The Hedgewitch Queen is a digital-only fantasy novel from New York Times Bestselling author Lilith Saintcrow. The series will be available across all major digital reader platforms in the US and the UK. Look for the sequel, The Bandit King, in July 2012.
If not for a muddy skirt, I would have been dead like all the rest. Dead—or worse, perhaps.
The green overskirt was attached to one of Lisele’s bodices—an old one, to be sure, but I had remade it prettily enough—and I returned late from the herb gardens that day. There had been a hard rain the previous night, mud daubed my hem and my perfume was hedgewitchery, sweat, and crushed green things. I could not attend Lisele in this state, so I ducked into the kitchen for a slice of bread and a wet rag to work some of the mud off the green velvet before I ran through the corridors to change quickly into a primrose silk. The primrose would set off Lisele’s new pale-green gown, just arrived from the royal dressmakers yesterday, to perfection. She had been absolutely mad with impatience and anticipation.
The kitchen was a-chaos with preparations for the night’s feast, so Head Cook Amys gave me a slice of bread thick with eldrin jam and shooed me away. Fowl chattered in the cages attached to the wall, and a wooden tub full of dazed and writhing eels in wellwater sat by the cellar stairs.
I allowed myself one nose-wrinkle, and a shudder. “Those things?”
Amys, a stout red-cheeked woman in a plain gown and a cap of starched white, laughed. “I know. Yet the King requested, so eels it is.” Her voice belled merrily through the din of the kitchens, and she turned away to scold a hopping scullery-boy as Jirisa ducked close to me, setting down her basketful of baguetes on the step.
I smiled a greeting, and Jirisa’s fair round face blushed scarlet. She wiped her hand on her rough woolen skirt and thrust it at me. A soiled bandage flapped against her palm, its ears coming loose.
“D-d-d’mselle—” She was all but speechless with fright. Poor Jirisa was painfully shy, and the distance between her station and mine simply made it worse. In the four years she had been at the Palais I had never heard a complete sentence from her.
“Tis no matter, Tirisa. Let me see.” I set the bread aside, the growling in my stomach protesting, and carefully unwrapped stained cloth from her moist, tender paw. “You should wash the bandages, it may take the rot if you do not.”
“Not with you charming it, d’mselle.” Amys had caught me out, and stood with her fists on her broad hips. Her sleeves, pushed up, showed forearms thick with muscle. “And she should not be disturbing a great lady so. The Duchesse has other things to do with her time, Jirisa.”
“It will make me no earlier nor later to bind this up, Amys.” The slash along Jirisa’s palm was healing nicely, the careful charm I had laid against her skin still pulsing and tingling reassuringly. Instead of a deep muscle-slicing cut, it was now a fragile pink scar.
Satisfied, I dug in my pocket for some antiseptic balm-lemon leaf and crushed it between my fingers, binding the resultant pungent mass against the slice and tying off the bandage. Jirisa snatched her hand back as soon as I finished and bobbed a courtesy, then scooped up her basket and was on her way, her blonde head down as if walking against a heavy wind.
“You should not encourage such familiarity.” Amys quite enjoyed sounding scandalised.
You are far more worried with my reputation than is quite proper yourself, m’dama. I rescued my slice of bread and smiled up at her, dabbing at my hem with the damp rag. My emerald eardrops bobbed, swung heavily against my cheeks. “There is some chivin coming in that should flavour the eels nicely.”
She was not to be dissuaded. “Indeed there is, and what is a lady like you doing in the herb garden? Why, you’re all over mud!” She was working up to a fine scolding, those being her way of easing feastday tensions, but she had not the time because one of the undercooks set a butter sauce on fire and I escaped, almost catching my heels on my skirt in my hurry.
Amys had known me when I first came to Court, a provincial girl with a very noble name but no prospects save the income from a small estate in Vintmorecy my father received from the King as payment for me attending the Princesse—necessary, if I was to buy my own dresses. My father had been a gentleman in waiting to King Henri in the days of his youth, when he had been Prince Royal and later, newly ascended to the throne. I had heard it whispered at home that Father had saved the King’s life once in a Court intrigue, but I never knew the truth of that tale. For that matter, gossip also had it that the King’s father dallied with my grand-dam; I did not know the truth of that either. King’s bastards swirl among nobility like loose leaves in cheap chai, especially in Arquitaine.
