I shudder and take a step away from Lord Giroux. What in the name of God was I thinking, blurting that out?
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m just very confused. I don’t know what you and your father want from me, and the people here, they’re strange.”
Shut up! Some part of my mind screams. I listen to it.
Lord Giroux takes a step toward me, and this time, his eyes don’t flash like an animal’s. When the torchlight hits them, they are an animal’s, a baleful gold instead of black. I gasp and back away from him.
“Isabelle,” he growls, my name spoken so low it’s almost mangled, as if the throat it came from isn’t entirely human.
I turn and flee, wrenching the door open without a backward glance. The baron’s men still block the balcony from sight, and I slip between them, not looking up at their towering frames because I’m terrified of what I’ll see in their eyes. I half expect Lord Giroux to stop me, but I make it past the men and back into the crowd without incident. My eyes land on Livy. She’s so close that she must have been looking for me.
“There you are,” she says, grabbing my arm and leading me away. “I can’t believe Emanuel dragged you off like – Belle? Are you all right?”
Isabelle, I hear Lord Giroux say, and I shiver.
“I don’t know,” I tell Livy, trying to calm my breathing as I glance back toward the balcony. Those large men have dispersed, giving me a clear look at the baron. He turns toward the balcony door as his son slips inside and rejoins him. Lord Giroux says something to his father, and they cast their gazes out into the crowd as if looking for me.
I duck down and pull Livy past a group of women who eyes us speculatively. I’m sure the pair of us make an odd sight, but that can’t be helped.
“What on earth has gotten into you?” Livy says.
“Shhh,” I warn her, knowing that even in this crowd, there’s a chance the men could learn what we say, either with their own ears or through someone else’s spying. I must seem desperate enough because her eyes soften, and she reaches up and fixes my hair when we pause, smoothing away the strands my flight from the balcony pulled free.
“We should find Mama,” she says. Unspoken is, “We’ll be safer with her.”
I nod, trying to focus on her words, on her face, but all I can see is Lord Giroux’s eyes, and all I can hear is him speaking my name in that guttural tone. Livy is forced to lead me through the fray.
“Ah, there you are,” the marquise says as we approach.
Jacques is beside her, along with a man I don’t recognize. Jacques offers me a smile, proffering his arm. I pace to his side, grateful for his familiar company, and pray he won’t say anything about how my fingers tremble as I slip them through his arm. Even with the press of so many bodies, a chill seems to pervade my very bones.
Jacques’ brow twitches like he can tell something is off with me, but he remains blessedly silent about it. “Olivia, Isabelle, I’d like to introduce you to the Marquis de la Rouerie.”
My eyes widen as I take in the white wigged man just slightly bowing to me. He’s whip-thin, in his mid-forties, and his features are marked by intelligent brown eyes, arched brows, and a chin that’s just a tad too long. His thin mouth has laugh lines on either side, which surprises me a little.
“My lord,” I say, curtsying low. Livy does the same on my other side.
The man in front of us is better known as General Rouerie. He and the Marquis de la Beauchene served together in America. Though their paths never crossed, Jacques and Livy’s father used to tell stories about this man’s cunning and ingenuity that have stayed with me. He’s good friends with President Washington, and helped him route the British from the shores of the Chesapeake when the leader of the now free world was still just a general. Rouerie is also one of the founders of the Breton Association and is widely considered the key instigator in our rebellion. I’ve always been curious about him. How can a man who fought so valiantly for the freedom of one country turn around and fight just as hard for ours to remain a monarchy?
Livy asked her father that question once, within my earshot, and his answer was long and complicated, filled with all the differences between the colonies and France. She nodded along as if she understood and agreed but later confessed to me that it just sounded like excuses to her ears. Mine too. Her father is a marquis, a man of great standing, power, and wealth. He has a lot to lose if the monarchists don’t find some way to stop Napoleon and overthrow the republic. And so does Rouerie.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he says to Livy and me. His eyes land on mine. “I’ve heard of your bravery in defense of your family, and I applaud your efforts.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I say, fighting back a blush.
