"Except,” Duval points out, “I am not known to favor mistresses. Not to mention that if I did, it would certainly not be one who was greener than a winter apple.”
I set my teeth at his words. I am not that unpolished.
Reverend Mother leans back in her chair and tsks. “You exaggerate, milord. Ismae has been well trained in all things, including how to act as a man’s mistress.”
Clearly now will not be a good time to confess to playing truant during most of Sister Beatriz’s lessons.
“But more important,” Duval continues, "With the way things are at court, I cannot assure her protection.”
“I do not need protection,” I say, offended at such a suggestion.
“No, she does not,” the abbess agrees. “She merely needs an opportunity to act.”
“You would leave such life-and-death decisions to a novice?”
“Of course not,” Reverend Mother snaps. "We leave such life-and-death decisions in the hands of Mortain, where they belong.” She turns to me. “You’ll leave with Duval within the hour. Go pack a small bag to take with you. we’ll have the rest of your things sent to his residence in Guérande. You may go.”
Dizzy at the speed with which my world has been turned upside down, I stall, trying to think of one last argument I can make. I have joined the convent to withdraw from the world of men, not to be thrust upon the mercy of one.
The abbess leans across her desk. “Have you forgotten your vow for complete and unyielding obedience in all things?” she asks in a low voice. “You are but a novice. You still have much proving to do before you can take your final vows.”
I swallow my remaining protests and go to my room to pack.
Before I finish packing, there is a knock at my door. when the reverend mother walks in, I am stunned into silence. She has never visited my quarters before.
She closes the door behind her, eyes alight with a cold, blue fire. “You see how conveniently this aligns with our plans, don’t you?”
It is true. Duval has given her an opening to carry out the very subterfuge she’d been planning minutes before he burst into her office. “It is what you wanted, Reverend Mother.”
“It is what Mortain wants, child,” she says sharply. “Or else it would not be so easily arranged. Settle your mind to this, Ismae. even if Duval is guilty of nothing more than temper and poor manners, this arrangement will serve us well, for there are many at court who bear watching. I would know with whom Duval spends time, who his allies are, what correspondence he sends. And receives. Keep an eye out for anything from the French regent. Be truthful with him whenever possible. It will be the quickest way to lull him into trust. I am not overly fond of coincidences and would like to better understand why he was in that room. He has complete access to the duchess, and her complete confidence as well. I want to be certain he is serving her interests.”
“Is that whose interests we serve, Reverend Mother? Does serving the duchess serve Mortain? I am not being impudent,” I rush to add. “I truly do not understand.”
Her face softens. “But of course it is the same, child. every day thousands of Breton voices beg our gods to keep them safe from the French and to keep our duchess strong. You can be certain France does not pray to our gods. Nor will the French honor the old saints as we do should they succeed in conquering our land. France is too closely aligned with the current pope, who would see all forms of worship but his own purged from the world. Of course Mortain does not wish that.”
She lifts her hand from the folds of her gown and I now see that she carries something wrapped in soft, worn leather. “You have made only two kills, not three, but you are close to completing your training. This assignment is your final test. Once you pass it, you will only have to say your vows to be fully committed to this convent.”
Dismayed that she would think otherwise, I meet her gaze, willing her to see the truth of my words. “I am fully committed already, Most Holy Mother.”
“I know. which is why I am giving you one of Mortain’s own daggers.”
I blink in surprise. I have never heard of such a dagger before.
“Full initiates carry them, and since you will be acting as such, I would see you properly armed with a misericorde.” She unwraps the leather and reveals an ancient dagger with a handle made of antler and chased with silver. The blade is a handbreadth long and worn with age. “This knife possesses an old, ancient magic, one of Mortain’s greatest gifts,” she says, holding it out to me. when I take it in my hand, it is warm.
