Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(11)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(11)
Robin LaFevers

“I hoped if he thought I did not love you, he would not bother to hurt you. It is like you pretending your favorite doll is not your favorite so Charlotte will not tease you with it.”

Her face clears in understanding even as Charlotte scowls at me.

My voice grows softer, for these next words are hard to get past the sorrow that fills my throat, the wound still fresh. “You must also know that I did not kill our brother Julian.” Although I now know we shared no blood, I will always think of him as my brother. “He was killed trying to protect me, and while I love him all the more for it, you can be certain that will weigh on my conscience for all eternity.”

“Who was trying to hurt you?” Louise’s voice is small.

How do I tell her it was her father? I reach out and cup her tender cheek in my hand. “Someone who enjoyed cruelty for its own sake and had no care for those he hurt.”

“Oh.” That seems to be enough for her. She has not been around him much. He did not bother himself with his children until they could be of use to him. When I turn to Charlotte, however, I can see that she knows precisely who it was that tried to hurt me. She regards me for a long moment before nodding, as if she has deigned to believe me.

Unable to resist, I quickly hug her for her faith in me, then I plant a quick kiss on her forehead before doing the same to Louise.

Behind me, the door opens, followed by a murmur of voices. Ismae has arrived and has brought reinforcements. Lazare—a slender man whose face is as sharp as any blade and his eyes as cutting—is with her. He is one of the mysterious and maligned charcoal-burners who serve the Dark Mother, the one to pray to when the Nine have forsaken you. Maybe that is who I should look to for guidance now. Especially since she favors the scarred and wounded, those without hope.

Lazare is one of the first to leave the depths of the forest to serve the duchess. He is swift and deadly. We have fought together many times. I trust him implicitly. Next to him is a small gnome of a man grinning widely and nodding his head in enthusiastic greeting. Yannic, Beast’s loyal companion, is short and crooked, his movements clumsy and awkward, but his heart is bigger than a mountain, as is his courage. Even better, the girls know both of them, since they traveled with us when we made our escape from Nantes.

Smiling, Yannic reaches for Louise’s ear and pulls a small rock from it. She blinks. “How did you do that?” she demands. He winks at me, and I know that all will be well between them.

As Yannic and Lazare distract the girls, Ismae takes my arm and pulls me toward the door.

“What?” I ask, frowning. “Did Beast find Pierre?”

“He has not returned yet. But you and he are due in the council meeting.”

The council meeting! Merde, that seems like a lifetime ago. “Have I not missed it already?”

“No. Dunois and Duval were just heading down as I was coming to your room.”

“Did you tell them I was not coming?”

Ismae stares at me blankly. “Why would I?”

I pull my arm from her grip. “Surely my sisters need me more than the council does.”

Ismae gives a sharp shake of her head. “You yourself said that Pierre and his men were wounded. And Beast is close on their trail. If your brother had other reinforcements, they would have already made their move. They are gone. At least for now.”

I say nothing. My instincts scream at me to grab my sisters and go to ground, like a hunted fox, burrowing in the safety of the earth until the danger has passed.

Ismae grabs my arm again. “Look at them.”

Louise and Charlotte sit on the floor with Tephanie and Yannic, playing some sort of game with small stones. Lazare leans against the wall behind them, not smiling exactly, but not scowling either.

“They are fine,” she whispers. “And that council meeting is part of keeping them safe.” She gives my arm a shake. “You and Beast cannot both be absent. Besides, you are the one who invited the duchess to this meeting—one the council specifically wanted to have without her. You owe it to her to be there.”

I scowl. “How did you know I invited her?”

Her mouth quirks up. “Because when I went to tell her of it, she explained you already had.”

Ismae takes full advantage of my hesitation and grabs my shoulders, spins me around, and shoves me toward the door. “The continued safety of your sisters depends on the duchess. She is your best protection against Pierre and his plotting. The stronger she is, the more she will be able to protect you. And with Beast in pursuit, he will not come back. Besides,” she says more gently. “I am also your sister. Do you not trust me to keep them safe?”

I make a face at her. For all that I do not like it, she is right. My best hope for their welfare is to continue my plan to accompany the duchess to France and get my sisters safely under the French crown’s protection. Pierre would not dare challenge the queen of France.

Which means I must attend the council meeting.

* * *

By the time I reach the large double door, I have put myself back together. If I am not precisely the same person I was when I got up this morning, it is a close enough approximation that no one should be able to tell.

The guard nods in recognition and opens the door to admit me. When I enter the room, it feels as if I have stepped from a black winter storm into a soft spring day. The room is buoyant—with relief and jubilation.

Grave Chancellor Montauban looks five years younger than he did a mere week ago, his face no longer haggard with worry. Jean de Châlons, the duchess’s own cousin, is actually smiling—transforming his predatory face into one that is charmingly handsome. He is precisely the sort of man I would have trifled with. Once.

