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She was certain they would be stopped, would be found out, but sooner than it seemed possible the huge iron gate loomed out of the mist. Her mother opened the smaller walkway exit, and they hurried into the road.

“You will tell the coach driver that there is an ague at the château, so the Baron sent you out so that no one would be contaminated. Remember, you are the daughter of nobility. Expect to be obeyed.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Good. You have always seemed older than your years, and now I understand why. You cannot be a child any longer, my beautiful, brave daughter. You must become a woman.”

“But, Maman, I—” Lenobia began, but her mother’s words silenced her.

“Listen to me and know that I am telling you the truth. I believe in you. I believe in your strength, Lenobia. I also believe in your goodness.” Her mother paused and then slowly took the old rosary beads from around her neck and lifted them, placing them over her daughter’s head, and tucking them under the lace stomacher so that they were pressed against her skin, invisible to everyone. “Take these. Remember that I believe in you, and know that even though we must be apart, I will always be part of you.”

It was only then that the true realization hit Lenobia. She would never see her mother again.

“No.” Her voice sounded strange, too high, too fast, and she was having trouble catching her breath. “Maman! You must come with me!”

Elizabeth Whitehall took her daughter in her arms. “I cannot. The fille du roi are not allowed servants. There is little room on the ship.” She hugged Lenobia tightly, speaking quickly as, in the distance, the sound of a coach echoed through the mist. “I know that I have been hard on you, but that was only because you had to grow brave and strong. I have always loved you, Lenobia. You are the best, the finest thing in my life. I will think of you and miss you every day, for as long as I live.”

“No, Maman,” Lenobia sobbed. “I cannot say good-bye to you. I cannot do this.”

“You will do this for me. You will live the life I could not give you. Be brave, my beautiful child. Remember who you are.”

“How do I remember who I am if I am pretending to be someone else?” Lenobia cried. Elizabeth stepped back and gently wiped the wetness from her daughter’s cheeks. “You will remember here.” Once more, her mother pressed the palm of her hand against Lenobia’s chest over her heart. “You shall stay true to me, and to yourself, here. In your heart you will always know, always remember. As in mine, I will always know, always remember you.”

Then the coach burst into the road beside them, causing mother and daughter to stumble back out of the way.

“Whoa!” The driver of the coach pulled his team up and shouted at Lenobia and her mother. “What are you doing there, you women? Do you want to be killed?”

“You will not speak to the Mademoiselle Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne in such a voice!” her mother yelled at the coachman. His gaze skittered to Lenobia, who brushed the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, lifted her chin, and glared at the driver.

“Mademoiselle d’Auvergne? But why are you out here?”

“There is a sickness at the château. My father, the Baron, has kept me separate from it so that I am not contagious.” Lenobia’s hand went to her chest and she pressed against the lacy fabric there so that her mother’s rosary beads bit into her skin, grounding her, giving her strength. But still she could not help reaching out and clinging to her mother’s hand for security.

“Are you daft, man? Do you not see the mademoiselle has waited here for you for far too long already? Help her inside the coach and out of this horrid dampness before she does fall ill,” her mother snapped at the servant.

The driver scrambled down immediately, opening the door to the coach and offering his hand.

Lenobia felt as if all of the air had been knocked from her body. She looked wildly at her mother.

Tears were washing down her mother’s face, but she simply curtseyed deeply and said, “Bon voyage to you, child.”

Lenobia ignored the gaping coachman and pulled her mother up, hugging her so tightly the rosary beads dug painfully into her skin. “Tell my mother I love her and will remember her and miss her every day of my life,” she said in a shaky voice.

“And my prayer, to the Holy Mother of us all, is that she let this sin be attributed to me. Let this curse be on my head, not yours,” Elizabeth whispered against her daughter’s cheek.

Then she broke Lenobia’s embrace, curtseyed again, and turned away, walking with no hesitation back the way they’d come.

“Mademoiselle d’Auvergne?” Lenobia looked at the coachman. “Shall I take the casquette for you?”

“No,” she said woodenly, surprised that her voice still worked. “I’ll keep my casquette with me.” He gave her an odd look but held out his hand for her. She saw her hand being placed in his, and her legs carried her up and into the coach. He bowed briefly and then clambered back to his position as driver. As the coach lurched forward, Lenobia turned to look back at the gates of the Château de Navarre and saw her mother collapsed to the ground, weeping with both hands covering her mouth to stifle her wails of grief.

Hand pressed against the expensive glass of the carriage window, Lenobia sobbed, watching her mother and her world fade into mist and memory.

CHAPTER TWO

With a swirl of skirts and throaty, low laughter, Laetitia disappeared around a marble wall carved with images of saints, leaving only the scent of her perfume and the remnants of unsatisfied desire in her wake.

Charles cursed, “Ah, ventrebleu!” and adjusted his velvet robes.

“Father?” the acolyte repeated, calling down the inner hallway that ran behind the chancel of the cathedral. “Did you hear me? It is the Archbishop! He is here and asking for you.”

“I heard you!” Father Charles glared at the boy. As the priest approached him, he lifted his hand and made a shooing motion. Charles noted that the child flinched like a skittish colt, which made the priest smile.

Charles’s smile was not a pleasant thing to behold, and the boy backed quickly down the steps that led up to the chancel, putting more space between the two of them.

“Where is de Juigne?” Charles asked.

“Not far from here, just inside the main entrance to the cathedral, Father.”

“I trust he has not been waiting long?”

“Not too long, Father. But you were, uh—” The boy broke off, his face filled with consternation.

“I was deep in prayer, and you did not wish to disturb me,” Charles finished for him, staring hard at the boy.

“Y-yes, Father.”

The boy was unable to look away from him. He’d begun to sweat, and his face had turned an alarming shade of pink. Charles couldn’t tell if the child was going to cry or explode. Either would have amused the priest.

