Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(4)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(4)
Robin LaFevers

* * *

When more guards arrive to remove the bodies and return Crunard to the dungeon, Ismae accompanies me to my room so I may change. “Knock first,” I warn her. “I don’t want Charlotte and Louise to see me covered in blood and trailing the scent of death.” Such easy violence is precisely why I am determined to keep my sisters from our family.

Ismae raps on the door. When there is no answer, she opens it and waves me inside, then pulls me over near the banked fire and begins unlacing my gown.

“Well?”

She and I have been prowling the palace and surrounding parts of the city like vultures, waiting for someone—anyone—to die so we could see how death worked in this new, upended world.

I take a deep breath before answering. “There are no marques any longer.” Saying the words out loud feels as if someone has carved my heart out of my chest, leaving it empty and hollow.

Her hands on my laces still. “Truly?” she whispers.

“Truly. Not on the guards rushing me, not on the man holding the bishop hostage, and not on the soldier who lay dying in my arms. Even as he passed into death, no marque appeared.”

Ismae’s silent disappointment fills the room as her fingers resume their work. “So, that is it. His gifts have left us.”

I give a quick shake of my head. “Not all. I am still able to feel heartbeats and sense souls as they leave their bodies.”

She lets out a breath. “Well, that’s a good sign.”

“Are you still able to sense the presence of life?” For all that we are half sisters, her abilities have differed somewhat from mine—all of Mortain’s daughters have variations in their gifts and skills.

“Yes,” she answers slowly. “But I was never certain if that was Mortain’s gift or the convent’s training.”

I glance at her over my shoulder. “Do you dare try poison?”

Blushing, she pretends to struggle with a knot. “It still does not appear to harm me in the slightest. But again, I wasn’t sure whether that was one of his gifts or some strange aspect of my own body.”

To hide how happy I am for her, I smirk. “And they say I am impulsive.”

She lifts her shoulder in a half shrug as she unfastens my belt. Before she can remove it from my waist, I quickly hide the holly twig in my palm. I start to tell her of my prayer for the dying man, and the surety with which the answer came, but find I cannot. It is still too new, too nebulous. I am afraid that speaking of it will cause the connection to shatter, and I am too selfish to risk that.

Chapter 5

Genevieve

t is a few days before I can break free from the others and return to the dungeon.

Margot’s confinement began this week, so there were many trips to the chapel for the ritual blessings, final feasts, and celebrations with the household. My absence would have been noted—and commented upon—something I am desperate to avoid. But at last Margot has been sequestered to her room in anticipation of the babe’s birth.

Descending the staircase, I let the bustle and chatter of the castle fall away like an unbearably stiff cloak. Fortunately, the sense of impending dread has left me, but the sense that the world has shifted in some unnamable way remains.

As I step into the corridor that leads to the dungeon, the darkness folds itself around me like a welcoming blanket. I pause for a moment, listening for potential guards or the sound of the prisoner’s heart beating. But there is nothing. I place my hand upon my chest to be certain, but there is only the steady rhythm of my own heart.

A fleeting sense of sorrow shafts through me for the passing of a life, unknown and alone. However, it is the passing of that life that has drawn me here—giving me a chance to explore death more closely.

There are so many lessons Margot and I had not yet received from the nuns at the convent of Saint Mortain before we were sent away. We know only a handful of ways to kill a man, and have even less understanding of how our arts work.

That is what I am hoping to learn from the dead prisoner. Provided the guards have not lugged the body away, it will be a perfect map for me to study.

It is not until I am standing almost upon the grate itself that I hear the sound of . . . panting? No, huffing. Followed by a grunt.

The sounds of a living human. Disappointment slams into me like a fist, and I nearly crush the apple I have brought for my lunch. He had to have been close to death for me to have heard his heart. Yet now he is down here breathing and grunting. How can I explore the mysteries of death if the man is still alive?

“Ives? Have you returned?” The deep rumble of the prisoner’s voice is more proof he is not as dead as he should be.

“You have been alone so long your enfeebled mind is conjuring ghosts for company.”

There is a faint whisper of movement, and though I cannot see through the murk, his regard is palpable as it reaches through the dark to take my measure. “While my enfeebled mind has conjured many ghosts these last long months, you are the first to smell of apples.”

I loosen my grip on the fruit in my hand, the full impact of his situation finally registering. He has been locked down here for months. Was near death but a few days ago.

“I do have an apple. Would you like it?”

“Yes.” The force of his hunger causes his voice to crack.

It is a simple thing, to bring such reverence to a man’s voice. The apple is too large to fit through the grate, so I reach for the small knife at my belt and slice it in half. “I will drop it down, one half at a time.”

