Unfallen, p.6

Unfallen, page 6

 

Unfallen
 


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  He pulled me through and locked the door behind us, and I did my best to swallow the boulder lodging in my neck. “Am I to be arrested, then? Or sent to execution?”

  “Stop chattering,” he muttered in my ear, his breath touching my hair. “Someone will hear you. The King ordered me to make certain none saw you, Duchesse, and you are making it difficult. It will be challenging enough to keep the Guard silent, not to mention the Baronesses you flitted past. I am half-certain your name will be linked more closely to mine now. It may make you a target.”

  “A target?” For what? I am fashionably irreligious, of course, but a prayer to Jiserah the Gentle, queen of the hearth and protector of the foolhardy, would not have gone amiss at the moment.

  “Hush.” He set off down the corridor. A tingle in my nose at the dust in the air added to my miseries, and the idea of locking myself in a watercloset and succumbing to a fit of tears was extraordinarily inviting.

  Soon, I promised myself. A nice, lovely sobbing fit and a cool washcloth to drape over my eyes was just what a hedgewitch physicker would prescribe. Twas common knowledge I suffered the half-head pain. If I pleaded a headache, I might even escape the banquet.

  Of course, if I was locked in the Bastillion, dinner would be a moot point.

  The corridor led to a set of rickety wooden stairs, and d’Arcenne pushed me before him, relinquishing my arm. Under the smell of dust, green garden simmering, and my own sweat was now the tang of leather and male, of sharpened steel, of a Guard.

  A new thought occurred to me, and it escaped my mouth before I could stop myself. “Tis true, then. You are the Left Hand.”

  Too late I realized that even should I suspect such a thing, saying it aloud was extraordinarily dangerous.

  “Up to the second level. I told you to stop chattering.” He took a step up. That meant I had to climb the stairs, or have him crowd me most improperly.

  I cursed under my breath, a term most unladylike. D’Arcenne made a small sound that might have been a smothered laugh, and I set myself to climbing the narrow stairs. They twisted crazily, and I was half afraid the entire edifice would come crumbling down at any moment. When we finally reached the second level, I breathed a sigh of relief, and d’Arcenne touched my shoulder. “To your right, Duchesse.” His hand closed around my elbow again.

  My sense of direction was completely bewildered, more by shock than by actual location, so I had no idea where in the Palais I was. “Captain,” I began again, “please, have mercy on me. Tell me if I am to be arrested, or executed, or—”

  “Cease.” Quietly, again in my ear. My skin tingled with the warmth of his breath. “This particular corridor is hidden only from eyes, not ears. A chance eavesdropping will place you in even greater danger. I would not have that.”

  “But,” I whispered frantically, “dear gods, please, can you not tell me?”

  He half-turned, spinning, and pushed me. I retreated, nearly tripping on my skirts, and my back met the wooden wall. I could go no farther. Tristan d’Arcenne put his hands to either side of my shoulders and leaned in as if he were a courting swain, his nose less than an inch from mine. “You are not to be arrested or executed, d’mselle,” he whispered fiercely in return. “The King told me to take you back to your chambers without anyone noticing, and that is what I intend to do. Do not force me to stopper your mouth, Duchesse. I might enjoy myself, but I doubt you would.” His lips curled up into a half smile, and I noticed his eyelashes were charcoal, and thick enough to make any vain Court noblewoman envious.

  My heart galloped along inside my rib cage, rattling me. Perhaps it was only the shocks to my nerves that made it behave so.

  The King called himself my half-uncle. So it’s true, Grand-dam dallied a bit. No wonder Father sent me to Court. Then I thought something even stranger. Tristan d’Arcenne is the Left Hand of the King. The rumors are true. Did he start them himself?

  “No doubt the King will explain what he wishes from you tomorrow,” d’Arcenne whispered, less forcefully now. “But for the present, Vianne di Rocancheil, I must ask that you trust me.”

  The King said you favoured me. A flush rose in my cheeks. It was not a proper thought for a lady to have—and it was an even more improper thought to have while the Captain of the Guard was leaning in close enough to kiss.

  I bit my lip. D’Arcenne studied me, his blue eyes suddenly speculative. It cannot be true. I seized on disbelief as a drowning man seizes a rope. I’ve only danced with him twice.

