“What happened?” Livy demands the second I enter her mother’s rooms. “You’ve been gone for ages.”
I glance around, looking for the marquise, but all I see is Livy at the small table where we sew every day, impatience writ across her face.
I shut the door behind me and consider my answer before responding. “I met the baron in his study. He told me of his son’s intentions. Lord Giroux really does want to court me.” Her eyes flash wide, and I can see the questions piling up in her mind, but I push forward, hoping to stave some of them off. “He took me for a walk in the gardens after my interview with his father, and your mother will be happy to know the conversation was quite proper.”
“Weren’t you frightened to be with him?” she asks.
I shake my head. “I wasn’t. He was very…polite.”
Her expression morphs from concern to confusion. “Polite?” she says, deadpan. “He wasn’t very polite yesterday morning. Or last night.”
“True.” There’s no sense in trying to make it seem otherwise. “But today, he was rather nice, actually.”
She sends me a dubious look. “What about the baron?”
Oh, lord, how to answer that? I’ll have to lie to her at some point, but until then, I want to tell as many truths as possible. I can’t let her see how much he terrifies me, so I use the distraction of joining her at the table to keep from meeting her eyes as I say, “He was very practical.”
“Practical,” she says with an unladylike snort. “Yes, I’m sure that comes with being the head of Louis’ spies. No doubt he wants to turn you into some foreign operative?”
I mull the question over, picking up the trousers I spent most of yesterday repairing. “He never said anything about me becoming a spy. I don’t think he even is one anymore. With the king dead and the rebellion taking all their time and resources, I believe that, at least for now, he and his son have hung up their old profession.”
Livy reaches out and grabs my wrist. “But what about his wanting to use you to serve the cause in a different way than mother and I?”
I set the trousers down and place my hand over hers, trying to reassure her. “He merely wants me to be seen with the soldiers and do other things to bolster morale.” I decided on the lie on the way up from the garden. It’s the most suitable one I could come up with in such a short time without knowing the true extent of what’s required of me. I assume I’ll join their ranks at some point, despite Lord Giroux’s warning that it’s not entirely safe for me among them. “It seems the story of my actions has spread, and the baron wants me to speak to the men of the army, thinks it will give them courage.”
“And you believe he and Henri have stopped their spying?” she asks, her expression open and guileless.
A small part of me withers and dies in the face of her trust. She wants everything to be all right, to be safe again. It never will be, and I feel godawful for giving her such false hope.
“Yes,” I say. “Who are they going to spy for? Spy on? And with what time? From what Jacques said, Lord Giroux leads half the raids, and his father plans them all.” This she knows to be true; her brother mentioned it last night at dinner. Another pang spears through me as I bolster my lies with logic.
I’m so sorry, Livy. I’m doing it to protect you. Please forgive me.
She watches me for a moment before finally releasing my wrist. “What did the baron say about Henri’s interest in you?”
I nearly sag in relief that she’s willing to move on to something relatively safe in comparison. “He asked that I consider him, spend time with him to see if the match suits.”
“Do you think it will?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “It’s too early to tell. He does have a lot to recommend him.”
“But marriage, Belle?” A line forms between her brows as she shakes her head. “It’s about more than what he has in the coffers. Or it should be.”
“I said it’s too early to tell,” I reaffirm, mollified by the slight judgment in her tone. Better she believes I might marry him for wealth than because I’m forced into it.
“So, he doesn’t make your stomach flutter?” she asks, a hint of pink in her cheeks.
I arch a brow at her, wondering where this question is coming from, who has made her stomach flutter? One of the handsome young noblemen from last night or – God help her – the blacksmith?
“No butterflies yet,” I say. “I’m still adjusting to not being afraid of him.”
Her blush fades as she watches me. “Have you changed your mind about him? About them?”
