ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 23

 

     While Epione struggled with the realization she’d been spirited away from England, Lisabetta stepped up behind her, and offered helpfully, “You see? You no longer have any choice in the matter.”

     Overwhelmed with dismay—and still reeling from the disclosures about her erstwhile husband—Epione made a rapid calculation. It was evident she was in the power of some very determined people, and that she had little hope of prevailing on her own—although it was impossible to believe de Gilles was not at this very moment masterminding her rescue.  Unless—unless Lisabetta was right, and he was using her for his own ends, which frankly did not bear thinking about. In the meantime, she should find out as much as she could, so as to have something to report to de Gilles when she saw him again.

     I will see him again, she assured herself, digging deep into that well of courage she’d discovered within herself.  I must believe it, or I will go mad, in this upside-down life I’ve been living.

     To this end, she calmly faced the other girl, and asked in a practical tone, “It is past time for some answers, I believe. What is the price I must pay for holding title to this place? Come—be honest with me, Lisabetta.”

     But apparently, no revelations were yet to be made. “Your task is to be pretty, and stay quiet—you will see.”  Lisabetta shielded her eyes with a hand and gazed at the château, the sunlight reflecting off the blue-tiled roof. “You are very lucky, sans doute.”

     “I must disagree,” Epione retorted crossly. Dieu, her head hurt, and the bright sun did not help.

     The other girl made a derisive sound, as she indicated the château with a gesture.  “You are a very foolish girl, to long for your poor little rooms, and your poor little shop.”

     “Apparently, that was all a sham, and even if it weren’t, that is not what I long for.” Epione immediately wished she hadn’t brought up the subject; truly, she should learn to hold her tongue.

     But the other girl only shot her a surprisingly sympathetic glance.  “Ah—I know you are dévastée, but you will have much with which to console yourself—you will see.”  

     But before Epione could question her further, she heard footsteps approaching on the deck, and turned to behold the astonishing sight of Monsieur Chauvelin—the tailor—who strode toward her, his cape billowing out to the sides in the sea breeze. As he halted before the two girls, Epione considered the extent of the fraud that had been perpetuated upon her and wondered, with a sinking heart, why the enemy felt it was all worthwhile.

     The tailor’s expression was unreadable.  “Mademoiselle.”

     Epione almost corrected him, but then realized with a small pang that she was, indeed, still a mademoiselle. For some reason, this unhappy thought engendered a spark of defiance so that she found the wherewithal to affect a chiding tone.  “I am very unhappy with you, Monsieur.  I thought you stood my friend.” 

     But if she expected to hear an apology, she was to be disappointed. “You misconstrued the situation, then.”  The man regarded her, and she was struck by the coldness that lay behind his eyes—it reminded her of something—of someone; the wisp of a memory eluded her. 

     He glanced at Lisabetta. “We will go ashore as soon as possible; we are too exposed, here.”

     “Exposed to whom?” asked Epione with her new-found defiance. Presumably the British—it was not inconceivable that they were watching Desclaires, as they were already aware it was the focus of some sort of plot having to do with the pretenders to the French throne.  Heartened by this thought, she allowed her gaze to scan the cliffs, but saw no signs of life.

     The tailor seemed surprised that she’d made so bold as to inquire, and replied in a brusque tone, “You will ask no questions.” Then, with a jerk of his head to Lisabetta, “Take her below while we lower the skiff—and do not allow her to come on deck again until I give the signal.”

     Annoyed by such high-handedness, it occurred to Epione that she had some leverage in the situation; they were being very careful not to hurt her—even Lisabetta—which indicated they needed her cooperation, for some reason.   Lifting her chin, Epione rebuked him coldly. “You will mend your manners, Monsieur, or I will not allow you to enter my château.”

     Lisabetta smothered a small gasp, as the man turned to stare in outrage at Epione for a moment, obviously fighting an urge to berate her. After a visible struggle, he bowed stiffly. “Your pardon, Mademoiselle.”

     Ah, thought Epione, a bit surprised, despite herself; apparently I do hold sway here, and they dare not cross me.

     “You will come this way, s’il vous plait,” said Lisabetta in a forced-polite tone, very unnatural for her. “We will wait below, while the men prepare to go ashore.”

     “You will be shown every courtesy,” Chauvelin offered abruptly. “Please do as she says.”

     Thoughtfully, Epione accompanied Lisabetta back to the cabin below, trying to decide what was best to do so as to prepare the ground—so to speak—for an eventual escape.  To this end, she decided she should not openly defy Chauvelin in the future, for fear he’d place her under lock and key; she’d little doubt that he was so inclined, but that his hand was stayed, for some reason. She’d gained the uneasy impression that he was not a man to cross, despite his guise as a tailor. “Tell me, why are you afraid of him, Lisabetta?”

     The other girl took a quick glance over her shoulder and replied in a low tone, “I am afraid of no one. But you will do best to stay out of his way.”

     “Why is that—is he dangerous? And does he stay at Desclaires? Do you?”

