Unfallen, p.5

Unfallen, page 5

 

Unfallen
 


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  The rumormongers were doomed to disappointment, since he said not a word to me beyond requesting the turn and afterward giving formulaic thanks. He was tall and moved well, his dark hair long as was a chivalier’s fashion now. He had held my hand and watched me oddly during the dance, only occasionally glancing over my shoulder to direct us through the whirling crowd. I was sure I had imagined his hand firmly on my waist but trembling slightly, and his flush when he thanked me afterward. He was a fine figure on horseback, even if rumor did paint him as a bit of a fop.

  As well as the Left Hand. Two very contradictory things, indeed.

  “Too…late,” Simieri choked. I risked peering a little further around the corner. The tapestry here was red and green, a treatment of the last War of the Rose. A particularly ambitious and awful treatment, I might add. “No…time…”

  “Why? Why here?” Tristan shook the Primus and shoved him back against the wall again, and I winced. The small man’s head bounced against stone. “Tell me!”

  “Tis…too…late,” Simieri repeated, and a queer rattling noise rose from him.

  My nostrils flared. There was a breath of sorcery in the dusty air, of rancid apples and matted fur. My hedgewitch training cataloged the scent, compared it to old treatises, and gave me an answer I did not believe. Apples, and a wet dog. A poison killspell?

  But why? Poison killspells had not been used for over a hundred years; their onset was too delayed to fine-tune the effects.

  I noticed the passageway I traveled almost every day was disarranged. A small end table of fragrant wood obediently growing thicker with dust now lay smashed on the floor; there was a spatter of something fresh, wet, and red on the bare stone floor. A Ch’min vase lay in pieces, and two of the tapestries were ripped to shreds.

  What happened here?

  Tristan d’Arcenne stepped back, and Simieri’s body fell limply to the floor. From where I stood I could see the Minister’s face, twisted into a grotesque, plum-colored mask. A thin thread of something dark trickled from his nose, and his eyes puffed shut with the killspell’s swelling.

  The Captain of the Guard swore viciously, and I was too shocked to remain silent. I do not know if my gasp was very loud, but it certainly had an effect.

  He whirled, and the sound of a blade leaving its sheath stunned me further. He carried a sword by the grace of the King—the Guard was trusted implicitly, and the Captain even more so. The bright length of metal glittered in the hall’s gloom.

  It looked very sharp.

  Tristan d’Arcenne regarded me over the length of his sword. He was breathing heavily, and so was I. The Minister Primus lay dead on the floor, smashed like the vase and the end table.

  No few of the older ladies-in-waiting had succumbed to fever; I had even nursed Lady Atterlina di Herence a year ago until she died. One would have to be blind to avoid seeing death in the world. Yet I had never attended a hanging or a beheading, it being faintly improper for a young noblewoman to see such a thing with the common crowd, and besides I am possessed of a weak stomach. I felt faint each time I saw a duel begin, and usually watched no more than the first exchange of blows.

  I could barely even watch a chicken being prepared for the feast. And now, this.

  “Vianne di Rocancheil et Vintmorecy.” D’Arcenne’s tone had lost its violence but none of its quiet, as if he reminded himself who I was. And yet, there was something—an accent, perhaps, or simply the way his lips shaped the words—that seemed highly improper.

  Heat rose up my neck, stained my cheeks. I dropped the wet rag. It made a small sound as it hit the floor.

  “You—you—,” I stammered. “You k-k-k—”

  “Not I. The spell was laid on him by another.” His blue eyes burned in a sharp face. I had never before noticed how much he looked like one would expect a d’Arcenne to. They are mountainfolk and have the faces to prove it, sharp and handsome. “Are you part of it, then, hedgewitch? Are you?”

  My fingers curled around the corner, the sharp stone and the dusty tapestry. I smelled crushed green things from the garden, my own sweat, dust in the air, and a different horrible odor of violent death, the killspell’s reek vanishing as the spell faded.

  He moved toward me in a quick light shuffle, a swordsman’s move. I stayed where I was, staring woodenly at the Minister Primus.

  The corpse who had been the Minister Primus.

  “Are you?” D’Arcenne almost spat the words.

