Secret Thrust: The Decoy Ch. 05-06bygottschalk03©
The carriage finally rolled to a halt before the sweeping steps of the viceroy's palace in Brussels, a vast baroque panoply of pillars and arches peppered at every corner with foliage carved in stone and peeping cherubim. Looking at it, d'Audierne reflected how likely it was that every infantile angel represented a flesh and blood spy peering through some crevice at the unwary visitor. By the time d'Audierne stepped out onto the cobblestones, Annabelle had resumed her persona of the silent serving girl and Elise smothered him with unladylike kisses and made him give a thousand promises that he would visit her at once should he ever pass by her family's estates. Then, he faced the stair, began to ascend, and the carriage rattled away to its unpunctual rendezvous with the Comte de Hainault and Pierre's reward for his silence.
They had paused along the way so that he could change into a spare outfit he had kept stowed in the dead gelding's saddlebags. Pierre, of course, had been thoughtful enough to pack d'Audierne's possessions atop the carriage before driving on that morning. So as he ascended the palace stairs, d'Audierne no longer wore his simple traveling clothes, but an impressive costume of blue velvet with a broad golden sash across his chest, with no trace of the prior night's bloodshed.
Footmen at the gate took his name with polite bows, and after a few moments led him inside, through marble halls and pillared galleries until he found himself in a parlor of modest size, decorated in every corner with the same, rather repellent, shade of orange. A steward at hte parlor door asked his business, and he said plainly, not having heard any warning to the contrary, that he carried a message from Mme Serena de la Corte of Liege for the Viceroy.
"If m'sieur would give me the lady de la Corte's message, I will assure that it reaches his Grace," the steward simpered, but d'Audierne cut him off.
"You will forgive me sir, but Mme de la Corte was quite plain that she wished her message delivered to the viceroy by my own hand. It will be brief, I assure you; I bring no petitions to trouble his Grace."
"As you wish, sir. Please take a seat and his Grace will see you at his first opportunity. Is there anything you would wish for your refreshment?"
D'Audierne asked for wine and found a seat on a settee in the parlor as the steward pranced away. He was sure the bastard would be just as happy to let him wait in that parlor three or four days for an audience; though a gentleman, d'Audierne was no one of significance in this court, only a hired swordsman carrying messages for a provincial noblewoman. Well, it didn't matter much. He was just a decoy, was he not? Well, if the viceroy and his effeminate steward wished to feed a decoy at their own expense for three or four days for nothing, that was their affair.
He was not alone in the parlor, but four or five others were there, murmuring quietly to one another about some meaningless court gossip and nervously watching the door that led to the inner chamber. His wine came, and d'Audierne sipped at it absent-mindedly, thinking of the various charms of Elise and Annabelle and the lady de la Corte.
Something, however, kept tugging at the back of his mind. Suddenly it came into focus for him; why had Mme de la Corte given him a ring to deliver to the viceroy, if he were indeed only a decoy? Would it not have been enough for him to ride to Brussels carrying nothing in particular, and simply to turn aside when he reached the palace and go drink in one of the city's excellent taverns? Did the ring carry some message after all? Or was it perhaps intended to send a message – perhaps a false one – to de la Corte's Grignoux enemies? Had she intended for him to be killed and the ring taken? He remembered her impassioned warning to watch for enemies on the road and clung to it with desperate hope that she had been sincere... but could he be sure?
As he sat on the settee thinking, the door to the viceroy's audience chamber slammed open, the footman who ought to have opened it calmly having been shoved out through it. D'Audierne looked up to see an expensively-dressed nobleman storm out past the footman.
"I have been insulted, sir! Insulted!" he shouted over his shoulder at unseen persons in the audience chamber. "You shall learn not to scorn the de Guise so lightly!" And without a further word, he angrily stomped across the parlor and out, a servant materializing to fall in at his heel. The footman at the door recovered himself, and the room returned to its hushed murmurs.
It was perhaps half an hour later that the footman emerged once again and called d'Audierne's name. He stood and followed the man into an elegantly-appointed study, at which the Spanish Governor, the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, sat with a number of servants and advisors at hand. The Cardinal-Infante was dressed as a military man, despite his rank in the church, with short-cropped hair and a close-trimmed mustache and beard. He eyes were dark and shrewd as he watched d'Audierne come in. His clothes were sensible, of fine material but plain and unadorned style, far the opposite of the fawning courtiers in his parlor. He was not more than thirty years old, energetic in his movement and speech, and yet lines of stress marked his eyes and brow. D'Audierne warmed to him immediately.