He pauses to cough into a handkerchief, and soon I’m fighting back a frown instead. The cough sounds like it’s coming from deep in his lungs. He finishes his fit and tucks the handkerchief into his pocket. “Please forgive me. I’m getting over a rather prolonged ague.”
“Of course,” the marquise says from beside him. “I do hope you recover quickly.”
The marquis inclines his head in her direction. “Thank you.”
Jacques leans forward a little, his eyes bright with excitement. “Has there been any more word from the British?”
Feeling my gaze, he looks over and shoots me a beatific grin before turning back to the general. His teeth are even and white, and I swear he must know the effect those dimples have on the fairer sex. They transform his face from something some might consider a touch too serious into something carefree and reckless. I wait to feel my heart skip a beat, but…nothing. Perhaps I’m finally over my youthful crush after all.
“There has,” Rouerie says. “We’ve been promised a large contribution of arms.”
I pull my gaze back to the older man and latch onto those words. If the English are sending arms, that means there will be a ship landing on the shores of the Vendee. I make a note to mention this to the marquise. Maybe it will take us back on its return trip. The faster we’re free from the danger here, the better.
I spend the next fifteen minutes listening with rapt attention as the general describes the current state of the rebellion. The news sounds grim. General Louis d’Elbée, the Royal Catholic Army’s new commander in chief, is still intent on taking Chollet after he took both Coron and Beaulieu. Both sides are building up their forces in the surrounding area, and the people of Chollet, seeing the battle to come, are fleeing it in droves.
Rouerie seems convinced it’s a battle we can win. He tells us we have twenty thousand men there and a full twenty cannon, all of which were taken from fleeing republican troops during previous battles and skirmishes. He doesn’t mention the canons the revolutionaries have on their side, nor their troop numbers. If they’re anything like ours, I worry there will be nothing left of Chollet for the fleeing people to return to when it’s over.
My worry swells as I remember that less than a month ago, the republican general Jean-Baptiste Carrier ordered the total destruction of our rebellion and all its supporters. Rouerie is trying to paint us a pretty picture, but the truth of the matter is that if the republic continues to win ground in the Netherlands, they’ll have more men to send to the Vendee to accomplish Carrier’s goal. Those men could make it easy for the republic to hold us up at Chollet while they invade the heart of our stronghold to the south.
The more the general talks, the more I think about that British supply ship and that we have to be on it when it departs.
Livy must find the news as disheartening as I do. She sidles closer to me and slips her right hand into my left. I grip her hard with my three responsive fingers, praying to God that she’ll escape this place unharmed. Finally, dinner is announced, and our small party breaks apart. Jacques leads me into the dining room, where I’m seated between him and Emanuel, with Livy on Emanuel’s other side.
Emanuel leans in as soon as I take my seat. “Belle, I’m such a cad.”
“It’s all right,” I say, thinking of the baron’s lecture. If I can give these young men hope in the coming months, I’ll gladly do it, even if it means reliving the worst day of my life.
“I didn’t think,” he continues in a whisper. “I should have known the talk would upset you.”
I place a hand on his arm and squeeze it before letting go. “Emanuel, it’s fine. I forgive you.”
He lets out a deep breath. “Thank you.”
Liveried footmen file into the room, carrying trays laden with covered dishes. I pull my gaze from Emanuel and take in the rest of the party. The candelabrums along the walls are lit, casting the table and its occupants in a spill of golden light. Overhead, the chandelier adds to the resplendency, every candle flame reflecting off the crystals dripping from its arms. Some fifty guests are seated around me, and the noise of so much conversation is so loud and boisterous that I can almost forget my fear.
Let it go, I tell myself. If only for an hour.
