“I can’t wear this,” I say into the mirror.
Henrietta clasps her hands behind me, her expression pleading. “Oh, but you look divine.”
I eye my reflection. She convinced me to try on the red dress, and now that I’m in it, she refuses to help me out of it. It’s a violent shade of crimson, unadorned with the usual floral-patterned stitching, ribbons, or bows that clutter the rest of my wardrobe. Its simplicity will likely be in total contrast to every other gown worn tonight. Some might think it plain without any extravagances, but its effortless design makes it all the more stunning to my eyes. With the aid of my new corset, I even manage to look womanly in it. The tight fit accentuates my narrow waist, and my breasts are pushed up enough to give me a small cleavage line, something I never thought possible with my lack of endowment.
I reach down and roll the fabric between my fingers. I’ve never owned anything so fine, never even hoped to. As a handmaid, I didn’t wear the same uniform as the other maids in the marquis’ household, having a somewhat elevated status. And unlike some of the luckier handmaids of my station, my height meant that I couldn’t wear Livy and the marquise’s castoffs. Instead, they were kind enough to purchase my dresses for me. The gowns were nicer than what I could afford on my own, made of high-quality, durable cotton, but none of those dresses could hold a candle to this one.
I lift my gaze from my skirt, startled by the young noblewoman looking back at me. I can’t help but wonder who she is, who I’m becoming. The arterial hue of the dress lends me an aggressive edge I’m not used to, and it makes me think of how I felt stalking through the woods after Livy, just before I stabbed her would-be rapist.
Henrietta has darkened my eyebrows again and added more rouge to my cheeks. It’s a deeper shade than earlier, closer to the dress’s color, but it’s blended in well enough that I should be able to get away with it. She said it would be perfect in the candlelight, and I can’t help but think she’s right as I inspect her work. I almost balked when she offered to stain my lips the same color, but she wore me down.
I raise a still ungloved hand and brush my fingers over them. My mouth is large, my lips full, and with the stain on them, I worried they’d dominate my face. I was right, they do, but I like it.
My hair is piled on top of my head, and though Henrietta wanted to dust it with powder, I declined. For once, I think the dark brown strands are fine as they are, an excellent contrast to the red of the gown. I’m not wearing jewelry, just my black armband to indicate my mourning for Antoine and the black silk ribbon Henrietta thought to tie around my neck. The effect only adds to the drama of the dress.
“You’re right,” I say, and I’ll probably never hear the end of it. “You’ve done a beautiful job.”
Henrietta smirks as she hands me my black satin gloves. “I know.”
I shake my head at her and pull them on.
A knock comes from behind us. I turn toward my adjoining door. “Come in.”
Livy strides in but pulls up short. We stand on opposite sides of the room, inspecting each other.
She looks grown, I think. Her green dress is embroidered along the bottom and through the bustier, gold and red stitching catching and reflecting the candlelight. Lace spills from the hem of her sleeves and skirts the edge of her bodice and neckline. Her petite frame appears more womanly than mine, with a narrow waist that blossoms up to display her ample bosom. She’s wearing panniers beneath the dress, those strange board-like attachments that sit on a woman’s hips and flare a gown out even further at the waist. Marie Antoinette made them all the rage a decade past, but I’ve never been a fan. I once saw a noblewoman knock over an entire tea service while wearing them, and I know myself well enough to know that I’d likewise forget about them and run into someone or something, causing a scene.
“You look beautiful,” I tell Livy. She’s not wearing any makeup, is still too young for it, but I don’t think she needs it. Her youthful light and innocence will make her stand out all the more.
“So do you,” she says, coming forward to peer up at me. “Are you wearing rouge?”
I grin. “Yes.”
“Well done, Henrietta,” she says, turning to my maid. “I almost couldn’t tell.”
Henrietta bobs a curtsy, beaming. “Thank you, my lady.”
Livy grins as she turns back to me. “You’ll definitely catch a husband tonight.”
I grab a discarded stocking from the floor and whip it at my maid. “You see what a bad influence you are?”
The stocking flutters to the ground halfway between us, and Henrietta cackles, looking unabashed.
