Across the room, the midwife finished washing in a porcelain basin painted all over with flowers no larger than a woman's thumb, the fierce jerks of her arms dripping water and imported jasmine-scented lather onto carpet so thick it swallowed the feet. The midwife's cropped hair glistened in the light of a dozen fat candles. They were surrounded by all the luxury one could want, except for safety.
Camille didn't dare give in to her own anger. She had denied it for so long that it had gone solid in her belly like a chunk of dirty glass. She felt sick with it, and weary down to her marrow. She would give anything to be alone for a few moments, to collect herself, but if she sent them away now, after the examination she'd just endured, she would reveal her weakness. She had already let slip her emotions once today, when the duke had told her Lord Alphonse was dead. In her distress, she had nearly revealed his mission, the mission which had led to his death. She would keep her dignity now, and with it her secrets.
Sylvie said, "I will fetch you a glass of wine, madame, and ice for your bruises."
"Sit," Camille ordered, unable to bear a continuation of Sylvie's earlier pacing of holes in the plush gold carpet. She glanced toward the washbasin, carefully avoiding her reflection in the nearby full-length oval mirror, its wide frame like a tangle of golden brambles. "Mistress Annette?"
The midwife was thirty years old at the most, and normally worked at the brothel in the town, caring for the diseases from which prostitutes suffered and helping to birth what children they might bear. She was a tiny woman with hair cut close to her scalp and a scar on her chin. For her surreptitious visits to the palace, she dressed in a baggy dun gown, a sparrow flitting into a golden cage and out of it again, unnoticed by any except Sylvie and Camille. Camille had never seen her elsewhere. She did not even know where Mistress Annette lived; Sylvie always fetched her, when she was needed. But she wouldhadentrusted Annette with her health and life.
"You were not pregnant, Your Grace."
Camille did not allow herself to show any reaction, but all the same, Sylvie rose from her chair and returned to where Camille stood.
"Am I injured?"
Mistress Annette picked up a towel and dried her hands. "You are bruised," she said, as if Camille had forgotten the reddened swelling over her jaw and cheekbone, her skin broken from the impact of the duke's rings. Her left shoulder ached from slamming into the silken wallpaper of his private audience room; her hip and elbow throbbed from hitting the marble floor.
"There is no injury inside?"
"No, Your Grace." Mistress Annette set down the towel and stepped closer, until she stood within arms' reach. She said calmly, "He will kill you one day, you know."
Sylvie began to speak but Camille held up a hand for silence. "I could become pregnant. I am not too old."
Mistress Annette crossed her arms across her chest. "Your Grace, I am hard put to remember you are not just any woman. Because in this matter, you are certainly as unwise as any I've met."
Camille heard Sylvie catch her breath; ironic, as Sylvie was not afraid to speak her mind to her duchess, either. "If I give the duke an heir, he will have no need to find another duchess."
"His Grace has no bastards, but not for lack of trying. Not a one. If I were you, I would find another sire, and pass the child off as his."
Mistress Annette had never stated it so boldly before. Camille shook her head in refusal. She had married Michel, a younger son, and in becoming her consort, he'd become duke, with power over her. She could have protested her father's order to marry Michel and run away, but she had not, foolishly fearing the duchy would suffer without her. She had spoken the vows with her own voice. Once she had done so, she had a responsibility to her marriage, and a responsibility to her duchy's people. She had stood up to her mistake for over twenty years.
A few blows should not weaken her resolve so much. Except, this time Lord Alphonse had died. He'd been killed while trying to help her, not even knowing that the appeal he carried to Lord Maxime betrayed his duke. He'd been barely older than Annette or Sylvie. Sylvie might very well be next.
Camille blinked as the room slowed and settled. Sylvie was holding her arm, fingers digging painfully into her bruised muscles. Mistress Annette ducked beneath Camille's other arm and supported her to her bed. The underside of the bed's canopy, blue and gold like the sheets and coverlet, bore appli-quéd figures of men plowing fields and sowing grain, a transparent allegory to encourage the fertility of the couples who lay within. Except Michel had never taken her here; she'd always been brought to his chambers, or more lately, wherever he felt she would be uncomfortable and refuse his advances.
