“But he brings with him an army compared to Nemours’s paltry offer!” Rieux sputters. “An army we will need to stand against the French.”
“Let us put it to a vote,” Crunard says. “All in favor?”
Anne’s voice is first to answer “aye,” but Duval’s “aye” is a close second.
“Nay,” says Rieux, followed by Madame Dinan’s softer “Nay.”
There is a pause, then Captain Dunois speaks. “I am sorry, Your Grace, but as captain of your army, I must point out that without d’Albret fighting by your side, we will need to find additional allies, and as yet we have had no luck in convincing others to our cause. But as a father, I cannot help but be glad of this newest development.”
“Chancellor?” says Anne. "What say you? How will you vote in this matter?”
“I am most pleased at this new development,” Crunard says. “Although it does create problems of its own. even so, I vote aye.”
I sigh in relief on the duchess’s behalf. Just as Duval is reminding them to speak of the Nemours offer to no one, there is a faint whisper of sound behind me. I whip my head around in time to see the latch lifting.
Moving quickly, I pull my long dagger from my ankle sheath and cross the room to stand behind the door.
It creaks open, momentarily blocking my view and trapping me between it and the wall. Madame Hivern again? I wonder. Or perhaps François?
Or maybe Sybella, for why is she in Guérande if not to protect our duchess?
Almost as if sensing the relaxing of my guard, the intruder slams the door into me. I swear as my shoulder crashes into the unforgiving stone, then I spring forward, dagger ready.
Too late. The intruder is already fleeing down the hallway. I step into the corridor in time to see him disappear around a corner. Determined to catch up, I break into a run.
The labyrinth of palace hallways work to my advantage, for every time he turns a corner, he must slow down just enough that I can catch sight of him. One of the circular stairways looms ahead, and the spy takes the steps two at a time. Cursing my cumbersome court garb, I lift my skirts and follow. when I am but halfway up the stairs, I hear the click of a door opening and then shutting.
when I gain the landing, I am dismayed to see a dozen chambers stretching out as far as the eye can see. Swearing in frustration, I approach the first one on my right but sense no spark of life behind it. The first room on the left is similarly empty. I pause at every door until the fifth, where I sense a pulse of life.
I stop long enough to draw my knives, then, moving as silently as possible, I lift the latch and push open the door.
There is a whisper of movement at the open window, then nothing. I race over and peer outside just in time to see a dark figure disappearing through an archway at the side of the courtyard.
At least he is limping. Hopefully, he broke his bedamned leg when he jumped. I sheathe my knives and return to tell Duval of this new twist.
Two days after Duval informed the Privy Council of Nemours’s offer, his brother François invites me to play chess. I accept, wondering if there is some ulterior motive to the invitation.
François is waiting at a table in the grand salon, his attention on setting up the chessboard, which gives me a moment to study him unobserved. That he would betray his own sister makes him dishonorable. That he is Duval’s brother makes him fascinating.
He glances up just then and I smile shyly, as if I have been caught admiring him. He rises to his feet and bows. “Good morning, demoiselle.”
“Good morning,” I reply as I take my seat.
“Duval let you out for the morning?”
“Duval is busy with the duchess and her councilors.” I grimace with distaste, and François clucks his tongue in sympathy.
"What will you choose, my lady, white or black?” I look down at the ornately carved pieces in front of me.
“Black, I think.”
His brows raise in surprise. “You give up the first move then?” “Is not the defensive position the stronger?” I ask sweetly. He laughs. “You have been spending too much time with my
brother and his strategies. Very well, I shall go first.” He reaches for his king’s pawn and moves it forward two paces. I respond by moving a knight’s pawn forward one pace.
François gives me a sly look. “No hesitation; I like that in a lady.” It would be hard to miss the double meaning in his words.
“I hesitate when it is called for, my lord, and your game has not called for it yet.”
He laughs, and I am pleased at how artfully I fall into this flirtation. “A challenge,” he says, his eyes glittering at the prospect.
I let my face grow sober. “Speaking of challenges, what did you think of the estates meeting? were you as shocked as everyone else with Count d’Albret’s threat of war?”
François’s cheerful face turns grave. “I was. He is not known for idle threats.”
I cannot tell if he is concerned for the duchess or his own aspirations. “Your poor sister already has her hands full with France, she does not need d’Albret’s rebellion on top of everything else.”
“Indeed, she does not.” He smiles tightly. “But I am certain Duval will take care of it. He always does.” He sneaks his bishop out from behind the pawn and takes my knight. when he looks up, our eyes meet. “Your move,” he says softly.
I keep my expression light and turn the conversation to other matters. “Your brother serves Saint Camulos,” I say as I consider the board. "What saint do you serve, if any? Saint Amourna, perhaps? Or Saint Salonius?” The moment the name crosses my lips, I wish to take it back. As François is a bastard, there is a very real chance he was dedicated to Saint Salonius, patron saint of mistakes.
Overlooking my blunder, he claps his hand to his heart. “You wound me, demoiselle! Arduinna?”
I shrug. “You are most charming, so it seems fitting to me.”
François’s brown eyes grow serious. “There is more to me than that, demoiselle.”
“Is there now?” I ask, putting just a touch of doubt in my voice so that he will be compelled to prove it to me.
In spite of the seriousness that has fallen over him, he smiles. “I was dedicated to Saint Mer,” he says, "With the hopes that I would have a naval career.” He gives a self-deprecating grimace. “Until we discovered that I become deathly seasick and am of absolutely no use to anyone on a boat.”
I laugh, as he intends me to, but I am more than a little surprised to find that I grieve for him as well. It is no small thing to be dedicated to a saint you cannot serve. “And your sister the duchess?” I ask.