The stalwart Captain Dunois, who has served the duchess all her life, still looks like an enormous bear, but at least he is no longer a grumpy one. While he is not smiling, exactly, there is an absence of tension in his face that is nearly a smile.

They are—of course—still savoring their victory. And why not? They are not the ones whose past enemy has just breached their walls and held a knife to their throat. My limbs threaten to renew their trembling, but I grip my skirt and squeeze ruthlessly until the weakness passes. Even though it feels as if some hound has just dug up all the dead, rotting remains of my family’s past, I will not let the privy councilors see that.

Fortunately, not everyone is seated, which makes my entrance less noticeable. Chancellor Montauban stands near the door, talking with Duval. “I thought the regent was going to sew the king’s mouth shut if he did not stop agreeing to your concessions.”

Duval grins boyishly, and I realize how rare a sight that truly is.

The bishop is dressed in a fresh red robe and already seated at the table. His skin hangs a little looser than before, as if his close call with death has shrunk him somewhat. “It is a shame the regent was born a woman, else she would have made a fine ruler.”

Duval casts an annoyed glance his way. “The king’s sister has been a formidable enemy, whatever her sex, and I am glad she had no further advantage to add to her arsenal.”

The bishop does not so much as acknowledge me as I pass behind him to reach my chair, and it is all I can do to keep from knocking his be-damned miter off his foolish head.

“Besides,” Duval continues as he moves to take a seat at one end of the table, “in all our dealings with the regent, she has been harder than a rock and just as implacable as her father was before her. If not for the king’s sudden affection for the duchess, we would be in a much weaker position.”

“Fortunately, now all that is left for us to do is to get this marriage behind us.” Chancellor Montauban attempts to smooth over the ripples in the water. “Then most of our problems will be over.”

“Except we will have to find Duval a new hobby,” Châlons adds with a grin.

Everyone laughs—more giddy relief than true humor. Duval shrugs good-naturedly. “It will take a while to grow accustomed to things being at ease between our two countries.”

I finally reach the far end of the table and take a seat next to Father Effram, putting as much distance between me and the bishop as I can. The old priest gives me a smile of welcome, but I busy myself adjusting my skirts, hoping Father Effram’s shrewd eyes will not see more than I wish him to.

“Shall we start?” the chancellor asks.

Duval looks around the table. “Beast was supposed to be here.”

I concentrate on not meeting Duval’s eyes. I’ve no intention of explaining that Beast is chasing after my vile brother to the entire council.

Dunois shrugs. “He was, but clearly he got waylaid. We can start and fill him in later.”

Duval begins. “The wedding is to take place in two weeks’ time at Langeais castle. King Charles has been most generous, filling our treasury with funds. We now have the ability to outfit the duchess and her escort in the full honor they deserve.”

Chancellor Montauban, who has spent the last few months trying to rattle coins from our empty treasury, leans forward and steeples his hands together. “That was very generous of them.”

“Generous?” Duval’s lips twitch in wry humor. “Or self-serving?”

The chancellor spreads his hands in a calming motion. “Come, Duval. There is no need to malign this noble gesture.”

Captain Dunois shoots the chancellor a penetrating look. “Surely you realize it was a way to ensure that the mercenaries and our troops were paid off and dispersed.”

“And thank God for that,” Duval mutters.

The mercenaries we had contracted to fight against France became more of a threat than an ally when our coffers ran dry. They came close to holding the entire city hostage for their pay. “And do not forget this noble gesture did not include allowing the duchess to rule over her own duchy,” Duval points out. “The king needed a great deal of convincing on that. He was determined to oversee it in her name.”

A spark of anger thaws some of the ice in my belly. Even a duchess—a soon-to-be queen—must beg for scraps at her own table.

“It required three extra pages in the betrothal contract,” the Prince of Orange adds. That same betrothal contract removes him from the line of succession. If he is bitter about that, it does not show.

Duval turns to him. “Any word from Maximilian?”

“His scouts have likely not reached him yet, but he will hear soon enough. He will be most displeased.” The prince’s words are strained, for the emperor is his liege, and his conflicting loyalties place him squarely in the jaws of a vise. “Nor can we blame him. His wife has just entered a betrothal agreement with his enemy. He will feel woefully betrayed.”

“It was a proxy marriage,” Duval is quick to remind him. “And the bishops have assured us it was not binding.”

Captain Dunois leans back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest. “If Maximilian wanted the marriage so badly, he could have sent the needed troops. The entire motive for the marriage was to gain his aid and protection in our fight against France, which he was unable to provide.” The captain’s disgruntlement matches my own, so I am happy to hear him give voice to it.

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