“On a living man,” she continues, “the misericorde needs only to pierce the skin in order to release the soul from the body. Because the dagger was fashioned by Mortain Himself, only a cut or scratch will send a person’s soul to Him, quick and sure. It is meant as a weapon of grace — a way to invoke death and release the soul from painful days spent lingering and pondering one’s sins and wrongdoings.”
Awed by the power of this gift, I slip it through the slit in my gown and attach it to my waist; the weight of it is reassuring against my leg. This talk of souls has also reminded me of Martel. “Reverend Mother, as Martel’s soul left his body, I felt it rush through me. Is that . . . normal?”
The abbess stares at me a long moment, then frowns slightly. “But of course. It was your first encounter with a soul, yes?” when I nod, she continues. “The encounter was no doubt powerful and unexpected, as it is no small thing to experience a soul in all its richness.” She reaches out and puts her hand to my cheek as a mother would her babe’s. “You came to us a lump of clay, and we molded you into an instrument of Death. Duval is the bow through which we will launch you at our common enemies. Go now, and make us proud. Do not shame us with doubt or hesitation.”
And indeed, I am filled with remorse at her words. I am naught but a tool of the convent, to be wielded at need. who am I to question those who have raised me up from the cellar floor?
I am a handmaiden of Death. I walk in His dark shadow and do His bidding. Serving Him is my only purpose in this life, and I have let my annoyance drive that duty from my mind. It will not happen again.
Instead of heading directly to the courtyard, I take a quick detour to tell Annith goodbye. Sybella did not have time to say farewell, and I would not have Annith suffer that twice.
She is in the rookery, helping the elderly Sister Claude. She startles at my approach, her eyes widening as she takes in my traveling cloak and satchel. She presses her lips firmly together and she turns away.
I pick my way across the bird droppings to where she is resealing a small parchment with beeswax. Guilt at having been chosen before her — yet again — fills me. I try to lighten the mood. “Sister Claude will catch you,” I tease.
Annith keeps her attention firmly on hiding the signs of her snooping. “And I will argue that this is what they have trained me for.”
Silence stretches out between us as she finishes her task. when she speaks, it is as if she is pushing bitter pips off her tongue. “You are going out again.”
There is no answer I can give her but the truth. “I am to become a member of Viscount Duval’s household.”
Her head snaps up, her interest caught in spite of her disappointment. “The one who burst in on the reverend mother this morning?”
I nod. There are still no voices in the courtyard, so I quickly tell Annith of the night’s events and what transpired in the abbess’s office. when I finish, she tosses the resealed message down on the table with disgust. “It should be me,” she says with quiet fierceness.
“I know. I can only think that the abbess must have something truly special she is saving you for.”
“It is because I failed at the lesson with the corpse.”
It is the only one of the convent’s lessons at which Annith failed to excel — the time we were made to practice our skills on corpses. Sybella and I had our pasts to give us strength for the task, but Annith did not. “Faltered, not failed,” I say. “And you did it in the end. Sister Arnette said you passed. That cannot be it. Mayhap it is simply because you are younger?”
“I am only a year younger than you and Sybella. And Sybella was my age when they first sent her out.” She glares at me, not wanting my words of comfort. “Do they know how many classes you’ve skipped?”
“Sister Serafina needed my help in the workshop!”
"Even so,” she sniffs. “I am better at dancing and coquetry, not to mention I can beat you seven out of ten times in our practices.”
Her words pluck at my own worries. This assignment will not be a case of quickly slipping in and then out again undetected. It will be a prolonged deception before those who can easily sniff out an impostor. “I am sure she knows that,” I say, and hope that it is true.
Her haughty expression crumples. “If it is not the corpse, then it makes no sense,” she whispers, and I feel her despair as if it were my own.
“Have you asked the abbess?” I would never take such a risk, but Annith is far more at ease with the reverend mother than I am.
“And have her question my faith and dedication to Mortain?” she scoffs. “I think not.”
I hear a male voice in the courtyard, reminding me where my current duties lie. “I must go. Please don’t let us part in anger.”