I lean over the table and drop my tone to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t tell your mother, but Mallory left me quite alone with both of them. She’s a completely unsuitable chaperone. But neither of the men stepped a toe out of line.” Lie, lie, lie. God, I’m so sorry, Livy. “I truly don’t think they mean us harm. They’ve had so many opportunities to hurt me, and they haven’t. You know what your father always says about actions speaking louder than words. I think it’s time we start taking that lesson to heart.”
“What about their eyes?” she asks, frowning.
“I was right in my guess. It’s an affliction common to this area.”
Her blue ones flash wide. “You asked?”
“I had to,” I lie.
Her expression crumples into worry. “Oh, Belle. You need to be more careful. What if it had been something else? Something unnatural? What if the baron lied to you and told you it was an affliction to keep you from digging deeper?”
I stiffen in response to her word choice. Unnatural, the baron’s voice reverberates in my mind. I shove it aside, unable to risk her seeing me unsettled at such a crucial point in the conversation. “Why would he lie? What else could it be?” I ask her in a slightly condescending tone, and I start to hate myself a little more for talking down to her.
“I’m not sure,” she says warily.
“Really, Livy, if it was something unnatural, don’t you think other people would have noticed? The priest at least?” I ask. “I haven’t heard a single rumor about anything being the matter here.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” she confesses in a small voice.
“We’ve never even been past Paris before. All we know of the world is what we’ve read in books. Who knows how many ways other people are different from us that we’re simply ignorant of?”
“I suppose…” she says, frowning as she shoots me a look. I’m very careful to keep my gaze steady. “It’s just so odd.”
“I agree,” I say, picking up my sewing again.
“Belle?” Olivia asks after a minute.
“Did he try to kiss you?”
Her question catches me off guard, and I poke myself with my needle hard enough to sting. I slip my finger free from the fabric and suck at the drop of blood pooling on my skin. “No,” I mutter around it, not meeting her eyes.
“Oh.” She sounds disappointed. “Do you want him to?”
Lord. I do not want to have this conversation right now. Not when I don’t know who might overhear it. But I’ve trapped myself by telling her we’re safe, and I can’t order her to guard her words anymore. Why should she watch what she says if no one’s spying on us? In my head, I swear I can see Mallory lurking behind a false panel of the wall, smirking away at my embarrassment.
“We were in the garden, Livy,” I say. “And there were other people around. Anyone could have seen it if he had kissed me, and my reputation would have been ruined.”
“Oh, of course,” she says, her blonde hair bobbing as she nods. My stomach falls as a mischievous gleam enters her eyes. “But that doesn’t answer the question.”
“Then I guess the answer is no,” I tell her, and again, she looks disappointed. “I’ve just met him. I’m not sure what I want yet,” I explain, feeling my own mischief bubble up as I see a clear way to steer this conversation away from its current topic. “Do you want the blacksmith to kiss you?”
Her face flushes prettily in response.
“I think that any woman would want him to kiss her,” she says, gaze darting to the door. “What was it that Mama said? He looks like a man should.”
Unfortunately, I have to agree with her. Even though he was physically intimidating, the rough man didn’t frighten me like Lord Giroux and his father do, and I can’t blame her for her attraction.
“In that case, I have good news and bad news,” I tell her. “The bad news is that we won’t be going back there to pick up our order.” Her face falls as I speak, and I can’t help but think it’s a good thing we’re not allowed back into town on our own. It appears as though she’s harboring at least a small infatuation with the man, and girls her age with infatuations can’t be trusted, even those who are usually intelligent and rational.
“What’s the good news?” she mutters, dropping her gaze to her sewing.
“The good news is that Lord Giroux is having our weapons delivered here to a room that he’s letting us use so I can train you.”
Her head whips back up. “You told him?”
“No,” I say. “I assume the blacksmith did. But there’s no need to be concerned. He thinks you learning to defend yourself is a good thing, and he even recommended we find the time every day. Something about our fitness.”
“Our fitness?” she asks in much the same way I had.
She frowns at me, her sewing completely forgotten. “He didn’t try to make any advances on your person, and he has concerns for our fitness. I never thought I’d say it, but the man is beginning to sound like a bore.”
