Dunois’s thick brows draw down in a scowl. “The chancellor told them that?”
“Yes, but there is more.” I spend the next hour laying out all my evidence against Chancellor Crunard: the footpad attack on us, the signet ring, the death of Nemours, and the outright lies he told the convent.
when I am done, Dunois sits silent and brooding for a long time. At last he shakes his head. "While I can see how your reasoning has led you to believe this, I cannot help but feel there is some other explanation we are missing.”
“But what of the signet ring? Surely that is proof.”
Dunois rises to his feet. “It is strange, I’ll grant you that, but proof of treason? And on such a grand scale?” He shakes his head again. “I cannot bring myself to believe that of the chancellor. what does Duval think?”
“Duval’s mind was too consumed by the poison Crunard has given him to use reason.”
His head snaps up at this. “Poison? Duval is being poisoned?”
“Yes, my lord. Yet another betrayal to lay at the chancellor’s feet.”
His face turns to chalk. “I thought he had merely gone into hiding.”
“It is quite advanced,” I tell him gently. “He cannot move his legs. The paralysis will move to his lungs next, then his heart. Perhaps it already has.”
The silence is filled with the crackle and hiss of the fire.
“Sweet Jesu!” Dunois says, scrubbing his face with his hands. “If what you are saying is true, we cannot return to Guérande should this gambit fail. And Isabeau . . .” He looks up at me, his face haunted.
“You make certain this gambit does not fail,” I tell him. “I will think of something to free Isabeau once we have finished here.”
The next day is Sunday, and the duchess spends the morning in prayer, but I am far too restless for such pursuits. I cross to the window and stare out at the rich woodland that surrounds the hunting lodge, wondering if my letter has reached the convent and, if it has, if the abbess believes me. I wish bitterly that Annith had written to me before I left. even if she has learned the answers I seek, Vanth will never find me here.
Like a tongue poking at a painful tooth, my mind goes back to Duval. At our parting — should I have done something different? And what of Crunard? He has always been suspicious of Duval’s disappearance. will he come looking for him once I am gone?
Or perhaps Duval will die of the poison before Crunard finds him.
That thought is like pouring salt into a fresh wound and prods me to grab my cloak and go outside. Le Palais is on a ridge that overlooks the Loire River and the valley below. The chill wind whips at my hair and tugs at my cloak as I stare down at the city ramparts. what are those traitors plotting? I do not trust them, and I do not like Anne being this close to whatever they have planned.
I hear a step behind me, and I turn to find the duchess bundled up in her ermine-lined cloak, picking her way along the path. “Shouldn’t you be resting, Your Grace?”
“I cannot. My mind will not hold still.” She comes to stand next to me and together we stare down into the valley, to the imposing high walls of Nantes and the blue and yellow banners flying from the ramparts.
“I was born there, you know,” the duchess says. “The night I came into this world, my father carried me to those very ramparts and held me aloft so I could behold my kingdom and so his subjects could behold their next ruler.” She sounds bemused, as if she cannot quite understand how she came to be here while her enemies are there.
“That gate,” she says. “See? That far one? That is the very gate through which Duval carried Isabeau and me to safety nearly eight years ago.” Her voice catches in her throat. “I wish he were here,” she whispers fiercely. “If ever I had need of his counsel, it is now.” She sends me a stricken look. “I had thought he would ride out and meet us on the road. Dunois will not honor the call for his arrest; surely he knows this. why did he not come, Ismae?”
As I stare into her unflinching brown eyes, I find I am unable to keep secrets from her any longer. It is exactly what her other advisors do, and I do not wish to repeat their mistakes. “He is ill, Your Grace. Gravely ill.”
Her hand flies to her mouth. “The plague?”
I shake my head. “He is being poisoned.”
Her eyes grow round with horror and she takes a step back. “Poison?” she says faintly.
“Yes, but not at my hand,” I rush to assure her.
"Why did no one tell me of this sooner?” she demands.
