“I come to offer to reopen negotiations for the hand of your sister,” Nemours says.
“But I thought you were already married.”
Nemours’s face grows somber. “I was. My wife and young son died of the plague that passed through Nemours at the end of the summer.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” Duval says.
Nemours’s grin is somewhat forced. "Which is why I come to you seeking a new bride. when word of your sister’s circumstances reached me, I thought to approach you.”
"What have you heard?” Duval asks warily.
Nemours barks out a humorless laugh. “That the French regent has bribed half your barons to join France’s cause and that the Holy Roman emperor is too mired in his own wars to come to her aid. And the duchess’s own barons are too busy fighting for her crown to fight on her behalf.”
“You have heard the right of it, I’m afraid.”
“So I offer a way out. I propose the same terms as the original betrothal agreement, so you will see that I am not trying to take advantage of your situation.”
Duval is suddenly cautious. "Why? what is in it for you that you are so chivalrous?”
“Is chivalry not its own reward?”
“Not in my experience, no.”
Nemours shrugs, then smiles. It very nearly reminds me of Beast’s maniacal grin. “In addition to the great fondness I bear your lady sister, is not beating the French at their own game enough? My father died at their hand.”
“How many troops can you lend to enforce the betrothal? For the French regent will move quickly once she learns of it.”
“Three thousand,” he says, "Which I know is less than d’Albret’s considerable numbers, but at least I can guarantee they will be loyal to the duchess.”
“And that is worth much, I think.”
“There is more,” Nemours adds. “My cousin, the queen of Navarre, will send fifteen hundred pikemen to aid our cause.”
Duval’s brows shoot up in surprise. “Not that we would not welcome them, but why would she bestir herself on our account?”
A grim note creeps into Nemours’s voice. “Do not forget that she also is married to a d’Albret. She knows only too well what marrying into that family entails.”
A dark look of understanding passes between the two men. “Very well then,” Duval says. “I will put your proposal before the duchess.” And although he tries to hide it, the relief in his voice in plain.
It takes me a moment before I recognize the feeling burbling through me. It is not trepidation, or even apprehension, but joy. I am nearly giddy with relief that we may have found our duchess a solution to her tangle. And while it is not the task I was trained for, I savor it all the same. I tell myself that my happiness has nothing to do with coming that much closer to removing the suspicion that clouds Duval’s name.
On our return trip to Guérande, Duval does not use the shortcut I showed him but instead leads us through St. Lyphard itself. If this is a test, it is easy enough to pass. I know in my bones that no one will recognize me.
The town has not changed at all since I left nearly four years ago. we pass the blacksmith’s forge and the small square where we held our meager celebrations, the weaver’s home, the herbwitch’s cottage and that of the tanner. In no time at all, we have reached the town’s outskirts. A lone cottage sits there with smoke rising sluggishly from the chimney and a few threadbare linens hanging on the line.
In the fields beyond the house, a man works, his back bent as he struggles with the hard ground. even though he is a turnip farmer, in the winter he sows a crop of rye. I am surprised at how old he looks, how grizzled his hair, how stooped his shoulders. It is as if only his hatred of me had kept him going. Now the monster of my childhood nightmares is nothing but a broken old man struggling to eke out a living, while I have been chosen by a god to do His bidding.
As if sensing my eyes upon him, the man looks up, surprised to see four nobles prancing through his fields. when he bows his head and tugs at his forelock, I know that my disguise is complete. even my own father has not recognized me.
Duval brings his horse closer to mine. “Someone you know?” he murmurs.
“He is no one,” I say, and for the first time I realize it is true.
Before the walls of the city come into sight, we are met by an outrider looking for Duval. Captain Dunois has sent him to tell us that the footpad has not only awakened, but escaped. I glance sharply at Duval, briefly wondering if that could have been his purpose, to lure me from the city long enough for our assailant to escape. But since he is doing a fine job of looking poleaxed by the news, I dismiss that idea.
