ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 21

 

     Upon their arrival at Epione’s rooms, de Gilles opened the door with his lock-picking tool which was much appreciated, as Epione’s key was still in her pelisse pocket, hanging on the hook in the milliner’s shop.  Once inside, the spymaster’s men began a thorough search, as she stood by with de Gilles and Darton, who watched them without comment.  Epione could not help but remember that morning when she had left this place—now it seemed so long ago—unaware that she was not only to be married, but that she would participate in various perilous adventures before she returned.

     Secretly, she was rather proud of setting the tavern on fire, and of throwing the pail at the attacker, but she was aware that one did not boast of such things, and so only congratulated herself silently.  Why, I believe I have suddenly become courageous, she thought with an inward smile; I suppose one never knows of what one is capable, until one is put to the test. 

     And, of course, it helped to have an incentive. She glanced at de Gilles, whose gaze remained fixed on the Englishmen, and felt a rush of affection. I am good for him, she thought; and he is good for me—how fortunate that we found each other, despite everything.

     She allowed her gaze to travel around her rooms; the sparse, rented furnishings, and the window sash that had to be soaped occasionally so that it wouldn’t stick.   I’ll not miss this, she realized without a shred of regret. He is right; I was hiding away from the world and all its hardships, and now—now, I’ve been pulled from my self-imposed exile with a vengeance, and in the process I’ve plucked up a measure of courage from somewhere—perhaps I inherited something from my father, after all.

     “We form an unholy alliance, mon ami.”  Darton leaned against the settee, and spoke quietly to de Gilles.  “I confess to uneasiness.”

     “No more than I,” de Gilles answered in the same tone, watching the Englishmen as they carefully went through Epione’s armoire. “But someone is manipulating our actions, and so I think it best we ally with them—in this, at least.”

     “Do we stay at their safe house?”

     “No,” de Gilles answered. “I am not such a fool as that.”

     The other offered a small smile, and nodded his head. “Bien sûr.”

     “Where do we go?” asked Epione, hoping she would be permitted to pack a bandbox, at least.  One could be courageous, and yet be better-dressed.

     Her husband tilted his head in apology. “I’m afraid it is best you not know, ma belle.”

     “Because I am not good at this—this business, I suppose,” she admitted with good grace.  “But I am improving, I think.”

     “En effet, Madmoiselle; you have accomplished what was once considered impossible.” Darton bowed. “I stand in awe.”

     “Do not tease my wife,” de Gilles admonished absently, as he watched the others, and Epione reflected with some sympathy that it must have come as a surprise to Darton that de Gilles—so long a bachelor—had married in such a rush.  Indeed, it would not be surprising if the man was a bit resentful, but thus far he had maintained his rather insouciant good humor, for which she was grateful—she wouldn’t want to come between her husband and his longtime friend.

     There was a timid knock on the door, and all the men immediately drew their weapons and stepped behind door jambs and furniture, braced for battle.  His own weapon drawn, de Gilles stepped to the door to lift an edge of the lace curtain with a finger. “It is the landlady, only.”    

     “It is Madame Reyne,” Epione explained to everyone, in apology. “She is rather a clinging vine.”

     “Answer, then,” suggested the spymaster, “else she’ll call the Watch.”  He signaled to his men to step into the bedchamber, out of sight.

     Epione answered the door, and was only recalled to the fact she was dressed as a boy when the woman’s eyes widened in shock, and she couldn’t seem to find her voice.

     “Good evening, Madame.”  Epione cast about for an explanation for her appearance, but found herself at a loss—she had not improved as much as she’d thought, in the thinking-on-one’s-feet. 

     Abashed, the woman nervously clasped her hands before her.  “I beg your pardon, Mademoiselle, but I heard voices and saw the light—so late—and I thought, what if it is the murderer?”  

     “Madame,” de Gilles offered, stepping forward and taking the woman’s hand.  “I must assure you that I am not the murderer.”

      “Oh—oh, certainly not.”  The woman gazed into de Gilles eyes, and seemed to lose her train of thought.

     Epione was suddenly aware that de Gilles’ presence was not helping matters, at least in her landlady’s eyes. “You must congratulate us, Madame; we were married, this day.”

      Astonished, the woman’s rather slack mouth hung open for a moment. “Is that so, Mademoiselle? Well yes—yes, of course; my best wishes.”  Thinking over this unexpected development for a moment, she arrived at the inevitable conclusion. “You’ll be moving out, then.”

      Epione found she did not wish to deceive the woman, and so admitted, “Yes. But I will make certain you are paid to the end of the month.”

      Assimilating this blow, her landlady paused only a moment, and then said briskly, “Ah, well; I am happy for you, Mademoiselle, indeed I am.” 

     The woman’s gaze traveled behind Epione to rest on Darton in confusion, and Epione hastened to explain, “We must—we must catch a ship, I’m afraid, and so the gentlemen are helping me pack up my things.  I am so sorry if we caused you any alarm.”

      “Oh—no, not at all.”  The woman’s face suddenly brightened. “I’ve just now baked soda bread, and you must take it for your journey—it will keep for at least a week, one would think.”

      “Merci, Madame.” De Gilles glanced over at Epione, and moved his head ever so slightly toward the stairway. 

     Taking her cue, Epione stepped through the door, and joined the woman on the landing.   “That’s sounds lovely, Madame.  Shall I fetch it?”

      With almost palpable reluctance, the woman tore her gaze from de Gilles, and then turned to accompany Epione.  “Yes. And I have a tincture powder which is helpful for seasickness—I’ll put some in a packet for you.  It wouldn’t do to be seasick, on your honeymoon.”

      Epione met de Gilles’ laughing glance for a brief moment before agreeing, then gently steered the woman down the stairs, whilst de Gilles stood in the doorway above, watching them.

      “Such a handsome gentleman,” the older woman marveled, as she led Epione through her own sitting room, and back toward her kitchen.  “How did you meet?”

     I should have a plausible tale, Epione realized, as this is certainly not the last time I will be asked such a question“Our families were acquainted.”  This had the benefit of being true, and did not require an exposition on the perilous state of the French monarchy.

      “Oh—I didn’t realize you had any family, Mademoiselle.”

      Sidestepping an explanation, Epione gently corrected her, “It is ‘Madame’, now.”

     “Madame,” the other woman pronounced with a smile, and made a gesture toward a cupboard. “The bread is there on the shelf—would you reach it for me? Then I needn’t fetch the step.”

     Thinking that it was not very sensible to store bread out of easy reach, Epione opened the cupboard and as she did so, she was suddenly grasped from behind, a hand pressed over her mouth and a strong arm pulled tight around her, lifting her from the floor.

     Struggling in horror, she clawed at the hand on her face, breathing in a sickening smell from the cloth that was wadded therein.  As she was quickly carried toward the back, the last thing she remembered was Lisabetta, shaking out a blanket, and warning, “Careful; it is more than my life is worth if she is injured.”