  Yet it seemed to me d’Arcenne had been quietly hanging in the background of Court functions, sometimes watching me, sometimes not, for a very long time now. And whatever part of the ballroom or Great Court chambers I wandered to, he was frequently in the same place. Twice was also precisely twice more than any other Court lady had danced with him.

  You are being ridiculous, Vianne. Simply set yourself the task of repairing to your chamber, and repairing your attire. Lisele will be in a perfect fit of impatience by now. Attend her dressing, plead a headache, and retreat to your bed with a cold washcloth over your eyes. Send for a glass or two of unwatered wine to steady your nerves, and by tomorrow this will simply be a past shock you may add to your collection of unpleasant experiences. You may set your wits then to whatever task the King gives you. It is bound to be even more unpleasant, whether you will or no.

  I do not know how long Tristan d’Arcenne stood waiting for my reply. Finally, I looked up at him, opened my mouth, remembered not to speak, bit my lip again, and nodded.

  Yet whatever I would have said was drowned in the noise and clamor starting almost that very moment, the moment the world completed veering off its accepted course and descended into confusion.

  He actually jerked, as if struck by a fist. His eyes widened, and he grabbed my shoulders. “Curse me for a fool,” he said, conversationally. I was later to learn that very same soft impersonal tone was the voice he used while dueling. “Duchesse. Vianne.” His fingers bit my shoulders, slipping against green velvet. “Listen to me very carefully. Go down this hall to the third door on the left. It should be unlocked. Take care no one sees you exit it; we may have to use this passage later. You should find yourself in the Blue Hall near the women’s quarters. Attend the Princesse at once, do you hear? You should be safe enough in her presence, and she may very well need—well, no matter. If she requires explanation tell her I will make amends, for I was sent to bring you to her royal father and you had not time to change. Take this.” He thrust something into my hands. It was a small ring of keys—not the official ring from his belt, but a different set. “I shall expect its return later. Put it in your pocket, and do not lose it.”

  Did he think me some featherbrained ninny? I took the keys and put them in my skirt-pocket. Alarums now could only mean one thing—the conspiracy the Minister Primus had spoken of was now loose, and the Princesse was at risk even as the King was.

  Lisele. I must protect her. I nodded.

  Footsteps, shouting voices, and steel clashing now resounded through the deserted hall. I gasped, for d’Arcenne’s hands tensed even more. I would be bruised both on knees and shoulders, come morning.

  “Take care, Duchesse.” His expression was very strange as he gazed down at me. “Take exceeding care. Promise me you will.”

  I was now beyond words. I nodded, my cheeks flaming. Even at that moment I did not think a conspiracy could matter. It was serious, of course—the conspirators would be locked in the Bastillion, then beheaded, their bodies buried turned away from the West and the home of the Blessed.

  But a conspiracy could never truly affect the Court or the King, could it? The King was eternal. He was Arquitaine itself, the seal of the gods in flesh and blood, no matter that the Blessed left us largely to our own devices here on the imperfect earth.

  “You.” The word caught me by surprise; I found what I wished to say. “Take care yourself, d’Arcenne. My thanks.” I managed to sound calm, and lifted my chin so I could gaze directly at hi
m.

  He swore again, and did another passing-strange thing. He shook me so hard my head spun, then leaned forward and pressed his lips to my forehead. The touch sent a scorching flush through my every limb, my dress suddenly rasping-tight against me.

  He released me, turned, and ran lightly the way we had so recently come. I knew where he went—he was called to the King’s side.

  As I was called to Lisele’s.

  I stood there, dazed, for a few moments, hearing the clamor of alarum bells and shouting. Those moments I later cursed myself for, though I sorely needed them to quiet my racing heart and laboring lungs.

  When I could think again, I shook myself and ran along the corridor. My skirts dragged, weighing me down.

  I found the third door on the left—twas a narrow aperture with a slim wooden panel, hardly qualifying as a door—and slipped through it, finding myself indeed in the deserted Blue Hall, still hung with the traditional cour bleu tapestries; someone would have to take them down before the Fête of Sunreturn. The Blue Hall is little used in spring and summer, being stifling, but in winter it was where the Princesse’s retinue gathered on long evenings to read aloud, or perform plays and songs. Now it was hot with late-afternoon spring sunshine, and I sweated even more as I ran, keeping to one side so I could duck into a window-couvre if anyone happened along.

