The idea that the abbess would place Sybella in d’Albret’s household is so repellant that I thrust it aside and pray to Mortain that I am mistaken.
If d’Albret has taken a large part of courtiers with him, he has also taken a fair amount of the court’s gloom. The serving maids in particular have a renewed bounce in their step now that they no longer have to endure his pinches. even young Isabeau’s health seems to improve, as if it were d’Albret’s presence that had clouded her lungs.
* * *
One week before Christmas, the duchess calls for a full court dinner, complete with entertainment. The night before the feast, Isabeau is so excited she nearly makes herself sick. At the duchess’s request, I give her another tisane so she can sleep.
The castle steward has spared no luxury for tonight’s feast. The tables are covered with rich damask cloth embroidered with silver thread. Liveried servants stand near the walls, and gold and silver vessels adorn the table. In an especially fancy touch, notes from a horn summon us to the great hall. we are all, as ordered, dressed in our gayest finery. Long fur-trimmed capes mingle with embroidery-encrusted waistcoats and colorful slashed sleeves. Shoes of brightly dyed leather or rich velvet peek out from beneath thick satin skirts.
The duchess and Isabeau take their places at the high table on the raised dais, and the privy councilors join them. And while it seems as if I have done nothing but drink Duval in with my eyes for the past two weeks, tonight he looks different. He has grown thinner, and there are deep shadows under his eyes as well. The negotiations with the Holy Roman emperor have been fierce. Both the duchess and Duval know they bargain for the very life of their country. The Holy Roman emperor’s envoy knows it as well and tries to use it to his best advantage. I worry that the strain is getting to Duval. He grows edgy and has taken to checking the doors and windows, certain that someone is listening in.
Most likely someone is.
I am shown to a seat at one of the lower tables with the lesser ladies and knights, but I do not mind. In truth, I need to pinch myself, for I fear this is all a dream. I can scarce believe that one such as I has been allowed into so fine a celebration.
Once we take our seats, servants bring us basins of warm water scented with verbena so we may wash our hands before eating. while we dry them on soft linen towels, the food is carried in on platters. Meat carvers set to work slicing venison and roasted boar, peacock and pheasant. There is also braised rabbit and roast goose, porkpie, pastries, and frumenty.
I am pleased to find myself seated next to Beast and wonder if Duval had something to do with this. “I have not seen much of you of late,” I say.
His face creases into a grotesque smile. “Duval has kept me busy overseeing scouting parties. we scour daily, looking for signs of d’Albret making good on his threat or of the arrival of the French.”
"Which is the greater danger?”
Beast shrugs his huge shoulders. “I do not know. If d’Albret has retired to his holdings in central Brittany, all he must do is prevent loyal barons and their armies from answering the duchess’s call for troops. That will play havoc enough with our defense.”
I take a pinch of salt from the saltcellar and sprinkle it on my venison. “And the French? where do you anticipate they will come from?”
“From the north and east. They still hold Saint-Malo and Fougères per the terms of the Treaty of Verger. They will use those as strongholds and strike out from there. But enough of this depressing talk, demoiselle. Surely you have spent your days more pleasantly than I?”
I grimace. “Actually, no. I am not overfond of either embroidery or the chattering of ladies in waiting.”
"What would you rather be doing?” Beast’s eyes sparkle with mischief.
“Something helpful,” I mutter, then I take a sip of wine to wash the sense of helplessness from my tongue. It is not a feeling I relish.
His face grows somber. “Is it not helpful staying by our duchess’s side, offering her peace of mind?”
“But of course, if my presence brings her peace of mind, it is most worthwhile. In truth, she seems most vulnerable since her governess’s betrayal.”
"What of young Isabeau?” Beast’s eyes turn to the high table. “She looks frail to me.”
“Her health is not good. Her lungs are weak, and, I suspect, her heart.”
Beast sends me a strange look. “Does your assassin’s training tell you this?”
His bold question makes me sputter on the wine I have just sipped. I look around to be certain no one has overheard. “No, my lord. But I worked closely with our herbalist at the convent, and it was she who tended to our illnesses.”