There is a rustle as he comes to stand beneath the opening. I peer down, but see nothing in all that sooty darkness. “It’s coming through the center,” I tell him, hoping he can catch it rather than have it land in the filth I can smell all the way from here. I drop one half, then the other, holding my breath until I hear the quiet slap of them landing in his palm.

A long silence is followed by a juicy crunch and a grunt of pleasure. As he gulps down the fruit, I am filled with satisfaction. I have helped someone. Even if it is only to keep them from starving one more day. It is the same feeling I had as a child when I found a stray cat behind the tavern and would sneak it a saucer of milk. Although the satisfaction tonight is tenfold.

“Who is Ives?” I whisper, wondering if I should be worried about the guards.

A long pause. “One of the ghosts.”

Something in his voice feels unspeakably sad, and I find myself wanting to change the subject. “And what of you? Why are you not a ghost? You seemed near death but days ago.”

“I was. Until it rained and filled the seep so I was able to quench my thirst.”

So, I did not imagine it. “Does no one bring you food or water?”

“They did. Once.” There is a note of wistfulness in his voice.

“I will bring more if I can.”

I regret the whispered promise before I reach the first corridor leading out of the dungeons, where reality begins to chase away the last dregs of satisfaction. I cannot come back. I have no convincing pretense for being down here. Count Angoulême would ask questions, poke and prod and watch me more closely.

My role in this household is one of a biddable, humble attendant, not someone who possesses such morbid interests or would dare to explore death if she stumbled upon it. Too many years have been spent cultivating that bland demeanor. It is beyond foolish to risk it for some unknown prisoner.

And yet my soul is hungry for such risks. A taste for them was fed to me with my mother’s milk, then nurtured and honed by the convent. To not take them feels like leaving fruit to wither and die on a vine.

Chapter 6

hen I reach my chamber, the countess of Angoulême sits in a chair by the fire, waiting for me. I hide my surprise with a warm greeting. “My lady.” I sink into a deep curtsy.

She motions me to my feet. “Where have you been, Genevieve?” I cannot tell by her expression how long she has been waiting.

“Roaming the halls. You know how restless I get when cooped up for too long.”

She wrinkles her nose. “I do not understand your need to gallop about. I have always thought it was odd, ever since we were children.”

I nearly laugh. She and I never knew each other as children, but first met when we were twelve years old. She, too, was a ward of the regent, one of the “girls” Madame Regent raised as her own. There were others as well, including the young dauphine, Marguerite, once destined to be queen of France.

“I only gallop when I am outside, my lady. Indoors, I keep to a trot.”

She studies me with thoughtful eyes. Once she would have laughed at my jest, but with her new elevated station, she inspects each word for any sign of disrespect or overfamiliarity.

She moves her hands to her belly. While it is softly rounded with child, she is not as far along as Margot. Does it bother her that her husband’s mistress—her own lady in waiting—will be bearing his child before she does? Deciding to ignore—or forgive—my jest, she says, “My lord husband wishes to see you.”

Caution wars with curiosity. The count has not summoned me in over a month. “Ah, then. Best not keep him waiting.”

Louise’s heavy brow creases faintly as she searches yet again for the sign of disrespect she fears.

I reach down to take her arm and pull her to her feet. “After all,” I say cheerfully, “he is an important man with much to do.”

“Do you know why he wishes to see you?” Her dark brown eyes meet my own, hesitant questions lurking in their depths.

“No.” I allow a faint hint of surliness to color the word. It is a trait of mine she knows well. “I have probably offended or transgressed in some way.” Louise has always been too timid and biddable to do anything improper, but secretly enjoys when others take such risks. Her mouth quirks up in a faint smile, the questions fading from her eyes.

* * *

The thick oak door to Count Angoulême’s room stands open. He sprawls in a chair at his desk with his back to the fire, a decanter at his elbow, a half-full glass in his hand. The room is cloying with the thick, too-warm scent of vetiver, cloves, and wine. I do not go in, but remain in the doorway. “My lord? The countess said you sent for me?”

He waves me forward. “Come in, come in. Don’t hover. And close the door.”

The first several times he asked me to close the door, I hoped it meant he had news from the convent regarding my duties. It did not.

Biting back a sigh of resignation, I do as he commands.

When I reach the chair in front of his desk, he pours a glass of wine, places it in front of me, and motions for me to sit.

I remain standing.

“Where have you been?” My heart pounds for one long, painful moment—does he know about the oubliette? “You’ve been scarce of late.”

“I have been keeping my own company, my lord.”

“That is too bad. I miss your earlier visits. It was refreshing, being interrogated by a young demoiselle less than half my age.”

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