“Both of you, stop it,” I say. “This is my first introduction to what’s left of society. I’m nervous enough about it without thinking about being courted by some strange nobleman.”
The three of us turn as my bedroom door opens. The marquise sweeps in. “Oh good, you’re both here.”
I start to drop into a curtsy alongside Henrietta, but she hisses under her breath, and I catch myself. The marquise notices my slip, but the smile she sends me is kind. She’s wearing a black silk gown adorned with bows on the skirts and silver stitching throughout the bodice. Like Livy, she has panniers on beneath her dress, hers even wider.
We should all be in mourning colors, like her, but with so few black dresses among her cousins’ wardrobes, almost all the dark cloth has been given to the marquise so at least she can display proper mourning for her son. Livy and I have been wearing our black armbands every day to show ours and will continue to do so for the next two months. That we’re in mourning would typically prevent us from attending the large gathering tonight, but the marquise decided that our dire situation outweighs propriety. The nobles that have convened here to join the rebellion are from all over France, and many of them will have news and gossip we haven’t heard.
My eyes lift, taking in the marquise’s powdered hair. The dusting covers her silvering locks, and somehow, it makes her look younger instead of older. Her gown is cut even lower than mine, displaying a still enviable décolletage. Diamonds rest against her neck and drip from her ears, the facets reflecting the candlelight when she moves.
“You look so lovely, Mama,” Livy says, and I nod in agreement.
The marquise looks back and forth between us. “You look beautiful,” she tells us, her eyes resting on her daughter. “Olivia. I have no idea when you became such a beautiful young woman because I can’t stop picturing you as you were when you were three.” Her grin is self-deprecating. “I suppose that’s because if I admit you’ve grown up, I must admit my age.”
It’s nice to see her smile, nice to see her carrying herself with such confidence. It makes me think she might be surfacing from her grief over Antoine and worry for her husband. At least for tonight.
“Thank you,” Livy says, blushing prettily.
The marquise turns to me. “And you.” She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t be surprised if half the guests assume you’re some duchess. That gown is fantastic. Very dramatic.”
“Thank you,” I say, angling my head to my right. “It was Henrietta’s idea.”
The marquise shifts her gaze to my maid, who bobs another curtsy. Henrietta’s cheeks are pink as she rises, and the marquise inspects her for a long moment as if thinking of poaching her from me. “Well done.”
Henrietta’s grin nearly splits her face. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Shall we go down?” the marquise asks.
We agree and ready ourselves to leave my room. I pause a moment to clasp Henrietta’s hand as I pass. She grips my fingers tightly before letting me go. Having just been in her position myself, I can’t help but feel an affinity for her, even though my instincts tell me not to trust anyone in this household fully.
I follow the women out into the hallway. We’re quiet as we walk, consumed by our thoughts. We find Jacques and Emanuel waiting for us at the staircase. They arrived at the chateau a few hours ago, returning with the rest of Lord Giroux’s party. We’d been in the marquise’s room, stitching and darning for the cause, and in they’d strolled like a pair of conquering heroes. I think it caught them off guard when the marquise burst into tears, and Livy started throwing things at them, lambasting them for all the risks they took.
We greet each other, and Jacques takes the marquise’s arm while Emanuel takes Livy’s, as is only proper. I follow after them. Emanuel glances back at me, grinning and giving me an approving nod before leading his sister down the stairs. One day, he’ll rival his brother for looks, with his hair a few shades darker and his eyes a few brighter. His face and body seem to be filling out, giving me a glimpse of the man he’s becoming. Back home, the maids used to call him a late bloomer, but they watched him with hungry eyes when he strode past, like a pack of wolves waiting with bated breath.
I place my hand on the banister and start my descent, trying not to think about the fact that if Antoine were here, my arm would be twined with his as he led me down these stairs.
We reach the bottom and regroup, turning right. Jacques and Emanuel lead us to the large reception room just off the main hallway. Sound pours out of it, and I nearly falter. It’s been ages since I’ve been around a large group of people, and all the raised voices remind me of our last few days in Paris.