I nearly choke on a startled laugh. Thank God. Boring is good. Better she thinks him boring than unnatural. Footsteps sound in the hallway, and we pause our conversation, listening. The latch on the door rattles, and then her mother sweeps into the room. She stops when she sees me.
“Tell me everything,” she says.
I repeat myself a lot in the next few minutes, and Livy tunes her mother and me out to focus on her sewing. I glance at her now and then, in between telling her mother about Lord Giroux’s mild manners and propriety, and notice that she looks a little unsettled still. Maybe I didn’t do enough to reassure her. Or maybe she’s spent so long living in fear and worry that she distrusts this sudden peace. I’ll have to do a better job in the coming days reinforcing the idea that we’re safe.
Unlike her daughter, the marquise is pleased by my news. “Enough of this nonsense about how polite he was. Don’t you find him handsome? All that dark hair and those wide shoulders.” She shivers and leans toward me, dropping her voice to a dramatic whisper. “You’ll be the subject of a lot of jealousy if you can land him. I don’t doubt that children would come quickly. That man seems uncommonly virile.”
Livy’s head jerks up across from us. “Mama!”
“What?” The marquise shrugs. “You told me I should start treating you like a grown woman.”
Livy turns her scandalized eyes to me, and I have to hide my smile behind a hand. Only an hour ago, I wondered if I’d ever laugh again, but it seems I was wrong even to consider such a thing.
Livy’s mouth turns down in displeasure as she shifts her focus to her mother. “If that’s how you’re going to speak in front of me, I change my mind. What would Papa say?”
Her mother’s widening grin has the devil in it. “He’d want to do something to put all thoughts of other men from my mind.”
Livy throws down her sewing and pushes back from the table. “Well, I’m done here. I’ll be in my room.”
She strides out the door, pursued by the sound of her mother’s laughter. I stifle my own as best I can, but it’s a losing battle. Even though my face burns with embarrassment, I’m happy to see the marquise laughing, grateful that my courtship can draw her out of her grief and give her something else to focus on.
“Come back, Olivia!” the marquise calls. “I’ll stop my teasing.”
Livy pokes her head back around the doorframe a moment later, distrust in her narrowed eyes. “You promise?”
“Yes,” her mother says. “Now come sit back down.”
Livy does as she’s told, but the way she watches her mother as she retakes her seat makes it clear she’s not entirely convinced.
The marquise turns to me as her amusement falls away. “So. Do you find him handsome?”
There’s no way to avoid such a direct question, and inwardly I sigh as I realize there’s also no way to keep word from getting back to Lord Giroux about how I answer it.
“I do,” I say. It’s the truth, after all, but more than that, I feel like I have to tell them this, convince them there’s some attraction between Lord Giroux and me. I need to keep them safe, and the easiest way to do that right now is to make them think that I’m happy about his interest. If I’m lucky, they’ll focus on it and forget everything else.
“You truly welcome his courtship?” Livy asks, and it’s a much more difficult question.
“I do,” I lie, forcing myself to smile.
The marquise leans in and tucks a piece of hair behind my ear. “I think you should put all dark thoughts aside and enjoy this time here, your courtship, the wonder of being young and beautiful and desired.”
“I’ll try,” I say, but what she asks for is impossible.
Her hand falls away, and she turns to Livy. “There’s something else I wanted to discuss with you both. I’ve had a letter from the marquis.”
The blood drains from Livy’s face. “Is he safe?”
Ever since we discovered his name was on the list of accused Girondists, we’ve barely spoken of him, too afraid for him that the subject alone seemed sacrilegious.
The marquise nods. “He managed to allude the agents sent by the Convention and has fled his latest hideaway outside of Paris. He plans to join us here.”
My relief that he’s alive is immediately replaced by trepidation. He’ll have to traverse the roads just as we did, and his journey will be even more perilous with him being a wanted man. God only knows how many republican troops surround the Vendee. He’ll have to pass through their lines to reach us, and with the battle raging towards Chollet, the chances that he’ll make it through unscathed seem small indeed.
