Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(16)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(16)
Robin LaFevers

Dunois sets his quill on the desk and gives me his full attention. Because I wish to rush and get it over with, I force myself to utter the words calmly. “There has been an incident.”

Captain Dunois waits as patiently as a mountain, and I think of all the soldiers who must have confessed to him over the years. My hands clench the back of the chair in front of me. “My brother Pierre paid a visit today. He came upon me and my sisters in the garden.”

Dunois rises so quickly that the force of it shoves his chair back. “Your brother was here? How in God’s name did he get past the guards?”

“He and two of his men dressed in Viscount Rohan’s colors.”

“And so had free access to the palace grounds.” His eyes narrow. “But you are all unharmed?”

“Yes.”

He studies me carefully. “Are you certain?”

“I am fine.”

“Perhaps,” he concedes. “But you are also shaking.”

I let go of the chair and wrap my arms around my middle. “It was cold outside, and my search for Pierre’s means of entry took a while. That is the second part of the story. One of the guards had been murdered.”

Dunois runs his hands over his close cropped hair. “Where?”

“At the south gate. We should send someone for his body as well as arrange a double watch on both the south and east towers.”

Captain Dunois reaches for his sword. “Agreed. We should also double the guard on you and your sisters.”

Of all the responses I was anticipating, concern for my family’s safety was not one of them. “That brings us to the third part of the story.”

Something in my voice causes him to pause. “Beast?” he asks quietly.

“Beast. He was in the courtyard as I was pursuing my brother and his men. I . . . I asked him to follow them so I could return to my sisters. I was uncomfortable leaving them alone any longer than I had to.”

“In case your brother had additional men still on the premises.”

“Yes. Exactly so.”

He busies himself strapping his sword belt around his hips. “Which is why I think we should place an extra guard on your family.”

“Ismae, Lazare, and Yannic are with them now.”

Dunois nods. “They’re good, but Lazare needs to keep training every moment he can in order to be equal to the others of the queen’s guard. But that is a most excellent use of Yannic.” He pauses, “I wonder who else . . .”

I try to direct him back to the matter at hand. “But Beast has still not returned.”

“I am not overly concerned about Beast, my lady. Not yet anyway. I am more interested in ensuring this does not happen again.”

“I appreciate your concern for my family, but my sisters are . . . They do not trust strange men easily. I fear your effort to help them will only cause greater distress.”

His gruff face softens, and in that moment, I see his full awareness of all that I have suffered, of all that I want to protect my sisters from. “What if they were not men?”

My heart shifts, expanding as Dunois’s astute kindness works its way in. “Who are these non-men you have in mind?”

“The followers of Arduinna. They have little enough to do while waiting to leave for France. But more important, it is the very nature of their service to their goddess—to protect the innocent.”

I cannot believe I did not think of this sooner. Although to be fair, he is not aware of the longstanding animosity between the followers of Saint Arduinna and Saint Mortain.

For the first time in more hours than I can count, the knot inside me loosens. “That is an excellent idea, my lord. I will speak with them in the morning.”

He reaches for his gloves. “Now I’d best see to doubling the watch and sending someone for that poor soldier.”

“Thank you. Should I tell the duchess what has transpired, or would you prefer to do so?” It is not a conversation I relish, but neither will I shirk it.

He comes around his desk and busies himself pulling his gloves onto his blunt fingers. “That is not necessary.”

“Surely she should know.”

“She does know. She knew full well when she offered your sisters protection what Pierre was capable of. That’s why she offered them safekeeping. Besides, I am going to double the guard around the palace, and you are going to double the guard around your sisters. We have taken care of the problem. I do not inform her of every tactical decision I make, and this is no different.” He folds his arms and leans against the edge of the desk, considering me as he weighs some inner struggle. “You are not the only one to have an ugly family history, you know,” he says at last.

I am so astounded by his words that I can only blink in response.

He picks up a heavy silver inkpot and begins studying it. “Beast’s family, too, has its skeletons.” While Beast himself has told me of them, I am stunned that Captain Dunois would speak of it. “I do not know how much he has told you—”

“All of it, my lord.”

He nods. “I had hoped so. But there is one thing that Beast does not know yet. I wish to tell you as well, for he will not be happy when he learns of it. Like you”—he glances up from the inkwell long enough to send me a piercing look—“he may try to blame himself or use it to pull away from those he cares about.”

Merde. The clarity with which Captain Dunois sees me is most unsettling.

“It is about Beast’s father.”

