The first time I wake, the marquise sits beside my bed, holding my right hand firmly in her own. She looks relieved when I turn my head toward her, but it’s obvious she’s been crying. I hear only a few words before sleep pulls me back under.
“…must live, my brave, beautiful girl…”
Live? Am I close to death?
My dreams are strange, feverish, filled with half-formed shapes and shadows. Wolves prowl through them, and I feel like I’m trapped in one of the baron’s macabre paintings.
The next time I open my eyes, Livy is there. I try to speak to her, ask her why she looks so upset, but before I can, I’m dragged back beneath the tide of dreams.
When I blink my eyes open again, it’s dark. Sweat slicks my skin, and I kick at the thin sheets to get them off me. My left arm is bound, bent at a ninety-degree angle, and swaddled in so many bandages that I can’t move it. I’m wearing nothing but a thin cotton nightgown tangled up to my thighs. My legs look long and gangly against the sheets. I groan and stop moving when my arm begins to throb.
Well, I’m alive. That’s something. And this time, I don’t feel like I’m going to drop back into sleep immediately. Or was I actually fainting over and over again? How long have I been in and out of consciousness?
Soft light filters through the room, and I turn toward it. A wide bank of windows takes up most of the wall, revealing a nearly full moon rising over the clouds. It’s beautiful. I study its pocked surface, trying to separate my mind from the heat and the pain like Lord Giroux taught me. At least I’m not in agony anymore. This is more like an inescapable, throbbing ache.
I might not be able to do anything about the pain, but a soft breeze rattles the windows, and if I could open them, I might be able to do something about the heat.
Get up, I tell myself, but it’s easier said than done. My body doesn’t seem to want to obey me, and I’m so weak that it takes me several minutes before I can sit up. Spots dance across my eyes, and my head swims. I have to pause at the edge of the bed, clutching at my injured arm while I pant.
Finally, I push to my feet, the dressing gown sliding down into place as I shuffle to the windows through the fog clouding my mind. I stand there staring at the latch like an idiot for a few moments.
Lift your good arm and open it, Belle. It’s not that hard.
But it’s not easy, either. I fumble at it for a solid minute in the dim light before I succeed, and the window swings open. The breeze rushes over me, and I lean into the cool night air, breathing deeply the smell of pine. The forest spreads out beyond my window, the trees painted black and silver by the moonlight. Somewhere far away, I think I hear a wolf howl.
I know I’ve had enough when one of my knees nearly gives out. Carefully, I turn back to the room. And freeze. There’s a chair pulled up on the other side of my bed. How did I not notice it was there? That it isn’t empty? A pair of eyes flash amber in the moonlight, and I suck in a breath through clenched teeth.
“I apologize,” the figure says, his voice deep and cultured and completely unfamiliar.
I take a step back and nearly fall. The voice isn’t the one I expected after seeing those orbs reflect. It isn’t Lord Giroux.
The man sits forward. “I only woke when you opened the windows. Please, return to your bed.”
His shadowy form unfolds from the chair like some great bird of prey taking to wing. I can just make out that he’s turned away, giving me privacy, and I hastily stumble back to the bed in the night-washed world of grays, wishing I had my pistols on me. The adrenaline that floods my veins threatens to undo me, and I just make it to the mattress before I collapse. A groan slips through my parched lips as my injured arm is tweaked.
“Here,” the man says, pulling the blankets back up over me, so I don’t have to move again.
I stare up at him like a field mouse waiting for the owl to strike, but when I’m settled, he simply folds his large bulk back into the chair.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” I demand. And why the hell am I alone with a man I don’t know?
“I’m the Baron de Bisclavret,” he says in that smooth voice. “Doctor Roschfile has us watching you in shifts to ensure you don’t take a turn for the worse. You lost a lot of blood after that bullet came out. It seems it had been blocking a rather large blood vessel, and when removed, you almost bled to death.”
My God, I didn’t dream what the marquise said to me; I really had been dying.
“How long have I been unconscious?” I ask.
“Five days,” he answers, shifting in his seat.
I clench up again, waiting for him to launch himself from his chair. There is a man in my room. A strange, uninvited nobleman, and from everything I’ve heard from fellow servants, nothing good can come from it.
“Livy…?” I say, trying to keep the fear from my voice, trying to match his casual air. Where are my weapons when I need them?
“Is sleeping, finally,” he tells me. “She’s been at your side nearly every waking second. She even asked that her bed be moved in here, but her mother put her foot down on that one.” A low, rolling chuckle comes from his dark shape, and I swear I can feel it moving toward me like a living, slithering thing. I shudder beneath my covers and see his eyes flash in the light again.
