“Demoiselle Rienne, I hardly recognized you in your new gown. whatever can the convent have been thinking, sending you out in such garb? Or have you thrown away your future with them for Duval here?” even though his voice is dry and mocking, his face pales and his eyes grow wary.
As I stare at him, my anger at all this man has stolen from me rises up, nearly choking me. His treachery has tainted the purity of the convent and dragged us into his worldly struggles. He has used me — and the abbess as well — as pawns in these games he plays. He has nearly killed Duval and has come close to preventing Anne from claiming her throne. And while I have sympathy for his son, that sympathy does not come at the cost of everything I hold dear.
But even as I stare at him with death in my heart, I falter. Now that I have come face to face with His mercy, I see it in everything. For while Crunard has wronged many, the seeds of his treachery lie in his love for his son.
Killing him now would bring one sort of justice, but it would also spring from the anger in my heart. And when I moved through the battlefield, I swore to myself that I would have nothing more to do with vengeance.
Filled with equal parts wonder and disgust, I realize I cannot kill this wily old fox, no matter how much he might deserve it.
I huff out a sigh of frustration, drop the arm holding the crossbow, then swing out and clout him alongside the head with it. His eyes have just enough time to register surprise before they roll up in his head and he slumps in his chair.
Duval turns to look at me, his eyes unreadable. “Did your god guide your hand in that?”
“No,” I say, looking down at Crunard’s inert body. “That was my own idea. Did you have a better one?”
“Other than wrapping my hands around his neck and squeezing the life out of him, no.”
There is a long moment during which I feel him watching me, so I am careful not to meet his eyes. “That option crossed my mind as well, but we need him alive so that we may clear your name with the rest of the council,” I say, but I do not think he is fooled by my excuses.
I would curse at him for seeing too much, except I am too pleased he is alive to see at all.
It is two days’ ride to Rennes, but due to Duval’s weakened state, it takes us three.
I do not begrudge the slower pace. In truth, it is the first time we have been alone with only ourselves and our own pleasure to consider. Once we are away from Guérande, the mists lift, and the days are cold yet bright. Mortain’s summer, we call it, and I feel certain it is a gift from the god Himself.
The cold fresh air chases the last vestiges of the poison from Duval’s lungs, and his health improves quickly. we talk and laugh as we ride. Indeed, I have never laughed as much as this. Duval points out his father’s holdings to me, and I stop and give thanks at every standing stone we pass.
The nights are our own. we sit in front of the fire Duval has built, our bodies touching from hip to shoulder, and share wine from a skin and roasted meat from a spit. we talk of small things, private things. It is a sweet, glorious time and I know it will be over far too soon.
On our last night on the road, Duval is more quiet than usual. He has pulled a ribbon from my hair and sits playing with it in his hand. "What is wrong?” I finally ask.
He looks at me, his dark eyes reflecting the flames of the fire. "We have decisions to make when we arrive in Rennes.”
I look away, unhappy that the real world will intrude on this last night. “I know.” I pick up a nearby stick and poke at the fire.
“Ismae, I would offer you marriage if you would have it.”
My whole body stills, shocked at the honor he would do me, an honor I never dared to imagine.
He smiles. “I think that Saint Camulos and Saint Mortain could easily come to terms. They work hand in hand often enough in the mortal world.”
I cannot help but smile, for it is such a practical Duval-like thing to say. “Perhaps, my lord. war and Death are known to be closely aligned. But I must speak with my abbess first.” There are still so many unanswered questions about the convent and my service to it.
“Do you plan to remain with the convent then?”
“I do not know yet. All I know is that if I do, it will be different, especially now that I know can no longer trust the integrity of their orders.”
We catch up to the duchess and the others just outside the walls of Rennes at the old abbey of Saint Brigantia. Isabeau is already there, spirited out by Madame Hivern and the faithful Louyse. when Anne and Isabeau see their brother, they give cries of joy and launch themselves at him. For one brief moment, they are not princess and duchess and bastard but a family reunited.
I am surprised to find myself enfolded in Louyse’s sturdy arms as she hugs me to her bosom, relieved to see me unharmed. Not knowing quite what to do with such affection, I pat her awkwardly on the back.
The sisters of Brigantia give us a few moments to enjoy our reunion, then escort us to the rooms that they have prepared for us. They assume, rightly, that we need to rest and refresh ourselves after our journey. In truth, I am travel weary and already mourning the loss of the private time Duval and I shared on the road. A novice opens the door for me, then quietly withdraws. Alone at last, I close my eyes and sag against the thick wooden door.
A faint rustle of fabric startles my eyes open. The abbess of St. Mortain sits in a chair by the fireplace, dressed in her black ceremonial habit. Her pale face gives away nothing of her thoughts.
Fear and regret and remorse shoot through me, ugly, shameful feelings that have me falling to my knees. “Reverend Mother!” I say, my wits leaving me as my forehead touches the cold, hard floor.
“Daughter.” Her voice is icy, and my mind grows blank with panic. I had thought there would be time to think upon all I must say to her. And that I would do it in a letter, which she would read while tucked behind the convent’s sturdy walls, not sitting before me like retribution incarnate.
There is a rustle of parchment. I peer up beneath my lashes to see her spreading a message out on her lap. My message to her. “It seems we have much to talk about.”
“Yes, Holy Mother. We do.” I am pleased that my voice does not shake overmuch.
And then I remember my resolve and rise to my feet even though she has not invited me to. I take a moment to straighten my skirt and compose my features, then meet her gaze steadily. “Chancellor Crunard has betrayed us all.”
Her face is still as marble. "Explain.”
And so I do. I tell her of his stealth and cunning and how he hovered in the background maneuvering people as if they were pawns and destroying lives. when I am done, I cannot tell if she believes me or not. At last she speaks. “If this is indeed true, Chancellor Crunard will have much to answer for.”
