Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(3)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(3)
Robin LaFevers

Cupping his useless hand, he takes a step closer. “Tell me, what was easy about learning that son was held hostage by the regent of France? And that the only way I could save him was to turn my back on everything I had fought for my entire life? I have been forced to sit here for a year, unable to do anything to find him. Please, do tell me how easy that was.”

Merde. That cannot have been easy. “Maybe that was not the right word,” I concede. But then,  nothing about our country’s fight to remain independent of France has been easy. Before he can say anything else, I point my knife at him. “Do not go anywhere.”

“I won’t.” Even though his eyes stay firmly on mine, the muscles in his body tense, gathering strength to make a break for the door.

I sigh in exasperation. “I tried to give you a chance,” I remind him, then kick his left knee. It is a gentle tap—meant to deter, not destroy—but he is old and not expecting it. He shouts as he crashes to the floor. Assured he will not go anywhere, I finally hurry over to the injured man and kneel beside him.

His eyelids flutter, and a groan of pain escapes his lips. “Must warn the duchess . . . Crunard—”

I place my hand on his shoulder. “Shhh. He did not escape, monsieur. Your brave deed gave us the time we needed.”

His breathing becomes easier. “And the bishop?”

I glance over at the bishop, whom Father Effram is helping to his feet. “He will live.” I try to keep the annoyance out of my voice.

The man gives a faint nod, before his eyes drift shut. The bishop and Father Effram approach us. “Will he make it?” Father Effram asks.

I shake my head. Father Effram kneels beside the dying man. “What is your name?”

“William.”

“Tell us what we can do for you, William.”

“So thirsty.”

Eager to do something to ease his agony, I rise to my feet and snag an ewer that sits on the desk, then return to William's side.

He is too weak to lift his head, so I rip off a corner of my underskirt, dip it into the water, and dribble it into his mouth. He is dying. I know it. But there is no marque on his forehead; no deathly shadows lurk upon his mortal wound.

A wave of despair washes over me at the finality of this moment, for both William and me. There truly are no more marques of Mortain to guide the living into death. To guide me. How am I to navigate such a world? What will keep me from straying too far into the shadows?

But I am not the only one of Mortain’s daughters serving here at court. “Where is Ismae?” I ask Father Effram.

He considers me a moment. “I believe she is with the duchess.”

“Go and fetch her, if you please. She is death’s mercy,” I murmur. “She will know what is to be done.”

His face softens. “But you too know what is to be done, Lady Sybella. And you are already here.”

“Just get her,” I snap.

He rises to his feet and heads for the door. “Best send for Duval as well,” I call after him. The duchess’s half brother and master strategist will need to know of Crunard’s newest betrayal. “And take the bishop with you. He is no doubt anxious to get out of his bloody robes.”

As the bishop passes me on the way to the door, he pauses to utter a short prayer for William. He does not so much as glance at me or utter a single word of thanks. I nearly laugh. Even now, after I have saved his sorry life, he cannot bear the sight of me. Whether it is because I am Mortain’s daughter or because of the more human aspects of my past, I do not know.

Dismissing him from my mind, I turn my attention back to the guard. Since there is nothing else I can do, I take his hand in mine.

Father Effram is wrong. I am useless in this situation. I am—was—death’s justice, never his mercy. It was Ismae who bestowed the mercy that death could deliver. Not I. I was only ever to serve as his vengeance.

William groans again, a heartbreaking whimper of pain. I grip his hand tighter, as if by doing so I can will him into death.

It is close now. I can feel his soul frantically beating against his body, wanting to be free. I do not know whether to be grateful that I can still feel such things or enraged that I must feel them with no way of knowing what I am supposed to do.

His heartbeat falters and stumbles, then struggles to keep going—like a valiant horse that is pulling too heavy a load. It would be so easy to free him of that.

I reach up and run my hand gently along his brow, then down his cheek. “Be at peace, dear William.” I place my palm over his struggling heart. I close my eyes and breathe deep, growing still inside. How can I ease this man’s plight?

Slowly, an answer comes, filling both my heart and mind with a presence that is far wiser than I. And that . . . presence . . . knows the absolute rightness of what to do.

I press my palm more firmly against his chest, using no more pressure than I would to caress my sister’s cheek. Rest now.

With a faint sigh of relief, his heart stops. In the silence that follows, William’s soul rises from his body, like some wary cat unfurling from a hiding place, then rubs against me. In thanks, I realize.

I allow myself to savor the peace the soul feels. The peace that it in turn brings me.

The soul does not linger or try to force itself upon me as most do, but simply floats up to the ceiling, where, like all souls, it will wait three days before finally departing.

When I look away, I find Crunard watching me. I blink twice, trying to reorient myself.

