Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(14)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(14)
Robin LaFevers

Next to the box is a hairnet of gold thread and white pearls. Only they are not pearls at all, but cunningly designed wax beads that hold poison. The wax has shriveled somewhat, but the poison might still be usable.

It is not until I reach the bottom of the trunk that my hand meets parchment and my heart skips a beat. But there is no black wax seal, and when I glance at the words, I see it is a love note from her first lover in Amboise. There are two more letters from admirers but no other correspondence.

I slam the lid of the trunk shut. Would she truly have burned instructions from the convent? She who kept every note and small gift sent by her admirers? Any one of those would have gotten her in serious trouble with the regent. Far more so than correspondence from the convent would have endangered her with the count.

Unless it was instructing her to seduce him for the convent’s own ends. He might not take kindly to such orders.

I shove to my feet, stride over to the hearth, and grab the poker. Even though she hasn’t been up here in months, I sift through the ashes, hoping some scrap of the burned letter might still be there. After I have stirred every trace of ash at least twice, I toss the poker aside.

There is nothing. Nothing to indicate whether Margot lied or was telling the truth.

Nothing to subdue the trembling in my hands her spitefulness has caused.

Nothing to punch or kick or fight with. Nothing to pummel or beat or drive away.

I take two steps toward the door. I want to march back to Margot’s room and demand she tell me the truth. But that has never worked with her. The more I wanted something—her cooperation, her approval, her affection—the more she withheld it.

But she will never have that kind of power over me again.

Anger and frustration crackle through my limbs, and the walls themselves feel as if they are closing in, crowding me until I can scarcely breathe.

I retrieve my wooden practice dagger from my own trunk, then shove it into my belt. I cannot stay here a moment longer.

* * *

The deepest floor of the castle is as dark and empty as always. I grab the lone lit torch and make my way to the chamber I have used since we first arrived at Cognac. Margot came with me exactly twice, quickly giving up our practice sparring sessions for the other entertainment Cognac had to offer.

But for me, these sessions have been as necessary as air—connecting me to the convent and who I truly am, what I am meant to be. They were my best—and only—defense against despair.

With the chamber lit only by my single torch, I take up the position Sister Thomine drilled into us. Within moments I am moving in old familiar rhythms: lift, strike, kick, again. It is as calming as the lullaby my mother sang over my cradle.

I continue until my muscles burn with fatigue and my skin no longer itches. I continue until sweat trickles down my neck and along my ribs and the question about Margot’s letter no longer burns like a branding iron.

Only then do I allow myself to lean against the wall to catch my breath. I dread returning to the castle. Perhaps I will sleep here tonight and skip dinner altogether. My stomach protests by gurgling loudly. Grimacing, I rub my hand across my hollow belly. I am too hungry to miss supper.

That’s when I remember the prisoner.

The half-starved, forgotten prisoner rotting in his cell is the best company this wretched place has to offer. I will dine with him tonight.

Chapter 15

Sybella

y lady?” Captain Dunois’s voice greets me in the hallway as I emerge from the council room. He has been waiting for me.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I wanted to convey my appreciation for your handling of the Crunard situation. Your timely actions kept the matter firmly contained. Thank you.”

His praise is a welcome balm to my tattered spirit. “Thank you, my lord. I am always pleased to use my skills to help the duchess.”

“As you have demonstrated time and again.”

The ugly memory of Pierre in the garden shoves his compliment aside. I wonder what Dunois would say about my handling of that situation—or asking Beast to go after him.

Or my decision to say nothing about it at the council meeting.

“Do you by any chance know where Beast was this afternoon?”

It is the question I’ve been dreading. Do I tell him the truth? The part of me that has steeped for years in the shame and despair of the d’Albret family is reluctant to share my past with him. Let alone tell him of Pierre’s visit and threats. I feel as if I am somehow responsible for it all. And am I not? Was it not my own actions that brought him here?

It seems better—easier—to wait until Beast returns and we can lay the entire episode at Dunois’s feet, tied up as neatly as a bale of wool.

Although how the matter will be neatly resolved escapes me. What will Beast do if he is able to find Pierre? Kill him? Assuredly that would be the easiest and most satisfying solution. But it would not resolve the custody of me or my sisters—the next male d’Albret in line for the title would inherit that duty along with the family estates.

“My lady?”

“The last time I saw him, he was riding out the main gate into the city. He was . . . in quite a hurry. I assumed he was on some business for you or Duval.”

“No, but he has plenty of his own duties that could draw him off in such a fashion.” Captain Dunois pulls on his chin for a moment, considering.

This lie sits queasily in my stomach. “Was that all, my lord?”