What kind of creature is this? I wonder. Surely this is no ordinary man. He and his son are different from me somehow, different from all of us. What has their years of spying for the king done to them?
The rules of polite conversation dictate that it’s my turn to respond, but I can’t fathom what else to say to the baron, and in the silence, there’s nothing but the sound of my frantic heartbeat between us. It seems to fill my ears. He must hear it even at this distance.
“My cousins told me what you did on the road,” he says after a minute, any trace of laughter gone from his voice. “I find myself curious about how a young handmaid such as yourself learned to shoot a pistol and throw a knife with enough accuracy to pass within a hand of a loved one and sink into the stomach of an enemy.” Though his tone is contemplative, something in his words has me rushing to explain myself.
“My father was the marquis’s arms master,” I say. God only knows what the baron had thought. I can’t talk fast enough to reassure him that, unlike himself, I am not a spy. “He retired when my mother died. We lived off the estate he won for services rendered to the marquis and the crown. My father was left alone with four young girls: my sisters and myself.”
“And so he taught you all to be brigands?” he asks, sounding amused.
“No. The district to the north of us got caught up in the grain riots when I was little, and he’d seen enough of war by that point to know that the unrest could spread. We had a large enough staff to ward off any small scale raid on our stores, but Papa was determined to teach us how to defend ourselves in case they were overrun, saying that the surprise of finding a girl able to wield a weapon would delay most attackers, giving us the advantage.” I pray that he believes me. It’s the truth, after all, but for some reason, it suddenly seems very important that he understands that.
“And you managed to retain these skills after five years in your employer’s service?” he asks. I’m grateful he can’t see me blush in the darkness and yet more than a little worried that he knows how long I’ve worked for the marquis. What else has he discovered? And why?
“I began to practice them again after we first encountered the riots in Paris,” I say.
“It’s good you did. From what I was told, I doubt any of you would have survived otherwise.”
My heart sinks. “An exaggeration. I did what anyone else in my position would have. And not everyone survived. Five men died. Your cousin, Antoine, among them.”
“Please permit me to give you some advice, my lady,” the baron replies after a moment. “I, like your father, have seen war. If you stay here for much longer, which you likely will as few ships sail for England these days, you will see more people die. Everyone here helps with the cause in whatever way they can, even the women. We can’t afford to pull our scouts from the forests because the fields need to be tilled. Our wounded are brought here, to the town just to the west. Some live, some die. Tell me, are you Catholic?”
What a strange question. Of course I am; everyone is. Aren’t they? “I am.”
His disembodied voice echoes through the room as a cloud passes overhead, hiding his shadowy form from me. “You can only save those that your God lets you. That day in the woods, God let you save Jacques, Vivienne, Olivia, and Emanuel. He let you save yourself and ten of their other servants. Without your actions, you might all have perished. So I tell you: when the nightmares come, and you wonder if the men you killed had families, remember this; the sans culottes would never have given you the clean death you did them. They would have finished their work with Olivia and the marquise and moved on to you and Maryse. Only when they had passed you around, and you became a shell of yourself, your soul already withered and dying, would they have killed you.”
His indelicate words strike a chord in me and resonate until I’m shivering with the reverberations. In my mind, I see those men dragging Livy and the marquise through the trees, see the lust and the violence in their eyes.
God save the souls of those they capture, I think, nearly in tears.
The cloud passes, and I shiver again as the baron’s shadowy outline reappears.
He must see it because he stands, draping a heavier blanket over me before going to close the window. Once it’s latched, he turns back. “My son told me that you not only managed to keep quiet but almost entirely still as the doctor pulled the bullet from your arm.”
I watch him stalk back to his seat, moving with the same rolling grace as his son. “The doctor told me he could work faster if I didn’t move,” I say. “That kept me still in the beginning, but to be honest, I couldn’t have remained so without the aid of Lord Giroux. He held my shoulders down and spoke to me, taught me how to try and separate my mind from the pain.”
“And you were able to accomplish that separation?” he asks, a hint of surprise in his voice.
“To some degree, but the spell was broken when the pain passed a certain threshold.”
“Yes, the mind can only mask so much,” he says, almost to himself.
The moon must have risen higher because I see him rest his chin in his hand. He looks like he’s contemplating something, and it gives me a moment to study him. I can make out his features to some degree, and immediately Annie’s words ring in my ears. This man does not look old enough to have a son almost thirty. If anything, he looks like an older brother to Lord Giroux, and only a few streaks of grey in his dark hair and the crow’s feet at his eyes mark his age. His height, breadth of body, and strangely elegant movements could easily be those of his son. The only characteristics separating them are his curlier hair, thicker eyebrows, and lips, which are set in a thinner, more severe line. In short, nothing saves his face from being too masculine. Even still, he’s handsome, if in a fierce way.