We ride to Guérande with all due haste and hurry to the dungeons beneath the palace.
“How?” Duval asks as he steps inside the small prison chamber that is now empty. It is made of four solid walls with no window and only the one door. “How did he escape?”
The captain of the palace guard shrugs uncomfortably. “He was not bound or manacled, and the key hangs on the hook outside. Anyone could have opened the door.”
“But why, is the question.”
with reluctance, one of the guards steps aside so that I too may enter the chamber. The minute I am in the room, I know. Death has visited; the man did not walk out alive.
“My lord,” I murmur to Duval. “I would speak with you alone.”
His eyes widen in surprise. “Now?”
Understanding dawns and he pulls me away from the others.
“He did not escape,” I murmur. “He was killed first, then taken from here afterward.”
His dark eyebrows shoot up. “You can tell this merely from being in the room?”
His eyes narrow in thought. “That at least makes more sense.” He turns back to the guards. “Find everyone who visited this room within the last two days, then bring a list of those names to me.” He sighs heavily. “Let us go speak to the duchess. At least we have one piece of good news to trade for this latest setback.”
We find the duchess in her solar, sitting with her ladies and Madame Dinan, embroidering an altar cloth for the new cathedral. A young girl lies on the couch beside her. Isabeau, her younger sister, is delicate and frail-looking and cannot be older than ten. Both of their faces light up when Duval steps into the room.
He bows and I drop a deep curtsy. “Your Grace; my lady Isabeau.”
“Hello, Gavriel.” Young Isabeau smiles at him. "What brings you out from behind your stuffy desk?”
“Since the sun is not shining today, I thought to catch sight of your face instead.”
I have to look twice to be certain this is the same Duval I walked in with for I have never heard such pretty words fall from his lips, not even when he was with the duchess. But young Isabeau throws back her head and laughs, amused by his flattery. Before long, her laughter gives way to coughing; great, racking coughs that shake her frail body. Instantly the duchess is at her side, rubbing her back and trying to soothe her.
Madame Dinan slaps her needlework down and hurries to Isabeau. She scowls at Duval. “Your teasing is unseemly, my lord Duval. It is too much excitement for the girl.”
“Nonsense, madame,” Anne snaps back. “Isabeau coughs like this with or without my brother’s words, and at least he brings a smile to her face.” She turns to her ladies in waiting, who hover nervously. “Leave us, please.” with rustling as faint as butterfly wings, the ladies set down their embroidery hoops and leave the room. But not Madame Dinan, who boldly stands her ground.
A look passes between Duval and the duchess, and then Anne turns to her governess. “Madame, sit with Isabeau, if you please, as I must speak with my brother.”
Dinan wishes to argue, it is there in her eyes, but Duval does not give her the opportunity. "Walk with me, Your Grace.” He holds his arm out and the duchess takes it. He leads her to the far window, and I stand there like a bump in the floor, unsure if I should follow or stay and distract Madame Dinan. Anne glances over her shoulder and gives a quick motion for me to follow. I lift my skirts and hurry after them, Madame Dinan’s scorching gaze fair burning a hole through the back of my gown as I go.
The three of us gather in front of the oriel window. It is a large room, and Duval speaks softly enough that his voice will not carry back to Dinan. “I bring interesting news, Your Grace.”
“That is good to hear, as there is a desperate shortage of that just now.”
Keeping his voice low, Duval tells her of our meeting with Nemours. when he is done, she clasps her hands together, hope lighting her young face. “Are my prayers being answered in such a fashion?”
when Duval smiles at her, I realize that I have never seen him truly smile. Not like this, where it warms his entire face. “It would appear so, dear sister. But I would warn you not to speak of it to anyone. Gisors’s men followed us today, but we evaded them.” Duval glances over to where Madame Dinan is attending to Isabeau. “Nor do we want word to get back to d’Albret. who knows what mischief he could make for our plan.”