I take a deep breath and push it all down, my near-constant anxiety, my worry over my country and all the souls within it. God knows when or even if I’ll get an opportunity to experience something like this again; the future is so unknown right now. I need to seize this moment and let myself fully live it. How often did I try to paint a picture in my mind while listening to Livy’s descriptions of the parties she attended? Too many to count, and those fantasies can’t compare to this reality.
I take in the scene with hungry eyes, committing every detail to memory. The people around me wear a rainbow of silks, their beautiful clothing cut to perfection. I start in on my appetizer, half distracted and barely tasting the food. Watching the nobility flirt and gossip as if a war isn’t raging around us lends a surreal, dreamlike quality to the experience. I glance at the head of the table, and the dream turns into a nightmare. The baron and his son sit beside each other, both dressed in black. As if they can feel my gaze on them, they turn their regard to me, wearing identical expressions. They look like they’re waiting for me. To do what?
I shudder and pull my eyes away.
Jacques leans in and butts his shoulder against my good one. “You look beautiful tonight.”
I try to smile over at him but know it must seem strained. “Thank you. And you look quite handsome.” It’s true; he’s magnificent with his blonde hair and green silks, but the sight no longer makes my heart turn over and my stomach flutter. My gaze slides past him to Lord Giroux, comparing the light against the dark.
“What’s the matter?” Jacques asks, seeing my expression falter.
I find his eyes again and force another smile. “I’m just a little overwhelmed.” It’s the truth, after all, or at least a partial one.
“You’ll get used to the crowds,” he says, glancing past me. A dark twinkle enters his eyes. “You’re doing quite well, I think, for your first public function. Did I ever tell you what happened to Emanuel during his?”
Beside me, his brother chokes on a bite of pheasant. “You damn well better not!”
The marquise tuts across the table. “Language, Emanuel.”
“Pardon, Mama,” he says, reaching for his wine to clear his throat.
I grin, feeling better, and return to my food. The conversation flows around me, and I listen in while I eat, feeling slightly voyeuristic. I think it might be truly hitting me, my meteoric shift in rank. It was easy to pretend that nothing had changed these past few weeks, but with this party, I can no longer deny that the trajectory of my life has veered way off the expected course. And now that I recognize that, I’m going to have to reconcile it.
A problem for tomorrow, I tell myself. For now, I just want to experience this night.
General de la Rouerie is seated beside the marquise, and from the snatches of their conversation, I can tell that our earlier discussion about the state of the rebellion has continued. Jacques joins in, engaging the man about the latest reports from Paris.
To my left, a less formal conversation is taking place. I glance past Emanuel and see Livy almost completely turned away from us as she listens to her neighbors with rapt attention. I envy her escape, for the conversation she listens to sounds much more entertaining than the one taking place in front of me.
I flinch when Rouerie mentions the lawyer Robespierre, the man now in charge of the Committee of Public Safety. It feels like the National Convention is always creating some new committee, out of which flow never-ending decrees and laws. The Committee of Public safety is by far the worst, in my opinion, and Robespierre, the ‘Incorruptible’ man in charge of it, seems hell-bent on leading a witch hunt in Paris against the remaining monarchists there. The beheadings started with King Louis but quickly got out of hand. Nowadays, if someone speaks even a word of what might be considered anti-revolutionary rhetoric, they find themselves facing the guillotine. It makes me wonder what kind of man Robespierre is, if all this pomp and bluster is just an excuse to slake his bloodlust.
The food in my mouth turns to ash a moment later when an aging duke who recently escaped from Paris describes the city’s streets running red with the blood of the Old Regime. I carefully swallow and put my fork down, reaching for my wine instead. I finish it far too quickly and signal a footman for a refill. He pours it for me, and I lean back afterward, as far as my chair will allow, trying to distance myself from the macabre conversation. So much for enjoying myself tonight.
Seeking some safe refuge, I try to work the trick that Lord Giroux taught me, picturing myself far away from here in a time when the revolution had yet to begin. Olivia was eleven the year before everything changed, and I was just sixteen. I’d recently accepted my position as her handmaid and was already desperately homesick, missing my father and my sisters and the quiet, happy life we led on our family’s small plot of land.
