The True Pretender
Epione leapt outward quickly, before she had a chance to reconsider, and tumbled onto the packed-dirt road, scrambling to her feet and lifting her skirts with both fists as she raced toward the shadowed hedgerows that were set back a small distance from the roadway. She could hear the footman’s shout, as the carriage drew up to a crunching halt, but she didn’t stop, instead searching frantically ahead for a break in the hedges, and an avenue of escape.
“Stop, stop—parbleu, Mademoiselle.”
She recognized the voice immediately, and whirled around in astonishment to face the silhouette of a horseman, pulling up at the edge of the road to face her.
“Nom de Dieu, but you are an enterprising girl.” The handsome man contemplated her for a moment whilst she drew ragged breaths, and struggled to make sense of his presence here.
“Wait here, if you please.” He then turned the horse and trotted toward the carriage, which seemed ominously silent, a hundred feet down the road.
Epione lifted her petticoat to examine a scraped knee, and tried to decide the best course of action. If she was to be murdered like the other émigré victims—which had been her first, panicked thought—it seemed an overly-complicated scheme; not to mention she’d been casually left alone by the handsome man, who did not seem to be at all menacing. Caution was advised, though; she’d already been deceived once this evening by the maidservant, and she should not assume he was dedicated to her well-being, either. It would be best, perhaps, to start walking along the hedgerow on the off-chance that someone would appear; if there was a witness, surely he wouldn’t do her in, if this was his intent.
With this course in mind, she began walking quickly along the shadows of the hedges, heading toward the city lights that glowed in the distance and stumbling occasionally on the uneven ground. She continued as rapidly as she was able for several long minutes, then heard the unmistakable sound of a horse, falling into step behind her. Balling her hands into damp fists, she kept walking, and hoped he wasn’t planning to shoot her where she stood.
“Where do you go?” The question was casual.
“I don’t understand any of this, and it would be foolish to trust you.” Mainly she was trying to convince herself of this; paradoxically, she did trust him. And it had occurred to her—in retrospect—that he must have substituted his own man for the driver and commandeered the carriage, which was surely something to be toted up in his favor.
They walked in this fashion for a small space of time, he silent behind her as she doggedly made her way forward, her path ahead lit only by the moonlight. Finally, the silence was broken. “It is a long way; may I beg to give you a ride, Mademoiselle?”
The meek tone made her smile, despite everything, and she stopped to face him, although it was too dark to read his expression. As he hadn’t attempted to abduct or murder her whilst he had a clear chance, she was cautiously optimistic that this was not his aim. “What will happen to the maidservant?”
He bowed his head. “You will not see her again, je vous assure.”
She glanced over toward the deserted roadway, and debated what was best to do. “Will you tell me what this is about?”
Again, he bowed his head—this time regretfully. “Not as much as you’d like.”
They faced each other for a moment, and then she sighed and gave in, since there seemed little choice, and she could feel a blister coming on. “D’accord; what should I do, Monsieur?”
“Here.” He leaned down and held out a hand, then pulled her up so that she scrambled to sit behind him on the startled horse, who did not help matters by nervously backing in a circle during this procedure.
After she was aboard and the horse settled, he asked, “Have you any injuries, Mademoiselle?”
“A few scrapes is all, nothing to signify.”
He prodded the horse forward, and after hesitating for a moment, she put her hands at his waist, since there seemed nowhere else to put them. “I must thank you, I think. Who was she, and where was she taking me?”
“It is not yet clear, but we will find out.”
This remark did not bode well for the supercilious maid, but Epione found she could dredge up little sympathy. “Was I to be killed, like the others?”
He thought about this for a moment, one hand on the reins and the other at his hip, as the horse settled into a rhythmic walk. “Perhaps, perhaps not; I think there has been a misunderstanding.”
Epione sighed in exasperation. “So you keep saying. What sort of ‘misunderstanding’? The maid said she knew my mother, which means she knows who I am.”
But this disclosure was not news to him, and he answered easily, “Yes, they all know who you are.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Who is ‘they’? Madame? Who else?”
“Too many—it would be best to trust no one.”
“Except you, I suppose?”
“Except me,” he agreed.
“And who—exactly—are you?”
He shook his head with regret, the hooked sword at his side clicking against the saddle in rhythm with the horse’s steps. “I would rather not say. The less you know, the better it is for you, sans doute.”
Epione decided she would take a direct approach on the forlorn hope the maddening man would answer a question, for a change. “If they know who I am, then does all this have to do with my sister?”
