Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(9)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(9)
Robin LaFevers

I force my own lips to curve in a mocking smile. “Of course not.” I had, however, hoped he would not remember until we were safely in France. “But I did think you had returned to Périgord for the winter.” I fill my voice with arch amusement. The scent of fear would only embolden him further.

“What I want could not be found in Périgord. If you and the girls come easily, I will not have to hurt this sow you seem to have grown so fond of.”

Terror tries to chase all the breath from my lungs, but I rein it back in. “Is this some newfound brotherly responsibility you are feeling toward our sisters?” As I talk, I pull Louise nearer so she is tucked close against me, shielded by my skirts. “You are not a nursemaid, and the girls mean nothing to you.”

“They belong to me now and are the bargaining chips I will use to form new alliances and rebuild our family’s influence. Now bring them here, or I will be forced to do something you will regret.”

Even though I can feel Tephanie’s eyes on me like a frightened calf, I do not dare look at her. “Kill her or not, I don’t care.”

Louise gasps. I squeeze her hand, trying to reassure her it is naught but a lie. “And you may take the girls as well. I have grown weary of them.”

Pierre smiles, pleased at his easy victory. Overconfidence has always been his great weakness. “Ah, but I will not leave you behind. You are still of marriageable age and hold some value. Besides, you have much to answer for.” His eyes glint darkly, hinting at the malevolent punishments he has in mind.

Ignoring the cold fear that trickles along my skin, I keep my voice light. “Dear Pierre. I forget you were never the clever one in our family. Let us talk this through. Surely I will serve you better by waiting upon the duchess. My presence here could do much to repair the damage our family has done to her.”

“Not clever, eh? How do you suppose I got in here undetected?”

“By wearing Viscount Rohan’s colors, which is practically cheating.”

The vein in his forehead throbs as he takes a step forward, dragging the forgotten Tephanie with him. “Cheating? This is not some game of cards we are playing.” He stops and cocks his head like a curious vulture. “Or is it? I’d forgotten how you could make anything into a game.” His eyes gleam with a spark of admiration, and I fear I will be sick. If there is anything about me he admires, I must cut it out like rotting fruit. “Tell me, was it a game when our brother Julian died? Did you enjoy luring him to his death?”

“No!”

“You may as well have swung the sword yourself. And our father’s death was by your hand.”

Charlotte jerks her gaze from Pierre to stare at me, and Louise shoves her face into my skirt.

“He is not dead,” I say coolly.

Pierre’s eyes bore into mine, alight with cold fury. “You left him lying in a pool of his own viscera. Even when the surgeons stitched him back together, he did not regain consciousness. He is as good as dead. Do not fool yourself, Sybella. You are no more suited to the duchess’s court than a wolf is to a lapdog. You are a d’Albret. You lie like one. You kill like one.” He takes a step closer. “Heartlessness and cruelty are your weapons of choice. Your d’Albret blood is thicker than your desire to be a lady in waiting to some mewling queen.”

The need to scream at him that I am not of his blood is so strong, I fear it will burst from my throat. But I can feel Louise trembling beside me. See Charlotte watching Pierre and me carefully. With all the death and upheaval they have gone through, I cannot tell them we do not share the same blood.

Besides, to admit that is to hand Pierre a weapon. A weapon he will be quick to use as we struggle over custody, and I will not give them up. Not to him. Not to the d’Albret family.

“I think you underestimate the toll these last months have taken on me. I want nothing more than to lead a simple life, with simple pleasures. To serve my queen and to guide my sisters to womanhood so that they may make suitable marriages.” I will take the one on the left first. He looks faster than Pierre or the other man.

Pierre snorts. “And how will you do that? You can offer them nothing. You have no lands, no husband, nothing you can call your own. You cannot sign a betrothal contract to ensure your own future, let alone theirs. You will live in a room at the beck and call of a fickle young girl. That is no kind of security to offer anyone.”

Compared to what the d’Albret family has to offer, it is paradise on earth.

“Perhaps that is so,” I say, as if flirting with some admirer. “But I cannot just pick up and leave the duchess’s side with no explanation. I must obtain her permission.” As we talk, I continue to pull on Louise’s arm until she is all but hidden behind me. To Pierre, it will merely look as if I am shielding the younger girl from him, which I am.

But I am also freeing up my throwing hand.

Thankfully, he does not see me as much of a threat. “She is our sovereign and, as you yourself noted, soon to be queen of France. To slight her could set the family honor and fortunes even farther back. Besides, you cannot provide better marriages for our sisters than the duchess can arrange once she is queen.”

He laughs. “She will put the crown’s interest first, while I will see to my own interests. Very different things.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “You don’t truly expect the three of us to simply prance out of the palace, with no one trying to stop us, do you?” The man on the left is slapping his knife against his thigh, waiting impatiently. The one on the right has a crossbow, but it is strapped to his back, leaving both hands free to snag the girls. Fools. I curl my fingers up until they make contact with the tiny catch at the base of my wrist sheaths.