"He will kill you," Annette said again, without emphasis, as if stating the sky was blue. She laid the back of her hand against Camille's forehead, then her cheek. Camille closed her eyes; that single tender touch brought her close to shattering. "Sylvie, fetch blankets."
Nauseated and beginning to shiver, Camille said, "I'm only hungry. I didn't eat while Sylvie went to find you."
Annette tucked a pillow beneath Camille's feet. She repeated, "He will kill you. And you know what will happen then. He will rape this duchy, and then move on to the next, just as your father did."
Even now, Camille could not bring herself to say aloud that she had failed, that Michel had indeed won, even when it was true. She said, "You must leave the palace, before you're found in my apartments."
"Never fear, Your Grace. Unlike you, I have concern for my own skin."
Sylvie returned and spread blankets over Camille's feet before moving upward. "Madame, you need rest. Annette, what must I do?"
"Convince her to find someone else to get her with child," Annette said. "And have a care that he's healthy, and looks enough like the duke."
Camille was no longer allowed to ride, but she could still venture out onto the palace's high white walls and glimpse her horses from afar. Two weeks after Mistress Annette's visit, she strolled there, her two eunuch guards trailing behind. Kaspar and Arno knew when she was not in the mood for conversation; this cool spring evening, they did not even speak quietly with each other.
The breeze from outside was sharper up on the walls, and she smelled a hint of rain mingled with the grass and manure of the paddocks below. She slipped into an embrasure, concealing herself from anyone's viewanyone except her eunuchs, of courseand gazed toward the stable that held her mare, Guirlande, and all the others she'd spent so long cosseting, training and schooling.
The stableboy was riding Lilas, his body seemingly immobile atop her sleek back as she danced patterns into the loose dirt of the riding ring. Only his thick brown hair ruffled in the wind. Four years ago, the duke had forbidden her to ride, and since that day she had not been to the stables, nor near her horses, nor had she spoken to their keeper. But she had years ago watched the boy be trained to ride. She had ridden out with him, and she knew his posture and seat, even from this distance. Her Lilas was in good hands.
She wondered what he looked like now that he was closer to his man's growth. She remembered big hands, lush eyelashes and an engaging, open smile. He would be almost twenty now, and might have changed a great deal. It occurred to her that he was half her age. If she had borne a child in the first years of her marriage to Michel, the stableboy was the right age to be her son.
Sylvie had reminded her that the stableboy's eyes were blue. Like the duke's.
Normally, she would watch until she had caught at least a glimpse of each of her horses, and perhaps drawn in her sketchbook, but this evening she turned away and strode toward her own wing of the palace. The wall's stone felt cold beneath her thin slippers. Kaspar and Arno fell in behind her, their movements betrayed by the faintest chiming of their weapons; they followed her down the turret staircase, across a square of immaculate garden that replaced the old bare defensive area, and through enormous mahogany doors carved with the ducal arms, each door swung wide by a footman in the duke's livery.
Camille led her eunuchs past the locked door of her audience room and through a hidden doorway. The narrow secondary corridor leading to her suite of rooms was thickly carpeted in blue and gold, an agreeable softness to her cold feet. Camille did not allow herself to slow and appreciate the softly patterned gold wallpaper, the candles muted behind colored glass or the paintings of horses that adorned the walls. Sylvie would have dismissed the rest of the staff by now, and they would have less than an hour of privacy.
Kaspar and Arno followed her through the outer rooms and into her bedchamber where Sylvie waited, perched on the edge of a spindly, decorative chair that Camille had never liked. "All is as you wished, madame," Sylvie said, meaning that the suite was deserted but for the four of them.