  I reached the hall that housed the Princesse’s suite not long after, with a stitch gripping my side and bringing me tears.

  There I had my first horrible intimation of utter doom.

  The Guards on duty all afternon—Chivalieri di Tatancourt and di Belletron—both lay slain at the door to the Princesse’s afternoon chamber. I gasped and clamped my hand over my mouth. Blood washed the floor where they had fallen—di Tatancourt, who had a splendid waxed blond mustache and who was courting Lady Arioste di Wintrefelle, had a horrible gaping grimace under his chin. A slit throat. Di Belletron was gashed and terribly torn; I supposed he had put up a stouter resistance.

  Hot sourness rose under my breastbone. It was a lucky thing I had taken no chai, for the slice of bread and jam was demanding to be released from the confines of my stomach. I resisted, and heard myself give a dry barking sob instead.

  Lisele. She will be terribly frightened. Where is she? “Lisele?”

  I had to gather up my skirts to go over the fallen Guards. The door—a door I had passed through hundreds of times, I hardly noticed anymore its carved bunches of grapes and the royal crest worked in gold and blue—was hacked apart as if by axes, and spattered with dark fluids I dared not think on too closely. I ducked through, my garden-boots slipping in blood, and I am not too proud to say that just inside the door the long-resistant slice of bread escaped me at last. I vomited, having enough presence of mind to pull my skirts back so I did not foul them more.

  There was Lady Arioste, sprawled in a corner, graceless in death as she never was in life. And beside her a stout headless body I recognized from her pink and gold as Baroness di Vonstadt. Dama Elaina di Cherefall and D’mselle Courceline di Maritine lay tangled together by the gilt fireplace grate—they must have been clutching each other as they died. D’mselle Robertine, Dama Pirial, Baroness Iliana di Chantrour et Val, the Marquise di Valancourt, and the Comtesse di Cournburiene—

  I lost count. I looked for one face, and did not find it.

  I followed the trail of destruction. Not one of the Princesse’s attendants remained alive.

  Except me.

  The door to Lisele’s inner receiving-room was hacked open as well, and the Comtesse Rochburre lay across it, fearfully wounded and with her eagle eyes closed. I stepped over her, miserably determined to find Lisele. Please, I begged, not knowing which god I pleaded with, since I was fashionably irreligious like most of the Court. We laughed at the pious, but never too loudly. After all, Arquitaine bore the mark of the Blessed, just as other countries had their own gods…

  I found my Princesse, my Lisele, lying across a half-couch of watered-blue silk we had been wont to sit giggling upon in our girlhoods, and later. Her harp lay cast aside, its strings cut. Had she tried to defend herself with it?

  I cast myself to my knees, bruising them anew, and shook her. “Lisele—Lisele!” She was covered in blood, and there was an awful wound to her breast, dewing the pretty pale-green silk. She had been dressed without me.

  I sobbed, repeating her name, and when her dark eyes opened and she drew in a terrible tortured breath I actually recoiled. Those eyes fastened on me, and I heard a horrible sucking sound. A punctured lung. I had read enough treatises to know, though I had never treated more than a fever or pneumonia, or a wound on a scullery maid’s hand.

  Treatises? Of course. A healing charm, anything to stem the flow of blood.

  “Vianne,” Lisele said, in a choked whisper.

  “A healing charm. Oh, Lisele.” Cease, you ninny. Find a healing charm in that warehouse of oddities you call a brain.

  I did. It was the same simple bit of hedgewitchery I had used on Jirisa’s hand, meant for binding a small wound and staving off infection, but I repeated it quickly, flattening my hand against the bloody hole. I repeated it again, heat draining through my palm—hedgewitchery draws its power from the witch when it cannot draw from a bit of free earth. A tree, the open sky, or even a clod of dirt, none of which were to hand.

  I repeated it a third time, my vision blurring with exhaustion, before Lisele’s fingers came up and gripped my wrist with surprising strength. “No…Stop, Vianne…too late.”

  “I can heal you, I can.” Remember a charm, Vianne. A stronger one. A better one. Think!

