All the symptoms fit: rapid pulse, dilated pupils, dry fever, disorientation, paranoia, numbness in the extremities, and, in the end, death.
Crunard has used my own poisons to destroy Duval. He had access to this very trunk when he traveled with my things when they were sent from the convent. A lock is easy enough to pick.
With shaking hands I return the vials to the trunk and lock it. I push to my feet and try to think. If it is Crunard, then to what end? Did he not think that the convent would issue the order? Or is it more than that? It is possible he has been feeding the convent false information all along, but again, to what end? And while I do not fully understand how the marques work, I know they are more complex than I — and perhaps even the convent — first thought. It would be easy enough for him to feed us information that supports his claims and withhold information that does not. when my own reports contradict his, how easy it is to dismiss them as the work of an unskilled novice.
But how do I tell the reverend mother that?
She will not like the suggestion that he has used her for his own ends. Nor am I certain she will believe me. even so, I fetch a parchment and quill and do the unthinkable. I write a letter to the abbess to tell her why she is mistaken and that her liaison has given her false intelligence.
when I have poured out all my suspicions regarding Crunard, I seal the missive, then begin a second one. This message is for Annith and begs her to write me with the antidote for Arduinna’s snare. Sister Serafina must have something, some antidote she can send. If she does, Annith will surely find it. I also inquire after Sister Vereda’s health, wanting to know if she is still having visions.
when I finish, I approach Vanth’s cage. He is sleeping with his head tucked under his wing and is sorely put out at being wakened. I mumble an apology and secure the notes, then carry him to the window. “Fly fast, if you please. Much depends on this.” Then I toss him out the window. He spreads his wings and rises into the gray sky, and I watch until I can no longer see him.
That done, I dress quickly. There is one possible antidote I know of: a bezoar stone. I am not certain if it will work on poison passed through the skin, but it is worth a try. And there is only one person I can think of who might possess one.
It is nearly a half a day’s ride to the herbwitch’s cottage and even though I have never come this particular way, I have no trouble finding it. I have feared the old woman for most of my life. when I was younger and Mama had first sent me to her for tansy to treat my sister’s fever, I had hidden nearby, crying for hours. I was certain the woman would take one look at me, know that her poison had failed, and finish the job then and there.
Of course, she had not. She had merely beckoned me from the shadows, coaxing me with a bit of honeycomb dripping with golden honey — a rare treat I could not resist. when at last I believed she would not harm me, I had managed to stutter out what I had come for, which she gave to me and then sent me on my way. I had believed that she did not recognize me, and so my fear had left me.
But clearly I had been wrong, for it was she who came for me years later and whisked me away to my new life.
When I reach the small, squat cottage surrounded by a riotous garden, I dismount, tie the horse to the fence post, then open the gate. A merry little bell sounds, making me jump. I weave my way through the hawthorn hedge and the waist-high bushes of lavender until I reach the front door. It opens before I can knock and the herbwitch herself peers up at me through her rheumy eyes. “Still hovering, after all these years?” she asks. “Come in before you let all the warm air out.”
The cottage hasn’t changed much, nor has she. Her hair is still white, flyaway strands of thistledown; her eyes perhaps a bit more faded, her skin more wrinkled. Herbs hang from the ceiling, their sharp, peppery, sweet scents assailing my senses. Three small cauldrons bubble on the hearth, and all manner of clay beakers, pots, and copper dishes cover her tables. It is surprisingly similar to Sister Serafina’s workshop.
"What brings Death’s handmaiden to my humble door?” she asks, not looking the least bit humble. Mayhap she even gloats somewhat.
I open my mouth, then hesitate. It was she who sent me to the convent three years ago. will she know that by seeking an antidote, I am going against their wishes? will she care?
Ignoring my gaping silence, she begins to speak. “I always expected to see you again someday, wanting to know about your mother, no doubt.”