A map of the country unfurls in my mind. If he’s coming from just outside Paris, he’ll probably choose to range north and travel through Brittany and Maine before swinging south to us. It’s the only route that makes sense, the one that will give him the greatest chance to make it.
The marquise rises to her feet. “Come, we should pray for him.”
Livy and I follow her over to the prayer stands in the corner of her room.
I sink to my knees on the small cushioned stool and make the sign of the cross before resting my elbows on the bar in front of me, clasping my hands together. Prayer is much more common in this household than in the one I was born into. We hardly ever went to mass, even though my parents claimed to be as catholic as their neighbors. The woods are my church, my father used to say. I see God in the trees, in all the beauty He created. What need do I have to lock myself up in some stuffy cathedral to prove my devotion?
Even after all these years, prayer doesn’t come easy to me. The world is so vast, filled with so much suffering. I find it hard to believe, even for such an omnipresent being such as God, that He sees and hears my small entreaties. And after Antoine’s death, after what happened in the forest with the sans culottes, I’ve prayed only at times like this, when the marquise initiates it, or we’re ordered to our knees during mass. I’m still so angry over the death of a kind young man with his whole life ahead of him, enraged by what nearly happened, plagued by thoughts of all the other men and women who didn’t escape our attackers. If God loves and sees all, surely He wouldn’t let such things happen.
There’s even more keeping my prayers in lately, and it’s all to do with glowing eyes and men and women who move too softly and seem to be more than human. How do they fit into God’s kingdom? Or do they? Are they creatures of His creation, or are there other powers at play in our world that I’ve been blind to up until now? Powers like the ones my mother warned me about all those years ago.
Beside me, the marquise and Livy bow their heads. I have always tried to be dutiful toward the marquise, respectful, and so even though I’m not entirely comfortable, I rest my forehead on my knuckles and send my thoughts heavenward.
Heavenly Father, I apologize for my silence as of late.
We need You now as we never have. The country is divided, the peasants want freedom and food, but no one seems to know how to cleanse our convoluted systems enough to feed them. The women want rights not written by men, but no one is listening. Revolutionaries are storming chateaus, looting, defacing and razing the buildings. They are executing the inhabitants simply for their beliefs and allegiances.
I know that things were not perfect before. I saw the beggars in the towns when we rode to and from Paris. I saw the bodies frozen in the streets of that magnificent city, but surely this chaos isn’t the answer. Not only are people still starving, but they are also being murdered in the thousands.
Father, forgive me, but I too have sinned. In defense of my employers, I killed three men. They had captured us and were most likely going to kill us. I know there is no excuse for my actions, but I beg Your forgiveness and am willing to repent in whatever way You see fit.
Antoine was killed by these men. So were Michele, Jean-Luc, Maximillien, and Ferdinand. Please protect them and watch over their souls, and if they are with You, which I know they must be, send them my love. I miss Antoine, miss his easy smile and his gentle nature, especially in this strange place I find myself in.
His father is on the road now, trying to escape the nightmare that Paris has become. He’s on his way here to join us in this forested stronghold. Please watch over him and protect him. Don’t let him fall prey to the same type of men we did. Let him reach us in good time and good health. His wife and remaining children need him.
I have not heard from my own father in some time. Before we fled north, I wrote to him, and I have written several times since we arrived here, but I haven’t received word back. Please protect him and my sisters, Theresa, Olympe, and Marie, from this anarchy. Please keep them safe and healthy.
Please watch over them all, both of my families. I am trying my hardest to protect them, to keep them alive just as I did on that road, but I fear that it might not be enough. I fear that the agreement I made today may be one with the devil, and I cannot imagine the unforeseen consequences. These men are strange and frightening, but I cannot break with them, for I worry that it would mean the life of Olivia.
My last prayer is for myself, but I fear that it may already be too late for me.
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.