ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 30

 

     An hour later, Epione lay well-content in his arms, relishing the novel sensation of his body pressed against hers, and aware on an elemental level that she’d made the right decision, to be here with him.  His lovemaking had been patient, and careful—until he’d reached a point where he couldn’t be patient and careful any longer, and she found she rather liked crazed and lustful much better; being careful and patient hadn’t paid off very well for her, thus far.  “Don’t die,” she said aloud.

     “If you say.”  He tightened his arms around her.

     “I worry that I’d become as mad as the Comte.”

     “He is a little mad,” de Gilles conceded, and kissed her temple.

      “He wishes to bring Marie’s remains here; I wouldn’t be surprised if he installed her corpse in his chambers under glass, like in the fairy tale.”

     He let out a breath that stirred the tendrils of her hair. “He has a weak mind, I’m afraid, and is easily led by those who use him for their own purposes.”

     There was an underlying significance to the words, and she frowned into the darkness—the candle had long ago guttered out. “You understand what is afoot? I confess I am at a loss.”

     “I can guess.”

     She waited for an explanation but didn’t receive one, and into the ensuing silence she noted, “You are a very vexing slave-trader, my friend.”

     He shifted his body to so that his mouth rested in her hair, his voice muffled. “I am not a slave-trader, but you mustn’t tell anyone.”

     “Are you the true King of France?” She was only half-joking; it was evident the Comte thought so.

     He chuckled softly, the sound vibrating against her head. “No.”

     “Then you are very mysterious, for someone who is not the true King of France.”

     She felt him release a breath into her hair. “I am not accustomed to trusting anyone.  I learned this lesson—as a necessity—when I was very young.  I don’t know, Epione, if it will ever change.”

     Yes; he wore himself like a cloak because beneath it all, he was an angry man.  Perhaps she could help ease his anger somewhat—it had certainly seemed so, a few minutes ago. “I will not fault you for it, Alexis.  I am much the same, in my own way—although I certainly have been proved too trusting in the past two days.”

     “You cannot be faulted, either. The enemy has gone to great lengths.”

     She gently pulled at the hair on his chest. “As have you, I think. Despite their best efforts, you have surfaced to openly marry a noblewoman—one whose family was involved in the L’ange d’Isaac plot—and raise the dreaded possibility of even more pretenders.”

     He covered the hand on his chest with his own. “You are as clever as you are beautiful. I am a lucky man.”

     She smiled, and rubbed her face against the side of his chest; it had already occurred to her that this had been his plan all along—to marry her, and thereby thwart whatever plot these carefully laid plans were advancing.  In the end, she didn’t much care what his motivation was; that he served the greater good seemed evident, and if it wasn’t a love match on his part, it was fast becoming one on hers.  She would gladly do his bidding, in the hope there were to be more nights just like this one.

     They lay together for a moment in silence, and then he fingered the ends of her hair, and said quietly, “The Josiah is the Comte deFabry.”

     So—apparently he had decided he could trust her at least with this, and she struggled to make sense of it. “The story of the King in disguise?”

     “Yes—although it is not the King who will be disguised.  I was looking at it the wrong way around; instead it is the Comte who will be disguised as the King.”

     Surprised, she propped up on her elbows to stare at him in the darkness. “But—to what purpose? I can’t imagine anyone would confuse him with Louis the Eighteenth; the Dauphin’s uncle is old and stout.”

     “No; instead they will use him to pose as Louis Philippe, the Duc d’Orleans. He and deFabry are cousins, and very similar in appearance. The Comte will pose as the pretender, instead. ”

     Her brow knit, she traced a finger on the silken pillowcase and thought about this. “I suppose that explains why he has changed the way he styles his hair—and he has lost weight.  She paused, struck. “And he wants me to call him ‘Louis’.”

     “Does he?  Then I suppose we are confirmed.”

     With a gasp of realization, she met his eyes. “Yes—yes, it does make sense. The murders in London—they’ve killed everyone who could recognize him, and call him out as a fake; that’s the connection between the victims.  My mother and my stepfather, also.”

      Softly, he whistled, and propped a bent arm beneath his head. “De vrai?”

     “Yes.” Blowing out a breath, she turned to sink back into the pillows. “And I remain alive only because he was infatuated with Marie, and wouldn’t let them kill me.”