“Because he did not wish for you to know, and I was hoping to find an antidote or cure before having to give you such dire news.”
“But I take it you have found no cure.”
“I have not.”
She is silent as she stares down at the city below us, gathering her courage to ask the next question. “Is he dead?”
“Very likely he is by now, as he was at death’s door when we left Guérande.” Remembering how I left him fills me with a nearly overwhelming urge to grab the nearest horse and ride back to Guérande to protect his unconscious body from Crunard’s further machinations.
She turns on me then, her voice harsh with anger. "Who would do such a thing?”
I take a deep breath. “Chancellor Crunard, Your Grace.” And then I tell her all the ways her most trusted guardian has betrayed her.
The next day, Anne sends an officer to Nantes to request that she be allowed to enter her own city so that she may talk with Marshal Rieux. She chooses de Lornay to carry her message into the city. He is well liked for his beauty and smooth manner, and she hopes he will turn the people of Nantes to her cause.
We ride out with de Lornay as far as a small ridge that overlooks Nantes. From this vantage point we watch him ride down to the city gates. “You don’t think they will slay him unheard, do you?” I ask Beast.
His brows fly up in mock surprise. “Do not tell me you’ve developed a soft spot for our Lord Dandy.”
“Not at all,” I say coolly. “I merely want to be certain the duchess’s message has a chance of being heard.”
“Ah,” Beast says, but he is not fooled. “Since Rieux and d’Albret hope to use Nantes as leverage to force the duchess to accept their terms, I think they will be more than willing to speak with de Lornay.”
Just as Beast predicted, one of the city gates opens and a small party rides out to meet de Lornay and the two archers that have accompanied him. It is a distressingly short meeting.
when de Lornay returns there is thunder in his eyes, and my heart sinks. “Marshal Rieux will not discuss terms with me. He insists on meeting the duchess face to face and will speak only with her. He suggests noon tomorrow. we are to meet him on the field below. we may escort her as far as the field, but only the duchess and ten archers will be allowed into the city. Neither Captain Dunois nor the Baron de waroch nor myself are to accompany her. Neither is the assassin.”
It takes a moment to realize he means me.
“I do not like it,” Captain Dunois says at once. “It stinks too much of a trap.”
“Then we will just have to make sure he does not catch us unawares,” the duchess says. “Tell Marshal Rieux I will meet with him then.”
The next morning dawns crisp and clear. Captain Dunois was afraid that the mists would move in and obscure our view of the city, thus hiding any treachery Rieux or d’Albret have planned, for he is sure that they are planning something. But the gods have smiled on us in their choice of weather for today. The duchess has her heart set on speaking to Marshal Rieux.
She has even decided to apologize to him for appearing to dismiss his counsel. It is a big step for her, but she wants him to see that she is willing to bend on some things.
Our entire party rides with her into the valley. we stop a short way from the city walls and wait. At noon exactly, the city gates open, and Marshal Rieux rides out with an escort of four men-at-arms. we all draw around the duchess, waiting to be certain it is not a trap. when no more riders appear at the gate, we give way so that Anne and the marshal may talk.
Marshal Rieux reins his horse in a few feet from the duchess. “Your Grace.”
“If you will leave all but ten unarmed archers behind, I will
be happy to escort you into the city.”
Dunois has made her promise she will not enter the city without her full guard in attendance. “But it is my city, Marshal, my men, my home. I will be received in the manner befitting a duchess, not snuck in like some thief in the night.”
“Then we are at an impasse, Your Grace.” He starts to turn away, but her clear young voice stops him.
“Did you know the French have crossed our borders?”
He cocks his head to the side. “Hopefully, that will spur you to come to your senses and reconcile with Count d’Albret.”
Captain Dunois gives a snort of disgust, but the duchess holds out a hand to silence him. “Did you know they have taken Ancenis?”
Marshal Rieux slowly wheels his horse around. “Ancenis?”
The duchess nods. “At this very minute, they occupy your own holding.”
