Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(15)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(15)
Robin LaFevers

Because I still can, I slip one of my knives into my hand, concealing it among the folds of my cloak—but only barely. I am not required to hide who I am just yet.

The courtyard is still full of Rohan’s men, but the chaos is giving way to order as the castle’s steward and stable master see that all the men and horses are cared for.

I plunge through the crowd, not caring whose arm I jostle or elbow I bump. A heavily bearded soldier looks up with a growl of warning. I meet his gaze, praying he will start something. Instead, he mutters an apology and steps aside. Coward, I want to shout at him, but he has given way and that will have to be victory enough.

Deciding to put my anger and restlessness to good use, I head for the perimeter wall that separates the palace from the rest of the city. I want to know how Pierre got in.

Rohan’s troops had only just arrived as I chased him out of the garden. If Pierre had come through the gates prior to the troops, the sentries would have questioned him. He would not have risked that.

Unless he was there with Rohan’s knowledge. I turn sharply and begin walking the perimeter. No, that cannot be. The houses of Rohan and d’Albret have never been close allies. Indeed, they have often competed for the same crumb of power or land. They would not collaborate on this.

Which means Pierre likely breached the palace wall. A ladder, grappling hooks, a rope. Any of those could create a way in. In addition to the main gate tower, there are two smaller gates. They are also guarded, but by fewer men. If Pierre gained entrance there, one of the sentries will know.

As I scan the thick stone walls of the palace’s outer bailey for any signs of forced entry, yapping hounds of guilt nip at my heels. Could I have prevented this?

It is not possible to keep my sisters locked inside the palace every moment of every day, nor personally guard them every second. If so, how would I serve the duchess?

* * *

When I reach the southern gate, a frisson of unease slithers through me. The guard who should be on duty is not at his post. I tighten the grip on my knife and pull a second one from its sheath. At the door, I pause. There is nothing. No sound. No beating hearts. Frowning, I slip around the corner, then cautiously peer inside.

A man is sprawled on the floor.

Swearing under my breath, I hurry to his side. The sentry lies face-down in a pool of dark blood, a knife protruding from his back. It is a common weapon, the kind many soldiers favor. Because it is so unexceptional, it is precisely the sort I would choose for such a task.

I slip my own blade back in its sheath, then gently pull the dagger from the dead man. “I am sorry,” I whisper as I reach out to turn him over.

The moment my fingers touch his shoulder, his soul unfurls from his body and rushes at me. Even as I reel in shock, I recognize it at once. It is the vibrant one I encountered just a few short hours ago while up on the battlements, where I was cradled in Beast’s arms. Laughing and complaining of my small problems. Ignoring this very soul and accusing him of acting like an indulged cat.

My stomach curdles at my own stupidity. This is how I could have prevented Pierre’s attack. By listening to this soul’s warning.

Sickened and ashamed, I open myself to the dead guard.

A sense of outrage crashes into me like a wave, nearly causing me to sway. Outrage at treachery inside the walls of the palace. Outrage that some coward would strike him in the back. Outrage that he had become the weak link in the duchess’s defenses.

As the first wave of emotion recedes, bewilderment takes its place, resulting in a dizzying swirl of images: Pierre’s face, the tabard of red and yellow, the bitter taste of betrayal, a lingering sense of loss. The man is young, not yet married, and just setting out to make a name for himself.

When he has finally quieted, he pauses, radiating a faint sense of indignation as he studies me.

“I’m sorry I failed you,” I whisper. “I should have heeded your warning. Please forgive me.” The soul withdraws in on itself, feeling as if it is not in any position to grant or receive forgiveness.

But the soul is wrong. It was my error, not his, that allowed Pierre to get as far as he did. My arrogance and complacency did this. While I did not kill the guard, everything that came afterward is my fault.

I close my eyes and let the caustic shame and bitterness burn through me, turning that arrogance and complacency to ash. When I have grown accustomed to the pain of it, I open my eyes and stare down at the fallen guard.

How can I grant this loyal man the peace he deserves? I do not have a misericorde, the most rare of Mortain’s weapons that will instantly send a soul on its journey, relieving it of the need to linger for three days. Only Ismae has that.

But . . . the misericorde is made of Mortain’s own bones, or so they said. I am no longer certain if I believe that to be true, if I ever did, but within that legend is the seed of an idea.

I take the point of my knife and prick the thick pad of my littlest finger. Dark red blood oozes up. I stare at it for a moment. Blood and bone, the very stuff we humans are made of. The very stuff the gods themselves were once made of. Held sacred by all the Nine, and the new Church as well. Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.

“You have served your duchess and country well,” I whisper. “May the Nine grant you peace.” I reach out and smear the drop of blood onto the man’s forehead, the precise spot where the marque of Mortain most often appeared when he still guided my hand.

