ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 33

 

     “You will not insult my guests, Monsieur Chauvelin.”  The Comte turned to de Gilles, and tilted his head in apology. “I beg your pardon, Seigneur. Pray do not regard him; he is irréfléchi.”

     “Not at all; we are already acquainted.”

     Surprised, Epione glanced at him, but he did not expound on the nature of the acquaintanceship, and instead only stood at his ease, sighting down the barrel of his pistol with a practiced eye.  

     “Might I have a word with you, Monsieur le Comte?”  Chauvelin’s words were clipped.

     “You may not.”  The Comte drew himself up, and regarded the other man with barely concealed distaste.  “You must not interrupt your betters, Monsieur.”  

     At the rebuke, the other man’s face became mottled with fury, but the situation was defused as de Gilles backed away with a deprecatory gesture. “Pray do not regard me, gentlemen; I must step away, to give Mademoiselle d’Amberre instruction.”

     Lisabetta promptly twined her arm around his.  “But you neglect me, CapitaineI will be happy to obey any instruction you may give.”  This, with a great deal of meaning.

     Chuckling, the Comte shook a playful finger at the Frenchwoman. “For shame, Mademoiselle; you are not to interfere with the Seigneur and his affianced bride.”

     With Lisabetta clinging to one arm, de Gilles gallantly offered the other to Epione, and as he escorted both women away, he remarked over his shoulder, “A gentleman must never disappoint an importuning lady, Etienne.” 

     His amused host nodded in masculine approval, then reluctantly turned to confer with the tailor, who drew the Comte into a corner of the room, and began speaking in low, urgent tones.

     “Save me from tedious men,” remarked Lisabetta, to no one in particular.

     De Gilles paused at a small distance from the damaged chandelier.  “Acquit me of tedium, Lisabetta.”

     The girl rested her amused gaze upon her escort. “No—you are never tedious, Capitaine. Perhaps we should sail away together; I’ve a mind to see Algiers.”

     “You will not be rude to Epione, Lisabetta, and I do not have fond memories of sailing with you.”

     Annoyed, the other girl shot Epione a resentful glare. “I will be as rude as I wish; she has thieved my knife.”

     With a quick, practiced gesture, he bent to pull the knife from his boot. “I will trade it for the loan of your pistol to Epione.”

     Lisabetta promptly lifted her skirts to insert the knife in her garter, exposing a great deal of leg as she did so.  “Peste; she is in more danger with a pistol than without one, I think.”

     Epione watched this byplay in confusion, but held her tongue; it seemed evident de Gilles and Lisabetta were fencing with one another, and she should not interfere—hopefully her betrothed would resist the girl’s half-hearted attempt at seduction, which seemed a bit strange, considering she’d already been with his friend Darton this same night.  It was equally puzzling that de Gilles seemed so complacent, despite the ominous, low-voiced argument between the two men who stood in the corner of the room.  I feel as though I am a player in a play, she thought, but I do not know my lines.  I suppose I should watch for my cues from de Gilles, and improvise as best I can.

     “Come, Epione; I will show you how to shoot my pistol, instead.” Standing behind her, he drew her close against his chest, and bent his head next to hers as he positioned the weapon in her hands. “Close this eye, and focus on the sight—just so; do you see it is aligned?”

     “Oh yes; I see. Shall I try to fire it?”

      “Not yet,” he murmured into her ear. “I may have need of it.”

     “Oh,” she replied, and tamped down a flare of alarm. She realized that Darton stood at a small distance, a hand on his hip and apparently at his ease, but with the Comte and the tailor within his line of sight.

     De Gilles straightened, and motioned for Luci to re-position the wafers, but he had to ask twice, as Luci was daydreaming, her blank  gaze resting on the two men in the corner.

     Epione’s listened to de Gille’s voice, as he explained how the firing mechanism worked, and congratulated herself for staying calm, considering it was unclear if crossfire was about to erupt at any moment.   

     Apparently her apprehensions were unfounded, because Chauvelin approached the group, with the Comte following behind him, the older man’s hands clasped behind his back in an attitude of satisfaction.  The tailor paused before de Gilles, and bowed his head in a curt gesture. “I must beg your pardon, Monsieur; I was taken by surprise, to behold you here.”

     “I was equally surprised to behold you,” de Gilles assured him.

     “I understand there is to be a wedding,” the man continued with a strained smile.  My congratulations.”

     De Gilles inclined his head toward Epione in gracious acknowledgment.  “Mademoiselle d’Amberre has agreed to make me the happiest of men.”  

     The tailor turned and bowed. “My best wishes, Mademoiselle.”

     She nodded with good grace. “Merci, Monsieur.”

     The Comte made an apologetic gesture. “I’m afraid I must ask if it is possible to advance Mademoiselle d’Amberre’s wedding from two days hence to tomorrow evening, instead, so that our attentions will be wholehearted, with no other distractions.”

     De Gilles deferred to Epione. “Is this acceptable, ma belle?  You will have less time to change your mind.”

     “It is indeed acceptable,” she agreed, not certain if she should or shouldn’t.

     The Comte beamed, pleased to have resolved the scheduling issue. “Then it is settled; we will hold the wedding tomorrow evening, at the chapel.”  He paused, and then shrugged elegantly in apology. “I’m afraid it will of necessity be a small affair.”

     “Exactly to my liking,” de Gilles assured him. “I am not one for ceremony.”

     “You must give me away, Monsieur le Comte—I would be so very honored.” Epione thought to flatter the man, so as to aid de Gilles in his campaign, but found her betrothed had other ideas, as he turned upon her in mock-outrage.

     “He is to stand up with me, Mademoiselle; he cannot do both.”

     His eyes alight with pleasure, their host held up his hands. “You must decide—I cannot risk expressing a preference.”

     Taking her cue, Epione conceded with a smile. “Then I will defer to your long-standing friendship.”  Apparently, de Gilles wished to stay within arm’s length of the Comte, which seemed an ominous sign.  She could only hope there would be a real priest, this time, and no abductions—although truly, she didn’t have high hopes.

     “Then it is settled; an evening wedding, with a late supper to follow.”

     “Excellent.”  De Gilles seized a bottle of champagne from the serving table.  “Come, Mademoiselle; we will celebrate in our rooms.” 

     Taking his leave, he lifted Lisabetta’s hand and kissed it, as the girl fell into a deep and ironic curtsey, and then he led Epione to bid good night to their host, who took both her hands in his and gazed upon her with deep emotion.  “I am of two minds,” he pronounced in a low voice. “If only your beloved sister were here, to witness the great honor bestowed upon her family.”

     “We will light a candle to her memory, during the ceremony,” de Gilles pronounced in a serious tone. “It is only fitting.”

     Overcome, the man ducked his head and waved them away, so de Gilles took the opportunity to grasp Epione’s hand, and lead her out into the silent hallway.