  I tore my gaze away from the body and up to his blue eyes. He examined me for a moment. Slowly straightened, and sheathed his sword. “No, I do not think you are,” he continued meditatively. “Unfortunate timing, tis all. Duchesse—”

  That was all I heard, for I turned and bolted back the way I had come.

  * * *

  I gave him a good chase. I streaked down the stairs and passed through the kitchen like a shadow—a wild-eyed shadow in a mud-splattered green velvet dress, glittering ear-drops, and half-unbound hair. I doubt any of the kitchen staff even saw me, but perhaps they saw Tristan d’Arcenne, who was almost on my heels.

  I was already tiring by the time I reached the rose garden, and the cloying of blooms remained for a long while after a smell of terror to me. I had a stitch in my side and flagging feet by the time I pounded up a crushed-shell walk, bursting past Baronesses di Clency and di Amoranet as they ended their early-afternoon promenade. I suppose I must have scandalized them dreadfully, as I am sure I looked frightful, but I never saw them again.

  I knew the King would be taking chai in the Rose Room, and that room had a tall, broad casement that looked out on the garden. I skidded to a stop. The window was open—I wrenched at it, hearing the bootclatter of my pursuer right behind me. I ducked into the Rose Room, toppling another small table—this one thankfully did not break—and threw myself to my knees before the surprised King and two of the Guard, who had their blades half drawn.

  “M-m-majesty—” I could not make my tongue work. “Tristan d’Arcenne—murder—the Minister—Majesty—Your Majesty, please—”

  The King was a tall, graying Arquitaine noble with the stamp of the Tirecian-Trimestin family on him, dark eyes and a hawk nose. That day he wore blue velvet, and rings on every finger, his long, graying hair coiffed elaborately in ringlets. He glanced up from his chai-table, laid with dainties and a piping-hot sam’var, and waved a hand at the two Guards. “Wait outside the door, if you please,” he said mildly.

  The Guards paused for only a moment before obeying, closing the door behind them.

  “M-m-majesty—,” I stammered again. My knees throbbed, bruised from the floor. Why would my tongue not work? I was quick enough most times; I can only surmise the shock had temporarily unseated my words.

  He looked down at me. “Well, Tristan.”

  I cast one terrified glance over my shoulder to see Tristan d’Arcenne step inside the casement and half-turn to shut it with a gentle snick. The uniform of the Guard—black doublet and white shirt, red sash and breeches—suited him very well. He turned back, folded his arms over his chest, and regarded both the King and me with his blue d’Arcenne eyes.

  He would have looked entertained, had his jaw not been so set.

  “It seems,” the King continued, “you’ve been rather untidy.”

  “Simieri was part of it. Died of a poison killspell, the same work as one or two of the others. I suspect I shall have no luck at stalking this one to its source, either.” The Captain said this lazily, as if he had not chased me through half the Palais. “Someone is covering their tracks very well, my liege.”

  “And this young d’mselle?” The King looked down at me. I must confess my jaw dropped. “The di Rocancheil girl. Vianne, is not it? I might have known. Your father was always too curious by half.”

  Curiosity did not kill him, sieur, the fever did. My heart started out through my ribs. “Y-your M-majesty,” I said with all the dignity I could muster. Forced the unruly words to obey me. “I saw—”

 
; “Forget what you think you just saw,” the King said. He poured chai into a delicate Ch’min porcelain cup and saucer, picked up a pink-frosted pettite-cake. “Tristan, is she…?”

  Am I what? There was no help for it—I was before the King and unable even to protest my innocence, since I had no idea what in the Seven Realms was afoot.

  The Captain answered, saving me the trouble. “An innocent, my liege. She uses the back passage between the kitchens and the women’s quarters to avoid being seen in a…disheveled state.” Irony tinted d’Arcenne’s voice, equal parts amusement and something darker.

  I shot him another look over my shoulder. This one was pure venom. He wore a faint relieved smile almost as shocking as the King’s utter calm.

  “I have never had reason to distrust a di Rocancheil.” The King sipped at his chai, and I began to feel light-headed. I had not taken much breakfast, worked in the herb garden all day, and had only bread and jam. The smell of food shocked me into faintness. “Shall I start?”

