He arches an eyebrow. “Is everything as it should be?” “It will be once we are away from here,” I say.
As he escorts me to the door, I feel a pair of eyes boring into the back of my head. I know if I turn and look, they will be the color of storm clouds.
At the convent, the reverend mother looks at me sharply as she leans forward. “You are certain he said Duval?”
“Yes, Reverend Mother. That was the name he gave. Although perhaps it was false? He also wore the silver oak leaf of Saint Camulos,” I add, in case that will help in any way.
The abbess glances at Crunard and he nods reluctantly. “Duval does serve Saint Camulos, as do most knights and soldiers.”
"Even so,” she says. “It would be easy enough to get hold of such a pin to round out the deception.”
Crunard shifts in his chair. “But if it was Duval . . .” he says.
“There could be other reasons for his being there,” the abbess points out.
“There could,” Crunard agrees grudgingly. “But it is also possible we have caught a very big fish indeed.”
The abbess turns her piercing blue gaze back to me. “How did he react to finding you in the room?”
“He assumed I was there for a liaison of some sort and was flirtatious at first. Then he grew angry.” I want to look away, afraid she will be able to tell just how poorly I played my role with him, but trying to avoid her will only make her pay closer attention.
“Tell me everything he said. everything.”
And so I repeat the conversation for her, word by word. when I am done, she looks at Crunard, who shrugs. “It could mean nothing; it could mean everything. I no longer claim to know all the duchess’s enemies. They hide too well among her allies.”
“But Duval . . .” the abbess says, shaking her head. She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes. I cannot tell if she is thinking or praying. Mayhap both. while her eyes are closed, I take a deep breath and long for my own bed. Tonight’s duties have been exhilarating, but draining too. That Duval saw through my deception has left me shaken. I had thought there was little more for me to learn, but tonight has proven me wrong. I vow to pay more attention to Sister Beatriz’s lessons in the womanly arts. Perhaps Annith and I can even practice on each other.
“So,” the reverend mother says, coming out of her reverie. “This is what we shall do. Baron Lombart’s guests will be staying the week. Chancellor Crunard was on his way back to court, but he has had a change of heart, haven’t you, Chancellor?”
He nods, then spreads his hands. “I fear my horse has gone lame.”
The abbess smiles. “So of course he will return to Lombart’s with his young guest. And you” — her eyes pin me to my chair — "Will return with him and find a way to engage Duval again. Preferably alone. with luck, you can convince him to play a game of seduction with you, a liaison or some such — ”
“But Holy Mother — ”
Her face grows cold and distant. “Did you or did you not vow to use every skill you possess in the service of Mortain?”
“Of course, but — ”
“There is no but. Your feminine artistry is as much a part of your arsenal as your dagger or beloved poison. Duval must be watched. You yourself have found evidence of that. The closer you get to him, the more you will learn. Perhaps you will even be able to coax truths from him under the guise of pillow talk.”
I am certain I could no more coax secrets out of the dark, angry Duval than I could coax the abbess to dance a gavotte in the streets of Nantes, but I keep that to myself. I have already performed poorly tonight and I am afraid if I argue she will think I am no longer fit to serve the convent. Then a thought occurs to me. "Why not just eliminate him now and avoid the risk altogether?”
“Did you see the marque of Mortain on him?”
I hesitate, then answer truthfully. “No. But Martel’s was nearly hidden under his collar. Perhaps Duval’s hides as well.”
She smiles, and too late I see I have played right into her hands. “All the more reason to get close to him, no?”
I cannot begin to fathom why Mortain insists on concealing these marques of His so that I must play hide-and-seek.
“Ismae,” she says, serious once more. “Duval is one of the duchess’s most trusted advisors. It is critical we know where he stands.”
“He has her ear and trust in a way few others do,” explains Crunard.
“And if he is betraying us, he will feel Mortain’s punishment soon enough.” The abbess’s face is grim. “Perhaps even at your hand — ”
She is interrupted by scuffling at the door. The abbess only has time to frown before the door bursts open. My breath hitches sharply in my throat as Gavriel Duval himself strides in.
Annith is right on his heels. “I am sorry, Reverend Mother! I told him you’d left instructions not to be disturbed, but he wouldn’t listen.” She sends the intruder a scathing look.
“Yes, I can see that,” the abbess says. She sends a quick questioning glance my way. when I nod, indicating he is who I saw at Lombart’s, she turns back to the man glowering in her doorway. "Well, Duval, come in. Don’t hover at the door.”
Duval comes farther into the room and I nearly flinch at his heated gaze. In truth, the man is angry enough to breathe fire. “Abbess. Chancellor Crunard.” He gives a perfunctory nod to both. His anger eats up all the empty space in the room. "We have a few things we must discuss.”
The abbess raises an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“Yes. The incompetence of your novices, for one.” He places undue emphasis on the word novice, I think.
“Twice now, she” — he jabs his finger in my direction — “has interfered with my work. The convent cannot keep sending out agents who destroy valuable sources of information.”
“Twice?” I challenge him, for I have seen him only once before.
“The tavern.” At my blank look, he hunches his shoulders and leers. “‘Hurry back down to Hervé when you are done, eh?’”
The oaf! He was the oaf at the tavern. My fists clench at the memory.
The reverend mother speaks, her cold voice drawing his attention back to her. “The convent has always acted alone in carrying out Mortain’s will. Are you suggesting we need your permission?” Her tone implies he should not be suggesting any such thing.
He folds his arms across his chest. “I propose only that some thought be applied to your actions. Twice now you have gotten to men before I did. And while you and your saint are interested in meting out retribution, I am interested in information that can guide our country out of this wretched hole we are in.”