My mother. It is not until she says the word that I realize I am hungry for such knowledge. what had caused my mother to lie down with Death in the first place? Had she been forced? Or had He taken her by the hand and led her away from her harsh life for a few stolen moments of . . . what? Pleasure? Love? Respite? what could Death offer someone such as my mother? And if it had been love, why had my mother sought to expel me from her womb?
The old woman takes a seat near the fireplace and waves her gnarled hand for me to follow. “The first time I saw your mother was when your father — no, not your real father, but that lout she married — brought her to me. He marched her up to my doorstep, holding her arm so tight she had bruises for two weeks after. Gave her arnica root for that, by the bye.”
She settles back into her chair, savoring her hungry audience. I do not imagine she gets one all that often. “And he demanded I do something to expel the babe in her womb.”
My mother hadn’t wanted to get rid of me, then. It had not been her choice. Some great, dark weight lifts from me.
The herbwitch shrugs. “I thought about faking something, but he stood there and watched me mix the brew himself, asking after each thing I put in. I soon realized that if I gave him a false potion, he’d be back again, like as not. Best for everyone to get it over with as soon as possible.
“But in spite of my best efforts, it didn’t work. That’s when I knew you were god sired. Two weeks later, he was back pounding at my door, demanding another dose. But Matrona’s curse is harsh and had already sickened your mother almost to the point of death. I told him I would not have the killing of her laid at my feet and that considering who her lover had been, he should think twice about inviting Him back.” She turns her watery eyes from me to the fire, and I can see the flames reflected in them. “Your mother did all she could to protect you from that man’s wrath. Reminded him often of who your true sire was. But even with that, you did not have a smooth time of it.”
We are both quiet and stare into the flames, but we see very different things, no doubt. I struggle to adjust to the world reformed. The knowledge that my mother had not hated me shifts everything. It is as if all my life I have been looking at the world through a pane of thick, distorted glass, and now that glass has shattered, and I can see clearly. “How did you come to find me the day” — I cannot bring myself to say the day of my wedding— “the day my father sold me to Guillo?”
“I had promised your mother I would try to keep an eye on you. Although it was unfair of her to ask, me being the only herbwitch for miles around and too busy besides. But I did what I could.”
“It was you who had me sent to the convent.”
"What is the convent to you?”
She turns her head sharply to me. “You think those nuns are the only ones who know Death? what do you think I do all day besides dance with Him, bartering for a life here, a few extra months there? Chasing Him from this old man’s lungs or that young boy’s fevered brain? No, the convent is not the only one to partner with Death.”
That the dance goes two ways is not something I have ever considered. “So you are Death’s handmaiden too,” I murmur.
She looks surprised, then cackles in delight. “Aye,” she says, sitting up somewhat straighter. “I guess I am at that.” “But you do not serve the convent?” I ask, just to be certain. “No, but it was the only place I thought you’d be safe.” I weigh the risk carefully, but I do not have any choice. wanting to avoid her sharp gaze, I study the back of my hands. “Do you have a bezoar stone?”
The herbwitch gives me a sly look. “Surely the convent has antidotes for their poisons.”
"We spent our energies creating poisons, not antidotes, and while we did have bezoar stones in case any of the girls ingested some, I do not have one with me now.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see her frown. “So now you step outside the circle of the convent and begin your own dance with Death,” she says, and I curse her old eyes that see too much. She rocks back in her chair. “Alas, I have no such stone. Never seen one of them, truth be told.”
I ask her if she knows an antidote for Arduinna’s snare, but she has never heard of it. Furthermore, she has no antidotes at all for poisons absorbed through the skin, as purgatives do not work in those cases. My shoulders sag as my last hope crumbles to ash. Seeing my distress, the old woman pats me on the arm as she bids me goodbye. “It is a dark god you serve, daughter, but remember, He is not without mercy.”
As I travel back to Guérande, the herbwitch’s words roll around in my head like loose pebbles, clattering and bumping, shaping and smoothing. I walked into that cottage as one person but left as another. There is now a thin blanket between me and the harsh, cold abandonment I have felt ever since I was old enough to understand what my mother did to me in her belly.
