“Poison!” De Lornay’s fist clenches around the dice he has been fidgeting with and he takes a step toward me. But it is Beast’s reaction that cuts me to the quick. He lifts his great head and looks at me with wounded eyes, as if I have betrayed him as well as Duval.
“It is not by my hand,” I snap. when they say nothing, I grow agitated. “Think! would I have fetched the two of you if I wanted him to die?”
That seems to convince them somewhat, although de Lornay keeps casting dark, sullen glances toward me as I carry the empty tray back to the table by the fire. Behind me, Duval starts to put together a plan. “Beast, de Lornay, when you leave here tonight, go to Dunois. Tell him you want to be in that party that leaves for Nantes. Do not let him refuse you. Ismae!” he calls out.
I stop what I am doing and turn to face the bed.
“I want you to go as well. Attach yourself to the duchess as if you were her shield, for in truth, you may be. Do not leave her side.”
My hands grip my skirt and I hurry back to him. “My lord, that is not what my convent has ordered.” I do not let myself think on what my convent actually wants me to do. The herbwitch’s words rise up in mind and I cannot tell if they are meant to taunt or comfort: It is a dark god you serve, daughter, but remember, He is not without mercy. Is this His mercy, then? That I will not have to slay Duval with my own hand because he is already dying from poison? A dark god indeed.
“Perhaps not,” he says, “but surely it is what they would want you to do if they knew of her plans.” when I do not speak, he turns to Beast. “Make her go with you. No matter how sick I am or what Crunard or Dunois say, make sure she rides out with you. Carry her if you have to. Swear it.”
“I swear it.” Beast’s deep voice rumbles through the room.
Duval turns to me, his voice more gentle now. “This is what I have worked for my entire life, Ismae, the duchess’s safety. I cannot finish this task, so I ask that you do it for me.”
And of course I cannot say no. Not to his dying wish. “Very well,” I whisper.
A faint tremor shudders through Duval’s body, as if it is only his determination to make these last arrangements for his sister that has kept him going. Our eyes meet. “Thank you.”
when Beast and de Lornay take their leave, Duval leans back against the pillows, his face taking on a grayish pallor. I have spent the day longing to share my news of Crunard’s signet ring with him, but he is so ill, I do not have the heart to add to his cares. “You really must sleep, my lord. You can give us more instructions when you wake up.”
He says something I cannot make out. "What?” I ask, coming closer to the bed.
“If,” he says. “If I wake up.”
I reach down to caress his cheek, his week-old whiskers rough and scratchy against my palm. He is burning as if with fever.
“Do not cry,” he says.
I scrub at my face with my free hand. “I am not crying, my lord.”
“Lie with me,” he says, and I do not know if he means to lie next to him on the bed or rather to lie with him as a woman lies with a man. “They say it is the most glorious way to die, lying with Death’s handmaiden.”
There is a hint of the old Duval in his smile and it fair breaks my heart all over again. I want to tell him he is not dying, but my throat is so tight with grief I cannot force the words out. even if I could, he would surely know it as a lie. I kneel beside the bed. “My lord,” I whisper, “you are too ill.”
He falls silent then, and regret pierces me so sharply it is all I can do not to cry out.
Too late, too late. everything is too late. I want to raise my voice and shout and rant at all the gods and saints in the heavens. Instead, I step out of my gown and let it puddle on the floor. I remove the sheaths at my wrists, then the one at my ankle. when I am left in nothing but my shift, I lift the bedcovers and climb into bed beside him.
His arms are waiting, and as I slip into them, the rest of the world falls away. The skin and muscle in his arms twitch and spasm, damaged as they are by the poison, but he pulls me close until my head is on his shoulder and our chests are touching through the thin linen of my shift.
His heart beats impossibly fast, as if he has just run some great race. wishing I could slow his heart by my touch, I place my hand on his chest, the ridges and bumps of his scars rough beneath my fingers. He smiles and captures my hand. He tries to bring it to his lips, but his grip is too weak and he drops it. I snuggle up against him, my arms draped around his neck and shoulders, determined to stay as close to him as humanly possible.
It is all that we have left to us. And while it is more than I ever dared dream, it is nowhere near enough.