I need to break this silence. I’m unused to being alone with men, and I don’t like it. “Thank you for taking us in. And for the use of your doctor.”
“You’re quite welcome,” he says, lifting his chin from his hand. “But soon you may not be thanking me. I intend to put you to work. As I said, everyone helps here.”
“I welcome the opportunity,” I tell him, putting the truth of that statement in my words. “I’ve worked too long to suddenly lead a life full of leisure.”
“That’s good to hear. Not all ladies share your sentiment,” he replies, amusement in his words. “It will take you some time to heal. Until then, I think you’ll be best suited to help Olivia and the marquise with the tasks they’ve been given. After you’ve healed, we can explore other…options.”
Uh, what was that brief hesitation about? It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask him to elaborate when a door I hadn’t noticed in the far corner of my room creaks open. Candlelight rushes in, illuminating Livy’s face as she enters from what I can only assume is her adjoining bedroom. Her blonde hair falls around her in a riot, but at least she’s put on a dressing gown so the baron won’t see her in her nightwear.
“I heard voices, my lord,” she says, pausing in the doorway to lift her candleholder aloft.
“Lady Descoteaux is awake, my lady,” he tells her, his voice and address suddenly formal, so much different than the intimate tones from a moment ago.
Oh, no. I didn’t use his proper title once while speaking to him. He must think I have no manners at all.
“Belle! Thank God,” Livy says, rushing to my bed. She sets the candle down on the nightstand and pulls a chair right up to the edge of the mattress, her wide eyes searching my face.
“I’ll leave you ladies to your happy reunion,” the baron says, rising from his chair. The flickering light shows me a man clad in uninterrupted black. No wonder I didn’t notice him.
“Thank you for keeping me company, my lord,” I say.
He sketches me a small bow, and I can’t tell if it’s mocking or not. “It was my pleasure.” With that, he leaves us.
Livy grabs my good hand the moment we’re alone. “I cannot believe Mama consented to let him watch over you.”
I put a finger to my lips and shush her. My heart rate skyrocketed when she spoke, and my father always taught me to trust my instincts, even if I didn’t understand them. Right now, they’re telling me that we need to guard our words within these walls. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I can’t help feeling that a house of spies must be riddled with secret passages and false doors. God only knows who could be listening in, if I’m right.
‘I agree,’ I mouth to her, and she frowns in confusion. ‘Later,’ I mouth, and at this, she nods. Aloud, I say, “What time is it?”
“It was just before five when I left my room,” she says, squeezing my hand. “I’m so happy to see you awake. We worried we were losing you.”
“I’m sorry I frightened you.”
She grins. “Forgiven. Just don’t do it again. You’ll have to apologize to Mama as well, I’m afraid. I think she was nearly as frantic as I. The thought of losing the daughter she’d just gained was unbearable. She’s still so distraught about Antoine that she hardly leaves her room. If we had lost you too…” Her voice breaks on the last word, and now it’s my turn to squeeze her hand.
“I’m alive, Livy. I’m not going anywhere,” I say before letting her go. “Now, what have I missed?”
She huffs out a breath. “Well, Jacques and Emanuel have joined the fighting, much to mother’s chagrin. They’re off with Lord Giroux, harrying the republic’s supply chains to the south. And I read this morning that Breton, Maine, and the northern Loire are on the verge of joining the revolt.”
I mull her words over. With the revolutionary army busy fighting Britain, Spain, and Prussia in the Netherlands, and its own people here in the Vendee, it’s no wonder why they passed the levee en masse. If the northern territories join us in our rebellion, they’ll need the numbers.
Livy grins. “It seems the entire area has turned royalist, and word must have gotten round because more nobles have been arriving every day. Just yesterday, Mama said that the coalition has promised us more supplies because of it.”
The coalition she speaks of is made up of the very countries the republic is fighting in the Netherlands. Their fear is that a peasant uprising could spread into their own lands, and they seem almost frantic to guard against that. I find it more than a little ironic that they’re so desperate to reinstate a monarchy they’ve fought innumerable wars against over the last several centuries, but after the success of the American Revolution, I can see why they’d be afraid. Still, what strange bedfellows we all make.
Unfortunately, over the past several months, the republic has started gaining back the ground they lost in the Netherlands last year, and I’m not surprised that the coalition has decided to arm us. A heavily armed resistance within our country would divide the republican army even further than it already is, stretching it thin enough to snap and giving the coalition the chance to regain lost ground. Unless, of course, the youth of France answer the call of the levee en masse. And then we’re all doomed.
