The next three weeks pass in a blur, much of that having to do with the laudanum I take. I spend my days with Livy and the marquise, darning clothes, folding linens, and reading the few papers that make it to us through the republican lines. Their rhetoric against the Catholic Church and the abolished nobility gets more incendiary by the day. It makes me think that Livy is right about the Jacobins’ rise to absolute power.
Two days after I was allowed out of bed, we learned that Livy’s father, the marquis, was officially listed as an enemy of the state, and upon his eventual capture, he was to be tried and executed. I spent an hour that night praying for him, praying that he hadn’t been taken into custody. With the mail only arriving erratically, he could go to trial and be killed before we find out. The marquise has spoken barely a word since our discovery, not that she had been particularly chatty beforehand.
On Sundays, we visit the small chapel on the property. The local priest, Father Diatolli has been sheltering in one of the baron’s gatehouses since being exiled from his parish when the republican appointed curé arrived in the local village ready to take his position. He’s a kind older man who refused to give up his vows. He’s also busy. After performing mass at the baron’s chateau, he travels to a farm outside the village, where he repeats it for the peasants in a large barn. Nearly the entire town turns out for it, neglecting their official church and leaving the republican curé to preach to empty pews.
Not that I can blame them. I’ve enjoyed Father Diatolli’s sermons so far. They’re filled with the love and forgiveness of God, with very little hellfire and brimstone compared to other masses I’ve attended. The one dark note is the baron’s absence. No one else seems to notice, but each time I see his empty pew, I think of the odd way he said, “your God,” as if he didn’t share our beliefs. Who is his God, I wonder?
My rise in station is proving to be a smooth transition so far. Not much is different here than it was back in Morcenx. I spend my days with Livy, chatting, keeping busy with our work for the cause, and trying to impart lessons where I can. The one difference is that I wear a new dress almost every other day. The baron has a wife and daughter who fled north to England when most of our country’s nobility first emigrated during the onset of the revolution. Unlike many others, they’ve chosen to stay where they are instead of returning. I can’t blame them, especially as their home is on the border of rebel territory.
When they fled, they left behind most of their wardrobes, and the baron gives us leave to take from them what we want since the ladies have procured new dresses in London. His daughter must be nearly the same size as me, and I’ve been lucky enough to receive most of her clothing. My wardrobe now rivals Livy’s, filled with bold, beautiful evening gowns and demure morning dresses done in pastels and creams.
If asked, I think Livy would say the new dresses have been the highlight of our stay so far, but for me, it’s the three trips we’ve taken to the nearby village and the soldier encampment just outside of it. The camp hosts the wounded of the Royal Catholic Army. Most of them are coming up from Chantonnay, where General de la Rochejaquelein is hoping to continue his success from earlier victories against the republic in Bressuire, Fontenay-le-Comte, and Saumur. From his now infamous quote – “Friends, if I advance, follow me! If I retreat, kill me! If I die, avenge me!” – he seems both brave and zealous. But he’s also the same age as me, and I can’t help but wonder if his fervor will be enough to overcome his youth and inexperience.
I spoke to several men during our visits, thanking the young soldiers for all they’ve done. They brightened at the sight of the marquise, Livy, and me, and when we conversed, they were all polite and a little awestruck by their illustrious visitors. It awed me that they considered me illustrious. They generally seemed to be in good spirits, many wanting to return to the field once they healed. I kept my own wound hidden beneath my cloak, thinking again that they must all be at least half-mad. Perhaps it’s different for men, especially when they’re missing out on our victories. The drive for glory must overpower their memories of pain.
It takes me longer to recover my strength than I expect, and even with the bullet out, my pinky and ring finger don’t want to move. Annie comes to my room every morning to change my dressings and clean my wound, which I still have trouble looking at. Gone are my days of wearing cap-sleeved gowns. The scar forming will be too large and too vicious to be exposed. Even if I could find the bravery to bare it, I doubt I could stomach having to tell the tale of how I earned it to every curious courtier or housemaid.
Annie notices my deadened fingers right away and leaves me with a list of exercises I must complete every day if I have any hope of regaining their use. She says to do the exercises even if it hurts because to leave them idle is to risk permanent disability.
In the third week of my recovery, I return to my room after dinner one evening to discover two parcels on my bed. The larger of the two contains a pile of leather straps, and I stand staring at them for several moments in confusion. Only when I pull them free and lay them out on my bed do I realize that they make up a complex holster that will fit seamlessly beneath my garments once it’s strapped to my waist and thighs. Someone must have found my hasty design and improved upon it.
