"You must tell me everything! The Crusade, the adventures! … Take me with you."
— Fleur, 1229, "Be My Valentine"
1247 Artois: The Messenger
Fleur de Brabant, for seventeen years Countess of Artois, locked the storeroom door behind her. She leaned back on the rough wood; the pose straightened her spine against an urge to collapse onto the shoulder of her lady-in-waiting. Hot tears threatened. Everything for which she had worked throughout her marriage, everything she had planned for those she loved most, was slipping through her fingers.
"This is for the best," Agnes soothed. "You can no longer trust her in a windowed chamber, my lady."
Fleur weighed the iron key across both hands. "Even my library."
"Forgive me, but your daughter is showing herself a most shocking black sheep. I would never have imagined it of our dearest Marie when you sent her to serve in Lady de Hainault’s household. We gave them the most dutiful maiden in Christendom, and they have returned us a disobedient hoyden!"
"Peace, Agnes." Fleur closed her eyes for a moment, wondering whether she should have placed Marie in a convent instead of with an allied noblesse d'épée family, after all. That was what Fleur’s eldest brother, Henry, the second Duke of Brabant, had done with Fleur after their father’s death. Fleur had loved the books and hated the confinement. By chance, Henry had arranged her marriage and recalled her home at just the same time that their other surviving brother, Nicholas, thought long lost, had returned briefly from his far-flung adventures in Cambria, Egypt and Jerusalem … accompanied by certain travel companions. Fleur shoved the memory away and snapped open her eyes. She never dwelled on that lost moment in her life, that path not taken, not even when that meant blocking out the beloved brother who had left her behind. Instead, she signaled to the knight who had accompanied them.
"My lady?" He placed his torch in a sconce and stepped up.
"Guard her." Fleur handed him the key. "No messages, no tokens, no whispers through cracks. Let her out in case of fire, her father the Count’s return from the royal court or our Lord’s on clouds of glory. Even then, accompany her every step."
The knight bowed.
Fleur took Agnes’s arm and swept up the stairs to the great hall. At the threshold, Fleur let Agnes adjust the white barbette and veil that covered Fleur’s fading fair hair, and check that her tawny overtunic fell smoothly to the hem of her yellow-red gown. Gently mocking, Fleur asked, "Do I resemble a countess yet?"
"Always, my lady."
Inside, her household bustled in and out of the central room, bowing as she passed without pausing in their tasks. Fleur nodded in return, yet all her attention went to the wiry boy standing in the firelight of the hearth, far from the sunlight at the windows open to the spring air. He cradled his arm, which he had twisted in his leap from her library. Two squires stood watch.
"Come up here, Bernard." Fleur took her usual place at the high table, which was not dismantled between meals like the hall’s long trestles. Agnes took her place behind Fleur; the lady-in-waiting gestured for the boy to come sit. Fleur said, "Be at your ease."
Bernard’s eyes grew like the moon. He swallowed as he gingerly took the seat often occupied by his master, Talbot, the Count’s bailiff, when no noble visitor displaced him. "Yes, my lady."
Fleur withdrew a ring from her finger. "You recognize this, I take it?"
Bernard looked at his feet and kicked the rushes covering the floor.
"We both know that this ring belongs to your master. Indeed, I believe that the Count my husband gave it to him." Within Castle Artois, the bailiff was his lord’s chief official, fulfilling functions undertaken by the chancellor in the powerful duchy where Fleur had been raised. Fleur placed the ring on the boy’s right thumb and folded his left hand over it. Leaning forward, she whispered, "Inform him also that I have burnt his letter to the Lady Marie. Say that I expect him to have the bare honor to send no more."
The blood drained from the boy’s face.
Fleur released his hands and sat back. "You bear no blame for this, young Bernard. Every year of Purgatory for this deceit that is not your master’s own is my daughter’s. Yet you suffer for their foolishness and selfishness." Fleur nodded at his arm. She had checked it before; it would heal, but he would have little joy of it for some days. "How sad that they so burden their dearest well-wishers, like you and me."
Bernard chewed his lip.
"You may return here to Castle Artois once you have delivered the ring and its news to your master. Would you like to work under John the falconer, perhaps?" When the boy nodded eagerly at this bait, Fleur grinned from ear to ear and opened her mouth to gossip about her beloved birds. Recalling herself, reluctantly, she reined in her tongue and felt her grin fall. "Is there anything else that you wish to tell me first, Bernard? Do Talbot and Marie claim you as a witness to these supposed vows?"
