The jars and bottles crowding the nightstand wobbled when she steadied herself on the table. She spotted an open jar. A quick whiff revealed the presence of cat’s claw, mixed with high quality fats and scented with lavender’s extract and a touch of calendula to ward off the festering. Upon further inspection, she recognized several kinds of aromatic oils to promote quick healing and the laudanum tincture that was most likely responsible for her drowsiness.
The lady’s healers had used nothing but the best ingredients. No wonder her burns were almost healed.
Dragging the linen sheet around her body, she shuffled towards the ornately framed mirror leaning against the far wall. It was a shock to see her reflection in that long, gilded mirror, disheveled, gaunt and half-naked, like a frail, helpless fool.
Lusielle found the sight alarming, because with the exception of the small hand-held mirror her husband used to supervise her when she shaved him, Aponte Rummins refused to allow mirrors in his house. He thought mirrors spoiled women, aiding in the corruption of the feminine virtues he appreciated best—modesty, obedience and humility. Vanity, he’d often said, was a woman’s blight, and he intended to protect Lusielle from the sins it engendered, including pride, arrogance and wantonness.
Ten years she had lived under Aponte’s rule. Ten lost years she would never get back.
Until today, Lusielle had never had the time or the means to examine her body in front of a full-length mirror. Releasing the crumpled sheet, she found her legs too long, her frame too thin and her feet bound in clean bandages. She also spotted a dressing covering her back.
After undoing the knots, the bandages dropped to the floor. Then for the first time she looked—really looked—at her back.
A few crooked welts snaked between her shoulder blades, marking the trail of the lash. Her skin was still red, but it was healing in the spots where the braided whip had broken through. A messy bruise surrounded the mending wound midway down her back. Craning her neck, she spotted the darker pigmentation beneath the bruise, the faint but even outline of what looked like a small pair of butterfly wings imprinted at either side of her spine.
The gods protect her. Her body indeed wielded a mark, just like the lady said!
She suppressed a rush of fear and forced herself to think. Just because she bore a mark didn’t mean that everything the lady and her bodyguard had said was true. Lusielle might come from a modest family, but she was no ignorant wench. She understood that every cauldron cooked a different mix, more so if it entailed the mighty highborn. For reasons she couldn’t yet comprehend, the Lady of Tolone wanted Lusielle gone. Thus the boots and the gold coins.
On the other hand, why stay and run the risk that the lady was right on any count? The most compelling fact supporting the women’s warning was obvious. Her rescuer was a highborn lord. He had no reason to offer Lusielle his protection and no motive to save her life. She could be of no value to him, as she wasn’t highborn and she didn’t command a ransom.
Her husband had repudiated her. Her town had turned her out. Orell had tortured her. The magistrate had condemned her to death. Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem so far-fetched that when it came to her, the grim-gazed lord had no other purpose but sport.
Nothing good could come from staying with these people.
She sensed the danger all around her. Sure, she couldn’t exactly go back home, but staying put offered more risks than advantages. She didn’t understand the Lord Brennus’s actions and she couldn’t even begin to fathom the lady’s motives, but she knew one thing—she had to trust her instincts. She had to leave.
But where could she go?
Lusielle knew she had to have a sound plan if she was going to survive. The last few weeks—no, the last ten years of her life—had taught her a brutal lesson. At sixteen, she had become an orphan and a bride. At twenty-seven, she was equally helpless and sentenced to die.
Despite her best efforts and sacrifices, she was still alone—as helpless, weak and vulnerable as she had been the day her parents died.
She wiped a stray tear from her eye. No more of that. She was done grieving, and she was tired of submitting and conforming.
She was determined to turn disaster into opportunity. To do so, she was going to have to carve out a spot in a world that had thus far refused to make space for the likes of her. She must go to the only place where she might have a chance to survive and maybe even thrive. It entailed a long and dangerous journey with no assurances, and yet it was her best—nay, her only—chance. She just had to figure out how to get there.
Her eyes fell on the money Tatyene had given her, the three gold coins glinting atop the pile of clothing on the bed. They offered a good beginning.
She donned the soft linen shift and put on the ruffled blouse and the brown skirt. She rolled the woolen hose over her bandaged feet and up her legs, then put on her boots, lacing them loosely. Because of her rescuer’s care, she’d had precious time to heal, and thanks to the healers’ efforts, her feet were mostly mended.
No excuses. This had to be done.
A quick look out the window confirmed that the rain continued to fall. She had no choice but to steal one of the oiled leather mantles she found conveniently hanging on a peg. Her eyes fell on the tray of food standing in the corner. Her stomach grumbled. After downing a bowl of broth in one long gulp, she crammed a buttered roll in her mouth and stuffed her pockets with a bunch of grapes and a few slices of ham. She would have to eat the rest on the run.
She went to the door, but hesitated at the threshold. She had a plan and she intended to follow it. But what if this Lord Brennus was simply a nice man, the last one remaining in this cruel, crazy world?
She recalled how well he had cared for her throughout their journey. Had it not been for him, she would surely be dead. Even her lips remembered his kiss’s generosity. After enduring Aponte’s harsh mouth, she fancied she could easily distinguish cruelty from kindness and voracity from honest passion. No, despite the lady’s warning, she couldn’t think of the lord who had rescued her as mean, vicious or brutal.
What if he had seen through the injustice that had befallen her? What if he had been the only person—highborn or not—willing to help her in the face of that injustice?
The risks were too many to ignore and the danger was too real to forget, but the Lord of Laonia had saved her life and even as she fled him, she didn’t have to join the ranks of the ungrateful.
Lusielle retraced her steps and rummaged through the desk. Although there was no parchment in the drawer, she found a quill and a little pot of ink. She jotted down a few words on her unlikely page and then made for the door.
She slipped out of the chamber into the corridor. She had no idea which way to go, but she had to find a way out of the seed house. Voices and lively music echoed from below. A carved stone banister overlooked the main hall. She peeked between the railings.
The Lord Brennus sat on a high-backed chair next to the Lady of Tolone across from a fire roaring in the massive hearth. He sipped from a gilded horn, listening to the lady’s chatter but staring at the fire with a sullen expression.
Lusielle could tell that he had recently arrived from whatever foray he had undertaken as his boots were wet and muddy. He was still wearing his greaves and his muscled breastplates, impressive leather-and-bronze chest armor strapped at the shoulders and embossed with swirling vines.
The music began. The tall, gaunt man who had accompanied the lord during their trip came into the chamber and joined some of the warriors who had ridden with them on the way to Tolone. She recognized their faces from her journey’s hazy memories.
Other people loitered in the great hall, the lady’s servants and retainers, talking, gaming and eating from the trays on the tables. The lady’s fierce-looking bodyguard stood behind her chair. Even the guards wearing Tolone’s colors seemed to linger in the hall, until a couple of them got up and headed for the stairs, reminding each other loudly that it was time to make their rounds.
Lusielle froze as the guards mounted the first few steps. She wasn’t sure, but she thought that the lady had spotted her, hiding behind the railings.
Without delay, the lady rose to her feet and announced that she was going to dance in ringing tones. Every eye in the room fell on the stunning woman, including those of the guards, who paused on the stairs to watch their mistress.
Lusielle crept down the hallway. She didn’t really trust the Lady of Tolone or anyone else for that matter, but she was determined not to waste her best chance to escape.