Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(5)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(5)
Robin LaFevers

My cheeks flush at this reminder of my behavior when Margot and I first came to Count Angoulême’s household, nearly a year ago. I had had the misfortune of attracting the king’s eye. Being his older sister as well as the regent, Madame wanted me far away from the French court—and her younger brother. Fortunately for her, Louise was traveling to her new home in Cognac and needed attendants of her own. Margot and I were assigned to accompany her.

I could not accept that our lives could be so easily uprooted on such a whim and was convinced it was all part of the convent’s master plan for us. Especially since Angoulême was their ally and the one who first agreed to sponsor us at the French court for the convent.

When I say nothing, he takes a sip of wine, his heavy-lidded gaze meeting my own. “No demands today that I put you in touch with the abbess of your convent immediately?”

I stare past him into the fireplace. “That gained me nothing, my lord. Once it became clear it was like beating a dead horse, there was no choice but to change my strategy.”

He rises to his feet—slowly. I cannot tell if he wants to intimidate me or show himself to his best advantage. Whichever his intent, it fails. “Did you just call me a dead horse?”

“Never, my lord.”

He comes out from behind the desk and sits upon the edge, crowding me. The chair presses against my legs, but I will not sit and give him the advantage of height. His knee pokes forward to rest ever so faintly against my thigh. “And what is this new strategy of yours, dear Genevieve?” His eyes are still slightly swollen from last night’s revelries. His nose is so long and sharp it could scythe wheat, and strikes a discordant note above lips that are as full and ripe as a woman’s.

It is hard to keep the contempt from my voice. “Wait as ordered until the convent sends further instructions.”

“They have forgotten about you,” he says, not without sympathy.

My fists clench. “I doubt that, my lord. Have you yourself not spent the last few months claiming how unforgettable I am?” He has not been subtle in pursuing me.

The sympathy shifts to something else, and I immediately regret my own stupidity. My anger made me careless.

He reaches up with his finger. Moving it across my skin, he draws a line from my temple down to my jaw. “You are unforgettable.” I know a modest maiden would recoil, in coy surprise if not outright shock. But I cannot—will not—give ground in this game he insists on playing.

“Such a stubborn chin. And those cheekbones! They could cut as surely as any blade.”

“Then you had best be wary and not play with sharp things.”

Slowly, to be certain I know he is ignoring my implied threat, he runs his finger back up to rest at the corner of my mouth. “But your lips tell a different story.”

In the haze of anger that descends upon me, I see only two choices. I can bite his repugnant finger clean off or take it in my mouth and wrap my tongue around it—simply to shock him.

Fortunately, my wits return. “My lips tell the story of a man who tried to pet a wolf he thought was tame. In the end, he lost his finger.” I shift my body, crowding myself back against the chair behind me. It causes his knee to slip and he nearly tumbles forward. He catches himself, but not before wine has slopped out of the goblet and onto his sleeve.

“I grow tired of this,” he growls.

I allow my own displeasure to shine through. “No more than I. Surely this is not what the convent of Saint Mortain had in mind when they asked you to sponsor me at court.” Indeed, in the past year it is as if his arrangement with them has faded into naught but a threadbare memory.

His lips flatten, but he does not argue. Instead he rises from the desk and returns to the chair behind it. “I have something for you. A gift.”

My breath hitches in my throat. That’s how it started between him and Margot—with a gift.

“Sire, I do not wish anything from you. It is enough that you give me food and shelter until the convent calls upon me.”

“Take it,” he insists, holding a small pouch out to me.

Reluctantly, I reach for it, my fingers closing around the thick silk. “This will not change anything between us.”

He stares at me over the rim of his goblet. “I would be disappointed if it did. Open it.”

I pull my gaze from his and fumble with the silk ribbons. When I turn the pouch upside down, a luminous white pearl on a thin chain of gold tumbles into my palm. It is lovely, but I do not tell him that.

“Do you know the meaning of a pearl, my dear?”

Most maids would not know the sexual implications a pearl implies, but I do.

“It celebrates the beauty of irritation,” he continues.

I jerk my head up at his unexpected answer. He smiles into his goblet. “I look forward to seeing you wear it.”

I close my fist around the gift, glad it is not breakable. “That will not happen, my lord.”

“Oddly, I find your never-ending irritation to be somewhat beguiling. It is puzzling to be sure, but you are young and I am patient. You are dismissed.” He lifts his goblet in salute, then turns away from me.

Nearly dizzy with his shifting humors, I head for the door. It is only when I am in the hallway and have taken a dozen steps away from his chamber that I allow some of the tension to leave my body. I lean against the wall a moment to collect myself. Unbidden, the memory of Margot receiving her first gift from Angoulême washes over me.

“Why did he give it to you?” I ask.

She is looking in the small, occluded mirror in our room, a chain of gold with three red garnets glittering in the candlelight as she turns this way and that to admire it. Her hair is almost the exact color of the jewels. “Because he likes me, silly.”

“Nothing good will come of it,” I warn.

She turns around to face me and grimaces. “You sound just like old Sister Claude fussing at her birds.”