The results are as shocking as they are sudden. The soul grows buoyant, lighter, as if unraveling from the tether of earthly guilt and fear. After a brief flash of delighted awe, it circles me once, twice, and a third time, then rushes upward and dissolves, becoming a part of the very air itself.

I gape openmouthed as I look back down at the body, then at the space above it. The soul is truly gone. Was that gift always available to me? Or is it something new caused by the shift in the Nine?

I look down at my own finger, a small drop of blood brilliant against my white skin. A sense of lightness fills me. Like that soul, I almost feel as if I could rise up into the air.

Even with the passing of Mortain, I might still contain mysteries I have not yet discovered.

Chapter 17

y the time I get back to the palace, dusk has fallen. Torches are lit along the wall, their flames stretched thin, sparks fluttering in the strong wind.

The courtyard holds easily twice as many of Rohan’s men as when I left earlier. Disappointed that Beast is not there waiting for me, I snag a page hurrying from one of the outbuildings and tell him to fetch Beast from the garrison. The boy tries not to let his annoyance show—I have probably just delayed his dinner—but bows smartly and does as instructed.

Surely Beast is back by now, and I am anxious to hear what happened. I must also let him know what has transpired here this afternoon. We will need to assign double watches on the lesser used gates as well as arrange for a proper burial for the fallen sentry. This has been an important reminder that not all our enemies became allies when we signed the betrothal agreement with France.

While I linger in the shadows waiting for Beast, I listen for any whispers of why Rohan and his men are in Rennes. There is talk of horses, complaints about the crowded quarters, and assurances that Rohan will put all this to rights soon enough. My ears perk up at that, and I take a step closer, only to have the page call out to me.

My pleasure at how quickly he has returned turns to dismay when I see he has brought not Beast, but Captain Lannion. “My lady.” Captain Lannion bows. “How can I be of help?”

“Beast is not back yet?” He has been gone more than four hours. It should not be taking this long.

“No, my lady. Is there something I can do for you?” His voice holds a faint note of concern.

Captain Lannion and I have traveled together, camped and fought together, but I am not ready to share my concerns with him. “Thank you, but no.” After one last polite bow, he returns to the garrison.

My mind is as unsettled as a harried fox. Pierre did not have that great a head start. And two of his men were mortally injured. Beast should have been back by the time the council meeting was over, though clearly there were scores more of Rohan’s men just outside the gates that he had to search among and wade through.

Or Pierre himself could have had more men waiting outside. Of course he did—he never travels with less than half a dozen retainers, and often ten times that. True fear runs along my skin, drawing it taut. Have I sent Beast straight into a trap?

No. I clench my hands into fists, then open them again. No.

Pierre would not travel with that many men, not on this sort of mission. And Beast is not called Beast for nothing. When he was but fifteen years old, he rode into a d’Albret stronghold to ascertain the safety of his sister, Louise’s mother. He did not see her, but was met by twelve of d’Albret’s men-at-arms. He walked away—leaving eight dead and four to limp back to explain their defeat to their enraged liege. The battle lust Saint Camulos gifted him with served him well that day, and it will serve him again. Pierre’s men are no match for it.

Besides, I remember how insulted I was by Ismae and Duval’s fussing and clucking over me. I’ll not insult Beast by doing the same to him.

But Sweet Jesu, this loving someone is hard. Might as well rip a piece of one’s heart from one’s chest and feed it to wild pigs.

* * *

By the time I reach Captain Dunois’s office, my shoulders are so stiff that my entire back aches. It is bad enough that Beast is not back yet, but now I must admit that I lied to Captain Dunois. And tell him of Pierre’s visit, flaunting my family’s sordid history.

I remind myself that Captain Dunois already knows my family’s history. He knows of the treacheries and deceits they have perpetuated in the past. He did not hold me responsible then, and he will not hold me responsible now.

But who is to say he should not?

Pierre’s visit today was an ugly personal matter. One that should never have come so close to the duchess or cost her any of her men. It should not truly have even concerned Beast, except that he stuck his big lumpen nose into my affairs months ago and has refused to budge from my side.

As I raise my hand to knock on the captain’s door, the knowledge that I am the one responsible for bringing this mess to the duchess’s door writhes in my gut like small white grubs in newly turned earth. I try to use my anger at Pierre to erect a shield between me and these unwelcome truths, but the anger is no match for the carefully honed edge of my self-loathing.

“Come in,” the captain calls out.

When I enter, he looks up from the letter he is penning, his face creasing in concern. “My lady, are you all right?”

“Yes, my lord.”

His frown deepens. “Do you have news of Beast?”

“Yes. And no.”

“Go on.” Although he hides it well, there is a faint note of unease in his voice.

For a moment, the enormity of what I must tell him overwhelms me.

The truth. As simply as possible. With no nooks or crannies for me to hide in. “The story has two parts.”

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