“Ah, Saint Brigantia,” he says, then falls silent.
Of course. The patron saint of wisdom.
“You are not close to your sister, are you?”
He looks up at me again, and this time his normally open gaze is unreadable. “I was not given a chance. From the time of her birth, Duval was her champion; I could never get close.”
I study him. It is not the faint bitterness in his voice that surprises me but the faint echo of abandonment. “You miss him,” I say in surprise.
François picks up his rook and studies it. “Aye, I miss him. we spent our youth doing everything together. He was my older brother, the one who taught me how to hold a sword and how to draw a bow and where to fish for the fattest pike. when Anne was born, that all fell away, and he became consumed by duty.” He moves his rook down eight spaces. “Check,” he says quietly.
I study the board a moment, trying to force my mind back to the game. At last I move a pawn. It is a feeble move, and François looks at me with mild amusement. “Does speaking of my brother distract you so very much?” he asks.
“No,” I say, managing a dismissive laugh. “It is just that I am so very bad at chess, as I warned you.”
He smiles, but it does not reach his eyes. Something behind me draws his attention. “Gavriel, you finally decided to come up for air?”
I look over my shoulder, surprised to see Duval glowering in the doorway. “No,” he says shortly. “I came because I must speak with Demoiselle Rienne. If you’ll excuse us?” His voice is filled with ice and I cannot fathom why.
“But of course.” François stands.
As soon as I reach Duval’s side, he takes my elbow in an iron grip. I wince as he begins walking me to the door. His face is unreadable and I have to quicken my pace lest I end up being dragged. even so, something compels me to glance back at François. His eyes are fastened hungrily on Duval and filled with yearning.
Once Duval and I are in the hall, I pull away from him. “Have I done something wrong?”
He stops, twirls me around to face him, then backs me up against the wall. His eyes spark in fury as he leans in close. “Did you receive orders from the convent that you did not share with me?”
Before I can utter so much as a word, he gives me a little shake. “Did you?”
“Do you swear to it? Swear on your service to Mortain, if that is what you hold most dear.”
I frown at him. “Yes, I swear it. Tell me what’s happened.”
He stares at me a long moment. “Better,” he finally says, “I will show you.”
Duval tucks my arm through his — none too gently — then leads me deep into the castle. His face is set in harsh lines and there is a grimness I have not seen for a number of days. “How long have you been in the grand salon?” he asks.
“An hour. Maybe more.”
“Has François been with you that whole time?”
“Yes, my lord, but — ”
"What of my mother? Did you see any sign of her while you
“No. what is amiss?”
He does not answer as we hasten through the hallways, past closed doors and empty chambers. "Why are we in such a hurry?” I ask, breathless.
“Because there isn’t much time before news begins to spread through the castle faster than the plague.”
we finally reach a closed wooden door. Duval nods at the guard posted there, who steps aside to let us enter. Duval leads me into to a well-furnished room with an outside balcony. winding steps lead from the balcony to a private courtyard. Duval points to a still, twisted body on the flagstones below. “Fedric, Duke of Nemours.”
“No!” I whisper, then lift my skirts and hurry down the staircase. I curse my sense of death, wishing to hold out hope one moment longer, but there is no mistaking that Nemours is dead.
when I reach the body, I kneel at his side. "When did this happen?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
I glance sharply back at Duval. One eyebrow is raised in a sardonic question that does nothing to mask the fury and disappointment he feels.
“You cannot think that I did this!”
“No, milord. I have received no instructions from the convent, nor has my god revealed His will to me. Are you so very certain he did not fall?”
Duval grunts. “I am not.”
Nemours’s body still holds traces of warmth. He cannot have lain here long. "Who found him?”
when I raise my eyebrows in inquiry, he shoves his hand through his hair. “Do not look at me so. we were to meet to review the final betrothal arrangements, but when I arrived his chamber was empty.”
“Did you question his men?”
“Yes. They confirmed he spent the morning alone and had no visitors.” He glances up at the window, two floors above us. "When I found his chamber empty, I looked out here to see if he was waiting in the courtyard and saw his crumpled form.”
Our eyes meet. “But he told no one of his true identity; he introduced himself as a wool merchant from Castile. Only the Privy Council knew who he was . . .”
“Precisely.” His lips twist in a smile that has nothing to do with humor. “After yesterday’s meeting, they all knew about Nemours, and any one of them would have had time to act.”
“So one of the duchess’s closest advisors must have been involved with this.”
Duval nods in agreement. “Although, it is not impossible that Gisors learned of Nemours’s identity through one of his many spies. Or perhaps he paid off one of the council members. Nor is it beyond the bounds of reason that d’Albret arranged this in retaliation, for I can very easily believe Madame Dinan told him of Nemours.”
“No matter which of those is correct, you still come back to the fact that someone from your Privy Council said something. To someone. with ill intent.”
Duval’s jaw clenches. “Does his soul still . . . linger?” He waves his hand awkwardly. “Can you speak with it?”
“I will try.”
I turn my face from Duval and bow my head. Do the people of Nemours worship the same gods and saints as we do in Brittany? I have no idea, but it is worth trying.
I close my eyes and allow this world to fall away until I no longer feel the hard stone beneath my knees or see the fading light of the sun against my eyelids. The faint chill of Death caresses my cheek, like a loving mother who has greatly missed her child.
when I peel away the thin veil between life and death, Nemours is there waiting. His distress at being outmaneuvered is thick and solid, a veritable wall of grief. But it is the despair he feels at leaving the duchess without a protector that touches my heart, for his last thought proves what an honorable man he was. I, too, am filled with despair. why must the honorable die when so many dishonorable live?