“No.” He glances at the hallway around us, which is deserted now. “I wished to speak with you about some concerns regarding our upcoming trip to the French court.” He picks his words carefully. “The French court is not accustomed to women of your skills. Since France no longer worships the Nine, they have no convent or saint that encourages such behavior. They will likely not know what to make of it and could easily consider it a stain on your character.”

A chill settles along my skin, and it is all I can do not to rub my arms. “So I must keep my sisters and the queen safe without letting anyone see how I do it, lest my protecting of them suggest that I am unworthy of the queen’s regard?”

“My lady, you know how much I admire you and your skills, but the French king will not appreciate the nuances of how Brittany chooses to worship the Nine. He will see it as irregular at best, and as heresy at worst. It is one of the reasons Duval was so insistent on the duchess maintaining rule over the duchy—so the king would continue unaware of the nature of Bretons’ faith. And of all the Nine, it is Mortain that most threatens the Church, for he competes with God Himself in matters of life and death.”

“Once, perhaps, but no more,” I remind him.

He throws his hands out to his sides. “But how to explain that to them when I cannot even do so to myself?”

I have no answer, since I am no more able to than he. How does one describe what happened on the battlefield that day? How does one explain the transformation of Death?

“Whatever the case, I think it important you not reveal that you worship Mortain or serve him.”

That he is right does not make his words any more welcome. While I knew my faith would be uncommon in France, I did not know it would make me anathema to the king. “Very well, my lord. While this will be inconvenient, I thank you for the warning.” It is hard not to feel as if all my paths to safety are narrowing.

But the duchess has promised her protection. And the king dotes on her and will grant her every wish. He has already demonstrated that. All I must do is remain unobtrusive and discreet.

As if sensing my despondency, Captain Dunois continues. “Beast, too, will have to tread carefully. His exploits and battle lust are well known to both the French army and the court. Many there will have faced him on the battlefield. They will not bear him any love. Indeed, they may protest his presence in their midst.”

“This will not come as a surprise to him.”

The older man reaches up to scratch the back of his neck. “There is more you should know about the French court.” He squints down at the toe of his boot. “While it is as decadent and indulgent as any court in Europe, unwed maids are held to a much higher standard.”

“It is the same here,” I point out.

He nods, still fascinated by his boot. “True. But the duchess has a romantic heart and is generous with those who have served her well. While she may be happy to turn a blind eye to your, ah, alliance, the regent will not. She keeps a firm hand on that sort of thing. It is just one of the reasons so many noble families send their daughters to be her wards—they can be certain of the stringent moral standards she will hold them to.” It is hard to tell who is more uncomfortable with this conversation, the captain or myself. “She has even gone so far as to interfere with the king’s paramours, although one imagines somewhat less so now that he has reached his majority.

“She will no doubt hold the new queen and her attendants to those same high standards. You will need to use the utmost discretion in your dealings with Beast, lest the connection draw your reputation into question.”

“Thank you for the warning, Captain Dunois, although I expected as much. Well, perhaps not the revelation about the king.” I smile wryly so he will not see my embarrassment.

As I watch Captain Dunois disappear down the hall, I feel like a brittle autumn leaf that has been caught up in a windstorm. I have been praised, warned, and admired, all within a quarter of an hour. All by the same man.

I wonder which of those he will feel when he learns what transpired this afternoon.

Chapter 16

y noxious brew of emotions propels me down the hall, the lies I have just told sitting like a lump of lead in my gut. I cannot even enjoy Captain Dunois’s hard-won respect without the actions I was forced to take against Pierre tainting it. I should have killed the bastard when I had the chance.

But that is far easier to say without Charlotte and Louise standing here with their wide, frightened eyes. Nor do I think that would have warranted Captain Dunois’s respect any more than what I did. But by not killing Pierre, I feel as if I have allowed a poisonous serpent to roam free, endangering not only my sisters, but Beast.

Would killing Pierre have been the right thing to do if not for my sisters’ presence? How thin is the line between self-defense and willful murder? I fear it will be too thin for me to recognize as I cross it.

I cannot even turn to my sisters for comfort right now, afraid they will see my anger and be frightened by it.

It frightens me.

Anger, along with violence, is the favored currency of my family. The family I want no part of, and yet is always there—in my memories, in the world, in my actions.

When I step outside the palace, the gathering storm clouds have grown so dark that the late afternoon sky looks as if night has already fallen. The wind that howls through the courtyard mirrors the storm in my own heart.

I draw my cloak more tightly around me. Go ahead and try, I mutter. I would welcome the chance to fight something—even the wind.

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