"I was not there, my lady."
She tapped her fingers on the table. "If you happen to recall that you were with your master every minute, Bernard, so that no such secret vows could have fit into the day or night, that would be very satisfying to me."
"Never mind." Fleur’s lips curled wryly. "I have sent to beg the bishop to come examine them. Be on your way."
Once the boy left the hall, Fleur commanded the two squires: "Follow him. Let him deliver his message and exit whatever refuge Talbot has taken. Then seize the traitor who claims to husband my daughter and deliver him to me."
"As my lord husband announced before he departed for court, the Castilian prince, brother to their king, arrives here but one month hence, with his retinue." Fleur rose; Agnes pulled back the bench so that Fleur could step around the table more easily. "He expects to wed his promised Lady Marie."
Fleur had won this betrothal through years of painstaking negotiations in the names of her husband and brother. Marie’s person and dowry would gain Artois and Brabant alike lands and alliances to enhance the family’s claims immediately, for Fleur’s and Henry’s sons, and to secure them for generations, for their son’s son’s sons. Marie herself would get to remove to a sparkling, exotic court, an exciting crossroads of travelers and ideas in a new land. In this life, it was every victory in her campaign for her firstborn’s happiness, everything that Fleur could give.
In this life… She shivered away the memory that another life might have been.
Fleur said, "We all expect great joy of that union."
One squire raised his chin in understanding. His comrade looked confused.
Fleur captured the second man’s gaze. "If Talbot compels you to make my daughter a widow, gentlemen, I will not mourn."
1229 Brabant: The Truant
Fleur cursed her vanity. She should have chopped off her hair back at Castle Brabant.
With every stride that her horse took, every degree that the autumn sun sank, the teenager could feel her curls bouncing loose from where she had stuffed them down the back of her tunic. Well, the tunic that she had taken from the pages’ stores, along with hose, jupon, boots and a cloak. She hoped that no one would see her until she caught up with Nicholas and his travel companions, but if someone did see her, the evidence of her boy’s garb should overwhelm that of her hair. She hoped.
Because she was staking everything on her beloved Lucien still wanting her, Fleur had reasoned, she dared not risk an alteration in her appearance that might repel him. Throughout her childhood, even in the convent school, adults had praised her golden hair. Never her bookishness or boldness, of course, as Lucien had, but ah! her hair! She needed whatever wiles she might wield. Besides which, would her hair grow back, after, if Lucien made her a vampire like them?
Vampire! Trotting down the good road when unobserved and detouring through the forest whenever she spotted people, Fleur found the existence of such a monster both credible and incredible. She had comprehended immediately when Nicholas had revealed their state the night before. All the evidence of their visit had flowed suddenly into a single stream, turning her mind like a waterwheel. She had countless questions about this mystery, but she held three things certain: she wanted to be with the man she loved, she wanted to travel like her dearest brother, and, as their existence served her brother’s lady, Janette, her sex alone was no bar.
"It is naught but hypocrisy to deny me that which he has taken for himself," she complained to her horse for the dozenth time. Her horse bent a patient ear and she patted his neck. "Nicholas must think me still the child he left when he first departed."
Lucien had been ready to bring her across to vampirism and to bring her with them into the wide world. Nicholas had persuaded him otherwise. Fleur resented her brother’s chivalric self-righteousness, yet Lucien’s surrender … her memory blurred. What was it that Nicholas had said with such power? Sleep and forget.
Fleur had fainted then, she supposed. She remembered nothing more until sunrise, when she woke in her bed. Dismissing Nicholas’s command, she had learned that his party had left in the night for Antwerp on direly urgent business... Of the urgency and Antwerp, everyone in the household was certain; on the business, no two could agree. Forget, indeed. Fleur’s lips twisted.
She had set out as soon as she could. With a swift horse and a carefully drawn copy of the Duke’s priceless Majorcan-style map, traveling in daylight while her quarry slept, Fleur was confident that she would overtake them. Aside from the unavoidable threats of banditry and exposure, she thought that her only gamble was trusting her instinct that Antwerp was a fool’s errand, a brined herring across her prey’s trail. She had headed in the opposite direction, toward Bergen.