My noble mother died of an attack of fever and left it as her dying wish that I be brought up properly at Court. How proper an upbringing one could find at the Court of Arquitaine I cannot guess, having seen my fair share of things that might have driven my poor mother to her grave twice had she known I witnessed them.
Yet Court my mother had wished me to attend, and my father—just before he took the fever himself and stepped into the arms of the Blessed to join my mother—had faithfully packed me off at my ninth birthday with an introduction and a new dress as well as a request for maintenance that the King, being in a gracious mood, granted. And so Duchesse Vianne di Rocancheil et Vintmorecy, at your service, became lady-in-waiting for Princesse Lisele di Tirecian-Trimestin, daughter of the King and heir to the throne of Arquitaine.
But that was so far off, we worried over it not a whit. Or at least, Lisele did not.
I climbed up the disused back stairs from the kitchen. As far as I knew, I was the only person of quality who used them, and I took care not to let anyone see me except the servants. They would discover me as a matter of course, so I did not bother. And Duchesse Vianne the hopelessly gawky and mud-splattered, Duchesse Vianne more interested in herbs and books and peasant hedgewitchery than the Court-sorcery the rest of the nobles used, was of no account anyway. Nobody marked my comings and goings, and nobody with any sense grudged me my position as honored lady in waiting and confidante to the Princesse, quiet intrigue-hunter and scholarly counterweight to Lisele’s frivolity.
Some days I did not envy myself that honor.
Lisele would be working herself into a fit of pique over the dress just about now, and I would have to hurry and leave my hair half-braided. Luckily, artfully disheveled hair was the fashion now. If I had not been muttering in the garden seeking to save some of the dying priest’s-ease in the south beds, I would not have been late. Still, I thought the plants would survive now that I had found a charm to keep the greentip flies from eating the tender shoots. Twas a good morning’s work, and one that satisfied me a great deal more than the prospect of tonight’s banquet with its stultifying protocol, even if there was sure to be dancing afterward, and a wonder or two of illusion worked.
Court sorcery is all violence and illusion, and my interest in the more practical peasant’s magic was, while odd, not entirely improper. It was simply a mark of my provincial upbringing, or a childhood nurse versed in the rustic art.
Though a di Rocancheil has nothing to be shamed of when it comes to blood. My father’s family is of the oldest and finest nobility, that of the sword; my ancestors rode to war as boon companions of Edouard Angoulême the Merovian, first conquerer of Arquitaine. Twas no small thing to be a di Rocancheil, and my father’s family name of Villeroche was no less noble. If I chose to waste my time with herbs and healing twas nobody’s business but mine.
Besides, it was the only area of my life that decidedly pleased me. So much of life is what one can stand, it is a relief to have a small corner be otherwise. Or so I have found.
I let out a small sigh. Another long slow afternoon of reading aloud from romances or doing needlework in frames before the banquet, maybe broken by a maidendance or two, I would be called upon to give a lesson on Tiberian verbs or needled about my hedgewitchery, and Lisele would turn her sharp tongue on whoever needled me.
I often thought Lisele protected me because I was a pet without claws, an ugly girl with no prospects except a noble name and no chance of making a good marriage since I seemed to have forgotten men existed. Or so ’twas said. I held my peace, though I longed at times to point out that men were troublesome creatures indeed, and a marriage sometimes worse confinement than the endless round of dresses and dancing. As an unmarried girl I could study Tiberian and hedgewitchery if I wished. As a woman with a Consort, who knew? Then there was the trouble of child-rearing, though any hedgewitch can mix a draught to ease that burden before it begins.
Besides, nobles of the sword must seek the King’s leave to marry. I had not yet met the man who might prove worth such an endeavour, noble or no. I had been at Court too long to trust any courtier’s promises, no matter how I might bandy light words and glances.