“I’m glad we’re getting more supplies,” I say. “The baron said you and your mother have been helping the cause?”
Livy nods. “Mama has become quite devoted in her work. It seems that Antoine’s death has awakened her rebel heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” I say with a small smile. I try to scoot up, no longer concerned about sheltering myself now that the baron is gone, but my arm throbs when I move, and I have to clamp my mouth shut until the pain abates.
Livy catches sight of my expression and stands. “The doctor was able to find laudanum to spare for you.” She helps me the rest of the way up, propping pillows behind me to get me settled. “We’ve been mixing it with water and getting you to drink it, though now that you’re awake, I’m sure your dosage should be lessened.”
My lips turn down in a frown. I don’t remember drinking anything the past few days; I must have been bad off indeed.
“I think about a third should be right, don’t you?” Livy asks, going to a small stand with a water pitcher on it.
“That sounds fine,” I say, watching her pour the white powder into the bottom of a glass.
She adds water, then stirs it with a long silver spoon. I drink it down without hesitation, welcoming anything that will dull the pain at this point. Hell, I’d even take scotch again. The water leaves a sweet, semi-bitter taste on my tongue, and I lift my glass and ask for more water to wash it away.
A noise sounds from my right as Livy fulfills the request, and I turn to see my door swing open. More candlelight spills into the room, exposing a young, redheaded maid in a pale blue and cream striped uniform, her arms laden down with all the accouterments to make a fire. Her dark apron is already smeared with soot, and as her face comes up, she stops short.
“Begging your pardon, ladies,” she says, her curtsy awkward with her hands so full. “The lord says the weather’s turning, and a storm is blowing in. He thought you might want a fire.”
“Of course,” Livy says.
The maid nods and heads toward the fireplace, and Livy hands me my water and retakes her seat.
“Miss?” I call when the maid has finished her work.
“It’s Mallory, my lady,” she says with another curtsy. The firelight catches her eyes and turns them amber. It happens so fast that I would have missed it if I’d blinked. What on earth is going on in this chateau?
“Mallory,” I correct, ignoring my hammering pulse. “Would you mind having the cook send up some broth and bread, please?”
“Of course, my lady.” She pauses at the door and sends me a wry grin. “I’m glad to see you finally awake.”
“Did you see that?” I ask Livy once she’s gone.
She frowns at me. “See what?”
My stomach drops in disappointment. “Sorry, nothing,” I say. “It must be the laudanum playing tricks with my mind.”
But it was more than Mallory’s eyes that set me on edge. For a maid, she made surprisingly little sound, especially when so laden down with her supplies. Shouldn’t I have at least heard a footfall? And that strange flash of her eyes seemed so real. I’ve seen it now in three people. What can it mean?
Perhaps it’s just the way of people this far north, I tell myself. Other than a few inns on the road from the Beauchene’s chateau to Paris, I’ve seen very little of the world. Maybe everyone here has strange eyes and walks softly. Then again, maybe the entire house is full of the king’s spies, all gathered to put his son back on the throne. Or it’s as I said, and the laudanum is giving me fits and making me paranoid.
“I’ve been thinking about something since that day in the forest,” Livy says, pulling me from my troubled thoughts.
I turn to her. Her expression is imploring, eyes wide, brows lifted. If I’m right, she’s about to ask me a question she thinks I’ll say no to. “What’s that?”
“Will you teach me how to shoot and use a sword and throw knives?” she asks in a rush. “I can’t remain this way, unable to defend myself. If not for you, that man… h-he would have…”
“I’ll teach you,” I say.
She lets out a heavy sigh and bends forward, resting her forehead on my blankets. When she speaks, her voice comes out muffled. “I keep having this dream that the revolutionaries swarm the chateau, and you can’t reach me this time. I’m completely helpless, Belle.”
“Not for long,” I tell her. She needs a distraction. The laudanum is already kicking in, and I don’t think now is the time for me to try and help her mental well-being. It’d be a shame if I fell asleep halfway through an encouraging lecture. “Can you help me over to the fire? I can’t seem to get warm.”
I’m still shivering, in part because of our conversation and in part because all I can think of is glittering eyes and sneaking spies. I can’t help but glance at the cluttered decoration lining my room and wonder what lurks just behind that innocuous bureau or that painting of Aphrodite?
Livy rises from her seat. “Let me fetch your dressing gown first.” She strides to a dresser and quickly pulls the garment out. I’m not surprised she knows where it is; she’s always been as partial to good order as I am, and she probably passed her time in here rearranging my wardrobe to keep busy while I was unconscious.