Only the nobility rode horses rather than donkeys. Even with her hair coming undone, Fleur felt satisfied that skirting people so widely represented an excess of caution on her part, permitted by the excellence of her plan and thoroughness of her preparations. She would be taken for a courier from or to Henry, the Duke her brother, currently out on his annual circuit of his principal manors, and of course couriers were traditionally sacrosanct. She had more than enough time to overtake her quarry; she rehearsed what she would say when she did.
All went by her rule until late afternoon, when her horse threw a shoe and then threw her.
1247 Artois: The Lover
Fleur entered the solar by herself, but hardly alone. Her most trusted ladies, Agnes and Clara, hovered outside the doorway; her two most dependable knights stood within call. Normally, this pleasant chamber, with its luxurious glazed windows and padded benches, would be full of needlework, chatter and even music at this hour. Instead, it held only Fleur and Talbot.
The man, alas, thought Fleur, not his corpse. She put her hands on her hips.
He stared out an open window. One side of his face was black and blue, but he had washed his skin and combed down his dark fringe over a blood-crusted cut. Fleur admitted that he was not a homely man, but neither was he so surpassingly handsome that she could understand his attraction for a girl of good family with good prospects; and yet Marie had always baffled her thus, preferring listening to reading, sewing to hawks, home to her uncle’s ducal seat and even to the royal court. The ring that Fleur’s husband had given Talbot, and which he had given her daughter, was back on his finger.
"Bailiff," Fleur said.
"My lady." Talbot turned to her and bowed very low. "The misunderstanding between us grieves me more than I can say. There is no woman in this world whom I honor more than you, excepting only my own true wife."
"And who might that be, Talbot? I am most interested to meet her."
"You know how sorry I am to distress you, my lady, but—"
"How dare you?" Fleur hissed. Her arms swung as she strode to him. She restrained herself from slapping him across his bruises — she needed his cooperation — but more she could not hold back. "Marie is hardly more than a child! Her brother Philippe is only just become a squire in my brother’s household, with little Andre taking his place as a page. You are a man grown. By all the saints, you should know better!"
Talbot put his hands behind his back. "Marie tells me that you married — forgive me, my lady — rather late for a woman, after your eldest brother took the reins of his duchy after your father’s death, and that I am myself now little older than you were then. So I must ask, if Marie is not old enough to be my bride, how is she matched to this Castilian prince of your generation, who has already buried one wife?"
"That’s for her good and the good of all this family. The first lady died childless; Marie’s children will stand first in her husband’s inheritances." Fleur stalked away and plucked at the warp threads of the largest loom. "Talbot, you Judas, we trusted you! We have loved you for your good service."
"And I have loved you for your good lordship. I wanted to ask your blessing."
"But a girl of sixteen summers prevented you? My meek Marie?"
Talbot looked sheepish. "She is … determined."
"She is de Brabant," Fleur said. From beyond the doorway, she heard Agnes stifle a chuckle.
Fleur sank onto her favorite bench and leaned against the wall. She spread her skirts around her. When she had herself been Marie’s age — no, almost Talbot’s age, indeed? — long ago and far away, she had chosen even more rashly and had been in even more need of rescue, little as she had grasped it then. Ever since, Fleur had banished the very thought of that encounter. She had never breathed a word to her husband or Agnes or even a confessor. When Fleur let herself think and speak of Nicholas, it was as the adored youth who had departed for Cambria with his new spurs shining, not the … not what had returned from Jerusalem and trampled her heart.
Nicholas had sent her letters from time to time, at great cost, from faraway capitols. Thus she knew that he still walked in this world, and still loved her. Always, she cherished his letters. Sometimes, she even read them. Never once had she replied.
Marie’s disobedience had churned up memories that Fleur had successfully suppressed longer than Marie had been alive. What Fleur had cleared and calmed for herself was again murky and boiling.
Fleur yanked her attention back to the present. The bailiff’s patience impressed her, as it often had. It was one of the many traits that made him so valued a retainer. But Fleur shook her head at a familiar yeoman’s steadiness attracting a gentle-born girl — even Marie — more than a foreign prince’s mysteries, at the incalculable cost of her birthright. Marie understood nothing of what such a fall in this world would mean, Fleur believed, but Talbot must.