  “Do not be a silly goose.” She looked so weary. A smear of blood marred her pretty cheek, and her dark hair lay tangled over blue watered silk. She must have been waiting for me to braid it. Guilt twisted my heart. Was she dying while Tristan d’Arcenne kissed my forehead? “Listen to me, Vianne…carefully. I…command it.”

  So rarely did my Princesse command anything from me, I swallowed my tears. “Lisele…” I ceased to speak. The spell still worked through my palm, its power coming from my already weary body. Her grasp curled around my wrist, cold and waxen.

  Lisele firmly pulled my hand away from her wound. I cried out, the charm breaking, and she pushed something hard, metallic, and warm into my fingers. A momentary flush of strength filled her, turned her cheeks crimson and brought her words without gasping. “Take this. Keep safe. I could not wake…If they have killed me, Father is dead too. Go to mountains…d’Arcenne. Go to Arcenne. Father said…loyal…please, Vianne…do as I…”

  The mention of Arcenne caused a guilty start in me, but it was too late. Lisele sighed, a long, low sound, and slumped back into the blue silk. Something fled her, a spark I could see only with the small amount of magical Sight I possess.

  “Lisele,” I whispered. “Lisele, no, Lisele, no, no, no—”

  I do not know how long I crouched there, sobbing, repeating the same small hedgewitch charm that availed naught since there was no life left in her body for it to foster, no spark for it to conserve. I wept and heaved dryly until I heard something. My head jerked up, as if I’d been stung.

  Footsteps, coming this way. Booted feet, purposeful strides.

  I fair leapt to my feet. Lisele’s eyes were closed. She lay pale and perfect, her pretty sharp-chinned face smooth as if she merely slept.

  I could not wake, she had gasped. What it meant would have to wait. I looked wildly about the room. There, beside the fireplace, a door that led to a half-stair, and from there I could…do what, precisely?

  Where could I go? What place was safe?

  Clutching whatever Lisele had given me in my sweating palm, I ducked through the door and locked it just as the bootsteps reached Lisele’s receiving-room. Four or five men, I guessed, listening with Court-sharp ears.

  I hesitated, my hand on the knob, the key in my fingers. If they were from the King I should make myself known, not hide like a thief.

  If they are from
the King they will take me to him, and d’Arcenne might be there. I struggled with temptation, caution and a small deep irresistible instinct nailing me in place, freezing the words in my throat and my hand on the dusty crystal knob.

  It would be foolish not to see who they are, Vianne. Do not be a fool.

  I slowly lowered myself to my knees again, peered through the keyhole. I could only see a small slice of Lisele’s receiving-room, and thankfully none of the blood. I could, however, see the edge of Lisele’s dress. If I tried hard enough, I could imagine she simply slumbered, perhaps given a draught of night’s-ease and valeriol to quiet her dreaming.

  I sought to calm my heaving sides. My own harsh gasps sounded loud as a trumpet in the quiet.

  They thundered into the receiving-room. I saw plumes and blue sashes.

  The Duc’s Guard. The Duc Timrothe d’Orlaans, the king’s brother, perhaps the finest Court sorcerer in Arquitaine. He dueled regularly, and rumor said he allowed his opponent to survive only if there were official witnesses present. For all that, he was blood royal, and had he killed a few, noble or common, nothing could be done. Still, his Guard was perhaps here to protect the Princesse.

  I let out a relieved sigh and was about to rise and make myself known when yet another voice I recognized sounded deep and harsh.

  “Check the bodies. Make absolutely certain none live.” Garonne di Narborre, the Duc’s servant, otherwise known as the Black Captain for the coal of his hair and eyes. I had danced with him several times, had even taken a rose from his hand at the last Fête of Flowers. He cut a fine figure, yet somehow few of the women cared for him. I had found his fingers too hard on my waist and my hand, but twas not politic to refuse him a dance.

  Not politic at all, and while he was occupied with me he did not watch Lisele so closely. I simply did not like the way he gazed at her. He could not hope to win her hand, and there was no tenderness in his watching, and since the Duc was just after Lisele in the Line of Succession and she was just barely of age…well. I danced with him, and Lisele told me afterward she did not like him overmuch.

 
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