     He lifted a hand to kiss it. “Then he has my unending gratitude, despite everything.”

     But try as she might, Epione could not make any sense of this complicated plot.  “I don’t understand; what is their object, in disguising the Comte to pose as one of the pretenders?  The mighty British—and the mighty Monsieur Tallyrand—are adamant that the royal Bourbon line should be re-established to rule France.  As a practical matter, the Duc d’Orleans has no chance.”

     “Then we must suppose they are betting that the pretender will indeed become King.”

      He said it very matter-of-factly, but the idea was so incredible that she had trouble framing the appropriate question, and was suddenly chilled, despite the warm body next to hers.  “There is—you think there is an assassination planned? They will assassinate the Dauphin’s uncle?”

     “I can think of no other end to these particular means, and neither can the British spymaster.”

     This comment was so unexpected that she turned her head, to stare at him in amused amazement. “Never say you unbent enough to collaborate with him?”

     Her companion chuckled at her teasing. “He was more surprised than you are.”

     With a small fist, Epione gently punched at his chest. “You must tell me, Alexis; it is of all things unfair that I do not know—I am at the center of these matters, after all.”

     Shifting his weight, he brought both arms around her, so that his voice could be heard above her head. “I was very unhappy that you had disappeared, ma belle.”

      She could only imagine his fury, when she had not emerged from Madame Reyne’s rooms.  “And?”

     He sighed with mock-regret. “And I’m afraid I launched myself at the British spymaster, and pinned him to the street, with my knife at his throat. I told him if he did not tell me everything he knew, and immediately, he would bleed to death on a shabby street in Soho.”

     All admiration, Epione breathed, “Oh—oh, Alexis; I wish I could have seen it. And his men afraid to seize you—it does have its benefits, to be thought the true pretender.”

     “Bien sûr.” And so between us, we pieced the puzzle together—or what he was willing to reveal—and mutually decided that it would be best if I renewed my acquaintanceship with the Comte.”

     Epione lay in silence for a moment, digesting these revelations. It made complete sense; otherwise, there was no earthly reason why these rather ruthless people would be catering to the slightly-mad Comte, to the point of indulging his demand to give this fine château to an obscure milliner. And de Gilles was apparently betting that he could be just as powerful a counter-influence on the Comte as the dead Marie, and perhaps he was right—although it remained to be seen. But there was something strange, here—something that didn’t make sense. Knitting her brow for a moment, she finally realized what it was. “Why would Napoleon’s people seek to put a pretender on the throne, just when Napoleon is poised to escape?”

      “That,” he said with a grave tone, “is what remains to be discovered.” 

     An answer presented itself to Epione. “Perhaps they will assassinate the Comte, while he poses as Louis Philippe, so as to clear the way for Napoleon to be re-crowned as emperor.  If both Louis the Eighteenth and the Duc d’Orleans are dead, France will be running out of pretenders, and the time would be ripe for Napoleon to step forward.”

       But her companion shook his head. “Then why go to the trouble of replacing one with the other—why not simply assassinate both men outright?  I will guess that they need deFabry to perform some task for them; then he will be killed in his turn—one such as he is too great a risk, to pose as King for any length of time.”

      Gently, she ran her hand over his chest, feeling the wiry hair spring up beneath her palm, and wishing they were a normal couple, facing only the concerns one encountered in a normal life.  “How does placing a false pretender on the throne aid Napoleon’s cause? Do they think he will surrender France to Napoleon?”

     “That is what I mean to find out.” 

     Lying there in the peaceful silence, she reluctantly stated the obvious.  “You are at risk. We are both at risk—we can identify the Comte as an imposter.”

     But he was not alarmed by this leap of logic. “Not yet, we aren’t. They need his cooperation, and so dare not touch you—not until he’s done whatever he is needed to do for them.”

      She shook her head in wonder. “How strange it is; I am still alive, due to spiteful Marie. It seems my sister did grant me a boon, even if it stemmed from an adulterous affaire.” Reminded, she added, “Don’t forget we must warn Sir Lucien.”

     “Yes—I will see to it.”

      Before any further discussion on the subject could be held, there was a soft knock on the door, and in an instant, de Gilles had sprung out of bed to approach the door from one side, his pistol held before him, as he gestured for Epione to slide down behind the bed.

    “It is I,” Darton’s voice could be heard. “I am alone.”