"I understand that you bring something for me from the Lady de la Corte, m'sieur," the Viceroy said without ceremony.
"It was milady's wish that I give you this, your Eminence," d'Audierne replied, and drew the golden ring from his pocket. The governor held out his hand and took it from him.
"Did you have trouble on the road here, m'sieur?" he asked.
"Of a sort, milord. Four ruffians contested my passage of the road. Two of them, at least, will not have the opportunity to do so again."
"I see. Well, M'sieur... what was your name again?"
"D'Audierne, your Eminence. Bertrand d'Audierne, at your service."
"Well, M'sieur d'Audierne, it seems you have done us a valuable service."
"In truth, milord, the lady de la Corte gave me to understand that I was to be a mere decoy to assure the safety of the true messenger. But she was most specific that I give you that ring."
"Indeed she did. But the game was a little more subtle than that." The Viceroy sighed, and continued in a tone that suggested he had little liking for such intrigues. "She told the same thing to her other messenger, as well as the hour of your departure. He arrived here some hours ago, and apparently none the worse for wear, apart from a little dust off the road."
"It would appear, then, that I succeeded as a decoy, milord."
"It might appear so. But she gave her enemies every opportunity to mark the identity of both her messengers, meeting you both in public and... well, and so forth. Yet only you were attacked. What does that tell you?"
D'Audierne thought hard. A dark idea began to take shape in his mind. "I might venture to suggest, your Eminence..." he began, "I might suspect that milady's enemies chose not to attack the other messenger and chose instead to attack me..."
"Exactly! Which can only mean that the other messenger is secretly in league with the Grignoux and exploiting Mme. de la Corte's affections in hopes of winning intelligence from her. Otherwise they would have attacked you both. That was why she entrusted the second errand to a swordsman of your reputation, M'sieur d'Audierne, to assure that the second message would win through. She had her suspicions of her faithless lover already. As did I. This little charade has proven it."
D'Audierne pondered that. "I am pleased to have been of service to your lordship," he said carefully, not wishing to commit himself to politics if it could be avoided.
After hearing the details of his ride from Liege, the Viceroy had one of the silent secretaries hand him a small purse of silver coins and released him. He assured d'Audierne that he could consider himself at leisure for the time being, and that news of his safe arrival would reach Liege by a different courier. He could return at his own will for the time being, if no other duties required him.
D'Audierne found himself free in the city. He had long gone without service in any of the armies that devastated Europe in the wars that had gone on for over twenty years already without cease. For the prior five years he had made his way here and there, acting as a courier for some and a bodyguard for others, or simply living at the grace of this or that great household where his reputation was known. The viceroy's pouch of silver would last him a couple of weeks at least if he were careful with it, and Mme de la Corte might add to it.
For the moment, though, all he wanted was a room and a drink. An inn was not hard to find, and he soon settled into a table with a bottle of red wine and a platter of food. His thoughts were interrupted when a young man approached him and sat down at his table. The newcomer was blonde, handsome, and rather rakish, fashionably dressed with a rapier at his hip.
"Who are you?" d'Audierne asked, intrigued by the stranger's boldness in joining him without so much as asking.
"I know who you are," the stranger said. "You are the Breton swordsman, Bertrand d'Audierne."
"Indeed," d'Audierne replied, "and at present, I am the Breton with an unanswered question."
"My name is Cheval," the young man answered.
"Ah," d'Audierne said simply. This was Serena de la Corte's latest lover, whom he had heard of but never met. "What brings you to Brussels, then, M'sieur Cheval?"
"I am meeting with some... some friends here, M'sieur. Nothing official, you understand."
"And what do you want with me?"
"My friends told me that you were in town, M'sieur d'Audierne, and they said that they would be most interested in meeting with you. You may find things to talk about of mutual interest. Will you come along with me? I will take you to them."
D'Audierne sipped at his wine, and looked long and hard in Cheval's eyes. "No," he said finally, I don't think I will."