I tried to recreate some of that happiness with Livy, teaching her games or playing hide-and-seek in her parents’ vineyard. We used to race between the rows of grapevines, peeking out at each other between their waxy leaves. When the grapes ripened, we stained our faces red gorging on the fresh fruit, and both of us faced a well-earned scolding for it afterward.
I go there now, imagining the sun on my face and the warmth in the air around me. I can almost feel the grass beneath my fingers as I crouch down to hide between the vines, my thin cotton gown billowing in the breeze.
“Belle?” I hear my name spoken sometime undefinable amount of time later.
I blink, and my memories fall away. Emanuel is standing beside me, a hand down to offer me up. Dinner is over. Everyone is getting to their feet around me. I place my hand in Emanuel’s and stand, wondering how long I’ve managed to daydream.
Emanuel leads me from the room. We part in the hallway as the men turn left to have their drinks and discuss their war. The ladies move to the right, toward one of the larger drawing rooms where we’ll gossip and drink and play cards until the men rejoin us. I say a hasty goodbye to Emanuel and catch up with Livy and the marquise.
“I’m not feeling very well,” Livy tells her mother. “Could I be excused?”
I nearly sigh with relief. Livy remembered our plan to duck out early. Thank God.
“I can go with her,” I offer. After the conversation I just heard, I can’t imagine listening to frivolous talk or playing whist, and the thought of seeing Lord Giroux and the baron again is enough to make me want to flee to the shelter of my room.
“Of course,” the marquise says. “I’ll see you two in the morning.”
Together, we slip up a side stair and back toward our rooms.
Livy shoves my door open hard enough that it bangs against the wall. “That dinner was horrible.”
I carefully shut the door behind us, grateful the knob didn’t punch a hole in the plaster.
“I tried not to listen to the marquis and his cronies,” Livy says. “The Countess de Faine was telling a story about the queen, and I desperately wanted to hear it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t drown out their horrid tales from Paris.”
It seems she wasn’t able to escape after all. I should teach her Lord Giroux’s trick. She has enough of an imagination that it might work for her too.
“I couldn’t even eat,” I say, light-headed. I shouldn’t have had that second glass of wine.
She pauses in the middle of my room and turns to me. “We have to get out of here.”
“I agree. If they’re getting goods delivered from England, I don’t understand why we can’t take passage on one of the ships for the return journey.”
She frowns. “Didn’t you hear them? Most of those ships are crewed by smugglers or privateers. Papa would never let us take passage on one.”
I must have missed that part of the conversation. “Well, your father isn’t here,” I say, softening my words to lessen the blow. “And even so, would he rather we get killed if the republican troops reach us?”
“No,” she concedes.
“Then I can’t help but feel we must seize the opportunity to flee in whatever way we can. Who knows what will happen in the coming months?”
“We should speak to Mama,” Livy says.
I nod, glad there will be two of us to argue the case.
She frowns and steps forward, dropping her voice. “What happened with Hen-“
I grab her arm and squeeze, cutting her words off. I swear I just heard something in the corridor.
A knock comes from the door, confirming my fear. I drop Livy’s arm and call out, “Come in.”
The door swings open to reveal Mallory. “I was just stopping by to check on your fire.”
Liar, some part of me snarls.
I incline my head toward the hearth, where a roaring fire is already lit. “As you can see, it’s fine.”
She dips into a curtsy, but something about the way her lips twitch makes me think she’s trying not to smirk. Her eyes flash in the firelight when she rises. “Of course, my lady. I’ll bid you good night.”
She leaves us.
Livy steps in close. “Did you see?”
“I don’t like her,” Livy says, dropping her voice into a whisper.
I follow suit. “Nor do I.”