"We can make this right, you know," Fleur said. "All we need is for you each to admit that you pledged to each other only words of the future, not the present. Then this all goes away. A miracle! You return to our service. Marie has both her Castilian marriage for a brilliant future, and her tender escapade for a fond memory. My sons win a powerful brother-in-law. The Bishop blesses a simple wedding when he arrives, instead of untangling this knot."
"And you, my lady? What do you get?"
Fleur raised her chin.
"You once told me to always speak frankly with you." Talbot sat on a stool. "My lady, are you sure that it is not you who wishes to travel to Castile?"
A long-muzzled memory spoke of a tall, pale man and a cold embrace that nevertheless fit Fleur exactly, in every way. Scowling, Fleur stuffed it back into its cave. "You! From a family of shopkeepers! Will you set my daughter to sell mustard and candles when we cast you both out? How dare you aim so far above your station?"
Talbot held his tongue.
"Let us return to the only question that matters. Did you pledge yourselves in words of the present, being a wedding, or words of the future, being a betrothal? Think well. You know which answer I need. You know which answer she needs!"
"We consummated the union."
Fleur waved that away. "As her jailer, I have evidence that she is not with child. All else can be overlooked, depending on the words. Canon law turns on the words."
"I am not worthy of Marie, my lady. I do not pretend to be." Talbot slid off the stool and knelt before Fleur. "Yet I am her true husband. I gave her words of the present. To my everlasting joy, she gave them back to me."
Fleur stood. "May God pardon you, then, for I do not know that I can."
1229 Brabant: The Sentry
Limping, Fleur trailed one hand along the outside wall of a stone stable. She did not recognize this tiny yet prosperous village, at least not in the starlight that was her only illumination. Everyone else was abed, it seemed. Good.
Fleur had laid aside thoughts of rejoining Nicholas, Lucien and Janette. For now, she strove solely to find someone, anyone, who would protect her until she could again protect herself. Bruised, filthy and empty handed, she was too easy prey afoot. Her boy’s garb offered some deterrent, but if exposed in masculine clothing, she could face heresy charges on top of everything else. Somewhere ahead were Villers Abbey and Castle Hainault both; she had acquaintances at each, if only she could reach either.
Yet whatever the keep looming nearby, its gates had shut at sunset, as every civilized holding’s did. She would have to shift for herself this night. A stable, cowshed or even sheepcote seemed a warm and private refuge, if only she could find one that did not shelter its stockhands with its livestock.
Reaching the end of the wall, Fleur peered into a connected pen and blinked in surprise. There stood her own runaway mount, his tack removed and his hide properly rubbed down. He huffed at her but ambled her direction, regardless. She saw him hobble less on the foot that had spoiled her scheme than she now must on her own twisted ankle, and … she recognized the other three horses enclosed with him.
A growl. A roar. From nowhere. Everywhere. Fleur looked up wildly at the stars. She could not say whether the sound was in her ears or her head... or in her blood, which a thorn had drawn and Lucien had tasted in the garden of Castle Brabant.
A snarl. "Why could you not listen?"
Strong hands seized Fleur’s shoulders. Spun her around. Parted her feet from the earth and pinned her against the stable wall. Clear human eyes met smoldering demon orbs. Fleur gasped, "Nicholas?"
"Go back! Now. Better to encounter brigands than us this night."
Fleur stared back fearlessly. She watched the unholy fire sputter out and the beastly fangs dwindle under her gaze, until she looked into eyes as blue as her own, above the teeth of their late father’s smile. Nicholas was again the image of her dearest brother, the hero of her childhood… the envy of her present.
Nicholas touched his forehead to hers. "If only you had trusted me," he whispered. "If only the ensorcellment had worked on you. It was for your own good—"
"What do you know of my good?" Fleur hissed under her breath. Best not wake the village. "Hypocrite! The whole world opens before you and you shut me away! Henry knows no better, God forgive him, selecting a husband for me by the breadth of a survey map, the heft of a strongbox and the depth of conscript levies. You should have a wider view, Crusader and vampire!"
Nicholas set her on her feet. When her bad ankle faltered, he swept her up and seated her on top of the pen’s stone fencing. She looked down into his sad zeal, an expression she did not recall from the days before he had left for Cambria with Lord Delabar half her lifetime ago.
"I made a fool’s choice. A damned fool’s choice." Nicholas’s voice cracked. "On our father’s grave and our mother’s heart, Fleur, live! Live for us both, for I am dead and this is Hell. Do not join me in it."
