Nantes, Brittany 1489
I did not arrive at the convent of Saint Mortain some green stripling. By the time I was sent there, my death count numbered three, and I had had two lovers besides. Even so, there were some things they were able to teach me: Sister Serafina the art of poison, Sister Thomine how to wield a blade, and Sister Arnette where best to strike with it, laying out all the vulnerable points on a mans body like an astronomer charting the stars.
If only they had taught me how to watch innocents die as well as they taught me how to kill, I would be far better prepared for this nightmare into which Ive been thrust.
I pause at the foot of the winding steps to see if I am being watched. The scullery woman scrubbing the marble hall, the sleepy page dozing against the doorwayeither one of them could be a spy. Even if neither has been assigned to watch me, someone is always willing to tattle in the hopes of earning a few crumbs of favor.
Caution prevails and I decide to use the south stairs and then double back through the lower hall to approach the north tower from that side. I am very careful to step precisely where the maid has just washed, and I hear her mutter a curse under her breath. Good. Now I can be certain she has seen me and will not forget if she is questioned.
In the lower hall, there are few servants about. Those who have not been driven out are busy with their duties or have gone to ground like clever, prudent rats.
When at last I reach the north wing of the palace, it is empty. Quickening my pace, I hurry toward the north tower, but I am so busy looking behind me that I nearly stumble over a small figure sitting at the base of the stairs.
I bite back an oath of annoyance and glare down to see it is a child. A young girl. What are you doing here? I snap. My nerves are already tightly strung, and this new worry does them little good. Where is your mother?
The girl looks up at me with eyes like damp violets, and true fear clutches at my gut. Has no one thought to warn her how dangerous it is for a pretty child to wander these halls alone? I want to reach down and shake hershake her motherand shout at her that she is not safe here, not on these steps, not in this castle. I force myself to take a deep breath instead.
Mama is dead, the child says, her voice high and quivery.
I glance to the stairs, where my first duty lies, but I cannot leave this child here. What is your name?
Odette, she says, uncertain whether to be frightened of me or not.
Well, Odette, this is no place to play. I nearly stepped on you. Have you no one to look after you?
My sister. But when she is working, I am to hide like a little mouse.
At least her sister is no fool. But this is not a good place to hide, is it? Look how easily I found you!
For the first time, the girl gives me a shy smile, and in that moment, she reminds me so much of my youngest sister, Louise, that I cannot breathe. Thinking quickly, I take her hand and lead her back to the main hallway.
Hurry, hurry, hurry nips at my heels like a braying hound.
See that door? She nods, watching me uncertainly. Go through that door, then down the stairs. The chapel is there, and it is a most excellent hiding place. And since dAlbret and his men never visit the chapel, she will be safe enough. Who is your sister?
Very well. I will tell Tilde where you are so she may come and get you when her work is done.
Thank you, Odette says, then skips off down the hall. I long to escort her there myself, but I already risk being too late for what I must do.
I turn back around and take the stairs two at a time. The thick wooden door on the landing has a new latch, stiff with disuse. I lift it slowly to be certain it will not creak out an alarm.
As I step into the cold winter sunshine, a bitter wind whips at my hair, tearing it from the net that holds it in place. All my caution has cost me precious time, and I pray that I have not been brought up here only to see those I love slaughtered.
I hurry to the crenellated wall and look down into the field below. A small party of mounted knights waits patiently while an even smaller party confers with that braying ass Marshal Rieux. I recognize the duchess immediately, her dainty figure poised on her gray palfrey. She looks impossibly small, far too small to carry the fate of our kingdom on her slender shoulders. That she has managed to hold off a French invasion for this long is impressive; that she has done so in spite of being betrayed by a full half of her councilors is close to a miracle.
Behind her and to the right is Ismae, sister of my heart and, possibly, my blood, if what the nuns at the convent told us is true. My pulse begins to race, but whether in joy that I am not too late or in panic at what I know is coming, I cannot tell.
Keeping my gaze fixed on Ismae, I gather up all my fear and dread and hurl them at her, like stones in a catapult.
She does not so much as glance in my direction.
From deep in the bowels of the castle, off toward the east, comes a faint rumble as the portcullis is raised. This time when I cast my warning, I fling my arms out as well, as if I am shooing away a flock of ducks. I hopepraythat some bond still exists between us that will allow her to sense me.
But her eyes remain fixed on the duchess in front of her, and I nearly scream in frustration. Flee, my mind cries. It is a trap. Then, just as I fear I must throw myself from the battlements to gain her attention, Ismae looks up. Flee, I beg, then sweep my arms out once more.
It works. She looks away from me to the eastern gate, then turns to shout something to the soldier next to her, and I grow limp with relief.
The small party on the field springs to life, shouting orders and calling to one another. Ismae points again, this time to the west. Good. She has seen the second arm of the trap. Now I must only hope that my warning has not come too late.
Once Marshal Rieux and his men realize what is happening, they wheel their mounts around and gallop back to the city. The duchess and her party move to fall into a new formation but have not yet left the field.
Flee! The word beats frantically against my breast, but I dare not utter it, afraid that even though I stand on this isolated tower someone from the castle might hear. I lean forward, gripping the cold, rough stone of the battlements so hard that it bites into my gloveless fingers.
The first line of dAlbrets troops rides into my sight, my half brother ierre in the vanguard. Then, just when I am certain it is too late, the duchesss party splits in two, and a paltry dozen of the duchesss men turn their mounts to meet the coming onslaught. Twelve against two hundred. Hollow laughter at the futility of their actions escapes my throat but is snatched up by the wind before anyone can hear it.
As the duchess and two others gallop away, Ismae hesitates. I bite my lip to keep from shouting. She cannot think she can help the doomed knights? Their cause is hopeless, and not even our skills can help the twelve who so valiantly ride to their deaths.
Flee. This time I do utter the word aloud, but just like my laugh...