The True Pretender
After several unsuccessful attempts, Epione finally managed to open her eyes, aware on some level that she was not in a good place, and that it was important to fight this woolly-headed feeling.
She was in a dimly-lit room with a low, wooden ceiling which smelt of—something she should recognize. Closing her eyes to regroup, she identified the sharp, tangy scent as the river Thames. She then became aware of a slight rocking movement, and came to the conclusion that she was stowed on a ship of some sort.
Opening her eyes again, she took a tentative inventory, and her last coherent memories came flooding back as she licked her lips, which were cracked and dry. At least it appears that I am not slated to be murdered, she thought—although at long last, the enemy has managed to devise a successful abduction; practice made perfect, apparently.
There was no porthole, although it appeared to be daytime, judging from the small slivers of light that filtered in through the wooden planks. She could hear muffled men’s voices outside, as she tentatively moved her arms and shifted her head, to ease her stiff neck. De Gilles was proved right; Lisabetta was playing a double game, and it would probably be best to make an immediate escape. She could leap into the Thames, as long as the shore was in sight—she wasn’t a strong swimmer, but she could certainly shout for help; the wharves were always busy.
Carefully, she placed her feet over the side of the narrow bunk and stood, one hand on the upper bunk, waiting until her legs steadied themselves and her head stopped spinning. She then crept over to the cabin door, holding her breath and lifting the latch quietly. Immediately she heard a man’s voice call out in French, and realized the door was locked. It would have been too easy, she thought with resignation, and headed back to sit on the bunk so as to await events. I will make a plan—I will pretend submission, and then when their guard is down, I will fling myself into the river. I am wearing breeches, so it should not be too difficult to make an escape, and surely, surely, someone will come to my aid.
Buoyed by this thought, she listened to the footsteps approaching outside the cabin door, until it was unlatched to reveal Lisabetta, who came within, accompanied by a man who secured the door after them. Epione sat docilely, and complained, “You are unkind, Lisabetta. I did not look for such a trick from you.”
As the man turned to face her, Epione was astonished to recognize the priest who’d married her to de Gilles. With a leap of her heart, she carefully didn’t allow a reaction, but felt much heartened; it did seem as though succor was at hand—she need only look alive for any secret instruction the man might give. That her husband was not going to take this latest piece of skullduggery in good part went without saying—she’d be rescued; she need only keep a cool head. In the meantime, she should probably learn as much as she could, so as to be useful when the inevitable rescue occurred.
“Be careful what you tell her,” cautioned the priest. Although Epione tried to catch his eye, he did not seem inclined to acknowledge his hidden role, or to grant her any assurances.
“She will do as she is told,” Lisabetta replied, as she assessed Epione with a critical eye. “She is not one to put up a fight.”
“I threw the gin bottle at you,” Epione reminded her, stung by this dismissal and thinking it very unfair. “And I believe Mr. Tremaine will be very disappointed in you, Lisabetta.”
The Frenchwoman slanted her an amused look. “Robert was never my object, imbecile—you were. And now I have bruises that I do not thank you for.”
Exasperated, Epione swept aside the tendrils that had escaped from her braids. “I don’t understand why it is so important to abduct me—tiens, if Napoleon wanted Desclaires, there was nothing to stop him from simply seizing it.”
At this observation, the priest cast an alarmed glance at Lisabetta, and Epione was reminded that she should not give away what she knew—she never seemed to learn this lesson, but honestly, it was hard to keep it all straight, when one’s head hurt so.
Lisabetta lifted a flask of water, and offered it to Epione. “You will see—there is a gentleman who wishes to meet you, only. Nothing to be concerned about.”
As this seemed palpably untrue—in light of recent events—Epione could only glance at her with a healthy dose of skepticism as she lifted the flask and drank; the water was most welcome, and she felt more like herself almost immediately.
The other girl then continued in what was, for her, a remarkably placating tone. “You will be given many fine clothes—and many jewels, also. You will like this, eh bien? It will be quite a change, for a shop girl like you.”
But Epione could not like the implied insult. “I make some very fine hats, I’ll have you know.”
“And men,” the other agreed with a sly glance.
“There have been no men,” corrected the priest. “De Gilles dupes her, is all.”
“Everyone dupes her,” Lisabetta pointed out fairly. “You cannot single out de Gilles.”
But Epione could feel the blood drain from her face as she assimilated the import of the conversation. “You—you are not truly a priest?”
“Only when the occasion warrants.” The man smiled. “Deo gratias.”
Suddenly feeling a bit faint, Epione faltered, “You—you did not marry us? I am not married to Monsieur de Gilles?”
“Bien sûr que non,” confirmed Lisabetta, almost kindly. “That one—he never even takes a lover; he certainly would not take a wife.”
Rather stupidly, Epione looked from one to the other. “I don’t believe you—he has not duped me; he believes we are married.”
“He is a slave trader,” Lisabetta informed her bluntly, and removed the water flask from Epione’s nerveless hands. “Whatever he tells you is not the truth.” In an apparent attempt to soften this blow, she added, “You cannot be blamed for being so stupide—he is très, très beau.”
Completely shocked, Epione tried to gather her scattered wits. “C’est pas vrai—I don’t believe you.”
Lisabetta made a clucking sound with her tongue. “Fah—you are very naïve, I think. But you are better off with us, you will soon see. You are a very lucky girl—like the princess, in a fairy story.”
Epione dropped her head into her hands, rubbing her eyes with her palms so as to have a moment to assess. That she’d been dealt blow upon blow could not be argued, but nonetheless, she needed to get to shore, and now she had a ready excuse to feign submission. “I feel a bit faint,” she murmured from behind her hands. “What you tell me is so very shocking—please; I must lie down.” If they would leave her alone, perhaps she could find something to pick the lock, in the best de Gilles tradition.
Lisabetta regarded her for a moment, then said to her companion, “Best report to him that she is awake, and ask for instruction.”
“Who is ‘him’?” With a show of weakness, Epione lay down, watching the faux-priest depart through the cabin door. She tried to look wan, which was not so very difficult, given the circumstances.
“Enough; you ask too many questions.” Absently, the other girl lifted the flask of water.
This is probably my best chance, thought Epione, before whoever is in charge makes an appearance. Girding herself, she waited until the girl was drinking, then sprang up to shove her into the cabin wall with as much strength as she could muster. Whirling to dart through the door, she then pelted up the companionway steps two at a time, in a mad scramble to make it to the deck.
“Do not hurt her,” shouted Lisabetta from below, but the startled sailors on deck needed no such instruction, because suddenly, Epione had abandoned all thought of escape. Instead, she came to a sudden halt on the open deck, and stared before her in stunned disbelief.
There were no wharves, no Thames, and no potential allies; the schooner was anchored in a cove along a stark coastline, fronted by imposing limestone cliffs. Towering above them was a massive château, the walls running along the cliffs, and the graceful towers glinting in the sunlight, as the waves crashed against the rock below. Epione had no memory of the place, but nevertheless, she recognized it immediately. “Desclaires,” she breathed.
“Welcome back to la belle France,” Lisabetta offered in an ironic tone.