  D’Arcenne made a movement, for I heard bootleather creak. There was a fire in the grate, and it popped, nearly driving me out of my skin.

  The King put down his pettite-cake and regarded me again. “Still, you have given every appearance of being faithful, and loyal, and extremely discreet. A good influence on my Lisele. Who needs one, I might add. A few intrigues caught, her name neatly kept clean, and I have rested easier knowing you are at her side.”

  So you have noticed, Your Majesty. I thought I kept it all so very quiet. I did not drop my gaze. Twas insulting to stare at the King so, but I hoped he could read innocence upon my features. The edge of a red rug lay under my left knee, and I struggled to stay upright. Sinking into the floor could not be accomplished, no matter how devoutly I wished for it.

  Finally, the King seemed to notice I still knelt on hardwood. “Well, Duchesse. It seems I must set you a task.”

  I realized my jaw was still hanging, closed my mouth with a snap. I bowed my head, dark hair falling forward over my shoulders. I was in complete disarray, and I had just burst in on the King of Arquitaine during his chai.

  Dear gods. Perhaps I should play at draughts; I’ve used up all my day’s worth of bad luck. Day? No, perhaps my whole month’s worth.

  The King continued, with the ponderousness of a man who knew his every word was well attended to. “Duchesse, you must remain silent. I ask this as your liege and King, and as your half-uncle, child. Tristan has been hunting a plot to murder me for some years now, and it appears Simieri was part of it. My most trusted Minister…” Here the King paused, and glanced past me to d’Arcenne. “If you speak of what you saw, Duchesse Vianne di Rocancheil, you will place me—and our Lisele—in grave danger. If you do not speak, the King of Arquitaine shall owe you a boon.” He paused, and I realized he was waiting for my response.

  Half-uncle? Plot? Murder the King? The world had fallen away underneath me. “Y-Your Majesty.” I pulled scraps of my tattered dignity close about. “You owe me no boon to command my obedience. I shall be silent.” My shoulders went back and my chin lifted, though I hoped my stained dress would not speak against me.

  The King examined me again. Something very much like a smile tilted up the corners of his mouth. The tapestry on the wall, framing him, was the Tirecian-Trimestin family crest in gold and purple, swan necks and fleurs-di-lisse worked in gold thread. This was a beautiful room, and one I had only seen once or twice. “I half believe you will,” he said meditatively. “Oh, get up, child. You need not address me from your knees. Tristan, help her.”

  I was only somewhat shocked to find d’Arcenne at my side, offering his hand. My heart gave one shuddering leap.

  I now had to make one of those split-moment decisions one makes at Court. Did I ignore the King’s words and d’Arcenne’s hand to struggle to my feet under my own power, or did I take the Captain’s hand—the hand of a man I had just seen murder the Minister Primus?

  Although, to be strictly logical, a poison killspell did not seem like something d’Arcenne would use. Why bother with a spell that could possibly be tracked back to its source when he carried anonymous steel at his side?

  The King decided for me. “Take his hand, child, do not simply stare at it.” Now the King definitely sounded diverted.

  I am overjoyed he finds my predicament so entertaining. But he was the King, and I decided obedience was the safest course. I took d’Arcenne’s hand. It was warm, and callused from sword practice. He pulled me to my feet and a novel contest ensued—me, seeking to take my hand back from the Captain of the Guard, and the Captain equally determined to keep it. I gracefully twisted my fingers loose with one practiced movement called “freeing the swain,” used after a dance when a man becomes too insistent.

  “My thanks, Captain,” I said formally. Then I turned to the King and practiced my very best courtesy. If there is one thing I have learned to satisfaction, it is not to fumble while performing that movement. My ear-drops swung heavily, my ears ached. So did the rest of me. “Your Majesty. My apologies. I thought only to warn you of a—”

  “A murder. And of course, if you had caught the Captain of the King’s Guard committing the violent murder of a Minister, I would be the only person who could possibly protect you.” His dark eyes narrowed slightly. “I believe you have some sense, Duchesse. I may find a use for you. Would that please you?”