“They would not dare to try to stop me. You all belong to me. Even if someone were stupid enough to try, with our blades at your throats, they would not risk interfering.”

Neither Pierre nor his men bear Mortain’s marque. I cannot help but feel as if I stand on the edge of a precipice. They intend to take us alive, and I don’t know if killing them is considered self-defense.

But it will allow me to save my sisters. I press against the catch on the sheath, and the hilt of my knife slips down into my palm, then I shrug, as if bored by the conversation. “As I said, you are welcome to the girls. And the maid.” Behind me, Louise’s small body grows rigid with betrayal and shock. “There, now. Go to him.” I release her hand and lean down to nudge her forward, whispering, “Drop to the ground when I say ‘spider.’ Blink twice if you understand.”

Her solemn eyes blink once, twice. As those worried, frightened eyes stare up at me, I realize I cannot kill Pierre in front of her.

Charlotte glances over at me, her face clear and unafraid. I cannot tell if she heard my instructions to Louise or not. “Go on, sweeting. Go to Pierre.” I speak loud enough for my brother to hear. “He will take care of you.”

Charlotte lifts her skirts and begins picking a slow, careful path forward. “I wondered when you’d arrive.” Her young voice is clear, high, and utterly steady. “To be honest, I thought you’d be here weeks ago.”

She manages to inject a faint element of disdain into her words. Clever girl. That will further enrage him, which will make him even more careless.

“Enough!” he snaps. “Be silent and do as you are told.” As he scolds her, I inch my fingers along the knife until I have the tip grasped firmly in my fingers. To disable and not kill is a far more difficult throw. I will have only one chance. It must be quick, and it must be true.

As Louise slowly walks toward our brother, she starts to cry. Pierre scowls, his face flushing in anger. “Make her be quiet! Someone will hear.”

“Spider!” I shout.

As I launch my dagger, both of my sisters drop to the ground. My blade hurls through the air, a darting flash of silver, before slicing across the back of Pierre’s hand.

He bellows in pain as he drops his knife. There is a second yelp of pain as Tephanie stabs him with something, and he loosens his grip on her long enough that she can break free.

A moment of stunned silence follows as what has just happened registers with Pierre’s men. Slow, I think to myself. Just like him.

They reach for their weapons, but too late. I have already pulled Ismae’s crossbow from the folds of my overskirt and am slapping a bolt into place. I let it fly, aiming for the man drawing his sword. I do not wait to see where the bolt lands, but reload while turning toward the second man. The bolt pierces his wrist, hopefully shattering it. At the very least, he will be unable to use his own bow anytime soon.

Reloading again, I glance back at the first man, swearing when I see my aim was off and I caught him in the throat. He holds a hand up to his neck, trying to stop the flow of blood. He is not dead now, but will be shortly.

Cradling his injured hand, Pierre glares at me. The malevolent loathing in his eyes has the weight of a physical blow.

“Leave,” I tell him. When he hesitates, I say it again, louder. “Leave! I have two more bolts and six knives. You are finished here. Besides, your friend is gravely wounded. Best you get him somewhere he can die in peace.”

I can feel Louise’s and Charlotte’s eyes on me, wondering who this creature is who has taken over their sister’s body.

Pierre grits his teeth, lips white with pain. “I will have what is rightfully mine by birth. And I will crush you in the process. The law is on my side.”

“Mayhap, but the duchess is on mine.”

The taller henchman is propping up the one bleeding from his throat. “Sir?” the man says gruffly. Pierre turns on him so savagely that I fear he will strike the injured man. Instead he swears, and strides for the garden gate, leaving his two wounded companions to struggle after him.

When they reach the gate, Charlotte rises to her knees, her cool gaze moving from Pierre to me, then back to Pierre again. For one heart-stopping moment, I do not know if she will follow him or remain with me. In the end, she stays where she is.

When Pierre and his men finally disappear from view, I drop the crossbow and race forward. I reach Louise first, grab her up into my arms, and hold her close, petting her head. “I was lying, sweeting. It was all lies to keep you safe. Do you hear me? None of it was true.”

Finally, she looks up at me, her face red and swollen, her tear-filled eyes wide with fear. She nods and throws her arms around my neck. Relief, as sweet and gold as honey, flows through my limbs. “Let’s see to your sister.”

Charlotte is already standing and brushing the grass off her skirts. I pull her into a one-armed hug, which she allows for a second before stepping away. I grab her hand and hurry toward Tephanie.

“Are you all right?” I ask softly.

“I am fine,” she says, even though her hand still trembles.

“You know I didn’t mean any of what I said—”

“I know, my lady! Here.” She reaches for my sisters’ hands. “I’ll take the girls. Now go and do whatever it is you must!”

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