“His father?” The word invokes a lifetime of Beast’s pain and fury and anger. A lifetime of his mother’s hatred for being born to her through the rape of a French soldier. “He claimed to have no father.”

“Lord Waroch is dead,” Captain Dunois says quietly. “But the man who sired Beast is not.”

I reach out to steady myself once more against the chair. “Are you certain?” I think of Beast, and the years of ill treatment by his mother, a young boy’s understanding of the unfathomable sins of his father.

Captain Dunois stares at the inkwell morosely. “I knew—know—him, I’m afraid. When he returned from the war, he was not shy about boasting of his exploits, nor of how he treated the lady of the keep he had commandeered—Beast’s mother.”

“My lord, why are you telling me this?”

“I tell you because his father is high up in King Charles’s army and known to frequent the French court. There is a chance Beast will run into him during your time in France. I did not wish him to do so unprepared.”

“Would it not be better for Beast to remain unaware of this?”

Dunois grimaces and sets the inkwell down. “There is a strong family resemblance. I fear that if they meet, it will be obvious to both of them. I don’t want Beast taken by surprise.”

“But why tell me?”

“Because it is the part of himself that Beast hates the most, my lady. The part that kept him from even allowing a woman into his life. If he erects a wall between you when he learns of this, I want you to breach it.”

Our eyes meet in a moment of perfect understanding. “I will not let him cast me away so easily.”

He gives a ghost of a smile, then stands and heads for the door. When he reaches it, he pauses. “The gods set all this in motion years ago, my lady. None of this is your fault,” he says softly. “Not Pierre, not the guard. You must also know this: There is no place Beast would rather be than pursuing those that mean you harm. Relieve yourself of that burden, at least.”

Then he is gone, and I am left struggling to accept both his unexpected trust and the absolution he has so generously given.

* * *

When I return to my chambers, I thank Ismae, Lazare, and Yannic, then dismiss them until morning.

Ismae lingers. “Any word on Beast?”

“No, though Captain Dunois does not think it is time to worry yet.”

“He is likely right.” She bids me good night and follows Lazare out of the room. Yannic pauses in the doorway, his gnarled hand outstretched to give me something.

It is small and round. A black pebble, I think. “Is this one of your lucky ones?” He has them blessed by saints or priests or whomever he can find before using them in his deadly slingshot. “Thank you. It is lovely. Who was this one blessed by?”

He makes a cutting motion at his throat, lolling his head to the side, eyes closed.

“Mortain?”

He shakes his head.

Frowning, I try again. “Balthazaar? Before he left?”

Yannic waggles his hand back and forth. Not wanting to press him further, I close my palm around the pebble. “Thank you.”

When he is gone, I close the chamber door and cross over to my small trunklet. I lift the lid and place the stone in the box, then retrieve the sprig of holly from my belt and lay it next to the pebble before closing it again.

When I turn toward the far corner of the room, I see Tephanie sitting beside the bed, her face pale, her hands tightly clasped together.

Even though the bed curtains are tightly drawn, I keep my voice low. “Tephanie.”

Her head snaps up, her face brightening. “My lady!”

I motion her away from the bed to the fireplace. “Thank you again, for seeing to my sisters.”

“Of course, my lady. I am honored to be of service.”

“That may well be, but this sort of service is far more than you bargained for.” She starts to protest, but I hold up my hand. “Tephanie.” My voice is as gentle as I know how to make it. “You are pale, and your hands still shake. You were not meant to be a guardsman, but a beloved and devoted companion. While I would be sad to see you go, I cannot help but feel you would be happier in some other role. One that does not put you in harm’s way.”

Her hand flies to her cheek. “Oh no! I wish to serve you and the girls. Please don’t send me away.”

I reach out and tuck a strand of her mousy brown hair behind her ear. “Dearest goose, it would not be dismissing you, but seeing that you are safe.” For the briefest of moments, she allows her cheek to rest against the tips of my fingers, then quickly pulls away. “You understand, I cannot guarantee that something like this will not happen again?” I say softly.

She plucks nervously at her skirt. “I know, my lady. But few who are suited to the task of caring for young girls would be prepared for such things. I know your family and what to expect. I will be more alert from now on. I grew careless.”

“This is in no way a reproach of you or how you reacted! None of us expected Pierre to be so bold. You were courageous and kept your head, and for that you have my eternal gratitude.” Tephanie is one of the few who have found a place in my heart, and I would not hurt her for any reason. And as I gaze into her large brown eyes, eyes that are practically pleading with me, I realize that sending her away would hurt her. “If you truly wish to stay, I would be honored to have you.”

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