“That is precisely what the convent explained to us, my lord.” with the exception of the barons being bribed by the French regent, but I will bite off my tongue before admitting that to him.
“There are two things we must do,” he continues, as if I have not spoken. “Secure a strong marriage alliance for the duchess, and see her crowned. Both are made more difficult by the French envoy’s presence here at court. what do you know of Anne’s suitors?” he asks.
“That she was dangled like bait in front of all the princes in Christendom and promised to nearly half of those,” I say.
Duval’s lips twist in a sour smile. “Precisely so. However, the one who is most determined to ensure that promise is kept is Count d’Albret. His suit has some support among the Privy Council, as well as among the barons. He has a number of large holdings and thousands of men-at-arms that he can call upon to fight against the French. It does not hurt his cause any that his half sister, the duchess’s governess of many years, sits on the Privy Council. She is much in favor of his suit. The duchess herself, however, is greatly opposed to the match, as am I.”
"Why?” I ask, genuinely curious.
He looks at me, incredulous. “You have seen the man.”
“Not truly. He was surrounded by his outriders yesterday. I only caught a glimpse of his bulk and his poor lathered horse.”
“Yes, well, he treats his wives much as he does his horses, but he goes through wives much faster.”
His words strike a chord of memory. “Six,” I say, remembering Sister Eonette’s teachings. “He has had six wives so far. Indeed, he has gained much of his wealth and many of his holdings through those marriages.”
Duval plucks a black knight from the board and scowls at it viciously. “You will forgive me if I mislike those odds.”
I gape at him. "What are you suggesting?”
His jaw twitches. “Only that marriage and childbirth are hard on women, especially d’Albret women. Besides, I harbor suspicions of his role in our final and losing battle with the French.”
“But I thought d’Albret rode to our rescue with four thousand troops?”
“Yes, but he was supposed to charge the center with those troops during the battle, and instead they hung back. I cannot decide if it was due to the normal chaos of battle or some ulterior purpose.”
I am quiet a long moment as I ponder the many reasons d’Albret would be a most unsuitable match. “But surely he is not the only one of Anne’s suitors who wants to claim her hand? She has been promised to so very many.”
Duval drops the chess piece back on the board, then holds up his hand. “The Spanish prince is too ill right now to think of pursuing his betrothal agreement, although his royal parents have offered fifteen hundred troops to aid us. The english prince went missing from his tower over five years ago and is unable to follow through with those betrothal plans. Two of the other contenders are already married, although they are seeking annulments from the pope even as we speak. That leaves the Holy Roman emperor. He is by all accounts a good leader and a decent man, as well as a powerful ruler over both Germany and the Holy Roman empire. But he is mired in wars of his own and cannot send us any aid. Further, if we betroth Anne to the Holy Roman emperor, France will call it an act of war, and we will need troops to defend the alliance.”
“Thus the plea to england for support.”
"Exactly so. And we still do not know which side the english king will favor.”
I stare at the board, painfully aware just how desperate the duchess’s situation is. “She is well and truly under siege then,” I murmur.
“That is a most excellent assessment of the situation, I’m afraid.” Duval’s gaze lingers on me for a long moment before he reaches toward the board once more. He lifts up a discarded white pawn and sets it in front of the white queen.
"Who is that, my lord?”
When he looks up, his eyes are so dark they seem almost black. “You,” he says, our eyes holding for a long moment. “I can count you among those loyal to the duchess, can’t I?”
“Of course, my lord,” I murmur, struggling against the unexpected warmth his words bring me. But, I remind myself, I am not the issue. Better for me to ask if I can count him among those loyal to the duchess. Instead, I look back down at the board and wonder what piece Duval has assigned to himself.
I stand among a gaggle of women who are clucking and honking like a flock of geese. They are tugging and pulling and patting and smoothing until I fear I will scream. Instead, I stare out the window at the lengthening shadows and wonder how they would react if they knew what I planned to hide under this fine skirt and these elaborate sleeves.
