Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(13)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(13)
Robin LaFevers

Once, my word would have been proof enough.

She grabs the bark, closes her eyes, then brings it to her lips. “Thank you.” Like quicksilver, the expression on her face changes from relief to suspicion. “Why did you not come sooner? It is past noon.”

Instead of shaking her for her ingratitude, I pull up the waiting woman’s stool and sit down. “There has been news of the duchess.”

Margot flops back onto her mound of pillows. “Oh.”

I lean forward. “The duchess and the king of France are betrothed. There will not be a war, but a wedding, instead.”

She blinks sleepily. “Well, that’s good. I suspect everyone is tired of war.”

“But, Margot, think of what this means for us. It is possible the duchess was forced into the marriage against her will. Even if she wasn’t, the political action has moved from Brittany to France, where we are conveniently placed just as the convent planned. They will need us, Margot. I am certain the convent will be contacting us any day with instructions. Perhaps we will be needed to forestall the marriage. At the very least, we can tell the duchess all that we have learned of the regent’s moves against her so that she will know just how little the woman is to be trusted.”

Margot’s head lolls to the side as she considers me. “We, Gen? What do you think I will do with this news? Leap up from my birthing bed, grab a horse, and ride with you to the French court, waving our daggers to fend off all who would naysay the queen?” She laughs, three high, brittle notes. “There is no we in this game of yours. There is only you.”

“This is no game, Margot. The duchess will be at the French court in less than a fortnight.”

Margot leans forward. “But that is no guarantee the convent will call you. You are like some poor dog that does not know when to quit begging for scraps.”

“Very well.” My voice is stiff, guarded. “What would you like me to tell them when they do contact us?”

“Tell them?”

“About you. What shall I tell them about you, Margot? How would you like the story to go? Shall I say that you seduced the count? Or that he seduced you? Shall I say you got caught in a web of your own design? Or were in turn caught in a snare fashioned by Angoulême?”

“Do not act as if you have not had lovers before!”

“Of course I’ve had lovers. We both have.” In truth, she was my first lover and I hers, practicing our skills until we were ready to use them with those we knew less well. “But this is about turning your back on the convent and abandoning our sworn duty to them.”

She looks as if I have slapped her. Before I have a chance to feel guilty for that, she leans forward, her face contorted with spite. “Don’t you dare blame this on me. It was because of you that we were sent to molder in this rustic court.”

“That wasn’t my doing, but the regent’s!”

“If you had not thrown yourself at the king and caught his fancy, we would still be there, ready to aid the duchess upon her arrival.”

She is jealous, I realize. Jealous that I was the one who caught his eye, not her. “I did not throw myself at him,” I say between gritted teeth.

“No. You’re right. You did not have to throw yourself at the king. It was no doubt all those tricks you learned at your mother’s knee.”

Her words chase the air from my lungs. That she would throw the origins of my birth at me goes against all the convent’s precepts. Her face changes again, shifting to sly and knowing. “You worry the convent will be upset to learn of my fate? What makes you think they aren’t the ones who ordered me to do this?”

Her words are a swift, brutal kick to my gut and cause my entire body to flush with heat, then cold. I grip my knees with my hands. “Did they?”

The smug satisfaction on her face nearly causes me to retch. “Yes, they did.”

The enormity of the betrayal sends me reeling. That the convent had chosen her for such an assignment and not me is bad enough. But that she never mentioned they had contacted her is even more painful. “When did they tell you?”

She shrugs. “A few weeks before the count gave me the garnet necklace. That was no simple act of chance, Gen.” She says this as if I am some slow-witted child.

“How? How did they contact you?”

She looks down to arrange a strand of her hair. “In a letter. It was sent to the count, and he gave it to me.”

“Where is this letter?”

She snorts. “You think I kept it? I could not risk Louise finding it, so I burned it.”

“Were you ever going to tell me you’d heard from them? Or just keep it to yourself?” What I truly want to ask is Was there any word of me? Any action they wanted me to take? Any task they’d assigned to me? But I will bite my tongue clean off before letting her see how badly I hunger for that information.

“You didn’t need to know.” She avoids my eyes and adjusts the neckline of her bed gown.

I cannot help it—I reach out and grab her arm, forcing her to look at me. “That was never how things were between us. Why did you keep it from me?”

She pulls out of my grasp. “Because you turned into a sour old woman who refused to take any pleasure in what is all around us, and I was sick of it. Sick of your fake piety and your lofty airs. You act as if your eagerness to do the convent’s work makes you better than I am, but we both know just how false that is.”

“I do not give myself airs. I have been trying to stay strong. For you, for me, for the convent. For Mortain. I have been trying to do what was asked of us.”