"But why not, m'sieur?"
"For three reasons. First, I think I have some idea already who your friends are, M'sieur Cheval. One of them, at least, represents the Duc de Guise, if not Cardinal Richelieu himself, does he not? Secondly, I believe I already had the pleasure of meeting four other friends of yours on the road here. Two of them were lucky men... the other two were not."
Cheval stiffened in his seat, and his face began to flush red. "And you're third reason?"
"Because, M'sieur Cheval, I am a gentleman who holds the love of a woman sacred, no matter how freely she gives it. And so I am not a man who would betray a woman who bestowed so precious a gift on me. That would be most base of me... don't you think?"
Cheval's face was bright red with shame and anger, and he leapt to his feet. "You speak most unwisely, sir," he spat. "You could have made powerful friends tonight. As it is...." Without finishing his sentence, he spun on his heel and strode from the inn.
D'Audierne sipped his wine and returned to the delicious duck on his platter.
His room was on the third floor. By the time d'Audierne retired to it, his head was beginning to swim with wine and the throbbing in his head which had returned from the blow he took there. He stripped his clothes off and collapsed into the narrow cot without ceremony, and slept like a log.
At some point in the night, a faint sound roused him. He looked up from his pillow to see a dark shape standing over him. Then a sudden explosion burst in his skull, and he knew no more.
D'Audierne awoke in darkness. The first sensation was of sore limbs and an aching back; then he realized that there was cold iron enclosing his wrists. He was lying down on a hard floor of packed earth, and his hands hung in the air over him; he shook them experimentally, and heard the chill rattle of chains. He pulled hard, but they did not come free; the chain between his manacles apparently was firmly fixed to the wall above him, perhaps though a ring set in the stone.
He realized next that he was naked, as he had fallen asleep in the inn the night before. Only a thin woolen blanket covered him, and that had partly fallen aside as he had shifted in the night, so that he shivered with the cold. He could see nothing.
He waited in silence. Apparently Cheval's threats had been more immediate than he had given the boy credit for. Well, there was nothing for it now other than to try and rest and preserve his strength and see what they had in store for him. Perhaps there would be a chance to escape, if he were ready to take it.
After some time, he heard the heavy tramping of booted feet on floorboard above him; they passed into silence, but only a few minutes later there was the squeak of a key in a lock, and a door in front of him swung open. The figure that opened the door carried a candelabra; its light was dim, but d'Audierne's eyes, having become used to the dark, were temporarily blinded again by even this slight brightness. When they finally adjusted, he saw that the lantern was carried by a heavyset man with a short thick sword at his belt; behind him, Cheval entered.
"Ah, M'sieur d'Audierne," Cheval cried cheerily, "I am glad to see you awake!"
"Where am I?" d'Audierne grunted. His throat was parched.
"Oh, in a safe place," Cheval grinned. "I wished to resume our conversation of yesterday in more... favorable surroundings."
"Return my sword and I'll be happy to meet your friends, Cheval... one by one or all at once, I don't care."
"Ah, yes, well, I'd be happy to do that, except first I would need something from you, M'sieur."
"And what would that be?"
"Your word, m'sieur... your word to support our cause."
D'Audierne did not reply.
"You see, I know that you are a gentleman of exceptional honor," Cheval continued. "I know that if you give your word to us, we can count on you as a loyal confederate."
"And what is this cause of yours, Cheval?"
"It's quite simple, really... to rid these lands of the Spanish yoke."
"You speak like a Dutchman. Have you converted to Calvinism, then?"
"Aha! No, certainly not, m'sieur... I'm rather fond of the true mass and of the love of women... No sir, we do not seek to join the rebels of the north provinces... we wish to join our natural countrymen in France!"
"Well go there, then. Or to hell, it's all the same to me. France is not a hundred miles away. I suspect you would find your trip to hell even shorter."
"Do you not listen to the rumors, m'sieur d'Audierne? The Cardinal Infante has had enough of his meddling brother in Spain. He is ready to come over and make this the French Netherlands, rather than the Spanish! Why should we be subject to the rule of a king a thousand miles away? We are Frenchmen by language, by blood, why should we not join our destinies to the glorious power of our brothers?"