I do not sleep at all that night, afraid to lose one single moment I have left with Duval. Just before dawn I peel myself away from him, one small inch at a time, so that he does not wake. I hold my breath as I put my full weight onto the mattress, afraid the shifting movement will disturb him, but it does not. Indeed, he is sleeping deeply, his breathing shallow. His pulse beats in his throat, thin and thready. Truly, this is a small mercy that my god has granted me. I do not have to even raise my hand and Duval will be dead by nightfall.
Perhaps Mortain knew I could not kill him even if he bore the marque. I cannot kill the only man I have found it in my heart to love.
And no matter how much I long to stay by his side, I have promised all my choices away; to the convent, to the duchess, to Duval himself. I am caught in a web of my own making, my crisscrossing promises ensnaring me as neatly as any trap. Only duty, which once held such joy for me, is left. It is as sharp and bitter in my mouth as bile.
I am dressed and ready before Beast comes to collect me. I have no wish to be dragged from the bedside and have no doubt that Beast will do exactly as he promised. Leaving Duval is as painful as cutting out my own heart and giving it to the crows to feed on. I do not look at Beast when he arrives. I do not dare meet his eye, for if I see one drop of sympathy there, I fear I will splinter into a thousand pieces like shattering crystal.
While Duval has not been seen around the palace for the last few days, it is only the duchess and the Privy Council who know he has gone into hiding. with the rest of us en route to Nantes, he should be safe enough in my chamber. My eyes are dry as bone, my face as still as the cold marble floor beneath my feet as I move through the palace in a daze. Beast sends me a number of worried glances, small flickers of concern that prick against my skin. I barely register their existence.
How much has Duval told Beast? I wonder. will he believe me if I confide my suspicions of Crunard to him? In the end, I decide it is worth the risk. If something happens to me, no one will know where the true danger lies. "We cannot trust Crunard,” I say without looking at him.
His head does not move, but I feel his eyes swivel in my direction. “In what way, demoiselle?”
“I believe it is he who is poisoning Duval, and that he is behind much of the misfortune that has befallen the duchess. I fear he is in league with the French regent.”
He is quiet a long moment, then asks the same question Duval did. “To what purpose?”
“I do not understand the why of it, I know only that his actions point to his guilt, and I want someone other than myself to have this information. Mayhap you can help keep a close eye on him on the trip to Nantes.”
Beast turns and looks at me fully then. “He is not going with us.”
I stop walking. "What?” Apprehension makes my voice sharp.
“Isabeau is too ill to travel, and the duchess was reluctant to leave her side. Crunard offered to stay with her.”
“Duval!” I turn to head back to him, but Beast grabs my arm.
“There is little more Crunard can do to Duval,” he says gently, and I remember his promise to carry me if need be.
After a long moment of weighing my options, I nod, and he releases my arm. we continue walking. “Do you think Isabeau will be safe?” I ask.
Beast scowls. “I cannot believe he would harm a poor, sick child.”
I can only hope he is right. Trying to see to Isabeau’s safety is yet one more thing that is at odds with my promise to Duval.
In the courtyard, a score of men-at-arms are mounted. Four horses wait beside them. Crunard is there but dressed in his robes of office rather than for travel. “The duchess was not comfortable leaving Isabeau on her own, and my age will only slow down your progress,” he explains, which is in itself suspicious, for he owes me no explanations. I cannot help but wonder what he gains by staying. No matter how I poke and prod the question, I can find no answer.
"We will miss your wisdom and counsel on the road, Chancellor Crunard,” I say sweetly. “I’m sure Isabeau will be glad of your company.”
“It will be poor comfort while her sister is gone. But it is some small way I can assist.”
Beast helps me mount my horse, then climbs into his own saddle. The duchess will ride perched in front of Captain Dunois, his thick, sturdy arms keeping her safe as he guides the horse.
As we ride out of the courtyard, I keep my face forward, afraid to look back at Crunard lest something in my expression gives me away. when I hear the gates of the city clang closed behind us, I finally dare to look over my shoulder. Crunard has climbed up on the ramparts to watch us depart. Across the distance, our eyes meet.