She always seems to be skulking about our rooms, and this isn’t the first time she’s interrupted us on the cusp of a furtive conversation. For the most part, I get along well with other women and form fast and easy friendships with them, but Mallory raises my hackles. There’s something almost antagonistic about her manners, the way she looks me dead in the eye and holds my gaze for too long as if she’s trying to silently challenge me. Why? Does she resent my rise in rank? I couldn’t blame her if she did, but for some reason, I don’t think that’s it, and I’m worried her behavior might escalate from quiet contempt into something else.
Later that night, I lay awake, watching logs spark on the fire. I should be asleep by now, but I can’t get my mind to quiet. I heave a sigh and climb out of bed, pulling on my dressing gown as I pace toward the hearth. The room is chilly; it has been since the weather turned cool a week ago. I pull one of the cushioned chairs closer to the fire and kick my feet up on a footstool, letting the heat of the flames lick up my legs as my thoughts brew.
How could I have asked Lord Giroux that question? “What are you?”
I snort. I might not know what he is, but I sure know what I am: a bloody idiot. Be careful, I told Livy. Speak only when we’re outside, and no one is close enough to hear us. And then I went and blurted my worst fear to the very man I was trying to hide it from.
I’d love to blame Emanuel and his friends. I was so distraught after my conversation with them that I wasn’t fully myself. But it’s not entirely their fault. I can’t deny that some antagonistic side of me reared her head when Lord Giroux’s eyes reflected the light. I’ve tried to convince myself that we’re safe here, but so far, I’ve been unsuccessful. There was one way to know for sure whether or not my fears were valid, and that was to provoke him into some response. So, I said what I said, and he told me I asked him a dangerous question.
Okay, then. Worst fear confirmed: we’re not safe here. Not in this area of France, not in this chateau, and certainly not around Lord Giroux and his father and all the other strange inhabitants with glowing eyes.
I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something darker going on here than Livy and I first imagined, that it’s not just some strange affliction of the eyes plaguing the villagers.
Part of why I was so nervous about the party tonight was because I expected to see reflective eyes all around me. A lot of the guests were minor nobles and military officers from the surrounding area. If it’s a local affliction, wouldn’t they suffer from it? But I saw not a single flash of amber at dinner, only Lord Giroux’s out on the balcony.
I hear a creak from my bedroom door, and I look up to see the marquise slip inside.
“Good, you’re awake,” she says.
What on earth is she doing here? I rise from my chair as she paces over to me, a smile on her face. I’m happy to see it after so much sadness, but I can’t imagine what’s put it there. Did she receive news of her husband after dinner?
“I don’t know how you’ve managed to do it,” she says.
I frown. “Do what?”
She reaches out and clasps my hands. “Henri, my dear girl. You’ve captured Henri.”
The blood drains from my face. I try to say something but only end up gaping at her.
“She what?” Livy asks, coming in from our adjoining door. She must have been awake and heard her mother.
“Henri has asked my permission to formally court Belle,” the marquise tells us.
Livy pulls up short, and I jerk my eyes away from her as surprise registers on her face.
He asked the marquise what?
I force my expression to neutral, burying my shock and fear. Lord Giroux is a handsome, wealthy man who will one day be a baron. A woman of my origins should be over the moon to learn he wants to court her.
“I can’t believe it,” I manage. Truly, I can’t.
The marquise’s smile turns knowing. “I daresay that dress tonight was the final straw. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you at dinner. Everyone saw. He found me not five minutes ago and declared his intentions.” She squeezes my hands once more and lets them go. “His father approves of the match. Isn’t this wonderful? You’ll soon be family by marriage as well.”
Livy isn’t having it. “Don’t you think this is all so sudden? They’ve only seen each other a few times.”
Her mother waves a hand as if dismissing her comment. “Of course not. People meet and marry quickly all the time. I married your father after only a fortnight of knowing him.”
“What? I didn’t know that,” Livy says, taken aback.
“Of course, you didn’t. It caused quite a scandal, and I wanted to wait until you were older before I told you.” The marquise turns to me. “Belle, this is an excellent match for you.” She grins. “Tell me, don’t you think him rather dashing? With those wide shoulders and that dark coloring. He looks like a man should.”