“He is dead,” I say.

“Is he, now?” Crunard’s eyes are sharp and bright.

“Which means in addition to your crime of treason, you are a murderer.” I utter the words harshly, hoping they will hide my sorrow. “This was no casualty of war or battle, but your own selfishness and greed.”

His face contains multitudes—anger, disappointment, frustration—but no regret, no sorrow, no remorse. Indeed, it feels as if there is almost a belligerent ferocity lying just beneath the surface. “I do not think it was I who killed that man,” he says softly.

The wily fox, they used to call him. And no wonder. “You are mistaken. I simply placed my hand on his heart and prayed that his death be easy.”

“And Mortain chose to honor your wishes?” His scorn is palpable.

“Yes,” I say, trying to keep the wonder from my voice.

Chapter 4

he sound of others approaching from the far end of the hallway is a welcome distraction.

“Have you sent for Beast?” Ismae’s voice is as familiar as my own. It was the first voice that reached through my grief and despair when I arrived at the convent. If not for her gentle coaxing, I would have run away rather than allow myself to be trained by the nuns who served Mortain.

“No,” Duval answers. “He is not scheduled to return until tomorrow.” The heels of his boots are clipped and hard upon the floor.

“Duval.” Ismae’s voice is filled with both compassion and warning.

His footsteps slow. “What?”

“Whatever Crunard was planning, it failed. Do not . . . do not act rashly.”

“Says the woman whom I spent nearly a year trying to restrain from killing half the nobles at court.” His words do not hide the pride or love he holds for her, although he would be appalled to know that.

“It’s been a long time since I tried to kill anyone,” Ismae grumbles.

Duval ignores her protest. “Why do you think I would do anything rash? Crunard has only betrayed our country and my sister, poisoned me, tried to kill you, and has now repaid the leniency we showed him by littering the hallway with bodies.”

Father Effram clears his throat. “I believe that was Lady Sybella, my lord.”

Gavriel Duval appears in the doorway, his gray eyes filled with a barely contained fury. I do not even pretend that I was not eavesdropping. “What took you so long?”

“Stepping over the trail of bodies you left in the hallway.” Duval’s voice is dry as bone, but the harshness in his face is softened by gratitude. “Once again, we owe you a debt of thanks.”

Before I have time to rebuff his sincerity, Ismae pushes past him, shaking her head in exasperation. But silent questions—and envy—lurk deep within her probing gaze. “If you wanted to get out of your stitching duties, I’m sure there was an easier way.”

I shrug carelessly. “It’s important I keep my skills honed, especially in light of my upcoming trip to the French court.”

As she draws closer, she scrutinizes my face, my gown, my very soul, to assure herself that I am okay.

“Your concern is almost insulting.”

“Hush.” She reaches up to wipe something from my cheek. “You’re covered in blood.”

Without taking his eyes from Crunard, Duval clears his throat. “Would you mind telling us what happened here?”

Ismae grimaces at his stuffy formality, but I know it is the mask he wears when his emotions run high. “Of course, my lord. Your prisoner Crunard was ungrateful over his improved conditions and decided to take advantage of the duchess’s mercy. He bribed or coerced three of the duchess’s men to his cause and used them to take the bishop hostage, killing a fourth guard in the process.”

Duval turns on his heel and strides over to where Crunard sits on the floor. “Why? What was worth these four men’s lives?”

“My son.”

A vein in Duval’s temple begins to pulse. “Do you really think Anton would want you to slay his countrymen in his name? If so, he was right about you all these years—you do not know him at all.” The disgust on Duval’s face is palpable. “I should have had you killed months ago,” he mutters.

“But you didn’t.” Crunard smirks. “And now you cannot, because it would be in cold blood and your honor”—he nearly spits the words out—“would never allow that.”

“You have no idea what my honor will allow, old fox.”

“I beg to differ. It will keep you from ever truly winning.”

The words sting, as Duval has done everything in his power to keep Brittany independent of France. That they will now be joined by a marriage contract rather than outright conquest is thin comfort. Duval looks away a moment, as if arguing with himself. Without warning, he turns back around and gives Crunard a healthy clip to the jaw.

The older man’s eyes widen in surprise as his head snaps back, then close as he slumps into unconsciousness.

I shoot Duval a look of annoyance. “If I’d known we were allowed to do that, I would have clouted him myself.”

Duval flexes his hand as he takes in Crunard’s injured wrist and twisted knee. “It looks like you got a good shot at him. But you are truly all right?”

“If either one of you asks me that again, I will prove how fine I am by stabbing you with my knife.”

That elicits a begrudging smile out of him as Ismae announces, “Clearly, she is fine.”

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