“Demoiselle? Are you all right?” I turn to find that Captain Dunois and the duchess have pulled up alongside my horse. The duchess’s eyes are upon me, such a deep liquid brown and so very young. I wonder how I can tell her that she and I have just left the two people we care most about with yet another traitor. Coward that I am, I cannot. I have no proof with which to convince them. And even if Dunois believed me, what action could he take? Since I do not know Crunard’s purpose, I cannot be sure he wouldn’t slaughter us while we stood arguing the issue. Besides, I am hemmed in by my promise to Duval: to get the duchess to safety. If I tell her of my suspicions, she will surely not leave Isabeau. “I am fine, Your Grace. Merely pondering what awaits us at the end of this journey.”
She wrinkles her brow. “Nothing pleasant, that is certain.”
“As you say, Your Grace.”
She looks inclined to linger and I feel something stir in my chest, some small bird of panic that threatens to take flight. I cannot keep up this masquerade all morning if she chooses to ride beside me.
Captain Dunois sends me a sympathetic glance and makes some excuse to ride ahead. As they draw away, Beast moves to my side and hovers there, as if he is afraid I might even now turn and gallop back to the palace. “Leave,” I tell him sharply. “I will not forget my promise.”
This seems to satisfy him. He turns and gallops to his place at the back of the party, and I am left alone.
We are two days on the road, a somber, cheerless troop, each of us lost in misery — except perhaps for Beast, who wears a faint maniacal grin the entire time. when I ask him why, he says he is imagining what he will do when he gets his hands on those who have betrayed the duchess. For the first time, I glimpse the brutal, savage part of him that earned him the name Beast, and it is fearsome.
Every time I consider telling Captain Dunois of my suspicions regarding Crunard’s treachery, he is busy giving orders, seeing to the duchess’s safety, or consulting with his scouts. There is no moment in which he is not rushed and pressed for time, no moment for him to quietly hear my arguments and give me a chance to convince him, so I keep silent.
Late in the afternoon of the second day, we reach the village of Paquelaie. These winter days are short, and we make it to the village just as darkness overtakes us. Dunois leads us to a stone hunting lodge that had belonged to the late duke, stopping only long enough to dispatch a spare soldier to fetch a village woman to cook for us.
Even though we are a small party, it takes a fair while to get all the soldiers quartered and the duchess comfortable in her rooms. As I am the only other woman in the party, I find myself attending upon her.
She is tired and pale, not being used to riding for so hard or so long, but her face has a determined set to it. There are no servants, so Dunois assigns the solders to bring hot water up to her room.
We do not speak much as I assist her in her evening toilette, for I am afraid if I open my mouth all the secrets I am holding will spill out. After she has washed away the two days’ travel, a simple meal is sent up. I keep her company while she picks at her food, then I help her into her bed, and she dismisses me for the night. But my time with her has brought all my secrets swarming to the surface. I must now do my best to convince Captain Dunois of my suspicions.
I find him in the great hall with Beast and de Lornay finishing off the remnants of a meal. The men look up from the demolished duck and capon. "We assumed you would dine with the duchess,” Captain Dunois says sheepishly.
I nod. Let him think I ate upstairs with her. It matters not, for I have no appetite and am not sure I could choke down a single bite. “I must talk with you.”
Dunois glances at Beast and de Lornay. “Alone?”
“No, they know some of it already.” I slip my hand into my pocket and close it around the heavy gold signet ring. “I believe Chancellor Crunard has betrayed us all.”
“Crunard?” His eyes widen with astonishment and disbelief, but I am relieved he does not dismiss me out of hand.
“Yes, my lord. It is a long and complicated story, one that Duval did not think you would accept without proof.”
“You have this proof?”
“Of a sort.” I have had two days on the road to arrange my thoughts into some semblance of order, so I am sorely frustrated to find myself groping for words. “I first grew uneasy about him when you told us of the chancellor not better defending Duval on the night the council discussed his arrest, for the chancellor was behind much of Duval’s actions. I grew even more suspicious when I received word from my convent that Crunard had told them Duval was involved in his mother’s plots, as that was blatantly false.”