“I had hoped she would recover by now. That she has not is unwelcome news,” he says, then tosses back the contents of his goblet. The lord on his right asks him a question, and Beast begins talking with him. Remembering the social pretenses I must uphold, I turn to the knight on my left, but he is leaning so close to the lady next to him that I fear he will fall in her soup. Only too happy to ignore him, I look out among the feasting nobles, their chins greasy with meat, eyes slurry with wine. This celebration has the doomed feel of trying to raise a Maypole in a thunderstorm. I can only hope an order from the convent comes through. This entire room stinks of desperation and betrayal.
Madame Hivern sits between two of the coastal barons and I wonder just how close she is to making her move. Her hand was brilliantly played; she waited for d’Albret to quit the field, and now her opposition has been reduced by half.
My gaze then turns to François, who is always at the heart of whatever festivities are taking place. Twice he has tried to pull me into his merrymaking, but both times I have politely refused. I do not have the heart for his flirtations.
The blare of a sackbut heralds the arrival of the evening’s entertainment, and a parade of masked performers troop into the great hall. The leader wears a donkey-headed mask and is followed by an ape, a lion, and a bear. The bear is real and reminds me uncannily of Captain Dunois.
An old bent-over man pushes a cart holding two fools. Another fool gambols in, a pig bladder hanging from the stick over his shoulder. It is mayhem as they cavort and frolic, looking both humorous and grotesque. The fools draw up to the tables and begin dicing with the diners.
The duchess has eyes only for Isabeau, who laughs and claps her hands, delighted. Another mummer comes in rolling a great barrel. There is a rapid beating of drums, a dark, primitive sound. A stag-headed man bursts out of the barrel and leaps into the fray; he represents the patron saint of horned creatures, Dea Matrona’s consort. He is killed every year at the end of harvest so he may rise again when Dea Matrona gives birth to the new year.
The music changes yet again, and a man dressed as a young maid and holding a bouquet of flowers frolics between the tables. The music deepens, grows more terrifying. Out from the shadows steps the black-robed, skeletal figure of Death Himself. everyone gasps.
The maid tries to run, but four masked men leap out of the shadows riding four stick horses. Their red and black masks obscure their faces, and I shudder. They are hellequin, the wild Hunt who came for Dea Matrona’s daughter and carried her away to Death’s underworld, leaving Dea Matrona to make our world stark and barren in her sorrow.
The maiden evades them. Once. Twice. But the third time, the hellequin surround her. My heart begins to beat faster. Surely this is too frightening for young Isabeau?
I look to see how she is faring, and my breath catches in my throat when I see how close the hellequin have drawn to the high table. Some inner alarm — perhaps Mortain’s own whisper — sounds in my head, and I am on my feet, pushing through the cavorting mummers, reaching for the crossbow hidden beneath my overskirt.
The entire court gasps as a hellequin leaps onto the table in front of the duchess and draws a knife. Most think it is part of the play. Duval and Dunois know better and reach for their swords, but they are too far away. with a heartfelt prayer to my god, I slap the quarrel in place and pull the trigger.
The quarrel catches the hellequin in the back of the neck, just below the protection of his mask. He freezes; the knife drops from his spasming fingers, and he topples forward.
The duchess just manages to leap away in time to keep from being crushed by his falling body. Dark red blood splatters onto her pale face.
The pandemonium is instantaneous.
Ladies scream, courtiers shout and scramble away. Men-atarms pour in from the corridor and surround the mummers, who look in shocked silence at the dead hellequin.
Captain Dunois’s eyes widen in admiration. "Excellent shot.”
I incline my head in acknowledgment of his compliment. “Catch Isabeau,” I tell Duval just before she crumples. But Duval’s reflexes are quick and he snatches her before she hits the floor. "Waroch! De Lornay! Question them.” He nods his head toward the stunned mummers. “Your Grace, I think we should get you back to your quarters,” he says to the duchess.
Pale and trembling, the duchess nods shakily and follows him as he carries their sister back to the solar. Marshal Rieux stares at me as if he fears I, too, have sprung from the mummer’s drum. "What is the meaning of this?” Rieux thumps his hand on the table.