My mind flows over old memories. with this new bit of knowledge, many of my mother’s small gestures and comforts are suddenly clear. They were expressions of the very love I thought she had denied me. They were not simply duties borne but small rebellions of her own as she thwarted her husband in the only way she could.
Even though one burden has been lifted, I return to the palace exhausted and defeated and out of ideas. I pray that I will not meet anyone on the way to my chambers, and I do not. Once I am in my room, I see a crow sitting outside the window. My heart clutches in my chest. My message of that morning cannot have reached the convent yet. Is it new orders from the abbess? A reprieve?
When I open the shutter, the crow flies in. He is a large fellow with a crooked left wing. Sybella’s crow. He is tame only for her, so it takes me a moment to wrest the message from his leg. when I do, I see that it is indeed Sybella’s writing, and I am filled with foreboding.
I tear the message open and read the words scrawled within.
Rieux and d’Albret have taken Nantes. They entered the city with men-at-arms, seized the duchess’s palace, and manned the ramparts. We are besieged from within.
My heart ceases its racing and gives one slow, painful thud in my chest. The very men who are supposed to support and guide our duchess have risen up in open rebellion.
The implications of this are huge. Nantes was the duchess’s fallback position, the biggest, most fortified city in Brittany. Her home. Indeed, she has only been waiting for the plague to leave the area so she could return.
But now it is taken from her. And without a sword raised or shot fired. The only piece of good news I can wrestle from the wreckage is that with Rieux removed to Nantes, there is no longer any doubt that Crunard must be the traitor.
Crunard is alone when the guard ushers me into his chambers. I drop a respectful curtsy. “My lord, I have received urgent news that I must give the duchess and request you accompany me, as she will need your guidance once she has learned what I have to tell her.” I had considered waiting to discuss the news with Duval before taking it to the duchess or her council, but I do not know how quickly we must act. Plus, it is hard to say what condition Duval will be in by this evening.
“Have you news of Duval?” Crunard asks sharply. I meet his eyes steadily. “No, milord, I am afraid not.” A spasm of irritation crosses his face. "Well, you have piqued my interest. Of course I will accompany you to the solar.” "We should send for Captain Dunois to meet us there, my lord.”
Crunard raises one gray shaggy eyebrow but sends a page to fetch the captain of the armies.
Captain Dunois reaches the solar just as we do. The duchess takes one look at our grim faces and dismisses her ladies from the room. "What is it?” she asks, clasping her hands together, as if praying it will not be as bad as she fears.
Chancellor Crunard smiles wryly and shrugs. “It is not I who called this meeting but Demoiselle Rienne.”
Everyone’s eyes turn to me, and it is all I can do not to twitch and squirm out of my skin. I have been trained in subterfuge and concealment, not this standing out in the open like the town crier. To calm myself, I address my words to the duchess. “I have received grave news, Your Grace. I have learned that Marshal Rieux and Count d’Albret have taken Nantes.”
There is a moment of stunned silence, then Captain Dunois asks, “Are you certain?”
“How have you learned this?” Crunard asks, and I cannot help but wonder if he is behind this newest disaster.
“The ways of Mortain are both glorious and mysterious. I may not divulge how I know, but it has most definitely happened. If you do not believe me, send a scout to verify my claim.”
Crunard looks to Dunois, who gives a sharp nod. “Consider it done.”
“If it is so,” Crunard says, “this is well and truly a disaster.” He looks visibly shaken, so either he is a superb liar or this is not part of whatever game he is playing.
“Marshal Rieux?” the duchess says to me, her brown eyes filled with distress. “Are you certain?” she whispers.
Meeting her gaze, I nod solemnly. The man who was appointed by her father to guard her has just betrayed her instead.
She draws in a long, shaky breath, then asks, "What does this do to our position?”