"Speak for yourself, Cheval. I am not French, I am Breton, and we see the court of maggots around Richelieu rather differently. Perhaps you will too, someday, if this insane plan of yours ever comes to fruition. Anyway, I hate politics."
"Will you not reconsider?"
Cheval's face, hitherto rather animated, turned as cold as the earthen floor of the cellar. D'Audierne looked around and realized, with a certain ironic humor, that it was a wine cellar. "Well, m'sieur," he responded. "Perhaps you will with time. I will see that you are fed, and not starve you to death... but perhaps you will be more understanding when you realize that your own freedom will only come when you agree to help us find ours." And he turned on his heel and stalked out. The heavy set candle-bearer followed and the door locked, returning d'Audierne to darkness.
Idealistic young idiot. Certainly no Frenchman believed the patriotic drivel he was spouting. Who had filled his head with it? Ahhh... no doubt that French diplomat, de Guise. They were trying to stir up bloodshed, and hotheads like Cheval were just the sort they needed.
D'Audierne waited in the dark and silence for time he could not count before a new creaking sound came from the lock on the cellar door. A moment passed, and then a new light appeared. He knew enough to close his eyes before the pale beams of candlelight reached him, then opened them slowly to see what Cheval had to say now.
But it was not Cheval.
It was a woman, in the full flush of her youth, dressed in a simple linen shirt and woolen skirts... a serving girl. Even in his soreness and thirst, d'Audierne noticed the swell of a promising bosom under her shirt and the light step of youth as she came toward him. In her hands was a tray, holding the candle as well as a mug of water and a bowl of simple food.
"If you please, sir," she said, trying not to stare at his nakedness, "I've been sent to bring you food." Her face blushed crimson as she approached him. Despite his discomfort, d'Audierne noted her deep cleavage with appreciation as she bent near to lay the tray down beside him. She stood up hastily to go.
"Mam'selle," d'Audierne called to her quickly as she scuttled across the cellar floor. She paused.
"Do you have the key to my chains? I cannot eat like this, my hands are fettered."
She turned to look at him, and d'Audierne realized that she had been so abashed at the sight of him that she not thought of how he would eat with his hands chained to the wall three feet off the ground. Apparently Cheval had not troubled himself with such a detail, either.
"I'm sorry, m'sieur, but I don't have the key. I don't think the master would give it to me, either. I am only a serving girl."
"Is it your intention only to torture me, then, with water I can't drink and food I can't eat?"
She paused over that. She had a pleasant, open, honest face and d'Audierne could tell that, whatever the harshness of her master, she was a kind spirit. "Milord Cheval asked me to bring you food," she replied. "I don't think he wished to torture you. You must have done something wicked, though, for him to have you chained up like that."
"I will tell you of my wickedness if you stay to listen, mademoiselle. You may find things are not as you assume. In the meantime, I would not say you had brought me food if you did not let me eat it. Can you not get the key?"
"Indeed, sir, I cannot... milord would be wroth with me!" She exclaimed. The girl seemed genuinely upset at the dilemma. "If you wish, perhaps I could..."
"If m'sieur would permit it, I could... feed you."
Oh, that would be lovely, d'Audierne thought to himself. Hell and damnation, to be spoon-fed like an infant! But even as he thought of it, he thought again of the enticing bosom of the girl, and reconsidered. If he were to be chained and humiliated, he should at least get what nourishment he could... and if those charms would be there to amuse him in the meantime, that might be some compensation for the indignity...
"Very well, girl," he sighed. "Let's try that."
She smiled shyly, came back to him, and knelt on the floor next to him. First she took the stoneware mug and raised it to his lips. He tensed, expecting her to spill half of it down his chest, but she tipped it gently and he drank a cool draught that cleared his throat and his mind. Just one drink of water and he felt life surging back into his limbs.
"Easy, now," she said, "and we'll do just fine."
She took a spoon from the tray and began to feed him then. There was nothing in the bowl but a thick porridge, but she had salted it and it was still hot at least. After a few ravenous bites, he slowed down. All the time d'Audierne was conscious of the expanse of her chest above the low neckline of her dress and the luscious curves hidden within. Then, between mouthfuls, he began to tell her the story of his errand of the last few days, of Serena de la Corte and then, quite frankly, of her master's treachery to his lover.