“I would imagine.” Absently, he flicked the reins.
“Then it seems unlikely that it is all just a ‘misunderstanding’,” she countered. “I would like to know who you are, and who my cousin is, and what-is-what; I will not take the chance that I am aiding the enemy.”
This statement seemed to garner his lackadaisical attention, and he glanced over his shoulder at her. “Who is the enemy?”
Her brows rose, as she contemplated the back of his head. “Napoleon, of course. Why? Who do you think is the enemy?”
He tilted his head so that she had to move her own head so as to avoid his hat’s brim. “I agree the enemy is Napoleon—among others.” He paused. “I will tell you one ‘what-is-what’; your cousin is not your cousin.”
But this was no revelation to Epione, who ventured to look around her escort’s shoulder so as to view the road ahead, now that she was getting used to the experience. “No, I know he is not. I like him, though—despite how nearly everything he tells me is a lie. And I imagine he is not truly the heir to my father’s estate in France, is he?”
“No. Instead, you are the heiress.”
She laughed aloud at the absurdity of this. “Am I indeed?”
“C’est cela. You must not marry your cousin, though.”
Epione found that—once she let go of any attempt to make sense of it—she was rather enjoying herself, walking along on this quiet road, with the horse twitching its ears back to listen to them speak. “No—I did mention that nearly everything he tells me is a lie, didn’t I? Except for the foreign girl who broke his heart, I think.”
Her escort cocked his head in acknowledgment. “The foreign girl, she is not to be trusted.”
So—apparently all the players in this little drama were acquainted, and were indeed working at cross-purposes. It was all very interesting, and she couldn’t help but be diverted, thinking about the foreign-born girl. “That’s what I thought—that even if she agreed to marry him, he could never trust her. I didn’t say it, of course.” She knew she shouldn’t be speaking of such things with this stranger, but it seemed entirely natural, as they rode along the road with her skirts bunched up around her legs, and her hair coming down from its pins.
Apparently, he had no compunction about plain-speaking, either. “You must be wary of him; he seeks to take possession of the land by marrying you—it is very important to him. He may try to seduce you, so as to take your choices away.”
But she shook her head in disagreement. “No; he hasn’t the heart for it.”
“Men always have the heart for it. If I may say so, you are naïve, Mademoiselle.”
She quirked her mouth at this pronouncement, and belatedly decided she should put an end to this rather shocking and improper topic. “Well then, Monsieur—I thank you for your efforts to protect my virtue at the cost of my naiveté.”
For whatever reason, her teasing comment seemed to pierce his amused nonchalance, and his tone became slightly irritated. “Where is your man, in all this? Why is he not the one protecting your virtue?”
A bit startled, she disclaimed, “You are mistaken; I have no man.”
He did not respond, and she thought for one horrified moment he knew her secret—but that was ridiculous; no one knew her secret. Nevertheless, she changed the subject. “Are you seeking to seize the estate, also?”
He raised his head to contemplate the stars for a moment. “It is a fine estate—and the land is in good heart. I confess I am tempted; I have been landless a long time.”
Exasperated, she gave up trying to get a straight answer from him. “Now what is to happen? I cannot return to the shop, yet I must make a living, somehow.”
But his answer surprised her. “You must return to the shop tomorrow, just as always. It is very important.”
This seemed even more farfetched than all the other farfetched things he’d said to her, and she struggled to make a response, torn between disbelief and suspicion. “What on earth will I say, when Madame asks of my visit with the Comtesse?”
He shrugged, clearly amused by her bewilderment. “Quant à ca, you will say nothing. She does not dare ask.”
She contemplated this pronouncement in shocked silence for a few moments. “I am half inclined to flee into the night.”
He shook his head, gently remonstrating. “Do not; you must claim your land in France.”
Eying the back of his head with some skepticism, she ventured, “I suppose you will not tell me why my father’s estate is so important.”
She could hear the smile in his voice. “You suppose correctly—I am surprised you have not learned this by now, Mademoiselle.”
“Well then, will you at least tell me your horse’s name?” She dared to tease him; it had not escaped her notice that he hadn’t offered his own name.
“Blue Fly, is his name. He is an English horse, with no love for Napoleon.”
“I thank him for his service, then.”
He indicated the horse’s ears with a careless hand. “He heeds your voice—do you see?”
“I do. But he is the only one, it seems.”
He placed a hand briefly upon hers at his waist, and chuckled as they walked forward into the dark, starry night.