     “Mais oui; we will all be very merry together.”  This said with heavy irony, as the girl shut the cabin door behind them.

      In light of the circumstances, Epione could be forgiven for voicing her exasperation. “You are of all things annoying, Lisabetta, and the British were foolish not to have you bound, hand and foot. They’ll not make the same mistake twice.”

     Rather than respond, Lisabetta scowled and sank onto the bunk, so that Epione was left with no place to sit. “Tell me; what do you know of this—this Darton?” The name was pronounced as though it were a bitter taste in her mouth.

     “He seems to be a fine swordsman.” Epione leaned against the door, happy to have a chance to needle the other girl, for a change. “No doubt he keeps a collection of severed locks in his waistcoat.”

     Her color rising, Lisabetta raised her chin in scorn.  “Such an insult is only to be expected from such a one.”

     “Such a one as what?” 

      The girl shrugged, pretending disinterest, as she smoothed her skirts. “He sails with de Gilles—par conséquent, he is a rogue.”

      This seemed a trifle harsh to Epione—especially considering that Lisabetta herself was a rogue of the first order, and so she allowed her skepticism to show. “Why do you say they are rogues?  They both seem very gentlemanly to me, and not at all unmannered. Perhaps you are mistaken about—about the rumors of slave-trading.”

      But the girl only lifted an amused brow, and adopted the tone of a mother consoling a disappointed child. “Perhaps.”

      Sensing an opportunity to do some delicate probing, Epione offered, “I don’t know much about Monsieur de Gilles, in truth.  You said he doesn’t take any lovers.”

     “He doesn’t need to.” The girl’s dark eyes slid toward hers.

     “I don’t understand any of this,” Epione confessed, biting back her impatience, “So I am not certain what you mean.”

     Her eyes alight with a trace of malice, the Frenchwoman explained, “I mean he trades prostitutes from Algiers—young girls.”

     Epione stared at her for a long, shocked moment, and then knew with complete certainty that whatever game de Gilles was playing, it was indeed a game. The idea that he was selling young girls into prostitution was so out of character with what she knew of the man that paradoxically, it was a tale too far.  They may all believe that he did something unsavory to earn his living—indeed, Tremaine had hinted as much—but it was a false front, or a false flag, as these people styled it.  De Gilles was true, she knew it; and the fact she’d been mistaken about Sir Lucien—and was a bit naïve about this whole spying business—could not shake this certain conviction. He was true, he wanted to be married to her, and he was coming; she had only to be patient.

     Hiding her intense relief at this epiphany, Epione only replied, “I am certain you are mistaken, Lisabetta.”

     The other girl shrugged. “He needs Desclaires as another landing place on the coast—that is why he courts you.”

     Epione pointed out pragmatically, “Then—if it is true, and his purpose is to control my land—why would he dupe me with a false priest?  If we aren’t truly married, then he doesn’t hold Desclaires.”

     “Because he wants you to believe you are married,” she replied as though speaking to a simpleton. “But you must not blame yourself—as I said, he is trѐs, trѐs beau.” Absently, she fingered the shorn curl at her throat.  “As for me, I prefer men who are not so pretty.”

     “Mr. Droughm?” Epione ventured, remembering the earlier conversation about this new-married man.

     But Lisabetta was not to be drawn on this topic, and replied rather shortly, “Droughm is none of your business.”

     Despite the rebuke, Epione offered with feminine sympathy,   “Believe me, I know how you feel; you wish him every happiness, but nonetheless you wish he could have been happy with you, instead.”      

      But this tack was apparently recognized for the lure that it was, and the other girl only replied in a mocking tone, “If you have de Gilles in your bed, then you have nothing to complain about.”

     Swallowing a retort, Epione decided that it was of all things unfair that she hadn’t, in fact, had such an opportunity, and then tried to concentrate on her new resolve to discover as much as she was able.  “I am not complaining, I am simply pointing out that oftentimes things do seem to work out for the best.  After all, if you had stayed with Mr. Droughm you would not have met Mr. Tremaine.”  Belatedly, Epione realized this was not the best subject to raise, as apparently Tremaine was yet another suitor who had thrown Lisabetta over.

     But Lisabetta only laughed aloud. “Peste, but you are ingénue.  Robert serves his own purposes, just as I do.” 

     Despite having been rebuffed at every turn, Epione persevered.  “I will concede that no one is who they seem.  But I would be very curious to find out what all this has to do with who wears the crown of France.”

     On hearing this remark, the other girl’s flippant attitude disappeared, and she lowered her voice, her tone very serious.  “You must do as you are told, and ask no more questions, or it will be the worse for you. Do you understand?”

     For a moment, Epione had the impression the girl was sincerely concerned about her safety, and so she nodded, a bit taken aback.  But this rare glimpse of compassion disappeared when Lisabetta tossed her head.  “If you are killed, I will be in terrible trouble.”

     Exasperated, Epione felt as though she were right back where she started. “Why?  Why do I matter so much?”

     “Because no one is what they seem,” Lisabetta reminded her, and Epione was forced to be content with this cryptic comment.