"You exaggerate." Fleur brushed his hair away from his eyes with her fingers. He was strong and sound and might live until the end of time. His fears must come from a lack of perspective, she thought, from common superstitions that she had overcome by the wisdom of the ancients in her precious books. "Where is my Lucien? Where is your Janette?"
"I should have guessed that if any can resist our spell, you would be among them." Nicholas stepped back. He looked her disguise up and down, and smirked. "Clever girl: pretty boy."
"Nicholas," Fleur pouted. "Lucien?"
Nicholas crossed his arms as the sadness returned to his eyes.
1247 Artois: The Sage
"More wine, my lord?" Fleur asked the bishop. A jug-bearing page approached them at the high table.
The great hall of Castle Artois overflowed noisily with everyone of every rank who could cram onto or around the benches. Fleur’s people had been eager to break bread with their chief shepherd, and she had been pleased to show strength in numbers, wealth by feasting, and gentility through the musicians harmonizing at the hearth.
Even Marie was present, chin up and eyes fixed, at the far end of the high table. Agnes sat beside her, and the Count’s sergeant at arms personally stood watch at her back. Fleur had forbidden Agnes to let Marie cover her hair like a married woman, so the girl had made an exaggerated show of obedience by plaiting her thick, brown hair down her back like a child. Fleur sighed.
"No, no," the short, smiling churchman laid his hand over his cup and waved the page on to the next diner. "Your hospitality overwhelms me even more than usual, my lady. Are you subtly reminding me of this family’s proximity to the Duke your brother, and emphasizing your distance from a mere bailiff of burgher stock?"
Fleur smiled dryly. "I do hope that you see the yawning gap between my daughter and this servant as clearly as I do."
"Yet the sacraments are as open to a slave as to a king. Perhaps especially marriage — bestowed by the recipients upon each other." The bishop tented his fingers over his little round belly. "Who manages your husband’s seat now that you have lost this man’s services?"
"I, myself — until my husband returns from court, of course."
"Of course," the bishop grinned. He knew full well that the count waged war and pronounced judgements in season, while happily leaving all other matters of Castle Artois and its demesnes to Fleur. "But shall you replace him? I know a clerk who could use a change of scene, if you seek a candidate."
"I was out at the pinfold myself this dawn, settling a dispute over sheep and trampled crops. Yes — no — this cannot continue." Fleur poked at the remains of her meal with her knife. "If I may be blunt, my lord, I seek to restore all to what it was before: Talbot to my good service, Marie to…"
"Well, well." The bishop patted her arm. "I will confirm the marriage’s nonexistence, if the testimony so shows. But while legal points often reduce prettily to a yay or a nay, I have never yet met a soul so easily explained. I am to interview your daughter in the morning, I gather?"
"Yes, if it please you. First Talbot, then Marie. Perhaps we can even end this all by nightfall! You shall have the use of my library for entire privacy."
"Ah, your library! Now there is the grandest treat of a visit to Castle Artois. If duty ever permits, I shall come stay a month just to explore it. How many volumes now?"
"Fifteen." Fleur’s smile raised the corners of her eyes. Her matchless abundance of books remained her joy and refuge, her window on the wide world. "Since last you honored us, I have acquired a collection including Saint Augustine’s De libero arbitrio."
"On Free Choice of the Will," the bishop translated. He blinked owlishly at her. "I understand from Agnes that you have not spoken with your daughter since you released her from a makeshift dungeon into Agnes’s custody."
"Marie persists in her stubborn disobedience." That which could truly hurt Fleur, she pushed off and shut down. That was how she had coped ever since... "Until the girl recants, we have nothing more to say to one another."
"Oh, oh, I doubt that." He spread his hands when Fleur raised her chin. "Peace. Hear me out. If you say nothing now, before Marie gives her testimony, what will you say later, after she has testified? I cannot unhear what she chooses to say, once said. Help her make her choice."
Fleur looked down the long table at her daughter.
"There is yet a little time, my lady."
Fleur dropped her eyes and looked at nothing. Her mind hurried to scenes that she had long forbidden herself to recall. "‘He hath set water and fire before thee," Fleur quoted at last. "Stretch forth thy hand to which thou wilt.’"
1229 Brabant: The Witness
"I have yet a little conscience left." Nicholas stepped away from Fleur. He fixed his gaze on the horses and his hands on the stone fence. "It will not last, Lacroix and Janette assure me. If I can save you before I lapse completely into darkness, I… I will cling to that to the end of days."