Chancellor Crunard steps in to smooth things over. “I think explanations are best made in private. Perhaps we should all adjourn to the duchess’s chambers.” His eyes seek out mine. “You as well, demoiselle,” he says.
Now that the moment is over and the danger passed, my body begins to tremble. So close. Too close. Ignoring the whispers and the pointing, I follow them out of the hall. was the assassin a parting gift from d’Albret? Or an opening shot fired by some new enemy?
"Who is this woman?” Marshal Rieux demands.
I ignore his question, go to the ewer near the duchess’s canopied bed, and pour water into the basin. I grab a linen cloth from the stand nearby, wet it, then carry it to her. “May I?”
She looks at me in puzzlement.
“You have blood on your face,” I explain.
Her eyes widen in horror and she gives a frantic nod. Gently I begin sponging the spatters from her cheek. Now that she is safe, I am calm. The god truly guided my hand, for I could never have made that shot otherwise. Let the others say what they will, they cannot take that away from me.
"Who is she, Duval? we knew she was not your niece. I, for one, did not begrudge you a lightskirt — ”
“Careful.” Duval’s voice is a warning growl.
“ — but clearly she is much more than any of us guessed.”
“Some knew.” Duval shoots a glance Crunard’s way. It is an excellent strategy. This whole idea was cooked up between the chancellor and the abbess, so let Crunard answer to his irate fellow council members.
“Chancellor Crunard? Did you know about this? who is she and what just happened out there?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Crunard’s signet rings flash as he steeples his fingers. “She has been sent to court by the abbess of St. Mortain.”
I feel all the eyes in the room staring at my back.
“I thought they were the stuff of nightmares,” Rieux mutters quietly.
“But no,” I say innocently. “I am saint sent to aid our duchess and our country, Marshal Rieux. Unless our duchess’s triumph is your nightmare, you have nothing to fear from me.”
He turns accusingly to Anne. “Did you know her identity, Your Grace?”
The duchess raises her chin. “I knew that she served Saint Mortain and that He had sent her to me in my hour of need.”
"Why were the rest of us not told?” the marshal asks.
Crunard shrugs. "We thought the fewer who knew, the easier to keep her identity hidden. Surely, Marshal, you do not tell me every bit of your military strategy?”
Rieux’s face reddens, but he cannot deny the truth of Crunard’s words.
“I do not see why you are so angry.” It is the duchess herself who speaks. “If it were not for Demoiselle Rienne’s quick actions, I would even now be lying in a pool of my own blood.”
There is a resounding silence, then Marshal Rieux rushes in. “You misunderstand us, Your Grace. we are overjoyed that you were not injured. But are we so sure that poor man was not merely part of the entertainment?”
"We are sure,” I say.
Rieux whips his head around to stare at me. “How?”
My eyes meet his. “Because Saint Mortain guided my hand.”
Rieux’s lips flatten into a thin line and he takes a step closer to me. I do not know what he intends, but Chancellor Crunard stops him. “Marshal Rieux!”
Nostrils flaring in annoyance, Rieux checks himself. "Whoever this woman is,” he says, “she should not be privy to our council meeting. You are dismissed, demoiselle.”
I make a great show of ignoring him and look to the duchess. It is she whom I serve, not him. “I await your command, Your Grace.” I can hear Rieux’s teeth grinding in frustration.
I see plain on her face that she is loath to dismiss me because Rieux has ordered her to. “If Your Grace allows it,” I explain gently, “I have duties I must see to regarding your assailant.”
She nods her head graciously. “By all means, demoiselle. See to your duties.”
"Where has the body been taken?” I ask Duval.
His eyes narrow as he realizes what I am planning. “I will show you myself,” he says. "We are done here.”
"We are not done, Duval!” Marshal Rieux says in frustration.
“I am,” Duval says, then takes my elbow in an iron grip and escorts me from the room. when we are alone in the hallway, I shift my elbow. He immediately lessens his hold and grunts an apology. we go the rest of the way to the dungeon in silence, the twitching under Duval’s left eye discouraging any questions. There is a lone guard standing outside a row of cells. "Where is the body?” Duval asks.