Her announcement has the desired effect. Shock registers on Marshal Rieux’s face, then disbelief. “You lie.”
“Marshal Rieux! Remember who you are speaking to,” Captain Dunois reminds him.
"Why should I believe this claim?” the marshal asks.
"Why would we lie?” the duchess says. “It is easy enough for you to confirm. Send a rider, if you like.”
Rieux hesitates a moment, then nods at two of his men. They peel away from the party and turn their horses toward the road for Ancenis. “It will still gain you nothing,” he says, but his voice rings less certain.
Captain Dunois spurs his horse forward. “Jean!” he says. “Surely you do not mean to let the French benefit from this rift between you and the duchess.”
The marshal says something I cannot hear, for the two men have drawn closer now and speak in low, urgent voices. I cannot say what compels me to look away from these fierce negotiations, but something does, some small flicker of premonition, or perhaps it is Saint Mortain Himself whispering in my ear, saying, There. Look there. However it happens, my gaze is drawn to the ramparts of the keep and I see a slender shadow detach itself from the stone wall. The slim figure walks to the very edge of the ramparts, so close that I fear she will throw herself off the crenelation to her death.
But no. She stays just inside the edge of the stone and looks out across the river and the fields and the fighting men. At me.
even from so far, I feel when our gazes meet, and in that moment I know that it is Sybella. The furtiveness of her movements tells me she has put herself in serious danger by being there. when she is sure she has my attention, she draws her arm across her body, then flings it out, as if she were throwing something. Scattering seed to the wind, perhaps? Or casting crumbs on the water of the moat? I glance down at the moat to see if there is some clue there. That is when I see the postern gate open and two columns of troops pour out. Troops clad in blue and yellow tabards. D’Albret’s colors.
I look back up at Sybella and she makes the gesture again.
She is not throwing something. She is telling us to flee.
A dozen men, two dozen men. I stop counting as I near fifty. “Captain Dunois!” I cry out.
At my warning, Marshal Rieux looks up. His eyes register the reinforcements, and then he and the rest of his party wheel around and gallop back for the city. Their job is done; they have distracted us long enough for d’Albret to spring his trap. Dunois’s normally ruddy complexion pales when he sees the troops pouring from the gate. “Your Grace, we must get you to safety.” He begins barking orders. "Waroch! De Lornay! You take the men to meet the approaching line. You three” — he points to the two largest of his guardsmen and myself — “come with me. we will guard the duchess’s retreat.”
As we turn our horses around, the south postern gate opens and a second column of mounted soldiers streams out. They mean to box us in.
And then Beast’s horse is next to mine. A wild gleam lurks in his eyes and I wonder if he is already drunk on the prospect of battle.
“A kiss for luck, demoiselle?”
I look into his dear, ugly face. He is not coming back. Neither is de Lornay. They will buy the duchess some time, and that is all they can do against the two hundred soldiers riding toward us. If he wants a kiss from me before he goes, I will give it willingly. I nod, and he slips his great tree trunk of an arm around me, pulls me close, and plants his lips on mine. The force of the kiss bends me back over the saddle, his thick arm nearly pulling me from my horse.
It is a magnificent, lusty kiss and I feel nothing but deep regret that it may be his last.
Just before he pulls away, he whispers in my ear. “Duval said to give you that should I get the chance. It is from him.”
He puts his spurs to his horse and rides to the small group of men he must lead to their deaths. De Lornay draws near then. He says nothing but unties one of the two crossbows that hang from his saddle and hands it to me. “This will strike from greater distance than the peashooter you carry.” He winks, then turns and gallops to Beast’s side.
Captain Dunois is already riding away, leaning low in the saddle and protecting the duchess’s body with his own. The two rear guards have taken up position behind him. even as I fall in with them, I cast one last look over my shoulder.
Battle fever burns bright within Beast now. He shouts an order that divides his men into two parties so they can delay both vanguards of the oncoming forces. “On my signal,” he says, but before he can give it, a long blast from a trumpet stops him. My head turns toward the sound.