What else is there, at Court? Empty words, light glances, and being on my guard not merely for myself but for Lisele as well. I loved her, but sometimes I had the utterly disloyal thought that she was not suited for a royal life.
I climbed the stairs and finished the last of the bread and jam, licking my lips and my fingers in a decidedly provincial fashion. I hummed a lately-famous tune about the chivalier Coeurre di Jaronne, skirts and eardrops both swinging merrily, and entered the gallery running alongside the armor-hall. I could reach the women’s rooms from there, and—
“And what are you about here?” someone snarled, and there was the sound of a blow.
I stopped dead, the wet rag clenched in my hand. Growing up at Court meant I needed but a single word to place a voice. Yet why would anyone be in this hall? Especially him?
“You cannot prevent it. Tis too late.” A whining, breathless, triumphant sentence.
I recognized that voice too, and I peered around the corner, the damp rag in my suddenly-hot fingers. I twitched my skirts back without thinking about it—Court had taught me one thing at least: skirts may be seen around a corner when a woman eavesdrops.
I had to peek past a tapestry, and could see two men in the hall.
Baron Simieri and the Captain of the Guard. I winced inwardly. I did not know the Baron well—he was the King’s Minister Primus, born common for all he was granted a title, and he did not participate in much of the dances and fêtes that are the female side of Court life. I had danced with him once, a pavane at Lisele’s Coming-of-Age. His hands had been wet and trembling, and he danced woodenly. None of the ladies-in-waiting liked him, but he was only the Minister Primus, not even a noble. Too busy to court a lady, so we did not have to bear his clumsiness for long if at all.
The other man was. . .something else. Tristan d’Arcenne, Captain of the Guard. He was tall and serious, always in attendance on the King, overseeing the endless drills and training for the King’s Guard. Quite a few of the Court ladies had left nosegays for him, but to my knowledge he had never shared a pillow with any of them. Court rumor had him painted as the King’s Left Hand and assassin—but, of course, he could not be. If he was, there would be no rumours.
On the other hand, anyone chosen to be the King’s Left Hand would be wise enough—and skilled enough with rumour and innuendo—to divert suspicion away from himself by dropping a choice word in the right quarters. So, there.
The Captain of the Guard had the Minister Primus by the throat, held against the dusty tapestried wall. The Primus, a soft, small man, had always reminded me of an oiled farrat.
Lady Maratine had a farrat she trained to beg for sweets. The poor thing did not live long, stuffed to its back teeth with chocolat pettites. A faint flash of nausea went through me. What was happening here?
“The details, Simieri. For my edification, you understand.” Tristan’s voice was low but not cultured at all just now—the accent of a nobleman had turned harsh, with an undercurrent of violence.
I had danced with him twice, once at Lisele’s coming-of-age, and again two months ago at the Festival of Skyreturn. D’Arcenne did not dance, and the fact he had done so twice with me caused some comment.
The rumormongers were doomed to disappointment, since he said not a word to me beyond requesting the dance 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 afterwards. 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 catalogued 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 endtable 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’in 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 endtable.
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.
A 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. Vianne—”
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 mudsplattered 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 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 scandalised 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 glass window-casement that looked out on the garden. I skidded to a stop. The casement 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 Guards, 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 Guards. “Wait outside the door, if you please,” he said mildly.
The Guards only paused for 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 Guards—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.”
Curiousity 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 just saw—”
“Forget what you think you just saw,” the King said. He poured chai into a delicate Ch’in 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 hells 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 some sort of movement, for I heard boot-leather 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 in 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. “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 looked past me to d’Arcenne. “If you speak of what you saw, 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 fleur-de-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 and 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, Vianne 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 had 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 pink 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 moustache. He leaned back in his chair, reaching for the small silver bell to summon the door-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 fleur-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 decided he could not live without.
Some said he roamed in search in the Hall even into the present day, but never often enough to frighten the Court ladies. Still it was not an over-used 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 in 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.