You’re not there, I tell myself. You’re in a house. This is a party. Smile, damn it.
I plaster a grin on my face as we reach the doorway. Beyond the threshold is a veritable crush. The room is packed full of people. No, not people, aristocrats. There are so many that they’re spilling into the hallway, reclining on stools or leaning against the wall as they flirt and gossip.
“Belle, I want to introduce you to my friends,” Emanuel says, dislodging himself from his sister.
I look to her in question, but before she can say anything, he wraps his arm through my good one and all but drags me away. I turn to see Livy staring after us with wide eyes.
Wait! I almost shout, but I’m forced to hold it in because we’re already surrounded by a sea of humanity, and if I yell, it will make a scene. God help me; I don’t think I’m ready to do this.
It’s not that I don’t know how to behave properly; I’ve done more to curve Livy’s tongue than her governess or mother ever did. It’s just that neither she nor I have any desire to be separated around so many strangers. Livy may know a few of these people, but the time she spent at court was limited to a couple of months, and by that point, most of the nobility had already been scattered to the winds, fleeing the rhetoric of the ‘new regime’. Many of these faces will be unfamiliar to her, and she can be almost painfully shy when introduced to anyone new. It doesn’t help that she gets nervous in most social settings, and though I typically don’t, the thought of facing my first formal gathering has been terrifying me all afternoon.
We were going to stick to the edges of the party together. This is not going to plan.
“Nice to see you out of those bandages,” Emanuel says, weaving us through the crowd. Several sets of eyes turn to us, lingering on where our arms are joined, inspecting me with unabashed curiosity.
“Thank you,” I manage.
He slows as we near a clustered group of young men. The one facing us nudges the man to his side. Soon, they all turn, watching me take the final steps toward them in silence. A little ball of worry forms in my stomach as we stop.
“Gentlemen, this is Isabelle, Lady Descoteaux, my new sister and the very woman I’ve been telling you about,” Emanuel says, a note of pride in his voice.
I smile, trying to hide my unease.
“Pleasure to meet you, Lady Descoteaux,” a young, wigless blonde man says, coming forward to bow over my hand. He tells me his name is Phillip, and I struggle to keep my expression neutral as I realize he’s the Prince de Conde’s nephew.
Each man introduces himself after Phillip steps away. The oldest among them is maybe twenty-five, but my head spins at all of their titles. The revolution has left our aristocracy in the hands of the youth, the older generation losing their heads to the guillotine.
“Can I get you something to drink, Lady Descoteaux?” the young Duke D’Lien asks me, stepping so close that my skirts brush his leg. His eyes are a striking grey, and they regard me boldly.
“Yes, of course,” I say. “Thank you, your grace.”
He nods, a small, secretive smile playing about his lips before he steps away.
What in the name of…
I wrap my arm back through Emanuel’s, hoping it will dissuade anyone else from speaking to me in the same manner. He glances down at me with a question in his eyes. No doubt he can feel the nervous tremor in my fingers.
Where is Livy? I crane my head around. In heels, I’m taller than some of the men, but I’m not able to see her through the crush, and I have to turn back to our small party or risk appearing rude.
“Did you really kill one of those san culottes by throwing a knife at him?” one of the men asks. No, not a man, a boy. The future Marquis de Umbrille can’t be more than fifteen.
“Excuse me, my lord?” I say, taken aback. This is not polite conversation.
Emanuel leans into me. “I told them of your exploits on the road. I hope you don’t mind.”
I turn my head and see him smiling at me, clearly missing my unease. Of course, I mind. I killed three men. I’ll have to live with the sin on my conscience until I die.
Emanuel’s smile slips in response to my prolonged silence, and he turns back to his friend. “The knife would surely have killed him if she hadn’t shot him as well.”
No. It was your mother who did the most damage, I think, but we never shared her part of the story, and he’d be horrified to learn of it now.
“Here you are, my lady,” a voice whispers into my ear.
I jump and turn to see the Duke D’Lien grinning at me from inches away. I want to rub at my neck to get rid of the feeling of his breath rushing over it, but he offers me a flute of champagne, and I take it instead.
