Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(8)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(8)
Robin LaFevers

“I did,” I say lightly. “But it was only meant as a way out in her darkest hour, and she was eager to be free of it.”

“Would that she had thrown it in the midden heap,” he grumbles.

I remove my hand from his and place my palms against his cheeks. “It is a weapon now, Beast. Nothing more. I swear it.” Before we can resume where we left off, I feel another presence on the stairs behind us. A much smaller, younger presence. “We have company.”

Beast steps crisply away, looking neither rushed nor guilty, and is standing by the ramparts when the page reaches us.

“Sir Waroch,” he says breathlessly. “Lord Duval asked to see you right away. I’m to tell you that riders from the house of Rohan have been spotted.”

Beast and I exchange a look. “Rohan?” he asks.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Very well. Go on. I’ll be right behind you.”

The lad bobs a bow before turning to clatter back down the stairs.

“Rohan!” I repeat when the boy is out of earshot. This cannot bode well. As one of the most powerful nobles in Brittany, he sided with the French crown instead of the duchess. “He has been safely tucked up in his lands in France for the last year. What does he want now?”

Beast shrugs his massive shoulders as he heads down the stairs. “I’m sure Duval has been plotting all the possibilities out on a chessboard. Maybe he will tell us at the council meeting.”

As Beast disappears out of sight, something niggles at the back of my mind. What if Crunard knew that Rohan was en route? The families have been allies for many years. How easy would it have been for Crunard to slip among Rohan’s men and leave when they departed?

I had asked, Why today? Crunard did not have an answer for me, but what if I have found it anyway?

As I turn to follow Beast, a shock of cold brushes along the back of my neck. Like a spoiled, persistent cat, the vibrant soul tries one last time to gain my attention, but I brush it aside, too concerned with thoughts of the living to pay it any mind.

Chapter 9

ver the last harrowing months, the duchess and her council have plotted and argued and planned for a crushing defeat even as we made a desperate bid for victory. Thanks to Annith, aided by Saint Arduinna and Mortain, now Brittany and France are to be united by marriage. While Brittany will not maintain full independence from France, it is the duchess’s heirs who will rule over both.

It has not been a smooth or easy process, for there are many different opinions among the council. And while I respect most of them, I rebelled at their decision to hold today’s meeting without the duchess.

It is possible they did it for precisely the reason they said—to allow her to pursue happy, girlish joys and prepare for her upcoming marriage. Or it could be something else entirely. Something they are not even aware of. Now that she is officially betrothed to the king of France, they no longer see her with the same . . . not respect, for I know each of these men holds her in high esteem and would die defending her. But something more insidious than that—as if now that she is to marry, they no longer judge her to be the mistress of her own fate.

If that is so, they have sorely underestimated her.

And me. I smile, thinking of the surprise I have in store for them. That coupled with the news I have to share with the council makes this the first meeting I have ever truly looked forward to.

* * *

With nearly an hour before the meeting starts, I turn toward the garden where Beast saw my sisters playing. It is a rare opportunity to spend a few quiet moments in their company. While they are more precious to me than life itself, my duties to the convent and the duchess have left me little time for them. It does not help matters that my temperament is not well suited to tending to young girls.

The garden is nearly empty this time of year, the heavy clouds keeping most of the courtiers inside close to the roaring fires. Tephanie sits on a stone bench, poking dutifully at the linen in her embroidery hoop. She keeps one eye on the girls, who are searching the bushes for the last remaining flowers before the next storm comes. When my foot crunches on the gravel path, Tephanie’s head snaps up, face alert. Good. She has put aside some of her timidity. As one of the few who has lived in my family’s household, one of the few who has seen firsthand the cruelties they are capable of, she knows the dangers that await those who let down their guard.

“My lady!” She hops to her feet and bobs a curtsy, holding her hoop close to her chest. Her furtive gesture has me longing to peer over and see what she is working on, but I refrain. She is loyal beyond measure, stood by me when others did not, and has followed me into my new life with no questions asked. The least she deserves is her privacy. “How are the girls this morning?”

“They are well. With so many new guests and the bustle of preparations for the upcoming trip, they seem to prefer the gardens.” She smiles shyly. “I cannot say that I blame them.”

“Nor I. You may sit back down,” I tell her. “I only came to visit with the girls for a short time before I must meet with the council.”

“They will be happy to see you.”

Even though there is no censure in her words, they poke at me like her needle does at her linen. When I spend more than an hour with them, I grow as restless as a caged animal.

“Since you are here, do you mind if I fetch some fresh embroidering silk? I have used up all my red.”

“Of course. Take your time. I do not need to be anywhere for nearly an hour. And you might want to get a fresh needle,” I add. “I think the one you’re using has grown dull.”

