “Unless there is some way to remove myself yet not. what if they think I have left, but I haven’t?”
“You mean to disguise yourself? Surely your face is too well known — ”
“No. I will hide under their very noses.” Duval turns to stare at the fireplace. More accurately, the wall beside the fireplace. “The castle holds a number of hidden passages. with our country so often at war, the ducal palaces have always had escape routes out of the castle.”
“You would live in those tunnels and passageways?”
He shrugs. “It cannot be worse than being imprisoned. And it will give me a chance to finalize the agreement with the Holy Roman emperor’s envoy Herr Dortmund and send him on his way with a signed contract. I fear that is Anne’s last chance if she does not wish to end up in the arms of either the French or d’Albret.”
“But will you not need the privy councilors’ signatures?”
“I will forge them. This is only the preliminary agreement anyway. Hopefully, when the final document is ready, Anne will have been crowned and can act on her own behalf.”
It is a desperate plan but the only one available to us. we spend the next several hours working out the details, trying to anticipate all the obstacles that could lay waste to our strategy.
Duval will continue to visit my chamber each night. He does not think the council will go so far as to post sentries at my bedchamber door. I am not so sure.
while he is in hiding, I will pretend to mope and will ask for my meals in my room, which will make it easy enough to set aside food for him.
"What shall I tell the others when they ask where you have gone? For Crunard, at least, will surely question me.”
“Simply tell them the truth. You do not know where I am. For you will not. I could be anywhere in the castle, I could even leave it, and no one — including you — will know where I have gone.”
“And the duchess? what will she think when you disappear?”
“The passageways open up into the royal bedchambers. I should be able to get to her. But it would not hurt for you to try to get a message to her as well.”
"What shall I tell her?”
He looks down at the chessboard again. “Tell her we no longer know whom she can trust. we will keep her apprised as we learn more.” He glances at the window, then back at me. “I have a few preparations I must make before I go.”
we are close enough to kiss, and for a long, heart-stopping moment I think that he will do just that. Instead, he runs his knuckle along my cheek. “Until tomorrow night, then.”
I shiver. “Until tomorrow.”
He turns to leave, then stops and snatches the white queen from the board, wrapping his fingers around it as if to keep her safe.
It is not surprising that I cannot sleep that night. I lie awake and think of Duval crawling around the hidden tunnels of the castle like a rat trapped in a wall. I think of the duchess abandoned by every one of the guardians her father appointed for her. But mostly I think of the council, of Chancellor Crunard and Marshal Rieux, and wonder who is telling the truth and who is lying.