“Thank you, my lord,” I say, my very real blush adding to the rouge on my cheeks.
Our hands meet around the glass, and he slides a finger over mine, caressing them like a lover as he pulls slowly away. I wrench my hand back in surprise, nearly spilling the drink. His lips curl, that same strange smile from a minute ago spreading over his face, and with a wink, he steps back into our circle. Some of the other men send him conspiratorial grins, having witnessed his flirtation. A few eye him with different looks: anger, jealousy even.
Oh, no. No, no, no. I had thought my peasant beginnings might keep the rogues of the nobility away, but it seems they may think it’s only cause to be more forward with me.
“Did you also slit one’s throat?” Lord Ranier asks.
I take a long sip of my drink to delay my answer. I cannot believe these men are asking me such questions.
Emanuel steps into my silence again. “I was knocked out by then, so Olivia told me that part. She said Belle managed to sneak up on him totally unawares and finish him off with a single blow to the neck. He didn’t even have time to sound an alarm.” He smiles at me with approval in his eyes, but some of the other men have hunger in theirs, and it makes me want to vomit.
“And the third?” someone else begins. “Emanuel said you blew his head clean o-” the young man stops short, his eyes sliding over my shoulder and up.
I turn and almost faceplant into a wide chest. Lord Giroux looms above me, his dark eyes raking over Emanuel’s friends. He wears a simple suit of black over a white starched shirt, contrasting with the kaleidoscope of colors swirling behind him. From the way his jaw is clenched, he overheard our conversation and is not pleased by it.
His black eyes shift to his cousin. “Emanuel, do you really think this is a conversation for polite company?” There’s a low note of warning in his voice, and the men drop their gazes from him, suddenly distracted by their drinks.
“No, sir,” Emanuel answers, his voice quiet.
Lord Giroux takes my arm. “If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen.”
And then he’s leading me away. I let him, though his bare fingers seem to sear my skin. My gaze latches onto a towering figure at the end of the room. The Baron de Bisclavret is watching us from where he holds court by the windows. Belatedly, I realize his son is leading me straight to him.
Halfway there, I begin shaking, the bad memories brought up by Emanuel and his friends combining with my fear. Lord Giroux feels me shiver and deftly plucks the champagne flute from my hand to keep me from spilling it. We stop briefly once or twice so he can respond to those who speak to him, but I hear none of it, my ears filled with the screams of dying men.
“Steady girl,” the baron says when we reach him. Somehow, in the time it took us to get here, the crowd around him dissipated, and now it’s just the three of us standing in our own little bubble.
I’m having trouble breathing. “They, they asked me…”
“I know,” the baron says.
What? How? I almost demand. Did he hear them from way over here? The room is so loud that I can barely make out his words now, standing right in front of him. How on earth could he have heard them?
I frown. Or what if that’s not it? What if someone in his employ managed to get word back to him about the conversation? Does that mean they’re watching me? That he’s watching me?
These questions only add to my agitation, and I blink several times in quick succession, trying to clear the stars from my eyes. Am I going to faint? I’ve never swooned in my life.
“I heard you blew his head clean off,” that young man was saying. My mind produces the image unbidden, brain matter glistening like maggots in the sun as the back of the san culottes‘ head explodes.
My knees start to buckle. Lord Giroux tightens his grip on my arm, his too-hot fingers digging in as he steadies me.
The baron swirls his drink and lifts his gaze to mine. “The tale of your actions has been spread through the camp and into the countryside. It’s very likely reached our enemies by now. Jean Chouan himself has been said to applaud you.”
Chouan leads a notorious band of royalist rebels in the Marchecoul woods to the south of us. He’s a hero to the monarchists, many calling themselves Chouannerie, after him. That he even knows of my existence is flattering: that he commended me is almost unbelievable. No wonder the blacksmith knew my name this morning.