The other box contains my pistol case, their flintlocks gleaming with fresh polish. I check the secret compartment and find that my ammunition store has been resupplied. I also discover a much smaller, wrapped box. The paper tears away easily, and inside I see…I’m not sure what. It’s a distorted blob of iron that looks like it might have started life as a –
I drop it like it burns me. It bounces over the coverlet before falling still. This is the bullet the doctor pulled from my arm, and now I don’t know which possibility bothers me more: that Lord Giroux sent it or that his father did. I vow to hide it away in a drawer and never look upon it again, but Livy is at my door before I can, and I shove it in my pocket and turn to receive her. That night, we make a plan, and the next morning finds us standing in a damp, dimly-lit hallway.
The sun hasn’t cleared the horizon yet. Livy and I, however, rose when it was still full dark so that we could help each other into our dresses and comb our hair into tight braids. This early hour limits our chances of being caught sneaking out of the house, and my heart is still racing from our flight through the chateau.
We plan to travel to the small town nearby. On our last visit, we learned it had a blacksmith shop owned by a man named Rufus, who was said to be a veritable magician at the forge. I didn’t forget my promise to teach Livy to defend herself, and we want to see him about having some weapons made. I need better throwing knives, ones explicitly designed for the task, and both Livy and I will need swords.
Sure, we could have simply asked someone to supply us with our weapons, but they might not grant the request, and certainly not without asking an awkward amount of questions first. So we decided to procure them for ourselves. I used the excuse of speaking to soldiers during our last visit to learn as much as I could about Rufus, the blacksmith. They were more than happy to tell me all manner of facts and rumors. Not only do I know who he fancies in the village, but also which type of ale he favors. Most of the information I discard as irrelevant – really, why should I care that he always mounts his horse from the left? – but the rest will serve us well this morning. Especially the fact that he likes to have his furnaces lit well before dawn so they’ll be hot enough for forging by the time his customers finally wake up, bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed from the previous night’s exploits.
Another reason for this early-morning escapade is that it will finally allow Livy and I time to speak to each other freely, without being overheard or watched. On those rare occasions we leave the chateau, we’re always chaperoned, sometimes by someone we know, but oftentimes not. I haven’t been willing to risk speaking in front of the house staff for fear that they’d report each word to our hosts or Jacques. Whenever Jacques arrives home, that is.
Along with his younger brother, Jacques and a handful of our men have been gone nearly three weeks now, having roamed south into the Loire Valley to join with generals Charette and La Rochejaquelein. The last letter we had from Jacques said they still followed Lord Giroux, conducting smaller raids by boat and horse to interrupt the resupply of the republican troops. The danger they’ve put themselves in is obvious, even though they tried to minimize their risks in their letters, and we’ve worried for them constantly.
“I’ll slap him,” Livy said three days past. She held her hand aloft, shaking Emanuel’s letter in her grip. “I’ll slap him right in the face for this stunt. Listen to this.” And then she smoothed the letter out and read me a story of a raid that Emanuel was lucky to survive. I wanted to throttle him, too, by the time she was done.
I return my mind to the present and pull my hood up with my good hand. “We’ll have to be fast,” I tell Livy.
She nods, looking excited. God, we’ve been cooped up too long.
I pull the small door open and peer into the predawn light. Just outside, bathed in guttering torchlight, is Denis, the marquis’s stable master and one of the men I saved on the road. It didn’t take much to convince him to help us in our scheme, especially after telling him I’d be armed. So, with the familiar weight of my weapons around me, only now in their fancy new holsters, I step into the chill morning air and motion Livy through the door.
“Thank you again,” I tell Denis when we reach him.
He hands us the reins of two docile mares we’ve ridden on several occasions. “Of course, my lady.” I don’t miss the emphasis he puts on my new title or the kind smile that says he approves.
I grin back at him and take the reins. “It’s still just Belle.”
“Of course, my lady,” he says, turning to help Livy into her saddle.
I shake my head at his back, wanting to call him a cad, like I would have only a month past, but if he’s so determined to see me as a true lady, I should probably act like one.
“Thank you,” I say instead when he turns from Livy’s horse to help me onto mine.
He gives me a short bow when he’s done and steps back. “You’re welcome. Good luck.”
I nod down at him and tap the mare with my heels to get her moving. Livy pulls even with me, and together we walk the horses over the dewy lawn bordering this side of the chateau, staying close to the walls. The grass will mask the sound of the horses’ hooves, making our escape silent. It would hardly do to go through all this effort just to be found out because of their iron shoes striking stone.
A moment later, we pass from lawn to road, and I look back at the chateau. I don’t see anyone watching us from the windows, and I breathe a small sigh of relief and face forward again.