She steps closer and throws her arms around me. “I am not mad at you.”
I hug her back and wonder how long it will be until I see her again. “Perhaps you will join me at court soon?” I suggest.
“I will pray for it nightly.”
I glance at the resealed parchment on the table before her. “No word from Sybella?”
“None.” Then her face brightens. “Perhaps you will learn of her at court.”
“If so, I will send word.” we hug one last time before I hurry from the rookery.
I clutch my small bundle of possessions and make my way toward the beach where Duval waits for me, his brown cloak whipping about his boots in the stiff breeze. He does not look any happier about this arrangement than I am, but from where I stand it is all his fault.
When he puts his hand on my elbow to help me into the boat, all the holy resolve I have wrapped myself in disappears and I jerk away, nearly tipping us both into the water.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he growls.
But I am in the boat and he is no longer touching me, so I consider myself the victor in our exchange.
I settle myself on one of the planks and stare out at the sun sparkling on the blue water. I amuse myself by wondering if Duval can swim and if I dare put it to the test.
“This is not my doing, demoiselle,” he says, “so you can save your prickly temper for the abbess.”
“It is most certainly your doing. If you had not seen fit to criticize the work of the convent, I would not be here now.” That is not the entire truth, for even before he burst into her office, the abbess was plotting to put me in Duval’s path again, but he does not need to know that.
He is silent for a while, the only sounds the lap of the water against the boat and the creak of the oars. As he rows, I cannot help but study him, this man in whose hands my fate now rests. His brooding eyes are the light gray of a winter sky. His chin is covered with whiskery stubble, which makes his firm, wellshaped mouth stand out all the more. Unbidden, the word mistress echoes through my mind, and I shiver. A sense of foreboding washes over me. He is not Guillo, I remind myself. Indeed, he is as different from the pig farmer as can be.
Duval is the first to break the silence, and I count it another small victory. “Did Martel say anything before he died? Make a confession, perhaps?”
“A confession?” I allow a touch of scorn to seep into my voice. "We are handmaidens to Death, milord, not confessors.”
He shrugs in equal parts irritation and embarrassment. “I do not claim to know what your mysteries involve. either way, did Martel have any last words as he looked into your face and saw his fate?”
Since Martel’s last words were of seduction, a red-hot poker will not drag them from me. “He said nothing of importance.”
“Are you certain? Perhaps it sounded like nothing to you but will have meaning for me. Tell me his exact words.”
Merde, but the man is persistent. Or is he concerned that the traitor named him? If so, I will not give him the satisfaction of saying yea or nay. “He talked only of meeting someone, that is all. How is it again that you came to be in that room at that exact time?” I ask sweetly.
His jaw twitches. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
I shrug my shoulders.
He stops rowing and leans forward, bringing his face close to mine. “I have served my country in more ways than you can imagine, and I serve it still. Do not ever doubt that.” His words are sharp and pointed and intended to slice my doubts to ribbons. And while they have the ring of truth to them, a traitor of his caliber would be very good at lying.
Still glaring at me, Duval begins to remove his cloak. For a moment, panic flutters in my breast and I wonder what he is doing. But he is only hot from his rowing, and he thrusts the garment at me. “Try not to let it get wet,” he says.
without thinking, I take the thick, rich wool in my hand. A flash of silver catches my eye, and I run my finger along the oak leaf pinned to the cloak. The old noble families of Brittany have always dedicated at least one of their sons to the patron saint of soldiers and battle. I cast my mind back to the enormous tapestries that line Sister Eonette’s chamber walls, tapestries upon which the sisters of Mortain have recorded the family trees of all the Breton nobles throughout the centuries in bright silk thread. I do not recall seeing the name Duval embroidered there. Is it a family name? Or the name of his holding? For the first time, I wonder who exactly he is other than a favorite of the duchess who has earned the abbess’s and chancellor’s suspicions.