I let myself into the main chamber, then quickly cross to my own room. Once inside, I shut the heavy door and bolt it.
My bed is empty but messed, as if it has not been made since the day I left for Nantes. There are candles but no fire in the hearth from which to light them. I waste precious minutes setting flint to tinder so I can have some light in the dark corridors beyond. My hands are trembling so badly that it takes five tries before the tinder catches. when at last a small fire burns in the grate, I light a candle, then head for the wall near the fireplace.
I stare at it, wishing I had thought to ask Beast how he got it to work. I poke at the bricks one at a time until one gives way, just a little bit, but enough to release the spring that holds the stone door so tightly shut. I put my shoulder to the revealed door and push. It gives perhaps an inch. Grunting, I push again, bracing my feet on the floor and throwing my whole body into it until it finally moves enough for me to slip through.
I am not sure where to begin my search, for if Duval was up and walking, he could be anywhere. He could even, I realize, be gone from here. Although if Crunard had caught him, surely I would have seen his head on a pike at the city wall.
The thought has my heart plummeting like a stone, and I push away from the door and cast out my senses, searching for Death, afraid I will find it. when I do not, I allow myself to draw my first deep breath since reaching my chamber. Thus encouraged, I begin winding my way to the spot where de Lornay and Beast found Duval the first time we came here. A sharp lance of pain bites through me as I think of those two, but I push it aside. Saving Duval is my goal now.
I get lost twice, then finally the feeble light from my candle shows a corner of a blanket. Afraid to hope, but unable to stop myself, I drop to my knees beside him. He still breathes, but it is a shallow, labored breathing. I feel the beat of his pulse. It is thin and going faster than a hummingbird’s wings. “My lord,” I whisper.
His head turns toward my voice and his eyelids flutter weakly.
Not too late, not too late beats in my breast and pounds through my veins. I do not know if it is a prayer or a plea or a demand.
I put my hands on the sides of his face, savoring the rough scratch of his whiskers. I lean down and place my lips on his and kiss him.
His lips are dry and cracked, but I do not care. I can taste the poison. I cover his mouth with my own, deepening the kiss, kissing him as Beast kissed me — thoroughly, wantonly, as if I am gulping the finest wine from a silver goblet. My heart soars when I feel him stir beneath me.
Then he opens his mouth and our tongues meet, a shocking sensation as I allow him in. My hands upon his cheeks grow numb, as do my lips. I kiss him and kiss him, wanting to draw every drop of poison from his body into mine. when his eyes finally open and he murmurs my name against my lips, I laugh, and the exhilaration I feel spills from my mouth into his. Needing to look at him, to see his face, I pull back — but not too far.
His eyes are clouded with desire and joy. His skin already seems less pale to me. He reaches up and tucks a stray hair behind my ear. “I did not expect to find you here,” he says.
It takes me a full minute to realize that here does not mean Guérande but that he thinks he has traveled into the realm of Death. “You are alive, my lord.” I cannot help it. I laugh with triumph as I say the words.
He frowns, then tries to sit up as he remembers. “The duchess is safe,” I tell him. “She is safe and well guarded by half the garrison from Rennes. You did it, my lord. François reached us in time. You saved her.”
He closes his eyes and draws a deep breath. “Then I may die in peace.”
“You are not dying. You were, but no longer.” At his puzzled look, I lean down once again. “I will save you,” I whisper against his lips.
As I slip out of the rough, dark gown, I realize I have only the vaguest idea of how a woman lies with a man. even so, I cast my shift aside and gently push Duval back down — it takes no effort at all. Slowly, I lower my body onto his so that every part of us is touching. My head rests on his chest and my feet lie atop his shins. He is warm, too warm, and everywhere his skin flinches and trembles. My hand goes to the scars on his chest, the one just over his heart. I place my hand there, savoring the stronger, steadier beat.
I know he is growing stronger when he is able to pull me closer.