Louyse gives a final tug, then steps back. “You look a wonder, demoiselle.” There is a warm glow in her old cheeks.
Young Agnez clasps her hands together as if in prayer. “It is the finest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I want to dismiss their foolish prattle, but as I finger the heavy silken brocade, I cannot help but agree. I do not know where these seamstresses have found this gown or whose it was supposed to be, but it is mine now, and I must remind myself that assassins should take no pleasure in their finery and frippery.
But surely even a knight can admire his armor?
“Go get the mirror from the master’s chambers,” Louyse tells the others.
“That is not necessary,” I tell her. “I trust what you have done.”
“Pish.” Louyse flaps her hand. “You should see how lovely you look.”
I realize then how much she misses having a lady of the manor. I also realize that she does indeed know that Duval has spent the night in my room and is much pleased by it. The housekeeper appears to have a taste for romance, and I do not have the heart to take that from her, so I keep silent.
Agnez and the other two women return to the room, lugging the heavy mirror between them. when they lean it against the wall, Louyse takes my hand and gently pulls me toward it. “There.” The triumph in her voice is unmistakable.
"Well? what do you think?” Young Agnez is practically bouncing on her toes in her excitement.
Slowly I lift my eyes to the image in the mirror and for one heart-stopping moment I do not recognize that person. It is most certainly not me, for my complexion has never been that fine nor my cheeks tinged with such a becoming shade of pink. The dusk-colored gown has done something to my eyes, and they shine back deep and luminous. I am filled with a ridiculous desire to lift my skirts and twirl to see how the fabric moves. Instead, I scowl at my image and turn away abruptly. “It will do,” I say, and I harden my heart against the women’s falling faces. “Now leave me, please. I would like a few moments alone before I go.”
“But your hair,” Louyse says, her old face uncertain now.
I soften my voice. “Thank you, but I can dress it myself. You forget that I am convent raised and all this vanity sits poorly on me.”
“Ah.” Her old face clears with understanding, and she reaches out and pats my hand. Then she shoos the others from my room as she leaves, and I am blessedly alone. At least for a moment. I allow myself another quick look in the mirror, and — with no one to see — I do give a twirl, savoring the thick drape of the heavy skirt and the way the fabric ripples like water.
Feeling foolish, I turn my back on my mirror and hurry to the bed and snatch up the net of gold and pearls. I hastily twist my hair into a knot, then secure the net around it.
Next, I go to the mattress and reach for my weapons. The moment my fingers touch my ankle sheath, certainty flows in my veins once more. I strap it in place, then take up the wrist sheath. There is barely enough room for it under the tight sleeve, but after a long struggle, I am able to make everything work. I slip the lethal golden bracelet onto my wrist, then put my hand to my waist. At the comforting touch of the misericorde, I smile, and a sense of purpose settles over me. Surely Mortain will make His wishes known to me tonight, and I will be able to deal with our country’s traitors in a manner suited to their crimes.
I am still smiling at that thought as I go to meet Duval. He is waiting for me at the foot of the staircase, and when I appear at the top of the steps, he forgets what he is saying to his steward and stares as if he has never seen me before. even though this may well be an act, it pleases me more than it should. It cannot all be an act, for Duval is master at having the last word and would never knowingly grant me such an advantage. “That will do for now,” he finally tells the steward.
“Good evening, milord,” I say as I descend the stairs, trying to tamp down the bubble of pleasure.
when he takes my arm, he looks at me with suspicion. "What is wrong?” he asks.
“May I not smile without arousing your misgivings?”
“No,” he says with a wry twist to his mouth.
“You need not look so distrustful; I am but practicing my role for tonight’s masquerade. If we — if I— cannot convince the court of my role, then I will have no access to the duchess’s enemies and will fail in the task the convent set for me. I have no intention of failing.” The unwelcome truth is, until Chancellor Crunard returns, Duval is my only ally at court. Furthermore, the Breton nobility does not take kindly to the lowborn prancing among them. The last commoner to reach so high had been hung from the gibbet when his aspirations proved greater than his birth.