“Were we seen?” Livy asks.
I send her a grin. “No, I don’t think so.”
She smiles back and lifts her reins, kicking her horse into a trot. I follow after her, reveling in our small rebellion. The past three weeks have been the most sheltered of my life. In the past, when I wasn’t serving Livy, I could come and go as I pleased. I didn’t need a chaperone. No one watched over me as if worried the next man to come along might try to steal my virtue. It’s been enough to turn me claustrophobic.
The trees thicken around us, their canopy closing overhead. We’re plunged into a false twilight and have to slow the horses, but I welcome the shelter of the woods. The household should be waking up, and without the forest to mask us, anyone could see us and raise the alarm.
Livy turns in her saddle as I pull even with her. “Lord, what a rush!” Her smile lights up the darkness. “My first real escapade.”
“Mine too,” I say, grinning back.
Her smile falters. “Really? I thought you’d had all sorts of them.”
“Olivia,” I say, censure in my tone. “What did you think? That I snuck off for secret rendezvous while you were taking your dinner?”
She has the grace to blush. “Maybe?”
I shake my head. “I had, have, to be just as cautious as you. A maid’s life can be just as easily ruined as a lady’s, and unlike a lady, there is no one there to cushion her fall. And just when would I have had the time? I’ll have you know you kept me quite busy.”
“But Belle, you had freedom,” she says. “You should have taken advantage of it while you could. Now you’ll be just as cloistered as I am.”
I pale a little at her words. I thought the past few weeks, weeks in which I’ve hardly had a moment to myself, were more about fear of the republic than anything else. Her mother can’t mean to keep me as closeted as her daughter, can she? I’m nearly twenty-two and have been left to my own devices my entire adult life.
“You truly never had rendezvous with other servants?” Livy asks.
“Never,” I say.
Her lower lip sticks out in a look that’s damn near a pout. “And I had hoped that now you’re my sister, you would tell me about your secret lovers.”
I can’t help but smile. “There have been no secret lovers. Sorry.”
She guides her horse around a pothole and shoots me a look. “Well, we are sisters now, so when you do have a secret lover, you’ll have to tell me about it.”
I’m torn between amusement and tenderness. “Do you really think of me as a sister?”
“I always have,” she says, frowning as though the question is silly. “Don’t you think of me that way?”
I nod. “I love you just as I love my sisters. I think it’s why I’ve always been so strict with you.”
“Well, no more!” she says, gesturing with one hand to the world around us. “Now we are citizens, living in a free France. The Convention tells me I have no title and therefore am not a lady. I can speak and act however I want. I am Citizen Descoteaux!”
I turn my gaze heavenward. “Please, God, let me be in attendance when you repeat this to your mother.”
She clears her throat, and when I bring my gaze back to earth, she looks markedly less rebellious. “I meant that between us, it should be that way.”
I let out a very unladylike snort in response. My gaze moves past Livy, to the trees, and I glance around us, glad to see we’re still alone. “We should speak of your cousins while we can,” I say. “We’ll be in the village shortly.”
“Yes! Spies! All of them!” she all but shouts, and in the gloomy, pre-dawn light, her words echo too loudly around us.
I shush her and draw my horse closer to hers. “Have you noticed their eyes?”
She throws a glare over her shoulder, back toward the chateau. “Black as the pit of hell.”
I am her sister, not her nursemaid, I tell myself, biting my tongue to keep from correcting her bad language. “But you haven’t noticed anything strange about them? The way they reflect light?”
She frowns at me. “No, sorry. I’ve been too preoccupied with the fact that every time the baron looks at me, it’s as if he’s inspecting my very soul. I have these urges to start confessing every wicked thing I’ve ever done.”
Damn. It was the stress and laudanum playing tricks with me, after all.
Livy leans in and drops her voice to a near-whisper. “But I have noticed something else.”
I raise a brow at her in question.
“Both the baron and that scullery maid,” she pauses as if searching for the woman’s name, “Mallory! That’s it. They both move without making so much as a sound. It’s unnerving.”
At least I hadn’t hallucinated every odd thing. “What if she’s not simply a maid?”
Livy’s eyes widen as she sits back in her saddle, and I can almost see her piecing everything together. “Do you mean, what if this house has become some sort of headquarters for Louis’ spies? It would be the perfect place to rally to, to help the rebellion and try to reinstate the monarchy.”
I nod. “I wondered the same thing. So for now, I think we should guard our words in the house.”
“I agree,” Livy says. “What about my training?”