His hands roam over my back, tracing my scar. I start to pull away, then realize I do not care. As his arms gain strength, his fingers travel in delicious trails along my back. everywhere my skin touches his, it flutters and tingles, but whether it is from the poison moving from his body to mine or simply my own response to Duval, I do not know.
Sometime later, I am the first to stir. I lay there, savoring the slow, steady beat of his heart as it thumps against my chest. when I open my eyes, I see his skin no longer has the gray pallor that heralds death. I feel damp, as if I have walked through a heavy mist. Small beads of the now harmless poison coat my skin like sweat. Just like a bezoar stone, I have neutralized its deadly effects.
As the fog of our lying passes, it clears the way for thoughts other than Duval. I sit up. “Isabeau!” Panic jolts through me, but Duval’s hand clamps on my waist and pulls me back.
“She is safe,” he murmurs.
I stare down at him. “How can you know? I believe Crunard — ”
He lifts his fingers to my lips, quieting me. “She is gone from here.”
My heart lurches. “You mean she is dead?”
He laughs and gives a rueful shake of his head. “No, dear assassin. She was spirited out of the palace while Crunard slept.”
I push out of his arms and sit up. “How? How did you manage this?”
He folds his hands behind his head and looks up at me. “The morning you left, I woke feeling better. I knew Crunard must be planning a trap and that I had little time before he sprung it. I went to François and ordered him to fetch the garrison from Rennes and bring them to Anne at Nantes.”
“He did it, my lord. He reached us at the very hour of our need.”
Duval smiles. “Good,” he says. “It is good to have him as an ally again. The next greatest need was to get Isabeau to safety.” His face grows serious. “She is not well, not well at all.”
“You do not need to tell me.” Our eyes meet.
“Does Anne know?”
“Not the full severity of it, I do not think.”
He sighs and scrubs his face with his hand. “To get her to safety, I employed the talents of the loyal Louyse, who would lay down her life for one of the duke’s children, and my lady mother, who owed her life to your mercy and her newly sworn oath. It took a while to convince my mother that swearing fealty to Anne also meant endangering her life for Isabeau, but once she saw how frail the girl was and learned how Crunard had set her up, she was only too willing to ruin his latest plans.”
“So you snuck them out through the tunnels?”
"Exactly.” His smile is smug, and rightfully so.
“And then what?” I ask, lightly punching his shoulder. “Did you secure the entire duchy while I thought you lay dying?”
“No,” he says, growing serious. “Crunard is still out there.”
"What is his aim, can you guess?”
“I do not know. But I plan to find out.” Our eyes meet again, and this time our own warm feelings give way before our desire to make Crunard pay. “But first, tell me of your news. what miracle have you wrought that you have saved me from this poison?”
“It is one of my gifts from Mortain.” I grimace. “One the convent either does not know about or chose not to tell me of.”
“And what of Beast and de Lornay?” he asks. The careful note in his voice indicates he expects the worst. I tell him of our battle before Rennes, of the falling of de Lornay and the taking of Beast. During the telling, his grief mounts and grows until it threatens to swallow us both. And then his mouth sets in a hard line. “I must get up.”
when he rises to his feet, I am pleased to see that he does not sway, but he is not as steady as he once was. His body will need time to fully heal. “You cannot mean to storm into Crunard’s chambers and challenge him to combat,” I say.
“You are only just able to keep on your feet.”
"Even so, I will face him, for I am sick of hiding in the dark while he destroys all that we have fought for.”
we are silent as we make our way back through the tunnels to my chamber, both of us consumed by our own thoughts, for Crunard has cost each of us much. even though he is still weak, Duval leads the way, for he is more familiar with these tunnels than I. Once again, I marvel at how he has stood it all this time, for the close stone walls press down on me, stealing my breath and making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
At last I see a sliver of light ahead and I quicken my pace, nearly treading on Duval’s heels. He grunts, then stumbles forward. when he reaches the doorway, he freezes, then puts out his arm and shoves me back into the tunnel. “Crunard,” he says loudly, and every nerve in my body comes alert.
