Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(2)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(2)
Robin LaFevers

Father Effram’s eyes dance with a mischievous light as he spreads his hands wide and lifts his shoulders. “It is a very old heart, Lady Sybella.” The twinkle in his eye reminds me of Annith’s claim that the ancient priest does not merely follow the patron saint of mistakes, but once walked the earth as Saint Salonius himself.

“What brings you outside the city gates, Father?”

“There is a . . . problem that requires your attention.”

“What sort of problem?” Anticipation stirs in my chest. I have been prowling the city since the battle, searching among the jubilant townspeople, relieved merchants, and dispersing mercenaries to see what other gifts might still remain. The right sort of problem could reveal those answers.

“I’m afraid one of the prisoners has overpowered his guard and taken a hostage.”

I turn and begin walking back to the city. “Which prisoner?”

“The former chancellor Crunard.”

I look sharply at Father Effram.

“What does he want?”

“Annith.”

“Does he not know that she has returned to the convent of Saint Mortain?”

“Apparently not.”

“And the hostage? Who is he?”

When the priest does not answer, I grow uneasy. “Father?” I prompt.

He sighs deeply, reaching up to tug at his ear. “The bishop.”

I stop walking. “Surely you jest.”

“No jest, my lady.”

While the bishop is a member of the duchess’s Privy Council and one of her spiritual advisors, he and I have only one thing in common—our mutual dislike. Of all the members of the duchess’s inner circle, he is the one who insists on clinging to his prejudice and judgment of me.

Every deed I have done out of love, he ascribes to self-interest. Every action born of my loyalty, he has suspected of treachery. Even my devotion to Mortain is tainted in his eyes, due to my own dark past, my depraved family, and the nature of my god.

It is like looking into a mirror that reflects back all the worst fears I ever had about myself.

For seventeen years, my self-loathing had been honed to a razor-sharp edge. It was only Mortain’s grace that was able to dull it and cleanse me of despair. That I should be asked to save the bishop’s hide now, when those old wounds have opened, seeping even older doubts and fears, seems a cruel fate.

“Let him pray to his God. If he is worthy of being saved, then surely He will send someone.”

Father Effram’s gaze meets mine squarely. “He has.”

“Someone other than me.”

He scratches his nose. “God makes use of what tools He can find.”

I stare at him a long moment before huffing out a resigned breath. While this is not the answer I seek, I will not turn down a chance to pit my skills against a known traitor. Even if I cannot kill him, I am spoiling for a fight. Any fight will do.

Besides, it will pain the bishop greatly to be saved by the likes of me. That is reward enough.

Chapter 3

hen we reach the north wing where Crunard is being held, three guards stand in front of the closed door, weapons drawn. Good. Crunard will not be escaping with his hostage. When they see us, to my astonishment, they abandon the door and rush toward us, weapons drawn.

Fortunately, it is a long hallway.

I flip my knives so that I hold them by the tip. I wait one heartbeat, and a second, hoping beyond reason that Mortain can still marque those meant for death. The precepts of my faith have always insisted that to kill without his marque to guide our hand is to step outside his grace and risk becoming naught but a murderer.

But no marques appear, and the men are almost upon us. Fortunately, the precepts of Mortain also grant us the ability to kill in self-defense.

“Down!” I shout to Father Effram. I let one dagger fly, then the next.

The closest guard reels back, clutching his eye. Behind him, the second man checks his stride, dropping his sword as his hand claws at the knife embedded in his throat. The third guard steps around the others, sword raised.

He is a big man, thickset and heavy. Either it has not registered that I have just mortally wounded his two friends or he is stupid, so certain he has a killing blow that he moves slowly, like an executioner at a beheading.

In the time it takes for his sword to arc toward me, I retrieve the stiletto from my left sleeve. Ducking in low, I launch my entire body at him, aiming for his gullet.

The move brings me up against his chest, my blade sinking deeply into the hollow of his throat. For one crystalline moment, we are pressed together in an embrace, his sword flailing uselessly behind me. I twist the stiletto, shoving it in deeper.

Just as I leap back to avoid the blood, a great, dark, flapping thing rises from his body and tries to wrap itself around me. I do not know who is more shocked, the soul as it hovers in disbelief near his lifeless husk, or myself as I realize that the ability to experience the souls of the dying is a gift of Mortain's that is still left to me.

But there is no time to savor that. As I hurry to collect my knives, Father Effram pushes to his feet. His cheeks are pink, his eyes bright with . . . fear? Excitement? Admiration? I cannot tell.

As I approach Crunard’s chamber, I feel more alive than I have in days, my skin tingling with anticipation, my heart leaping at the challenge before me. There are three—no, four—pulses beating in the room. I tighten the grip on my long knife,  no longer caring that it is the be-damned bishop I am saving.

