Whether one is raised at a convent that serves Death or in a tavern room filled with whores, there is one lesson that always applies: There is no room for mistakes. The wrong amount of poison, the incorrect angle of the knife, poor aim, or a false gesture when pretending to be someone else can result in disaster, if not death.
It was the same at the tavern where I spent my earliest years. How many of my aunts would have had other lives, but for one mistake? Some, like my mother, chose their path. But for others, it was too many years of poor harvests, or crossing the tanner’s guild, which was always looking for excuses to remove its female members. Being alone at the wrong moment, catching the eye of the wrong man might send one’s life skidding down the slope of destiny into a midden heap.
Which is precisely where I have landed.
The shadows in my darkened room loom large as I run my fingers along the silky edges of the crow feather. The good news is the convent did not abandon me. The bad news: They might, once they learn what I have done.
And what will the king do with this knowledge of the convent I so foolishly handed him? He knew nothing about it until I spoke of its existence. Will his anger pass like a sudden summer shower, or will it fester and grow?
Far off in the distance, a cock crows. Morning comes, but no answers with it. I have spent the night trying to convince myself that, after five years of their silence, I owe them nothing. But the sick shaking that has kept me awake all night tells me my heart believes something else.
Which do I listen to?
Once before, I did not listen to my heart. Come with us, Maraud said. We can help.
Maraud. Even though he did not know what I was facing, he offered his help. His friendship. And so much more.
I have stood at only five crossroads in my life, and of all of them, that is the one I regret the most. Not trusting Maraud and accepting that help. Indeed, I have ensured he will loathe me as much as the king does. My name will be a curse upon the convent’s lips and reviled for generations. Truly, the wreckage I have left in my wake is breathtaking.
Thinking of Maraud is like rubbing my heart against broken glass, so I shove all thoughts of him aside. I must find a way to fix this—to unsay those words to the king. Or at the very least, convince him they are far less important than he thinks they are. But he may not ever call for me again or may decide to have me thrown into the dungeon.
Something deep inside warns me that it is possible this cannot be fixed. Have I broken a piece of crockery that can be glued back together, or shattered a crystal goblet that is irreplaceable? As if in answer, the fine hairs at the nape of my neck lift in warning, and I realize I am not alone.
I shift my hand toward the knife I keep under my pillow.
“Good morning.” It is a woman’s voice, low and melodious. Surely someone sent by the convent to punish me would not use such a cheerful greeting.
I peer into the shadows for the source of the voice.
It laughs, a note of earthiness among the lilting sounds. “You do not need your knife for me, little sister. Did you not see the feather I left you?”
Keeping the knife hidden in the folds of my gown, I sit up. “I saw a crow feather.” My words are as carefully measured as pennies from a beggar’s purse. “But crows are a most common bird.” The young woman—mayhap a year or two older than myself—sits in the room’s lone chair. Even though she is cast in shadow, it is clear that she is impossibly beautiful—the contours of her face so elegantly constructed that it borders on being a weapon in its own right. While I cannot see if she is smiling, I sense her amusement, all the same.
“Who else would leave you such a thing?”
I shrug one shoulder. “The French court is a complex and devious place, my lady. Messages can be intercepted and twisted to suit any number of intentions.”
“You are wise to be cautious. But have no fear, I am well and truly convent sent—and your sister, besides.”
My sister. The words throw me off balance as surely as a well-placed kick. This woman. Margot. All of us at the convent are sisters. And I have betrayed them.
They betrayed me first.
I shove my hair out of my face. “If that is the case, if you are well and truly my sister . . .” Weeks—nay, months—of anger swell up, as unstoppable as the tide. “Then I have to ask, what in the rutting hell took you so long?”
She blinks, the only hint this might not be the greeting she was expecting. “You only just arrived, what, three—four—days ago?”
Heat rises in my gorge, making my words harsh. “I’m not talking about the last three days. I’ve been waiting for five years.”
A flash of vexation distorts her face, but her voice remains calm. “The convent has been in disarray these last few months. No one was aware you had been removed from the regent’s household.”
The words dangle like bait. I want to believe them, but to do so means that I fell into a trap of Count Angoulême’s making. “Surely they knew of my change in residence, else why was my patron receiving letters of instructions regarding me?”
The woman grimaces—the grimace giving me more hope than any words she has spoken. “There have been many changes at the convent. The details of your and Margot’s location were missing.”
Missing. “We were not a pair of boots or a prayer book to be lost. We were two young girls left with no means of communication, no direction nor orders, nothing for nearly a third of our lives.”
Her earlier warmth cools somewhat. “We have been rather distracted by France’s invasion, the warring amongst the duchess’s betrothed, and the matter of securing both her and our country’s safety,” she says dryly. “Surely the nature of your assignment was explained to you?”
“That was no assignment, but abandonment. We assumed you’d forgotten about us.”
“You could certainly be forgiven for thinking that.”
I don’t want compassion, but answers. No, what I truly want is to slog back