“Dashing?” I manage. More like terrifying.
“But, Mama,” Livy says, finally joining us by the hearth. Her face is screwed up with worry. “It’s dangerous here. If Belle marries him, she might have to stay behind when we flee. And we heard they were spies before the war.”
The marquise turns to regard me. “I think your ability to handle danger is one of the many reasons Henri wants you. You’ve proven you can defend yourself, that you can thrive in danger.”
I shake my head. “But that doesn’t mean I liked it or want to face it again.”
The marquise tucks a piece of hair behind my ear, her face softening. “I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to remain here if it gets too dire. No doubt he’d want you to come to England with us until the country settles.”
“Mama,” Livy says. “She can’t marry him.”
The marquise frowns at her, censure in her tone. “Olivia, honestly. I don’t understand why you’re so against this.”
Livy opens her mouth to respond but thinks better of it, mumbling something unintelligible under her breath instead.
Her mother turns back to me. “He hasn’t asked for your hand yet, so you don’t need to make any rash decisions. Spend time with the man, see if you suit,” she tells me. “Now, I must return to the party. The Countess de Croix is starting Faro, and I haven’t played it with her in years.”
She turns, and we follow her to the door, where we say our goodbyes. Livy and I stand side-by-side, watching her black-clad form sweep down the hallway and out of sight.
I close the door and turn to Livy.
“Why is this happening?” she asks, her voice small and filled with worry.
“I don’t know.” I lead her back to the fire, pulling her to the floor in front of it. We wrap our arms around each other and stay quiet, filled with the words we don’t dare speak inside this accursed castle.
This has got to be some sort of farce. Livy is right; I’ve barely spoken to Lord Giroux. Shouldn’t he have told me of his intentions before going to Livy’s mother? What can he be playing at by faking a romantic interest? And why do I think the baron might be behind it?
“What happened tonight, Belle?” Livy asks.
I think of all the things I can’t tell her and stick to the ones I can. “Emanuel introduced me to his friends, and they questioned me about what I did on the road.”
“The cads,” she says, her expression flashing from worry to outrage.
I squeeze her waist. She’s always been my fiercest defender, even going so far as taking the blame in those early days when we got caught with our hands and mouths stained red in the vineyard. “Lord Giroux must have overheard because he put an end to it and led me over to his father. The baron knew what they’d been saying before we got there.”
“How? I could barely hear myself think?” she asks.
I lean over and whisper my response, hoping the low tone and crackling fire will keep anyone from overhearing. “I don’t know. He either heard it or had someone in the crowd inform him. We have to assume they know everything that goes on here, one way or another. These tall men appeared behind us when I reached the baron, shielding us from the crowd. I think they were his men. He said he wants me to help the rebels in another way and that he’ll talk to me about it tomorrow. I was confused and still upset over my memories of killing those men, so I excused myself to the balcony. Lord Giroux followed.” I pause to take a deep breath. “Livy, I’m so stupid. I asked him what he was.”
She wrenches away from me, eyes wide. “You didn’t,” she mouths.
I nod, feeling ten times a fool.
She yanks my shoulder down to whisper in my ear. “What did he say?”
I lean over and whisper back, “He told me that was a dangerous question.” I briefly consider telling her that his eyes didn’t just flash but changed colors entirely, but something keeps the words in.
“Perhaps he thinks that by marrying you, he can silence you,” she whispers.
The rest of our conversation plays out this way, each of us taking turns to lean in and speak our words right into the other’s ear.
I shake my head. “I would never tell anyone about these people or the things we’ve seen. Who would believe me?”
“No one in their right mind,” she says. “Do you think I should come with you when they summon you tomorrow? As a witness?”
“You can’t. I can’t risk you, Livy, and your mother likely wouldn’t let you come anyway. She’ll think that it’s part of the ruse of Lord Giroux courting me and will want to give us our space.”