She blushes, as if I have scolded her.

“Tephanie.” I reach out and briefly touch her arm. “It was not an order, merely a suggestion. It looked as if you were having to force it through, which was causing your thread to snarl.”

She takes a deep breath. “Of course, my lady.” She bobs a curtsy, sets her hoop face-down on the bench, then hurries inside.

My glance lingers briefly on the hidden embroidery before I turn and make my way along the stone path to my sisters. Louise watches a lone thrush, perched on a bare branch, warbling his sad winter song. Charlotte is crouched over a bush, her face creased in concentration. Intrigued, I head first in her direction. She glances up as I draw closer. Realizing it is only me, she returns her gaze to the bush without saying a word. Her lack of greeting pinches my heart, but I do my best to ignore it. She is always thus—feeling no need to make idle conversation or greeting. “What have you there?”

“A spider.”

A huge spider’s web spreads across half the bush. While its corners are securely fastened, the stiff breeze causes the threads to flutter delicately, like fine lace. “Webs are beautiful, are they not?” I ask.

“Yes.” The word comes out almost breathlessly. That is when I see she is not staring at the web, but at the spider itself. It is big and fat and nearly as large as her thumb.

“Louise!” she calls out. “Come see this!”

“It is only a spider,” I tell her, knowing Louise will not enjoy it nearly as much.

“Yes,” she says impatiently. “But look what it’s doing.”

I peer closer at the web. The creature scuttles across the fine silk to a large fly trapped in one of the sticky strands and begins spooling out web, using it to bind the fly. I look again at the intent expression on Charlotte’s face, and a trickle of apprehension runs down my spine.

Louise arrives just then. “What is it?”

“A spider,” Charlotte tells her. “Hunting a fly. Watch.”

Impatiently pushing a strand of her hair away from her face, Louise peers closer, then leaps back abruptly and grabs my hand. “It’s killing it! Make it stop!”

I squeeze her hand. “I can’t, sweeting. That is how they eat and feed their young.”

“I don’t like it.” Her voice becomes shaky, and she turns her face into my skirts.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Charlotte scolds as she scoots even closer to watch.

She has always been a curious child, I try to tell myself. Has always been inquisitive, snooping and sneaking, collecting details about the world around her like a miser collects coin. And who can blame her? In our household, the more one knew, the better one could avoid deviously set traps. She has also lived among our family for ten years now, long enough to be touched by their darker impulses.

Which is why she must never return to them. That and her own personal safety, although she is, thankfully, too young to realize that.

“Uh, my lady?”

Tephanie’s voice is a welcome distraction. Not only is she better at comforting Louise, but I can ask if she has noticed this type of behavior with Charlotte. When I turn to greet her, my world tilts, like a crystal goblet that teeters on the edge of a table before shattering.

A heavily muscled man holds her close, a long hunting knife pressed firmly against her throat. His face is one I know well, from both my nightmares and my childhood. Indeed, his looks favor his father’s so much that it is like twisting a dull, rusty blade in an old wound.

Bitter acid of fear and anticipation floods my body, drawing my skin tight over my bones, my muscles tensing with readiness.

Mortain has been gone from my life for less than a week, and already the family that raised me has found a way back in.

Chapter 10

he sight of my brother Pierre sends me reeling down a deep hole full of ugly memories and heartbreak and death. So much death. My mother, Pierre’s mother, Charlotte’s and Louise’s mothers. Our brother Julian. Even my own death, narrowly escaped.

The man who raised me and committed those atrocities, gutted with a knife.

Pierre is one of that man’s children who eagerly embraces his legacy of cruelty.

Mayhap this is the reason Mortain bid me live—to protect my sisters from the horrors visited upon me.

Two men stand on either side of Pierre. Like him, they are dressed in red and yellow tabards. The man on the right is tall and wide-shouldered. A beard covers most of his face, and his eyes are as hard as flint. His height and long limbs mean he will be fast, with a long reach.

The other man is shorter, but thicker through the shoulders and chest. He holds himself with a careless strength that bespeaks a seasoned soldier. However, it is his eyes that disturb me most, for they are flat, as if no soul or heart or anything decent lives within.

I shift my focus to the scar on my brother’s left eyebrow, the one I gave to him when I was ten years old and he tried to kiss me a second time. I am older now, and far more deadly. “Pierre.”

At our brother’s name, Charlotte looks up from the bush and slowly stands before taking one careful step away from me. Whether to give herself room to run or to disassociate from me, I do not know.

“This is convenient. I come looking for one sister and find all three. I knew your pet would prove useful.” His casual grip on the knife at Tephanie’s throat sends a shard of ice through my gut. He doesn’t care if he kills her or not. He grins, a cruel twist of his lips that has haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten you?”

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