“I’m not sure anybody knows, exactly. The word itself comes from an old French word, cifre, which comes from an earlier Arabic word meaning zero, and later we used it to mean any numeral, so people might just have begun to use cifre to mean secret writing like this, that used numbers.”
He nodded. “You like ciphers, madam?”
“I like puzzles.”
“Papa always says I’m a puzzle.” He flashed a grin. “Maybe that’s why you like me.”
I did like him, actually. It didn’t hurt that he had the same eyes as his father, but just on his own he was still pleasant company. “Maybe,” I said. “But I’d like you still more if you’d read the next game with a star on that list. And no silliness this time, just read me the name.”
“OK.” There was a pause as he searched down the list, then he made an odd snorting noise.
“Just read me the next name.”
I sighed. “Noah.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry, madam.”
“What’s the name, please?”
He looked at me, trying to hold in the giggles enough to be able to get out the word. “Gleek.”
And even I had to admit that was funny.
It wasn’t gleek, though, in the end. It was one of the games further down the list: piquet.
“Two, three, four, five, six, and seven,” read Noah. “And eight. What’s the eight?” he asked. “Why is it separate?”
“Each player’s dealt eight cards,” I told him. I worked through the numbers and to my relief saw words appear: Upon the 14th…
“Does that work?” asked Noah.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“We found the key?”
I didn’t mind including him, because it seemed to make him happy. “Yes, we did.”
He cheered with such exuberance it brought Denise into the doorway. “What,” she asked, “is going on in here?”
“I’m helping,” Noah said.
“Well, come and be some help to me,” his mother told him. “I have breakfast dishes to be dried.”
He didn’t argue, though he didn’t move as quickly as he could have to the door, and when he’d reached Denise he turned back for a moment and said, “Thank you for allowing me to work with you, madam.”
Denise smiled at me and said, “I’ll keep him out from underfoot.” And then she closed the door and left me to myself.
My little workroom was decidedly more quiet. Which was fine. I worked much better on my own, with nobody distracting me, and Noah, although likeable, was constantly distracting me. But even so, the room felt oddly empty with him gone.
* * *
“The problem is,” I said to Jacqui, as I held the phone against my cheek and frowned, “they’re miles away from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and heading to Lyon, and I don’t think they’re going back.” I’d only had to read the first long entry in the diary in the new piquet-based cipher to be sure we’d moved beyond the realm of doubt. “This isn’t going to be what Alistair is hoping for.”
“Perhaps he’ll like this better,” said my cousin. “It would read just like a thriller.”
“No, I mean it. First they have a woman sent to spy on them, and then a man gets killed, and there’s a bodyguard involved, and now they’re on the run with false names? Sara, honestly, it sounds like gripping stuff.”
“It isn’t what he wanted.” I stayed firm upon that point. “You promised you would tell him. You said if I found for certain that they didn’t go to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, then you’d tell Alistair.”
“I will. I will. I’ll let him know.”
“Well, do it now. I’ll wait for you to ring me back.”
“I’ll text you,” Jacqui compromised. She’d tried for ages to get me to text more, her preferred way of communicating, but I liked to hear the voice of people I was talking to.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll wait right here.”
Right here was at my desk, with Mary’s diary open to the end of her last entry and the first lines of her next one. My transcription, rough in pencil, lay where I had left it to the side, and now I picked it up and read again what she had noted down about what must have been a frightening two days for her, beginning with her breakfast on the fourteenth and continuing right through until she’d gone to bed at Fontainebleau. She’d blended both days into one long entry—perhaps partly because with no sleep to speak of in between, the days had felt like they were one, but also because she hadn’t had her diary on the evening of the first day. The man who smoked the pipe, Mr. MacPherson, had been carrying it in his pocket. From what she had written of the way he was behaving, I’d concluded that he was some sort of bodyguard, although I knew the word in that sense hadn’t yet been used in Mary’s day. But he was clearly there to watch the man whom Mary had first known as Jacques, and of whom she had written now:
His true name it appears is Mr. Thomson, though the reasons for his hiding his identity are not made plain to me, and it is likely never will be, for it seems of all the people so involved in our disguise I am the only one designed to not know all. ’Tis very certain Mr. M— knows most of any of us, and is the least natured to reveal it.