For this meeting, they all should sit, Camille thought, for she asked more of her servants than duty. She looked to Kaspar and indicated the empty chairs. Kaspar grinned. "Perhaps not, Your Grace. I fear it would shatter beneath my weight." He was taller than most and twice as broad. Leather straps crisscrossed his bare, hairless torso, supporting a knife sheath that nestled between his shoulder blades. The knife's flat grip, she knew, had been etched and inlaid with silver filigree in her own crest. A short sword was strapped to each thigh atop his blue breeches, but those hilts were unadorned, wrapped in strips of dark blue suede.
Arno, the younger of the two eunuchs, said, "I would prefer to sit on the floor, Your Grace."
"Very well," Camille said. She took a chair. Even seated on the floor, the eunuchs were not so far below her and Sylvie. Once all were settled comfortably, she captured them with her eyes, giving each a smile. It was not only for herself and her own safety that she did this, but for theirs; it was only right that she pay them this respect. Then she said, "Of the men whom Sylvie has investigated, three were superior choices in terms of health, appearance and proximity to the palace."
"Madame," Sylvie said, "we could entice Lord Pierken from his estate. He has an interest in you." Kaspar sent her a quelling glance, and she made a rude gesture at him.
"I fear not," Camille said. "Remember, it's planting season." Also, Lord Pierken would not be content to simply impregnate her and depart. He would want something in return, more than she could give. She continued, "Of the three, Lord Gustave resembles Michel the most, physically. His temperament is not suitable, however. He is quick to take offense and convinced of his own importance. I dare not trust him to keep this secret. And he might require a longer-term liaison and a gift of political power in exchange for his seed, which I will not give." Sylvie asked, "And Lord Jon-Petite?"
"I fear he is too old," Camille said reluctantly. "He has a son nearly thirty years old, and he has no other. He is my ally in the palace, it's true, and it would be easier to arrange meetings with him, but if he cannot serve the purpose the effort will be wasted." She had once considered him a friend, and though she rarely saw him anymore, she hated the thought of destroying their friendly relationship with her demand that he put himself in deadly danger to service her like a stallion. Also, she was not sure that Lord Jon-Petite's scruples would allow him to betray her husband.
Sylvie said, "That leaves only the stableboy!" Camille glanced to Kaspar, then Arno. Their expressions remained impassive. She said calmly, "You yourself brought him to my attention as a potential candidate. He is young and healthy, he has the necessary hair and eye color and his mother came from Michel's homeland, so there is a superficial likeness of facial and body type. Best of all, he is loyal to me, yet will not feel entitled to interfere with my role as duchess. He is good with my horses. He is the best choice for this."
"Butmadamehe is a boy! Nineteen years old!"
"All the more likely he's virile, then," Camille said. "You will bring him to me as soon as possible. His name is Henri." She swallowed the lump forming in her throat. Who was she to demand such a thing of him, when he'd given her nothing but loyalty? But if she did not do this, Michel would kill her, and she did not want to die.
"He will not understand the serious nature of this duty"
"Sylvie, you will bring him to me."
If Sylvie truly thought the boy would not serve the purpose, she would never have included him in her list. She stiffly bowed her head. It didn't matter that she wasn't pleased. She would obey. Later, she would see that Camille had made the wisest possible choice. She need not fear having to exchange political favors with a stableboy. And if he cared for her as he did for her horses, she did not think he could betray her.
"Kaspar and Arno," Camille said, "this plan may fail. If it appears my imprisonment or execution is imminent, we must flee the palace. I rely on you both, and on you, Sylvie, to secure sufficient monies and supplies for a journey of some weeks. You three will accompany me. It is crucial that this activity be completely concealed from any in the palace or in the town."
"It shall be done," Kaspar said. "Where will we go?"
"We shall travel to the coastal protectorate, and there beg aid of Lord Maxime. He will keep us safe. He will not have forgotten that he and I grew up together, here in the palace."
"Lord Maxime?" Arno blurted out. "Your Grace, he would like nothing better than to make the protectorate a duchy again! What better way than to harm you?"
Excerpted from The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their by Victoria Janssen Copyright © 2008 by Victoria Janssen. Excerpted by permission.
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