  “I would be happy to be of service, Your Majesty.” I rose from my courtesy. Shock added upon shock: Tristan d’Arcenne’s hand closed around my elbow. I sought to pull away without the King noticing, but I failed on both counts, for His Majesty’s mouth twitched again and the Captain kept his grip.

  “Tristan, would you be so kind as to escort the Duchesse to her chambers? I believe she must dress for dinner. Make certain none see you, or more gossip will rise.” The King picked up the pink-frosted pettite-cake again and regarded me. “I shall send for you tomorrow, Duchesse.”

  I would have courtesied again, as protocol demanded, but Tristan pulled me toward the second door—the one that led to the Painted Gallery. “Of course, Your Majesty. I would be honored to serve Arquitaine in any way.”

  The King most definitely smiled as I tried again, without success, to pull my elbow out of Tristan d’Arcenne’s iron-hard grip. I could not for the life of me understand what was so amusing—I had just witnessed a murder. Nevermind that I was now fairly sure d’Arcenne had not used the killspell; its scent did not cover him at all.

  Hedgewitches are sensitive to such things, and now that I had leave to think, I realized it must be so.

  Don’t I feel like a silly goose now.

  At least the King had not ordered me clapped in irons. Or had he? Tristan would need no more than a word or a phrase to understand what the King wanted done with me—the Bastillion, perhaps, or summary execution in some dank cell.

  The thought brought a cold bath of dread, but I stiffened my knees as best I could.

  “Remember I require your discretion, Duchesse di Rocancheil,” the King said. “Not a word.”

  I nodded. In audience with the King personally for the second time in my life, and I am wearing a muddy dress and garden-boots. At least I have my ear-drops on. “Your Majesty.” I managed to sound tart and respectful at the same time. “I have already given my word.”

  The King outright laughed this time. I did not see what was so amusing, but I supposed then that kings had a different sense of humor than ordinary mortals, even nobles. We were almost to the door when His Majesty spoke again.

  “Vianne?” He used my given name, and Tristan stopped, turning, so I could see the King, his fingers still playing with the pettite-cake.

  “Your Majesty?” I did not moisten my dry, numb lips, though I ached to.

  “Did you not have Tristan to vouch for you, I would be forced to order you thoroughly…questioned. He must favour you, child.” The King’s dark eyes sparkled, and a mischievous smile played under his graying mustache. He leaned back in his ch
air, reaching for the small silver bell to summon the guards.

  A thousand acid responses rose to my lips and were strangled, and what ended up coming out was almost as mortifying. “I doubt the Captain favours me overmuch, Your Majesty. I would be forced to take your word for it.”

  The King’s laughter followed us out the door.

  * * *

  The Painted Gallery is a long hall, frescoed walls broken by slim fleurs-di-lisse columns, brilliant daubs showing the history and noble Houses of Arquitaine. Red velvet curtains hung over slim leaded-glass windows with iron fretwork, and doors every so often pierced the walls, some locked, others merely unused. In the time of Queen Toriane, she had often paced the Gallery, and after her death her King was wont to roam here at night as well. Perhaps searching for the shade of the woman he had decided he could not live without.

  Some said he roamed in search even into the present day, but never often enough to frighten the Court ladies. Still it was not an overused passageway, at least not during the day. At night, certain assignations were made. But I kept well clear of such things.

  The Captain’s grip on my elbow was firm, and he said nothing until we were a quarter of the way down the Gallery, his boots clicking on parqueted floor, my own making a more decorous tapping. He indicated a door half hidden under another red velvet curtain, this one artfully hung to frame a fresco of the Battle of Arjeunne.

  “Here.” He unlocked the door with a small iron key from a ring hung on his belt. Of course, the Captain of the King’s Guard would have keys.

  The entire time, his hand was clasped around my elbow.

  “You may set me loose.” I sought to sound very decided about the notion. He had shortened his strides for me, but the stitch in my side and the burning in my lungs had hardly abated. “I shall not run again, Captain, now I know you acted with the King’s blessing.”

  “Indeed.” The creaking door revealed a dusty, small corridor, free of any ornamentation, and the rock in my throat turned dry. This was a secret of Palais D’Arquitaine to which I had never been privy.

 
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