She helps me out of bed and into the gown. There’s no way to get my bound left arm into a sleeve, so we leave it at my side, and she ties the sash.
I lean into her and speak in a low whisper while she works. “I think we have to watch our words here. I’ve learned something about your cousins.”
Like the smart girl she is, she doesn’t comment, just helps me to one of the cushioned chairs pulled close to the fire. She takes the other one silently, her eyes drifting to the walls, searching the borders of shelves and bookcases much as I did a moment before. It appears she’s had a similar revelation about secret passages, and it makes me wonder if she already knows about the spies.
“How has Lord Bisclavret put you to work?” I ask her, keeping up the front of normal conversation.
“The same as Mama,” she says. “I’ve been stitching uniforms, and knitting warms socks for the soldiers to wear. It feels good to help, even in such a small way. It makes me feel that I’m doing something to avenge Antoine.” She smiles, and it isn’t one I’ve seen from her before. This one is just a little bit bloodthirsty. “Sometimes I imagine the man who will wear them, how many sans culottes he’ll kill.”
I return her smile, happy to see her newfound ferocity. Funny, before we left, I never wanted her to lose her innocence. Now I’m glad to see it go. It won’t help her stay alive during the onslaught of war.
“The baron told me I’m to help when I recover,” I tell her.
“With one arm?” she asks, frowning at where my bandaged limb hides beneath the dressing gown.
I raise an eyebrow at her, and she has the grace to blush.
“Well, there’s always the darning,” she says. “I suppose you’ll be able to manage just fine with that until you’ve healed.”
I’m shaking my head at her when the door to my room opens again. A different maid from earlier comes in, bearing a tray. My gaze goes immediately to her eyes. They don’t flash in the light, and I let out an audible sigh in relief.
“I’ve brought your food, my lady,” she says, looking from me to the room, probably hoping for a stand to put the heavy tray on.
“I can take it in my lap,” I tell her.
“Of course,” she says, relief flashing over her face as she moves forward. I know how heavy a tray can become the longer you hold it. She settles it on my lap and then straightens. “Will that be all?” she asks, looking from me to Livy and back again.
“Yes, thank you,” Livy tells her.
We’re left alone again, and Livy picks up our earlier conversation thread. “Oh, I read something else. Do you recall the name Jean-Paul Marat?”
“You mean the journalist that defends the ‘Enraged Ones?'” I mutter before taking my first sip of the still too hot broth. Yes, I remember that man. He’s one of the leaders of the radical Jacobist party. “Didn’t he retire because of some strange disease?” I ask.
She nods. “Guess what? He was murdered.”
“Good riddance,” I say before taking another spoonful. It might sound heartless, but I just don’t have it in me to lament the death of a man who so vigorously defended the violence of the sans culottes.
“By a woman,” Livy adds, and I look up from my broth to see that ferocious look back on her face.
“Congratulations,” I say. “You have distracted me from my first meal in a week.”
She smiles at her success and leans back in her chair, happy to have achieved her goal.
“Do you want to know all the bloody details?”
I nearly roll my eyes at her. “Of course.”
“A woman named Charlotte Corday managed to gain admittance into his house by pretending to have information about some Girondist uprising. She stabbed him in his bathtub.”
I frown, my food forgotten. “Why on earth was he accepting visitors in his bathtub?”
“That disease of his was of the skin. Apparently, the minerals he added to the water soothed it,” she says, her distaste evident.
“Disgusting?” she offers, and I nod. “The best part of the story is what Ms. Corday said before meeting the guillotine.” She presses a hand to her chest and raises her nose into the air, dropping her voice as if to mimic the woman. “I killed one man to save one hundred thousand!”
The quote tickles my memory. “Wait. Isn’t that what Robespierre said when they executed the king?”
I raise my brows, impressed. “Well done, Ms. Corday.”
Livy grins. “I knew you’d like her.”
“I suppose the Jacobins are making a martyr of him?” I ask.
“Of course,” Livy says with a shrug. “And it doesn’t seem that his death did anything to slow the fratricide in the National Convention. Right before we fled north, the Jacobins issued a decree against 50 of the Girondist leaders, naming them traitors and enemies of France. They called them provokers of a civil war.”
“The irony of that statement would be humorous if it weren’t so sad,” I say, returning to my meal.
“They’re going to trial soon. Everyone thinks the Girondins have met their end, and the Jacobins will have no one to counter their radical measures and laws going forward.”
“God help us,” I say.
“God help us,” she agrees.
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.