“You were right, sir,” he said to her brother. To Mary, he added, “He told me last month you’d be perfectly suited to take this assignment, and so you are.”
Mary’s hand stilled on Frisque’s sleeping back. She looked quickly at Nicolas and this time caught the corner of his sideways glance before it slid away again.
A log fell splintering in the fire and something deep in Mary splintered too, and fell in flames as hot and searing, but she struggled not to let the sudden pain inside her show in her expression as the longcase clock began to chime.
“What, four o’clock already?” asked Sir Redmond. “You must soon be on your way, sir, if you hope to make it home by dark.”
Her brother stood. “I’ll see my sister to her chamber first.”
She did not speak to him the whole length of the corridor, nor he to her, but when they reached her chamber she set Frisque down on the carpet by the bed and, turning from her brother so he would not see the hurt she knew was showing plainly in her eyes, asked, “Am I to remain here, then?”
“Sir Redmond and his wife are very kind.”
She nodded slightly. “Do be sure to give my compliments to your good lady and your children.”
“I am sorry that I shall not have the chance to meet them, but—”
“’Tis only for a little while. A few weeks, possibly, until the man is moved to safer quarters.” When she did not speak in answer to that, Nicolas continued, “When Sir Redmond said he needed a young woman who spoke French and yet whose loyalty was absolute, I thought…”
“You thought of me. I understand.” She understood too well, she realized. “So, when this is finished, this affair in Paris, where will I go then?”
“Then you will come, as I have promised you, to live at Saint-Germain.”
She did not want to ask the question, but her heart was bound to know the answer. “Tell me, if Sir Redmond had not needed me, if there had been no use for me, would you have still been moved to write the letter that you wrote? Would you have wanted me to come to you?”
His pause was a more honest answer than his words. “Yes,” he said. “Of course. You are my sister.” Then to fill the silence that came afterwards he carried on, “There is no danger in what you are being asked to do, I can assure you. I would never have consented to it otherwise, nor placed you in harm’s way.” And as her silence stretched, he added, “If you wish to reconsider…if you do not want to go…”
You always have a choice, her aunt had promised her. And Mary squared her shoulders as she made one now. “I’ll go.”
“Come then and heal my conscience, for I’ll not away until I know that things are well between us.”
She could not let him see her face the way it was, because she knew it was not so much different from the face she’d shown her father when he’d left those many years ago, but time if nothing else had given her the gift of hiding how she felt inside by doing what her cousin Colette had so truthfully observed—the conscious mimicry and masking of her own self with another form, the way the fairies in the tales she loved assumed an alternate appearance to disguise themselves. She closed her eyes a moment, blinking back the futile tears of disappointment that she would not have betray her, and allowed the poise and grace of Mistress Jamieson to settle round her shoulders like a robe before she turned.
Her brother, knowing her but little to begin with, did not seem to mark the change. He seemed relieved, and when she crossed to him he kissed her cheek and asked her, “Is there anything you need me to have sent to you? A new gown, or some shoes with pattens for the Paris streets?”
She meant to tell him no, there wasn’t anything, but suddenly the linnet in the drawing room downstairs began to sing, a pure exquisite burst of sound that drifted up the stairs to where her brother stood and waited for her answer.
It was not a joyous song, but one of wistfulness and longing, from a creature forced to ever view the world behind the gilt bars of its cage, to never know the taste of freedom. Mary, with her thoughts on Mistress Jamieson, received that plaintive song as though it had been sung for her alone, a herald’s call reminding her that this might be her only chance to spread her own wings to a wider sky.
She raised her chin and met her brother’s gaze with new determination. “I should like a cloak,” she told him, “with a fur-lined hood.”
Protect the friends of your father: and remember the chiefs of old.
—Macpherson, “Fingal,” Book Four
The man had returned to the window.
She saw the faint glow of his pipe in the dimness beyond the glass, fading and burning in time with his breathing. She hadn’t seen him yet, not clearly, but she’d seen his shape at the window on no fewer than three occasions this evening while she’d been arranging her things in this chamber that was to be hers, at the front of the house. The man’s house stood opposite, which on this small narrow street meant that there was not much to divide them. Had he tossed a stone to her she could have caught it with ease, she decided, especially as his room was on the first floor of that house, straight across from the lodgings that had been secured for herself and the others in rooms on the first floor of theirs: six fine rooms, fully furnished, with two rooms on the ground floor underneath that gave them private access to the street, so they were not obliged to use the common stairs shared by the other tenants. The rooms below were also where the maid, the cook, and the cook’s boy would do the best part of their labor, for Sir Redmond having dealt with every hazard had arranged things so that Mary and the man whom she’d be helping to protect would have no cause to leave their house to seek their meals.