On my signal, Father Effram raps smartly on the door. “Monsieur Crunard? I have the woman you asked for.”

As the key turns in the lock, I utter a silent prayer for Mortain’s guidance. If some of his gifts are left to me, then perhaps a tenuous connection still exists between us as well. A connection that could allow me to know his will.

As soon as the door begins to open, I kick against it with all my might, forcing it back against the wall with a crash.

Crunard stands behind the door, his sword pointed at me, my long knife holding it at bay. A fallen guard lies on the floor behind him. Another stands with a sword pointed at the bishop, who cowers in the corner.

Crunard glares at Father Effram. “This is not Annith!”

“Annith is not coming.”

There is the briefest flicker of surprise and disappointment before Crunard gains control of his features. “She has already left?”

I cannot help it—I laugh. “Did you truly think your daughter would bid you a fond farewell? Not only are you a traitor to our country, but you have treated her and her mother abysmally.”

My barb finds a home. “I did not even know she existed until mere months ago.”

“That does not excuse any of it.”

Crunard’s jaw tightens. “I think you forget that I am the one holding the hostage.”

“I think you forget that the bishop and I do not care for each other in the least. I am more interested in your motives than his safety.”

“I want out of this prison.”

“To what end? So you can betray the duchess a second time? And why today?” As I speak, I move carefully, so slowly that to the untrained eye it will look as if I am holding still.

“So I can find my son.”

The son he claims is being held hostage by the French regent. “The duchess already promised she will inquire after his whereabouts when she arrives in France.” I am closer now to the armed guard standing over the bishop—almost within striking range.

Crunard’s free hand clenches into a fist. “I do not trust that the duchess will do it. I wish to search for him myself.” His eyes are as clear and guileless as a babe’s, but his gaze shifts ever so slightly. He is lying. Of that I am certain.

I raise my knife. Properly applied, the tip would do very little damage, but might yield up the truth behind his lies. The thought unnerves me. Mortain has only been gone a handful of days, and already my mind turns back to the dark instincts of my past.

I smile, but I do not think it is reassuring. “You can trust the duchess. She is not doing it for you, but for Annith, who would like to meet this brother she so recently learned of.” I tilt my head. “How will she feel about this newest trick of yours? Killing innocent guards, threatening the bishop, further dragging her family name through the mud.”

His face grows white with fury. He takes a step toward me, the tip of his sword lowering ever so slightly. It is the smallest of openings, but I take it. “Father! The door!”

When the guard glances toward the door, I lunge at him. Before he has time to react, I grab him by the hair, jerk his head back, and slit his throat.

Blood spurts out in a crimson rain, staining the floor as well as the cowering bishop. I do not stop long enough to comfort him, but launch myself at Crunard, bracing for the impact of his sword against my dagger—hoping my blade will be long enough.

Instead of resistance, I find Crunard standing with his sword stuck in the closed door, Father Effram sprawled at his feet. I check my momentum as Crunard pulls his gaze from the dead guard to my oncoming rush, then shift my weight to my back leg and swing my front leg up to kick the hand still holding the sword.

There is a loud snap as the contact breaks his wrist. He bellows, and his grip goes slack. Before he can do more than that, I step in close and point the long knife at his throat.

His face is pale, beads of sweat gathering on his brow. His pulse beats rapidly against the blade’s edge.

I glance at Father Effram on the floor. “Are you all right?”

“Fine. I am fine.” He tries to leap up, but finds himself yanked back down. “If somewhat stuck.” He tugs helplessly at the hem of his robe caught in the door. “If you could be so kind, my lady?”

My lips twitch as I reach out with one hand to open the door long enough for him to retrieve his robe. The priest springs to his feet. “I do serve the patron saint of mistakes,” he mutters, dusting off his robe.

The sword embedded in the door is at the exact height of Father Effram’s heart. “It is just as well that you do. That mistake saved your life.”

Father Effram glances over his shoulder, the blood draining from his face. To give him something to think about besides how close he came to death, I tell him to go see what the bishop is whining about.

As he hurries off to that corner of the room, I step away from Crunard to peer around the desk to the man on the floor. His heartbeat is weak and irregular.

“Who is he?”

“The sentry on duty when my friends arrived. His injury was an accident.”

The man’s shirt is stained red with blood. “Since when is a chest wound an accident?”

“I had a sword pointed at him, but he wasn’t supposed to throw himself on it. He was outnumbered, after all.”

“He was supposed to ignore his duties and see to his own safety?” I snort. “Not everyone is as cowardly as you and takes the easy way out.”

“Please,” he says, “tell me. What was easy about my sons dying one by one as they fought for their country? Or having my last surviving son taken captive in a futile battle for Brittany’s independence?"

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