"Save me from what?"
Nicholas dragged his eyes back to her. "I argued to persuade Lacroix. I moved to force you. I did not think on the difference, then."
"You may argue to persuade me, now, if you wish. But then I insist on learning where Lucien is."
"I have rarely done much with words." Nicholas lifted her down from the stone fence and held out his hand for hers.
Together, they walked as slowly as her throbbing ankle demanded to a simple home. Despite her frowned warning, Nicholas carelessly opened the door and stirred the hearth’s embers to give her light. He was right. None woke to protest because none lived. Adults and children alike lay as if sleeping on their pallets, marked only by two red holes in every pallid neck.
"And so the three of you slaked your thirst on a family of bondmen." Fleur swallowed. She struggled to appear worldly and bold, as she liked to think herself and as she believed Lucien saw her. While death was everpresent in any life since the Fall, and war’s depredations the foundation of civil order, and justice often without mercy, still, such murder was new to her. "For how long will their lives sustain yours?"
"I do not know." Nicholas’s eyes glowed. "Who waits to starve? Come."
Fleur presumed that he would lead her to Lucien and Janette now that he had made his point. Instead, he entered another modest home. Like the last victims, these had died with vampire fangs in their veins. But their bodies were twisted, broken and torn, their faces masks of terror and anguish.
"Why?" Fleur asked, dully, when she found words. Nowhere beyond her own boots was safe to rest her eyes. "You had already fed."
"Of course. This was for ... pleasure. Come."
Fleur followed her brother out, but when he started for another home, she froze. "No, please. From here." One by one, she pointed at each dwelling that she could see in the starlight. One by one, Nicholas told her what had been done there by those who could, because they could, because that was what they were.
Fleur sank down on the packed dirt, not caring whether she could rise again on her turned ankle. She did not cry. She did not understand why she did not cry. Or scream. Or pray.
"Where is he?" she asked for the last time.
"Lacroix and Janette flew over the curtain wall to continue the… to continue." Nicholas looked up at the nearby keep. After a moment, he dropped his chin and warily settled himself against the village well, several strides down the beaten path from Fleur. The space between them yawned. Nicholas said, "In his way, Lacroix is mourning his loss of you."
Fleur thought she might retch. She did not. "I thought he … loved me."
"He thinks he loves you." Nicholas looked from the empty structures to his empty hands. "But we cannot love."
She thought that tears would come then, but still they did not. Her body and her mind seemed far apart. She concentrated on Nicholas. Self-righteous and self-reproaching. Loutish and gallant. Haughty and humble. "I do not believe you."
"Not about … him," she shook her head. "About you. You can love. You love me."
"Habit. An echo."
"Your recounting of these … deeds … has limits. How many of your sins are what you have failed to do rather than what you have done?"
"Hah! The evil you see here? I saw worse in the Levant. I did worse. Cities ran with blood in the full sight of the sun. This betrayal? I knew worse in Cambria. I am corrupt beyond counting, little flower. I am like them, not you."
"No. You do love me." Fleur could hear the flatness of her voice, as dead as Nicholas claimed to be. Observation and reason alone functioned. Her heart lagged somewhere far behind, but her mind kept turning. "You wanted to save me. Do you want to save yourself?"
Tears as red as the blood he had spilled and stolen streaked Nicholas’s cheeks.
Fleur did not try to comfort him.
1247 Artois: The Beloved
"Leave us," Fleur instructed her ladies once they had all prepared for sleep. "Yes, you, too, Agnes. I will speak with my daughter."
Agnes raised her eyebrows, but drew the door shut behind her, nevertheless.
"That is one of the advantages of our position," Fleur said lightly. "Privacy for the asking. I imagine that Talbot’s family has no more time to themselves than our scullery staff sleeping in front of the great hearth."
Marie, already half under her blankets, folded her hands on top of them. "If the bishop determines tomorrow that I spoke the wrong words to make my vows, then I shall ask him the right words. And I shall say them to Talbot and no other."
Fleur untied the hangings to surround the bed on all but one side, blew out all but one candle, and sat next to Marie. "I grant that Talbot is more likely to reach Heaven than many men. His wife and children will neither starve nor cringe from his hand."
"Such condescension is unworthy of you," Marie whispered. "Is that really all you think of him?"