“A beautiful young royalist peasant, rising to protect the family she serves is ‘Ancien Regime’ heroism at its finest,” the baron continues. “That she killed three revolutionaries, sustained and survived a gunshot wound, and then became the family’s ward is nothing short of miraculous. Our men are rallying to your tale. Your bravery fuels them.” He lifts his drink and motions back into the crowd with it. “Those young noblemen you just spoke to have been fighting with us since they arrived. They’ll spread your tale to those they meet, describe your beauty, your ferocity. It will spur them on and give them courage when they need it.” He smiles, but it’s not exactly a friendly look. “You must forgive them their youthful exuberance at meeting a legend.”
Great. Now I feel guilty on top of being nauseous.
“It wasn’t heroism,” I say. “It was necessity.”
“To you, perhaps,” the baron replies. “To everyone who hears the tale, it is bravery. How’s your arm?”
My head spins with the sudden change of topic. “It’s healing, my lord. Thank you again for summoning Dr. Roschfile.”
The baron stares at me, an intensity in his gaze that makes me want to look away. “Do you remember my comment about putting you to good use once you’d healed up?”
Unease slips down my spine. “I remember.”
He nods. “Good. We will speak of it tomorrow.”
“Of course, my lord,” I say, trying to remain polite through my anxiety and ignore the way my heart feels like it’s trying to break free from my chest. I turn to Lord Giroux, who still has a hold of me. “Is there a balcony, perhaps? I’m finding the crush of the crowd a little dizzying.”
The lordling tugs my arm to get me moving. “Come.”
He nods to his father as we leave, leading me to a door hidden behind a curtain. I balk when I realize his intent. I can’t go out with him alone. It isn’t proper, and if anyone sees us, they’ll assume we’re lovers or having some sort of secret rendezvous. But when I crane my head around, I realize that no one will see us go – no one except the baron. Men nearly as tall and wide as him have gathered at his sides, shielding us from the crowd’s view. They must have converged on him as we left. At a casual glance, they don’t even look suspicious, standing in groups of two or three, seemingly in deep discussion. But I know better, and anyone who’d been watching us might as well.
The last thing I see as I’m pulled into the cool night air is the baron’s smiling face. He lifts his glass to me in salute, and then I’m through the door. Lord Giroux releases me, finally, and I take a deep, gasping breath, clearing my lungs of the stench of the crowd. Everyone wears their own perfume or cologne, and the combined mélange is enough to make me want to sneeze.
My heart hammers against my chest as I stumble to the railing. I wrap my hands over the cool marble and lean into the night air, dragging in deep, cleansing breaths. We’re on the third story, nestled in the forest’s canopy. Light dances between the trees in the distance. It must be the village. I’ve learned a lot about our hosts and their history over the past few weeks. That village is the only one inside the 11,000 acres the baron’s father bought from the Duke of Brittany some sixty years ago.
The marquise explained to Livy and me how their families are connected, how the baron’s originally hailed from the rugged channel coast to the north, like hers, but had moved further inland since. I can’t help but wonder if they moved here, to this wilderness, because there are so few people, because there’s no one around to mark their strange comings and goings or ask questions. These backwoods would be the perfect place for spies to hide out, and have become the perfect place for royalists and rebels to do the same.
The chateau sits almost dead center on the baron’s land, and because of that, most of the guests attending tonight’s party will stay within the house or in an outbuilding. If they’re unlucky or of insignificant rank, they’ll have to find lodgings at one of the two inns in town, but some might plan to return to their homes in the surrounding area or bunk up with friends nearby, and I don’t envy them their long drive after the festivities.
Lord Giroux joins me at the railing, pulling me from my thoughts. I glance up to see him backlit by the candlelight spilling from the house. How can I be so frightened of a man and yet so drawn to him? It’s as if I can feel that strange presence again, the one from the operating room, pressing against my skin. It’s crowding and suffocating and electric.
“You look beautiful tonight, Lady Descoteaux,” he says, his voice less refined than his father’s.
I don’t respond, don’t know how to respond, and he turns to me.
“I thought you beautiful the first night we met, even covered with three weeks of dirt and grime.”
My gaze flickers over his strong jawline, his full lips, and up to his aristocratic nose before finally landing on his eyes. They flash in the light, and I stumble back.
“What are you?” I blurt.
“That,” he all but growls, “Is a very dangerous question.”
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.