“Ah, but we have no time for amusement,” he mused aloud, breaking his gaze with the boy and walking quickly past him. “We have an unexpected guest.” Enjoying the fact that the boy flattened himself against the screening wall so that his priestly robes didn’t so much as brush his skin, Charles felt his mood lighten. He shouldn’t allow small things to distress him. He would simply call for Laetitia as soon as he could free himself of the Archbishop, and they would resume where they’d left off—which would put her willing and bent before him.

Charles was thinking of Laetitia’s shapely bare bottom when he greeted the old priest. “It is a great pleasure to see you, Father Antoine. I am honored to welcome you to the Cathédrale Notre Dame d’Évreux,” Charles de Beaumont, Bishop of Évreux, lied smoothly.

“Merci beaucoup, Father Charles.” The archbishop of Paris, Antoine le Clerc de Juigne, kissed him chastely on one cheek and then the other.

Charles thought the old fool’s lips felt dry and dead.

“To what do my cathedral and I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“Your cathedral, Father? Surely it is more accurate to say that this is God’s house.”

Charles’s anger began to build. Automatically, his long fingers began to stroke the huge ruby cross that always hung from a thick chain around his throat. The flames of the lit votive candles at the feet of the nearby statue of the beheaded Saint Denis fluttered spasmodically.

“To say this is my cathedral is simply a term of endearment and not one of possession,” Charles said. “Shall we retire to my offices to share wine and break bread?”

“Indeed, my journey was long, and though in February I should be thankful it is rain and not snow falling from the gray skies, the damp weather is tiring.”

“Have the wine and a decent meal brought immediately to my offices.” Charles motioned impatiently to one of the nearby acolytes, who jumped nervously before scurrying away to do his bidding. When Charles’s gaze returned to the older priest, he saw that de Juigne was studying the retreating acolyte with an expression that was his first warning that something was amiss with this unannounced visit. “Come, Antoine, you do look weary. My offices are warm and welcoming. You will be comfortable there.” Charles led the old priest away from the nave, across the cathedral, through the pleasant little garden, and to the opulent offices that adjoined his spacious private chambers. All the while the archbishop gazed around them, silent and contemplative.

It wasn’t until they were finally settled in front of Charles’s marble fireplace, a goblet of excellent red wine in his hand and a sumptuous repast placed before him, that de Juigne deigned to speak.

“The climate of the world is changing, Father Charles.”

Charles raised his brows and wondered if the old man was as daft as he appeared. He’d traveled all the way from Paris to talk of the weather? “Indeed, it seems this winter is warmer and wetter than any in my memory,” Charles said, wishing this useless conversation to be over soon.

Antoine le Clerc de Juigne’s blue eyes, which had appeared watery and unfocused just seconds before, sharpened. His gaze skewered Charles. “Idiot! Why would I be speaking of the weather? It is the climate of the people that concerns me.”

“Ah, of course.” For the moment, Charles was too surprised by the sharpness in the old man’s voice even to feel anger. “The people.”

“There is talk of a revolution.”

“There is always talk of a revolution,” Charles said, choosing a succulent piece of pork to go with the smooth goat cheese he’d sliced for his bread.

“It is more than simple talk,” said the old priest.

“Perhaps,” Charles said through a full mouth.

“The world changes around us. We draw near a new century, though I will pass into Grace before it arrives and younger men, men like yourself, will be left to lead the church through the tumult that approaches.”

Charles fervently wished the old priest had expired before he’d made this visit, but he hid his feelings, chewed, and nodded sagely, saying only, “I will pray that I am worthy of such a weighty responsibility.”

“I am pleased that you are in agreement about the need to take responsibility for your actions,” said de Juigne.

Charles narrowed his eyes. “My actions? We were speaking of the people and the change within them.”

“Yes, and that is why your actions have come to the attention of His Holiness.”

Charles’s mouth suddenly went dry and he had to gulp wine to swallow. He tried to speak, but de Juigne continued, not allowing him to talk.

“In times of upheaval, especially as the tide of popular attitude sways toward bourgeois beliefs, it has become increasingly important that the church does not drown in the wake of change.” The priest paused to sip delicately at his wine.

“Forgive me, Father. I am at a loss to understand you.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much. You could not believe your behavior would be ignored forever. You weaken the church, and that cannot be ignored.”

“My behavior? Weaken the church?” Charles was too astounded to be truly angry. He swept a well-manicured hand around them. “Does my church appear weakened to you? I am loved by my parishioners. They show their devotion by tithing with the generosity that fills this table.”

“You are feared by your parishioners. They fill your table and your coffers because they are more afraid of the fire of your rage than the burning of their empty stomachs.”

Charles’s own stomach lurched. How could the old bastard know? And if he knows, does that mean the Pope does as well? Charles forced himself to remain calm. He even managed a dry chuckle. “Absurd! If it is fires they fear, it is brought on by the weight of their own sins and the possibility of eternal damnation. So they give generously to me to alleviate those fears, and I duly absolve them.”

The Archbishop continued as if Charles had never spoken. “You should have kept to the whores. No one notices what happens to them. Isabelle Varlot was the daughter of a marquis.”

Charles’s stomach continued to churn. “That girl was the victim of a horrible accident. She passed too close to a torch. A spark lit her dress afire. She burned before anyone could save her.”

“She burned after spurning your advances.”

“That is ridiculous! I did not—”

“You should also have kept your cruelty in check,” the Archbishop interrupted. “Too many of the novices come from noble families. There has been talk.”

“Talk!” Charles sputtered.

“Yes, talk supported by the scars of burns. Jean du Bellay returned to his father’s barony minus the robes of a priest and instead carrying scars that will disfigure him for the rest of his life.”

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