“Ah, you are still alive. I thought as much. It was the only explanation that made sense.”
Careful to stay well out of sight, I press my back against the stone wall, heart hammering in my chest as the chancellor’s cold, hard voice fills my ears.
“Come in, come in, don’t hover at the door.” At first I think he is talking to me, then I see Duval move away from the tunnel and step into the room. “Besides, you and I have a game of chess we must finish,” he says coyly, and that’s when I know.
I know precisely where Duval picked up Arduinna’s snare. I want to bang my head against the wall in frustration.
“Is that what we have been doing, Crunard? Playing a game of chess? If so, I will confess that I did not realize it was you I was playing against, not until Ismae voiced her suspicions.” Duval sounds strong and steady, and I do not know if this is because he has fully recovered or because he is simply determined not to show weakness in front of Crunard.
“The girl figured it out before you, did she? That must sting, but the convent is not known for raising fools.”
“She also did not have a lifetime of memories and family loyalties to cloud her vision. I defended you against her accusations.” Duval’s voice shakes now, but with the pain of Crunard’s duplicity rather than weakness. “I told her that one of our country’s greatest heroes and my father’s closest ally would never betray my sister in such a way.”
Crunard says nothing for a long moment. when he speaks, his voice is so quiet I must inch closer in order to catch every word.
“Four sons, Gavriel. I have lost four sons to this never-ending war with the French. And for what? So they can turn around and invade our borders once again? In the end, do you really think it matters to the people who rules over them? Do you really think maintaining Brittany’s independence is more important to their lives and prosperity than ending the constant war?”
“How can you ignore everything we’ve fought for for the last twenty years? How can you dishonor your own sons’ memories this way?”
“You may not speak to me of my sons,” Crunard says, his voice tight with fury. “Not when you have lived and they have died.” He grows quiet, and when he speaks again, he is calmer. “I do not expect you to understand how hard it is to watch your own sons die, struck down in battle for a cause that pales when it is set next to what you have lost. even more, I do not expect you to understand what it is like to learn that one of those sons still lives — ”
“Anton?” There is joy in Duval’s voice, and I remember that the chancellor’s youngest son and Duval were of an age. They were likely friends.
“Anton,” Crunard says. “I saw him struck down on the battlefield of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier. So you cannot begin to imagine my joy when I received word that he still lived. All I had to do was deliver Anne into the hands of the French regent — something that was clearly inevitable — and my son would be returned to me.”
Suddenly everything is clear. every move Crunard has made, every person he has betrayed — all of it was done in the hope of ransoming his son.
“So you thought to trade my sister’s life for your son’s?”
“It seemed a fair exchange, since if it weren’t for the blood of my sons spilled on the battlefield, none of this would be hers. Besides, I wasn’t trading her life, merely her duchy. They are quite different things.
“At first it was easy. I worked quietly behind the scenes, gently bending the tides of war to France’s favor without harming a soul, and then you stepped in. You and your damned strategies and tactics and pigheaded stubbornness. If you had been content to let things happen, none of this would have come to pass. But you were not. You were determined to single-handedly deliver an independent duchy to your sister along with the means to keep it. You can be certain I did not value your life above my son’s, so you gave me no choice but to remove you. Now, sit down so we may finish this game.”
“Do you always play chess with a loaded crossbow in your lap?” Duval asks, and at last I understand why he shoved me back into the tunnel.
“Only with particularly challenging opponents,” Crunard replies.
But that is easily enough fixed. I take my own crossbow from the chain at my waist. It may be smaller than Crunard’s, but it is just as deadly. I fit a bolt to it, and move silently toward the door.
“You shall move first, I think,” Crunard tells Duval.
“No!” I shout, stepping into the room and aiming the crossbow at Crunard’s forehead. “That is how he was poisoning you, by coating the chess pieces with Arduinna’s snare.”