When we came to the French court together, Margot and I, it was to be a great adventure. Two of Mortain’s own daughters, planted right under the long nose of the French regent, who was causing our country so much grief.

And at first, it was. We would spy on the courtiers, mimic their mannerisms and comportment. But the longer we were at court, the more Margot was pulled into the courtiers’ games and flirtations, and the more scornful of me she became.

“What were you doing in there?”

My head jerks up to see Margot herself standing in the hallway, glaring at me. I blink at the contrast between the Margot of my memory and how she looks now. Her red hair is as lush as ever, cascading around her shoulders like rich autumn leaves, but almost everything else about her has changed. She is rounder now, ripe to bursting with the babe she carries in her belly. Her eyes no longer sparkle with mischief or boundless energy, but are puffy and haunted-looking. I have heard the other women say she is not sleeping well. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be confined to your rooms.”

“I snuck out to find you. So?” Her mouth twists with jealousy. “What were you doing in Angoulême’s office?”

I close my hand tightly around the pearl necklace. “Nothing.”

She takes a step closer. “I don’t believe you.”

I sigh and tilt my head so she will see I am bored by this conversation. “If you must know, I was asking if he had any word from the convent.”

Some of the sharpness leaves her face as she barks out a laugh. “You are three times a fool, Gen.”

I shrug aside her scorn, happy enough that jealousy no longer clouds her thoughts. “Time will tell,” I mumble as I turn to walk away.

“Wait!” she calls out, lumbering after me.

As much as being near her is like pouring salt into a fresh wound, I do not have the heart to force her to shuffle after me, clumsy and awkward. I slow my pace. “According to you, we have nothing to say to each other.”

“I have something I must tell you. Ask you,” she corrects.

I slowly turn to face her, but she is peering down past her belly at her feet. She has not talked to me—or asked me anything—for more than four months. I cannot imagine what has changed her mind. Something unfamiliar flutters deep in my belly, and I cannot tell if it is annoyance or hope. That I can still feel hope where she is concerned angers me. “So ask.” I resume walking, but more slowly.

She grabs my arm. “Would you stand still for a minute?”

I am so startled by the faint note of desperation in her voice that I stop. “What?” Concern creeps in past the armor I have erected between us. “What is wrong? Is it the babe?”

“No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.”

Her voice sounds so lost, so close to despair and maybe even fear, that I find myself caring in spite of my vow to never again give a fig for anything she says or does. “Should I call a doctor? The count?”

“No!” she says, her face stricken. “It is nothing like that.” Her eyes slip from mine to study the tapestry on the wall behind me. “It is just . . . I have a favor to ask.”

This time it is I who bark out a laugh. Of course she wants something. “I cannot imagine what it is that I could do for you. You have made it abundantly clear that I have nothing to offer you anymore.”

“There is one thing that only you can do for me.”

Her words snag me like a hook. But I cannot make this easy for her. Not after all the pain she has caused me, so I simply wait in silence.

Her cheeks grow pink, and she fidgets with her hands. That is when I notice she is holding a red silken cord. I recognize it immediately—it is one she cut off of her finest dress when we first came to court, thinking it would make an excellent garrote. It has sat unused for five years.

Her hands grip the cord tightly, as if drawing on it for strength, then she thrusts it at me.

Keeping the pearl necklace carefully concealed in my left hand, I take the cord with my right. “Is there someone I am to strangle for you?” I do not even try to keep the disbelief from my voice.

“Saints no, Gen! Stop searching for the convent in every single thing!” Her voice is low, but it feels as if she is shouting.

I glare at her mulishly. “If you’re asking a favor, mocking me seems an unwise approach.”

“Would you just listen?” The note of desperation is back, so I relent.

She glances left then right to be certain we are alone, and lowers her voice to a whisper. “This has nothing to do with the convent, but everything to do with the Nine. There is no one else I can ask. You and I are the only ones who still worship the old saints here.”

Even though the Church insists we call them saints, they are gods to me. And the convent. She has my full attention now.

“I need you to make an offering to Dea Matrona.” She nods at the red cord I now hold in my hand.

“And how am I to do that?”

“Under the light of a waxing moon, you must untie the knots and bury the cord with an offering at the base of a silver birch. If you do, it is said that Dea Matrona will widen my passage so that the babe can pass through easier, allowing for a less painful birth. I would do it myself, but in my current condition”—she flaps her hands at her overripe body—“I cannot sneak anywhere, let alone be certain I can lower myself to the ground or get back up again. Please. Will you do this for me?”

Hot Novels
  • Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Chris
  • Fifty Shades Freed (Fifty Shades #3)
  • Never Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #2)
  • Fifty Shades Darker (Fifty Shades #2)
  • Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine‚Äôs Peculi
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades #1)
  • Fallen Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #1)
  • Forever Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #3)
  • Ugly Love
  • Allegiant (Divergent #3)
  • Hold on Tight (Sea Breeze #8)
  • Bared to You (Crossfire #1)
  • The Destiny of Violet & Luke (The Coinc
  • Captivated by You (Crossfire #4)
  • Uprooted