I nod, accepting that what I have told her must come as a great shock. “He is secure in the dungeons at Guérande, awaiting whatever justice the duchess and her council choose to mete out.” I grip my hands tightly in front of me. “There is something else, Reverend Mother. Something I must warn you of.” She raises her brows, but does not interrupt, so I continue. “I have come to believe that the marques Mortain uses to guide our hands are much more complex than we thought. I fear they are not always meant to direct our actions but are rather a reflection of what will happen — ”
“Silence!” The abbess stands abruptly, cutting off my words with a swipe of her hand. “Do you think to educate your betters? You tell me nothing new. when you have served Mortain and studied His ways for a score of years or more, then you may presume to lecture me on His precepts. But not until then.” Her cold blue eyes full of anger, she crosses to the window and stares out into the convent’s barren garden. “And what of Duval? Do you love him?” The mocking tone of her voice suggests I wish to roll naked in the mud with pigs.
I close my eyes and reach inside for the spark of the presence I now carry, hoping to borrow its strength. “I do.”
when she turns back to me, her face is pinched with fury. “You would throw away all that we have given you for a man’s love?”
“Not a man’s love,” I say softly. “But Duval’s. And I would find a way to serve both my god and my heart. Surely He does not give us hearts so we may spend our lives ignoring them.”
Her head rears back, as if she has been struck. “So now you are an expert on the will of Mortain?”
I do not flinch. “I came face to face with Him on the battlefield before Nantes. He was not as I thought He would be.”
Her lip curls in disdain. “You saw Mortain? He came to you in a vision?”
“No, Reverend Mother. In the flesh, or such flesh as the saints will wear. He spoke to me and called me daughter, and I found peace with Him. I wish to serve in honor of His mercy rather than His wrath.”
I can tell she wishes to punish me. At first, I think it because I have defied her, and then I realize it is because I have seen Mortain and she has not. “You cannot expect to take your final vows now.”
“I do not want to take my final vows, Reverend Mother.” In truth, I am surprised at how much I do not want to. I think of Annith facing the rest of her life sealed away in the convent, never leaving its walls. I think of Sybella stuck in some hellish assignment that is surely driving her mad. Is that truly what Mortain wishes for them?
Besides, now that I finally have some choices in my life, I have no desire to hand them all back to the convent. “The convent focuses on only one aspect of Mortain’s glory, Reverend Mother. I want to better understand these other parts of Him before committing to such a path.”
“Clearly I was wrong about your devotion to your duties and obligations.” The abbess looks at me as if I am some lowly worm, and it is all I can do to hold fast to my newfound strength.
“You misunderstand me. I am committed to serving Mortain. It is the convent I am uncertain of.”
Her nostrils flare and her lips grow white. She breathes hard for a moment, then, clenching her jaw, she lifts her skirts and storms from the room.
Exactly one fortnight after her thirteenth birthday, Anne of Brittany is carefully dressed in finery befitting a duchess. when she is done, Isabeau kisses her on both cheeks, then Anne turns and leaves the abbey of St. Brigantia. A small procession of attendants accompanies her: myself, Duval, Dunois, and François. The abbess of St. Brigantia also comes with us, as does the abbess of St. Mortain. Night has fallen, and torches light our path as we wind our way to the main entrance of the city, where the drawbridge is closed to us. when she reaches the moat, Anne steps away from our small group and stands alone before the city gates. She raises her young, clear voice and speaks the ancient words that all the rulers of Brittany have spoken and promises to guard the privileges and liberty of both the nobility and the common people of her country.
In answer, the crowd erupts in joyous cheers. They are eager to receive their new duchess, and heavy chains rattle and clank as the drawbridge is lowered. A great clang rings out when it reaches the ground, as triumphant as any bell. The city now open to her, Anne alone steps onto the drawbridge and enters.
Trumpets blare and children shout and throw small handfuls of seeds and dried flower petals as the crowd escorts her to the great cathedral. As demanded by custom, Anne will spend the night in prayer before her coronation in the morning. The six of us will stand over her and watch her, but from a distance. This is a vigil she must keep alone. Her burden is made lighter, however, by the coronation gift Duval has given her: six thousand english troops to fight at her command.
It is a long night, but that is just as well, for every one of us in that church has much to think upon. Many times throughout the dark hours, I feel the gaze of my abbess settle on me, puzzled and brooding. I am surprised when I realize this bothers me not at all. whatever hold she once had over me is gone.
Duval is another matter, however, and every time he glances at me I feel it just as surely as if he has reached out and run his finger along my soul. It is all I can do not to smile at the sheer wonder of it.
Although the brightly colored glass windows hide the sky outside, I can feel the moment night gives way to morning. As dawn breaks, Duval edges closer to me. when I look up at him, our eyes meet, and even in that solemn place and this most solemn of occasions, I cannot help but smile. His hand moves, and when I look down at it, I see that he is playing with the red ribbon he took from my own hair. He has tied nine knots in it, invoking the blessings of the nine saints. As he reaches for my hand, my heart begins to pound. Does he think to pledge ourselves now, before the duchess and God and all our saints? while I am certain of my love for him, I do not yet know if this is what I want.
He holds my hand gently in his and before I can snatch it back, he wraps the ribbon around not both our wrists, but mine alone. He leans in close, his whisper so quiet I can barely hear it. "Whenever you are ready, or if you never are, my heart is yours, until Death do us part. whatever that may mean when consorting with one of Death’s handmaidens.”
A small bubble of joyous laughter rises up from my heart, and I lean over and seal his vow with a kiss, not caring that God and the saints and even the abbess of St. Mortain might be watching. For while I am Death’s daughter and walk in His dark shadow, surely the darkness can give way to light sometimes.