“You wanted them for questioning.” The reverend mother’s flat tone does not reveal whether she feels remorse for having disrupted his plans.
Duval nods. “I am sure, given the right incentive, they could have led us to the puppet master pulling their strings.”
Crunard sits forward in his chair, suddenly alert. “Surely they come from the French regent?”
“Perhaps,” Duval says cautiously. “But she is working with someone at court and I would like to know who.”
Crunard spreads his hands in invitation. "Will you share your suspicions with us?”
“Not at this time.” Duval speaks quietly, but his refusal is shocking just the same.
Crunard recovers first. “Surely you’re not suggesting we are not trustworthy?”
“I suggest no such thing, but it would be unwise for me to voice any suspicions I have without sufficient evidence. Unfortunately” — he sends me another scathing glance — “someone keeps destroying my evidence.”
Mouth pursed in thought, the abbess folds her arms in her sleeves. “How do you propose we rectify this? Are we to consult with you every time the saint bids us act?”
Duval runs his hand through his hair and turns to the window. “Not necessarily. But we must find a better way to coordinate our efforts. Because of your novice’s actions, the duchess has lost valuable information.”
I feel as if I’ve been slapped. “Might have lost,” I correct under my breath.
He looks at me in surprise. "Excuse me?”
I willingly bow to my god and my abbess, but I’ll be damned if I will bow to this man. I raise my head and meet his gaze. “I said might have lost. It is not certain that these men had any vital information.”
He strides toward me then, coming so close that I must tilt my head back to meet his glower. He places his hands on the arms of my chair, imprisoning me. “But we will never know, will we?” His voice is soft and mocking and he is so near I feel his words move across my skin.
“Duval!” The reverend mother’s sharp voice breaks through our tense silence. “Quit intimidating my novice.”
He flushes and pushes away from my chair.
“I was not intimidated,” I mutter under my breath.
He glances angrily at me but says nothing. A small tic begins at the base of his jaw. He appeals to Chancellor Crunard. “Tell them. Tell them how delicate the balance. How each bit of information has the power to sway that balance.”
“He has no need to tell me,” the abbess says sharply.
Crunard spreads his hands. “Then you know it is true. The circling vultures grow bold. The regent of France has forbidden that Anne be crowned duchess. It is our enemies’ wish to make her France’s ward so that they may claim Brittany for their own. They also claim the right to determine who she will marry.”
Duval begins pacing. “Spies are everywhere. we can scarce keep track of them all. The French have set up a permanent entourage within our court, which has made some of the border nations uneasy.”
Crunard adds, “Not to mention that their presence makes it impossible to see our duchess crowned without their knowledge. But until we place that crown upon her head before her people and the Church, we are vulnerable.”
I cannot help but feel sympathy for our poor duchess. “Surely there is some way out of this mess?”
I have addressed my question to the abbess, but it is Duval who answers. “I will forge one with my bare hands, if need be,” he says. “I vow that I will see her crowned duchess, and I will see her safely wed. But I need information against our enemies if I am to accomplish this.”
The room falls so silent that I fear they will hear the pounding of my heart. Duval’s vow has moved me, and that he has made it on sacred ground proves he is either very brave or very foolish.
At last the abbess speaks. “I will concede your greater experience in the matter of gathering information,” she says.
At her words, Duval relaxes somewhat. The fool. The look she has given him is one that all of us at the convent have learned to fear, and I, for one, do not care for the gleam in her eye one bit.
“Your concern for our country is admirable, and it is true that few are as committed as you.” Her compliments lull him further into an illusion of safety. “And,” she continues, “I know you are as anxious to help us as we are to help you.”
Duval’s face creases into a frown as he tries to recall expressing such a thing. My heart swells with pride at how neatly the reverend mother is boxing him in. She glances at Chancellor Crunard, who gives a slight nod.
"We will be happy to work with you. And in order that we may do so more smoothly, we will place Ismae in your household for the next few weeks.”
The shock of her words forces all the air from my lungs, which is the only thing that keeps me from shouting No!
Duval sends me a horrified look — as if this has somehow been my doing! He opens his mouth to protest, but the abbess talks over him.
"We need someone at court. I don’t like being so far away when there is such turmoil surrounding our duchess. Posing as your mistress, Ismae will have access to all the people and information the convent requires. More important, she will be in a position to act when needed. And” — she gives him a beatific smile — “coordinating our respective duties will then be possible.”
I cannot help but admire the neatly set trap she has built around him. I would admire it even more if I had not been the bait. “But Reverend Mother — ” I start, but she silences me with a look.
Duval, however, does not owe her the same blind obedience. “You are mad,” he says simply, and the reverend mother’s face hardens. “I shall do no such thing. I do not have time to play nursemaid to one of your novitiates.”
“Then any chance we have of coordinating our efforts is lost,” she says, her entire demeanor cold and distant.
“You are blackmailing me,” Duval says, aggrieved.
“No, only agreeing to the cooperation you yourself have requested.” And there it is. He is well and truly trapped, and he knows it.
when he huffs out a sigh of resignation, I know she has won. “I will not claim her as mistress. we shall say she is my cousin.” That barb finds its home. Am I so very repugnant?
The abbess looks incredulous. “And who will believe you? Your family and its ties are too well known for that to work.”
“Besides,” Sir Crunard adds, “no one would place an unwed maid in your care without female family members to chaperone. It is much more believable that you have simply taken a mistress.”
I clear my throat, and the abbess raises an eyebrow, giving me permission to speak. "Would it not work for me to be installed in his kitchens? Or as a maid?”
She waves her hand, brushing away my suggestions. “You would not have access to court then, which is the whole point of this exercise.”