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 Guards 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?” I gasped. 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. 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 target?” 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, Vianne.” 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—”
“Vianne, cease your chatter.” 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 further. 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, Vianne. I might enjoy myself, but I doubt you would.” His mouth 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 ribcage, 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 rumours are true. Did he start them himself?
“No doubt the King will explain what he wishes from you tomorrow.” D’Arcenne still 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 clamour 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. “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 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, Vianne.” 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 gods.
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 him.
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 clamour 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 Fete 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 casement 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 blond waxed moustache 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 by the door, 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. Lady Elaina di Cherefall and Lady Courceline di Maritine lay tangled together by the gilt fireplace grate, they must have been clutching each other as they died. Lady Robertine, Lady 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.
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 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 again, 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 wound. 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, or even a clod of dirt, neither 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 rallied a little. 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 spell 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 only see 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 truly 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 only allowed his opponent to survive 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 high 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 the 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 just barely of age…well. I danced with him, and Lisele told me afterward she did not like him overmuch.
“Aye, sieur.” A lieutenant—I think it may have been Gregoire di Champforte.
“Have they found the di Rocancheil girl yet?”
I started violently, tasted bitterness on the back of my tongue. Bit my lower lip, hard, to stop any betraying noise from my treacherous, dry throat.
“No, sieur. She was in the gardens this morning, has not been sighted since.”
“Well, perhaps Simieri caught her, he was waiting in the passage. And d’Arcenne?”
Simieri was part of this, and meant to catch me in the passage? Why? My heart pounded in my ears, and I swayed.
Do not dare faint now, Vianne. Do not dare!
“Taken to the donjons, sieur. Executed come morning, the orders are being drawn up now.” The men were stepping among the bodies. I heard a crunch, and a wet stabbing sound.
They were making certain no woman survived.
My gorge rose again, and I trembled. Whatever Lisele had closed in my nerveless hand was still there, pulsing.
“Look, sieur. On the princesse.”
“Hedgewitchery,” someone breathed. “The di Rocancheil girl has been here.”
A tense, indrawn breath. “Find her. Search the Palais and the gardens. She wanders about in the gardens and the kitchens, find her! Bring her to the Duc. He needs her.”
What? I am of no account, and I have not done anything!
Yet I knew even an innocent could be caught in a net at Court. I hesitated. Should I announce myself, and be taken to the Duc? But they were making certain the women were dead.
They had not said aught of “rescue.”
The Duc is next in line to the throne, with Lisele...gone. It was the only answer that made any sense at all. And yet. . .
My wit, weak and weary as it was under these successive shocks, began to work again. I must hide. But where would they not find me? I cast about frantically, sinking down on my knees, taking care not to lean on the door—varnished wood, and suddenly thin as an eggshell. Such a fragile, flimsy shield.
The North Tower. Tis locked, and none have used it for a hundred years or more. My wits began to work, racing inside my head with little pattering feet, rather like a collection of cats chasing about in my skull. Stunned and witless, with my princesse’s blood on my fingers and something in my hand she had entrusted to me, I closed my eyes and forced myself to think.
You must find food, and clothing, and you must wait for nightfall.
Then what do I do? I wailed silently. My eyes squeezed themselves shut, and had I been more pious I might have begun praying again. Instead, something horrible occurred to me.
Tristan d’Arcenne is in the donjons, and they will take him to the Bastillion and behead him. The fingers of my free hand crept into my pocket, found the cold metal ring. Among them would be keys to a donjon door, perhaps?
But there will be many guards, and the whole length of the Palais between you and him.
It does not matter. He will know what to do.
Footsteps echoed. Boots, approaching my sanctuary.
Oh, dear gods. I rose to my feet, silently, and backed away from the door. My mouth gapped open so my breathing would not betray me, and tears trickled hot down my cheeks, dripping onto my collarbones.
“We must find the di Rocancheil girl.” Di Narborre sounded very close, and the door rattled as he tested it. Had I left a trace of blood on the knob on the other side? “Let us go. Our lord the Duc will be crowned tonight.”
I let out a soft, shapeless breath, dropped the key that had held the door closed between me and di Narborre, and fled.