“You have to take someone with you,” she says.
“I think Henrietta will be best,” I say after a minute. “I’ve never seen her eyes flash.”
Livy watches me for a minute before responding. “No matter how this ruse plays out, you can always say you don’t suit if you want to shrug him off. Mama would let you.”
I let out a humorless laugh. “Does Lord Giroux look like a man that can be shrugged?”
“No.” She shudders. “Maybe we should tell someone. Jacques. He is your older brother now, and without Papa here to defend you, it falls to him to do so.”
“I can’t involve him,” I say.
She frowns. “Why not?”
I shake my head, trying to find a way to explain my fears. “I think that there’s danger here, true danger, and the fewer people I involve, the better. My only option is to hear them out tomorrow.”
“I don’t like it,” she says, that stubborn expression slipping over her face.
“Neither do I,” I agree. “You have to promise that these secrets will stay between us.”
“Of course, they will,” she says, though she doesn’t look pleased about it. “No one would believe them, after all.”
We fall quiet. I stare into the fire and replay the events of the past few weeks in my mind. If they hadn’t happened to me, I would never believe they were real.
“I don’t know how I’ll get to sleep,” Livy says after a few minutes. “I’ve had enough trouble as it is, jumping awake at even the smallest noises.”
“I have an idea,” I say.
She raises her brows in question.
I start to get to my feet. “Stand up. We’ll begin your instruction now.”
She pushes up, and we move some of my furniture out of the way, clearing space in the center of the room. We don’t have any weapons yet, so instead, I show her the proper stances required for swordplay. My father always said that the placement of your feet could make or break a fight, and he often had us set down our wooden swords and practice the movements whenever he thought we needed a refresher.
Livy is a quick study. I shouldn’t be surprised. She was always the first one in the house to learn all the steps of the latest dance. That affinity will do her good when it comes to fighting.
After about fifteen minutes, she gets antsy, wanting to know the sword work that would pair with her stances so she can understand the complete movements. I gather two parasols from my wardrobe, and we keep them furled as we repeat the process, this time holding the umbrellas aloft like swords.
I make her switch hands, and we start over from the beginning. I try to switch hands as well, but my left is my bad side, and I set the parasol down a few minutes later when my arm starts to shake with strain and an uncomfortable pinch comes from my healing wound. It frustrates me. I need to regain my strength, and I’m impatient to do so, but I realize there’s a fine line between pushing oneself and prolonging an injury.
“This hand feels odd,” Livy says, not complaining, just remarking.
“I know, but you must learn to be proficient with it,” I tell her. “What if your right becomes injured?”
She nods, seeing the logic, and redoubles her effort to learn on her weaker side. Our slippers whisper over the carpets; our dressing gowns pull tight across our legs when we lunge. She gets too exuberant in one of her flourishes, and the tip of her parasol gets caught in the hem of her nightgown. We giggle as we free it, and it feels good to laugh, even if our amusement is short-lived.
We stop around midnight and set the furniture back in their proper places, matching the indentations they left behind so no one notices they were moved. Downstairs, the party is still in full swing. Voices carry up the staircase, and the sound of clinking glass echoes down the corridor. Livy returns to her room, and we agree to keep the adjoining door open so we can easily reach the other if necessary. I don’t know why we haven’t been doing it all along. Maybe a part of each of us still wanted to believe that we were safe, but after tonight, I can’t bring myself to pretend any longer.
I get beneath my covers and lay awake for some time, even though I’m exhausted. I can’t shake the feeling I’m being watched, and I want to curse Annie for telling me the baron and his son are spies. They say that ignorance is bliss, and I’m sure if I were ignorant of our hosts’ secret identities, I’d sleep a hell of a lot better in their chateau.
I don’t know how long I lay there staring into the fire before I begin to doze, but the next time I open my eyes, it’s two in the morning, and the silence coming from downstairs tells me the party is over. I roll onto my back and fall into a fitful sleep full of shadows and wraiths.
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.