“Doing the convent’s bidding was always more important to you than it was to me, Gen. You always cared more, while I hardly cared at all.”

Another brutal blow. “Why? Why would you not care?”

Her face twists with some ugly emotion I cannot name. “I think the more important question to ask yourself is why do you care so very much?”

Before I can answer, she leans back against her pillows, folds her hands, and rests them on her stomach. “It is because you had no place else to go, Gen. No other life to lead. But I did. I had many choices before me, while you had none.”

I can hardly catch my breath as she rips all remaining vestiges of our old friendship to shreds.

“Now I think you should leave. All this talk cannot be healthy for the baby.”

Slowly, stiffly, I rise to my feet. I want—desperately—to give her a chance to take it back, to say she is sorry. Anything but to leave it like this. But she says nothing.

“You are wrong,” I finally say, my face hot, eyes burning. “I had as many choices as you did. It is just that I have never seen shame in whoring nor understood the need to lie to oneself by dressing it up with silk and jewels.”

And with that, I take my leave.

Chapter 14

anton, whore, tart, strumpet, harlot, abricot, camp follower, poule de luxe. Of all the names people gave my mother and aunts, whore was they one they chose to call themselves. It was honest, Yolanthe explained. Far better than being called a luxury hen.

All of them had choices. Not many—no woman does. Laundress, tanner’s wife, brewess, spinner, weaver, gong farmer. Was it truly better to shovel other people’s shit or spend your days up to your elbows in others’ piss than to be paid for a tumble?

It was the Church, Yolanthe insisted, that perverted their trade to serve their own derision of women. It was the Church, she claimed, who erased Saint Amourna’s true past.

When I arrived at the convent, the nuns did not shame me for my mother’s profession. To them, all of us who arrived on their doorstep had our own unique set of tools that could be used in serving Mortain. Besides, if Mortain had seen fit to lie with our mothers, who were they to shame us—or Him—for His choice?

Margot is wrong, I think as my feet carry me down the hallway. I have just as many choices in my life as she did. I could marry. A tanner, a guildsman, a blacksmith, any number of men in the trades would be glad of me as a wife. In truth noblewomen, for all their privilege, have fewer options than I do—they may marry or go into a convent. But their alternatives provide them with food and shelter and clothing, while not all mine guarantee me even that.

Indeed, that is why so many of us found our way to the convent—it gave us some measure of freedom. While we swore an oath to serve Mortain, within that oath was a variety of ways in which to serve.

That is why I still keep my contract with the convent. Once I walk away from that, my opportunities are greatly reduced.

Although, I must admit, the choices and autonomy promised by the convent have not materialized like I’d hoped.

Margot is right about one thing. I have always cared more than she did. But not for the reason she thinks. It was never because I had no place else to go or no other options. It was because I wanted to prove to the world that I did have a choice. That was what allowed—allows me still—to keep believing they will call me into service. If not, I will have wasted ten years and been sent away from those I loved for nothing.

I am not willing to accept that.

When I reach my room, I let myself in and bolt the door behind me. It is a small chamber, given to Margot and me. It is too hot in summer and too cold in winter, but it was ours and ours alone. It was here that Margot and I would test each other on our convent lessons. Where we would practice the moves Sister Thomine had drilled into us, praying no one would hear the thumping that ensued as one of us inevitably hit the floor.

It was here that I waited in vain as Margot joined me less and less until she finally stopped coming at all.

I stride over to the two trunks shoved up against the far wall. I have never looked through Margot’s trunk. Not once. Not in Amboise when she first began to avoid my company, nor in Cognac when she finally cut me out of her life.

But today I must know if the convent ordered her to have an affair with Count Angoulême. Margot saves every small scrap of her life. If she received a letter from the convent, she would not have burned it. It would be in this trunk.

But it is locked. I reach for the small sewing kit in my pocket and unfold the leather flaps to pull out a large sturdy needle. Beneath my careful coaxing, the lock quickly gives way.

The trunk is nearly bursting with scraps of fabric, coils of ribbon, velvet pouches, and old gloves. There are dried flowers, small silver charms, a gold bracelet, and a jeweled stiletto I stole for her off a young, arrogant Italian ambassador. I paw through it all, looking for letters or parchment. My knuckles graze something hard—a rough wooden practice dagger. The sight of it nearly guts me. I made it for her when we first arrived at court and we were desperate for something with which to practice our skills. Was that a lie too?

I push the dagger aside and resume rifling. I find one of the silver powder boxes given to each of us by the convent. Instead of powder, it contains night whispers, a poison that kills when inhaled into the lungs. My hand closes around it, and I set it aside. I can still use it, even if Margot no longer has reason to.

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