"What shadow just crossed your face?” Duval asks, and I curse his eyes that always see too much.
“I was thinking of your father’s late chamberlain.”
Duval grows somber. He tucks my arm closer against his. “That will not happen to you.” His words sound almost like a vow, which discomfits me greatly.
To distract us both, I cozy up to him and flash my most brilliant smile, one I have copied from Sybella. “That is settled then. Shall we go?”
He blinks. “If you are not careful, I will begin to think you are enamored of me.”
At his words, something flutters happily in my breast, pleasure, perhaps, but I am at last finding my footing in this game we play. “It is what we want the court to think, my lord.”
The grandeur of the Breton court can scarce be described. The rustle of fine silk and brocades, the whisper of plush velvet and softest leather. The air is heavy with perfume, from the shy scent of violets and bold bouquet of roses to the subtler scents of vetiver and sandalwood. The very air drips with richness and opulence that puts every place I’ve ever been to to shame.
I cannot imagine a gathering where I would be less at home; a turnip mislaid in a rose garden. I feel Duval’s eyes upon me and risk a quick glance at him. "What?” I ask, reaching up to discreetly adjust an escaping tendril of hair.
He bats my hand away. “Leave it. It looks charming thus.”
My cheeks grow warm at this unexpected compliment. Then he leans down. “Just how many of those pearls are poisoned?”
The warmth of his breath tickles my ear in an unsettling manner, but his words embolden me, reminding me of my purpose. I turn back to the gathered nobles with a lighter heart. Surely now that I am here, Mortain will reveal His wishes to me.
It is like watching a large group of birds of prey, all hooded eyes and hungry gazes, all waiting to pounce. what tasty morsel they hunger after, I know not. Gossip? Intrigue?
The nobles cluster in small groups, much like the chickens at the convent when they find a nest of slugs. All of the ladies are as poised and graceful as Madame Hivern, and while there are varying degrees of beauty, the style is the same: bold and well practiced, artfully achieved, demanding to be noticed.
“First things first, I think,” Duval murmurs. “I must introduce you to the privy councilors so you do not kill one of them in error.”
“If Mortain wills it, my lord, it will not be in error.”
"Even so, I suggest you consult with the duchess before dispatching any of them.” He leads me to two older men standing a bit removed from the others.
It is easy enough to guess who they are. The man on the right is built like a bear and stands as if he has been riding a horse for a fortnight. Surely he must be Captain Dunois. There is something about his quiet, unassuming strength that makes me inclined to trust him at once, a sentiment that I remind myself has no place in this game we play.
The other man is taller, with iron-gray hair and a surfeit of square yellowed teeth that put me in mind of a braying ass. He must be Marshal Rieux, and it is clear from the way he stands and surveys the room that he is much in love with his own opinion.
Captain Dunois greets Duval warmly, but Marshal Rieux is vexed and takes no pains to hide it. “You picked a fine time to disappear,” he snaps.
Duval meets the older man’s eyes steadily. “Indeed, I would never have left if I’d known someone would call an estate meeting over my sister’s wishes.”
Marshal Rieux doesn’t flinch. “The barons have every right to be addressed and apprised of the situation, and sooner rather than later.”
I glance at Duval. Does that mean that the marshal called the meeting? If so, he would surely bear a marque, but he does not. Or at least, not one that I can see. Duval takes a step toward Marshal Rieux. “So it was you who called the meeting?”
Marshal Rieux’s manner grows cold and distant. “You forget yourself, Duval,” he snaps. “You are naught but a bastard, tolerated only for your sister’s sake. You do not have a formal place on the council, or a voice. You are in no position to demand answers from me.” without giving Duval a chance to respond, he turns on his heel and stalks away.