“I say we continue with it as planned. How could they fault a lady for learning to defend herself? Surely there’s nothing sinister in that. You said yourself that this is a new world we’re living in. I’ve heard nothing but praise from the baron for my actions, and I hardly think he would begrudge you the same abilities.”
A grim look comes over her face. “Good, because I intend to learn all I can. If I’d been able to help, that bastard wouldn’t have dragged me into the woods, and maybe I could have been there to save Antoine.”
The blood rushes from my face, but I repeat the baron’s words. The same words I’ve repeated to myself every day since he spoke them in an effort to lessen my guilt. “You can’t blame yourself for Antoine’s death. What if I had shot a different man? What if I had saved my guns and shot two? What if Antoine had been quicker? There are too many what-ifs.”
She closes her eyes, looking pained. “I know that. I do.”
“But do you believe it?”
Her expression turns sheepish when she opens her eyes. “I’m trying to, but it’s hard to stop thinking about what-ifs when Jacques and Emanuel are God only knows where. They’ve been gone so long already, and neither has been to war before. I’m worried about them.”
“I’m worried too,” I say. It’s been more than the pain in my shoulder keeping me up at night. Half the time, I lay there wondering if the next carriage of wounded will hold one of Livy’s brothers. Will we even know if they get hurt? Captured? Killed? One of the maids told me that some of the men don’t ever return after leaving the village, and sometimes you never find out what happened to them.
Livy and I ride in silence, our minds occupied by dark thoughts. I don’t come back to myself until I glimpse the light of the village through the trees.
“Our hoods,” I say, and we both pull them up to shield our faces.
The streets are nearly empty at this hour. Those we pass seem to be either leaving home early for work or coming home late from the tavern. We find the smithy easily, having marked it the last time we visited the wounded. The light from the forge is already visible through the windows, shining like a beacon in the gloom. We ride to the back, where the horse hitch is, and I slide down from my saddle with less grace than usual, still burdened by my slowly healing arm. The horse plods after me as I lead her to the post, sniffing at me as I tie her to it as if looking for treats for her good behavior.
I stroke her nose and promise her a carrot upon our return as Livy ties her horse to the next post over.
“Ready?” I ask.
Livy nods, looking nervous.
“Let me go first and do the talking,” I say, turning toward the rear door. Out of the two of us, I’m better equipped to handle a potentially rough and common man. I just hope he doesn’t say anything too indelicate. Livy, for all she’s learned the past month, is still incredibly sheltered.
I pause by the door and take a deep breath before pushing it open. It deposits us into a half-dome room, one side walled with stone, the other open to the elements. A massive, roaring-hot forge takes up most of the space, the rest devoted to the various tools of the blacksmith trade. Our boots trod upon hard-packed earth as we round a large sawhorse.
I come to a dead stop when my gaze lands on a man I can only assume is Rufus. His back is to us. His naked back. He must have stripped to his trousers in the heat of the forge. So much for Livy’s sensibilities. I don’t think she’s seen a man shirtless before, and no doubt this one will ruin her for all others. It’s a beautiful back, broad, heavily muscled from his work. Sweat beads along it, and as we watch, a drop slips into the chasm created by his spine and slides all the way to the band of his low-slung trousers.
Livy lets out a sigh behind me, and I briefly consider covering her eyes.
“Rude not to announce yourself,” the man says in a growly baritone, turning toward us.
I step in front of Livy to shield her, but there’s no one to do the same for me, and one look is enough to know that I’ll see this man again in the next lustful dream I have. He stands six feet tall, his shoulders so wide that he probably has to walk through doors sideways. I’m less sheltered than Livy, but even I haven’t seen many shirtless men, and I don’t know where to look, so I end up looking everywhere, much to my horror.
His right hand is wrapped around the hilt of a hammer, and I follow the line of his arm up from his wrist, taking in the thickness of his forearm, then his bicep, bigger around than my corseted waist. My gaze slides over his taut stomach, up his wide chest.
His dark blonde hair is tied at the nape of his neck, leaving his shockingly handsome face all the more apparent. My eyes land on his, and I take an involuntary step back when they flash amber in the firelight. There’s barely any laudanum in my body right now. I wanted to be as clear-headed as possible this morning, so it can’t be a hallucination, can it?
Livy makes a small sound of distress, and I wonder if she finally saw it too. Her hand finds mine in the folds of my skirts as she sidles closer to me, much as she did when she was younger, and something frightened her, and my hope that I didn’t hallucinate that strange flash of light grows.
The man arches a brow at me, and I realize I’ve been openly ogling him, that I’m still ogling him, and I’ve yet to say a single word.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.