"No, indeed! I value him immensely as the overseer of our baily and superintendent of your father’s seat. It is only as your husband that I must cry a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Dearest, do you truly understand that your father and uncle must both disinherit you if you persist in this? A nobleman who marries a commoner makes her noble; a noblewoman who marries a commoner becomes... common. Talbot’s issue cannot be permitted in the line of succession, not even theoretically, if we are ever to make suitable alliances for your brothers and cousins, or even preserve the associations we have now."
"As you said, Talbot will keep me fed."
"Yes, surely, in his family’s provisioner’s stall in Arras — on the street of the tanners, I think? Oh, my! Do you remember the smell? — or perhaps roaming from fair to fair with a donkey bearing packs. I believe that Talbot’s older brother plys that very trade, and indeed most successfully; that is how they could aspire to educate Talbot and place him with us in the first place, after all."
"I am not afraid of hard work."
"No, you never have shirked a task." Fleur reached out her hand and was grateful when Marie clasped it. "Little Andre is the most clever of you three, and Philippe the most brave, but you were always the most diligent, responsible and biddable, my dearest… until you went to the de Hainaults. Did something happen there? What made you see Talbot, of all people, so differently, so suddenly?"
Marie stiffened. Fleur had a sudden urge to raze Castle de Hainault and decapitate any survivors.
But Marie supplied no explanation, no opening. Marie released Fleur’s hand and slid wholly under the covers, turning away. "When you disinherit me, may I still visit from time to time? Will you… know my children, even if you may not acknowledge them?"
Fleur flinched. She took a deep breath. "I have a proposal for you. A bargain."
"I will not surrender him."
"That is your choice."
Marie sat up again. She studied Fleur’s expression in the flickering candlelight. "I am listening."
"Tomorrow, I will beg pardon of the bishop for three days’ grace. He will enjoy my library, while you and I, and Agnes and some others, will ride to Arras."
"You think that the smell of the street of the tanners will make me long for your royal Castilian widower?"
"I think, my dearest daughter, that you deserve to smell that street before you bind yourself to it. You deserve to see the shutters that open each day to turn hovels into market stalls, and to hear the unfortunates begging at the church door. You deserve to sell a pot of mustard, to haggle for a loaf of bread, and to see that famine and plague are even closer to them than to us; only war is our special burden. You deserve to imagine your life ending there — and not merely your own life, but your children’s and your children’s children’s — before you vow all those lives away!"
Marie dropped her eyes. "And after?"
"When we return, you tell the bishop what you please. If you still wish Talbot, say that you exchanged words of the present and are truly married. If you wish instead the life to which I raised you, say only that you were mistaken and life will be … good, again." Fleur looked at the candle, burning down to a stub. She opened her hands. "I will bless you, then, whichever you choose. My heart will never abandon you or yours, whatever protocol and patronage require."
"It sounds as if I cannot lose." Marie bit her lip. "I know better than that. No one who plays you wins, mother. Unless you have moved on to a different game?"
"Of loss there is no end, dearest — but it will be your choice and no other’s, based in observation and reason, not only hope."
"I … accept."
Fleur kissed her daughter’s forehead. Fleur then stood, loosed the last hanging around the bed and left with the burning candle. On her way to her desk in her library, she exchanged a nod with the squire standing guard. Inside, she used the guttering candle stump to light a pillar of luxurious scholar’s beeswax, and retrieved a small cask of papers: her letters from Nicholas.
Many were still sealed. She could not always bear to open them. News of Nicholas’s adventures — even though censored, first for his vampire companions, who must believe her memory gone, and then for everyone else, who must not learn of vampires — made her think of what she had seen in that village that night. And whenever she had thought of that, she had found herself back there and then. It was her curse, and her share in Nicholas’s curse. So many times, it had been easier to lay the letters aside unread, taking them only as happy evidence that Nicholas was still in this world. So many times, she had chosen not to unleash the ghosts.
Deep into this night, one by one, Fleur broke each seal and read each letter.
The tears she had fled down the years came at last. For the long-lost villagers. For Nicholas. For the girl she had been and that girl’s dreams.
When she returned from Arras, Fleur would write to Nicholas. She would devise a way, without betraying them both to those who might see this correspondence, to ask Nicholas whether his little bit of conscience had persisted. She would discover how she could help save him.
She had indeed moved on to a different game. And it was her turn.