The duchess quickly nods her understanding. “I will say nothing to anyone, but I cannot deny it will give me something to cling to during the meeting with the barons tomorrow. I cannot tell you how much I am dreading it.”
Duval’s face settles back into seriousness. “I think the simplest course is to plead your grief over our father’s death. It is too fresh right now for you to consider marriage to d’Albret or anyone else.”
The duchess’s mouth trembles ever so faintly. “It is not even a lie,” she says, and I am struck by how few choices she has for all that she is a duchess.
The great hall, which once seemed impossibly large, now seems impossibly small, stuffed as it is with this many bodies. Oh, they are noble enough bodies, but ripe with sweat and perfume and unbridled anticipation. I cannot tell if they are expecting disaster or farce. My sincerest hope is that my god will marque all the traitors today and my duty will be clear.
I worm my way to a spot by the far wall, and my shoulders press painfully into the carved paneling at my back. even so, I am glad for the space and am all too happy to defend it with my elbows when others press too close.
As the main players assemble on the raised dais in the front of the room, I scan the crowd. The men have left their swords with guardsmen at the door so that none may be drawn during the meeting, but no one has been searched for knives or daggers. My hand drifts to my own hidden weapons at my wrists, and I wonder just how many other blades are nestled inside sleeves or hidden in folds of satin.
Once all of Anne’s councilors have taken their place, the assembly rises and the duchess herself comes into the room. Her chin is high, her spine rigid with determination. Of their own accord, my eyes search out Duval, who sits at the far end of the dais. He is dressed in his customary black and is the very picture of somber reason. De Lornay and de waroch stand near him at the front wall. They have kept their swords, most likely at his insistence.
D’Albret sits directly before the dais, sprawling in his chair, trimming his nails with a knife, either a subtle threat or a sign of just how uncouth he really is. I study him carefully, but no matter how much I will it, there is no visible marque upon him.
Chancellor Crunard calls the meeting to order, and the room grows quiet. Before the chancellor has finished the formal opening remarks, Count d’Albret puts away his knife and rises to his feet. There is the swish of skirts and creak of boot leather as the courtiers lean forward to hear better. The duchess eyes him shrewdly but gives him her full consideration, much as one gives a venomous serpent.
“My lords.” He runs his gaze along the dais, then turns to the crowded room. “I am here to collect what was promised to me by your late Duke Francis. Namely, marriage to his daughter — my rightful payment for lending aid against the French last fall.”
“A war we lost,” Chancellor Crunard is quick to point out, and I cannot help but think of his two sons who died in that war.
A rumble reverberates around the room, but whether it is one of outrage or approval, I cannot tell.
The duchess’s clear young voice carries over the crowd and they grow quiet once more. “My lord d’Albret. while your offer is worthy of our consideration, I am afraid I am too consumed by my family’s recent loss to turn my thoughts to marriage, and I beg your understanding a little while longer in this matter.”
“You do not have the luxury of time, my lady. Your very country is at stake.”
“You do not need to remind me of that, sir,” the duchess snaps.
“But perhaps I need to remind you of your duty. Dukes and duchesses do not have the luxury of long mourning periods. The needs of their kingdoms come first, even before their grief.”
Of course, he is right, and the duchess knows it as well. “I have always put my country first.” There is true anger in the duchess’s voice now.
D’Albret’s tone softens in an attempt to coax. "With this marriage I offer, you will be able to turn your attention to more womanly concerns and let me shoulder your burdens. Then you may mourn all you want.” He glances briefly at the dais, but I cannot see who he is looking at. Madame Dinan? Marshal Rieux?
There is a long quiet moment during which it looks as if the duchess is considering the idea. “I see you have thought of all my needs, Lord d’Albret. even so, I must beg more time.”
The count’s face grows red as he tries to keep his anger in check. He turns to address the barons directly. “This is a dangerous time for our kingdom. war beckons, and enemies circle. It is no time for young girls or old men to whisper behind closed doors and plot and plan. It is time for action. Time to face our enemies on the field of battle.”