ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 13

 

     “Monsieur de Gilles.”   Epione approached to take his coat, and glanced with some surprise at the two women, who had abruptly risen to their feet and now stood in silence, their gazes fixed upon the newcomer.  Why, they are surprised, or confused, or—or something, she thought, and to cover the awkward moment, she advised him with a gesture, “As you see, I have visitors.”  No point in pretending they were customers—even they weren’t pretending, anymore. 

     “Mademoiselle d’Amberre.”  He took off his gloves, as the silence stretched out, his gaze resting for an assessing moment on the women, who’d not moved. They seemed wary, or uncertain, perhaps—it was all very strange. “Mr. Tremaine is here,” she advised in an undertone.

     But the gentleman’s attention was already fixed upon Tremaine, who now stood in the workroom entryway and seemed every bit as uncertain as the two women. So much for the theory that de Gilles only appears at night, thought Epione; apparently, he has shocked everyone into immobility.

     But on the heels of this thought, de Gilles strode swiftly across the room and drew his sword with a quick movement, the tip coming to rest against Tremaine’s throat.

     “Oh,” exclaimed Epione, at a loss.   No one else moved.

     Slowly, Tremaine spread his hands in a placating gesture.  “No need for this, Captain—you can’t blame us for taking an interest.”

     The sword did not waver. “How many do you have at hand?”

     “Just me.”

     De Gilles made a derisive sound.  “Tell the others to stand down.”

     After a long, silent moment, Tremaine announced, “Stand down.”

     To Epione’s astonishment, a man appeared from where he’d been hidden in the back entryway, holding his hands out to the sides, and moving slowly.

     “Why, what were you about?” Epione accused Tremaine in outrage. “Honestly—”

     “I wanted to take you to a safer place, Epione—”

     “Mademoiselle is Miss d’Amberre, to you.” De Gilles pressed the sword point into the other man’s throat, for emphasis.

     “Perhaps we could discuss the matter,” suggested Tremaine in a reasonable tone, holding his head very still. “Miss d’Amberre is too vulnerable, here.”

     Epione suppressed the urge to diffuse the situation, and instead stood quietly to await events.  Astonishing, to think that Tremaine’s friendly visit was yet another attempt at abduction, and even more unsettling to observe this strange tableau, where even though de Gilles was clearly outnumbered, no one made any attempt to move against him.

     De Gilles glanced at her thoughtfully, and then nodded. “Very well. Send them away, and we will talk.”

     At a word from Tremaine, the two women and the man silently slipped out the back, and as the door closed, de Gilles withdrew his sword point. “You are unharmed, Mademoiselle?”

     “Yes, Monsieur. I thank you for your intervention.”  This with an accusing glance at Tremaine, who did not register it because his own gaze was fixed upon the Frenchman.

     Tremaine slowly lowered his arms. “If you would, please tell me what your interest is in these events, Captain.”   

     “I am afraid I must decline.  Where were you planning to take her?”

     Tremaine appeared to weigh his options, and then disclosed, “We thought to take her into protective custody—the Fleet Prison, if necessary.  Her safety is our paramount concern.”

     De Gilles chided with a hint of scorn, “Nonsense. You were going to use her as bait, and risk her.”

      “Can you blame us?” Tremaine returned, exasperated. “Good God, man; you know what’s at stake—and there’s no denying she’s a lynchpin of some sort.”

     “She knows nothing of this.”

     “No,” Tremaine agreed. “But she’s a lynchpin, nonetheless.”

     “I never meant to be a lynchpin,” Epione ventured.

      Tremaine spread his hands in a placating gesture, but then with a swift movement, lunged to grapple with de Gilles, trying to pin his sword arm. 

     De Gilles promptly parried by taking up the cordial bottle with his left hand, and smashing it on the edge of the work table, brandishing it in the other man’s face, so that Tremaine quickly retreated, and the odor of apricots filled the room. 

     Watching them in openmouthed alarm, it occurred to Epione that de Gilles seemed very comfortable brandishing a broken bottle, and that perhaps she should find out a bit more about him before she plighted her troth. 

     “Come aside, Mademoiselle,” the Frenchman said as though nothing usual was going forward. “You must not allow him to seize you.”

     “Look,” said Tremaine, holding out a cautioning palm to de Gilles. “You must see that I cannot allow you to leave with her, and you must know that there are men posted outside.  Be reasonable—we shouldn’t risk her injury.”

     De Gilles glanced out the window, and was seen to consider this aspect.  “It is not I who risk her injury, but very well; we will come with you. First, though, I will have your promise that I may accompany her, and have a voice in what is to happen.  Mademoiselle d’Amberre is my fiancée.”

     The tension in Tremaine’s frame seemed to dissipate. “I see—yes; that changes things, I suppose.  I’ve not the authority to make such a promise, but I imagine there will be no resistance; certainly your wishes will be consulted.”

     “Can we trust him?” Epione asked, peering out at Tremaine from behind de Gilles’ shoulder. After the various threats and bottle-breakings, she was rather surprised that they were not going to battle their way out the door.

     Any response, however, was curtailed by the ringing of the bell over the door.  Both men immediately drew back, on either side of the doorjamb that led to the workshop, as Tremaine drew his pistol.   

     Into the sudden silence stepped the tailor from across the way, his boots echoing on the wooden floor. “Mademoiselle?” he ventured, and then—upon observing her—stepped closer to observe the broken glass with what Epione could only consider remarkable sangfroid. “I beg your pardon if I intrude—I heard a commotion.  Have you need of assistance?”

     Epione’s companions made no effort to reveal themselves, and so she faltered, “Yes—well; as you see, I’ve broken a bottle, but there is no need for the authorities, Monsieur Chauvelin. I very much appreciate your concern.”  Then, to curtail the next question, “I expect Madame at any time.” 

     Her visitor met her eyes for a moment. “I see; I will take my leave, then.”

     He bowed his way out, and for a moment, Epione stood, struck; there was something about the tailor that gave her pause—he reminded her of something—

     Her distraction was interrupted by Tremaine, who sheathed his pistol, and said, “Quickly, then, let us go and—”

     But de Gilles interrupted the other man by reaching out to lay the candle down on the pool of cordial, which was spreading across the worktable. With a whoosh, the table was promptly set aflame.   

     Cursing, Tremaine grabbed a bolt of silk, and began beating at the flames as de Gilles grasped Epione’s hand and pulled her on a run out the front door.   

     In an urgent tone, her companion advised, “Stay close to me.”

     “Oh—oh; I don’t have my shears—”

     She heard him laugh, despite the perilous circumstances, as he pulled her out into the street, the rain coming down hard as smoke began to billow out of the shop behind them. Shouts of concern could suddenly be heard, and in the chaos, Epione could see two men in work clothes, purposefully striding toward them from opposite directions, their right hands hidden beneath their coats—surely de Gilles didn’t think to battle them here, in the crowded street?  The situation seemed hopeless, and as Epione ducked her head against the rain, several things happened at once; a loud report to their left made the two men turn in that direction, drawing their pistols as de Gilles placed a protective arm around her.  Epione then realized that a rider on a horse was bearing down on them from the opposite direction, and with a mighty heave, de Gilles tossed her aloft, to be caught around the waist by Monsieur Darton, as he thundered past.