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Authors: Pierre Pevel,Tom Translated by Clegg

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BOOK: The Cardinal's Blades
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Almades rose, the iron rapier in his left hand.

“I am a fencing master,” he said.

“In Spain, perhaps. But not in France. Not in Paris.”

“Spanish fencing is as worthy as French.”

“Do not force us to deal with you, monsieur. There is to be no question of a duel here. We are four, and you are alone.”

“Then let us even the odds.”

Under the gaze of the provost, who did not understand the implications of this sentence, Almades placed himself in the centre of the courtyard, still holding the old iron rapier in his left hand …

… and unsheathed his own steel rapier with his right.

“I await you, messieurs,” he said, whipping both his blades around and up to the vertical three times.

Then he placed himself
en garde
.

The provost and his three apprentices deployed themselves in a semi-circle and pressed their attack at once. In a single flurry Almades pierced the shoulder of the first apprentice, the thigh of the second, ducked to avoid the iron bar of the third, straightened up and slashed the armpit of this last assailant while turning, and completed his move by crossing his rapiers to seize the provost’s throat in the scissors formed by his two sharp blades.

No more than a few heartbeats had passed. The apprentices were out of the fight and their provost found himself at the Spaniard’s mercy, paralysed by shock and fear, hesitating to even swallow with the blades placed against his throat.

Almades allowed a handful of seconds to pass and allow the provost to take full stock of the situation.

“Tell he who sent you that he is rather a poor fencing master and that what I’ve seen of his science, as displayed by your performance, makes me laugh.… Now, get out.”

The humiliated provost retreated from the courtyard, along with his entourage of apprentices, one of whom, his thigh drenched in blood, had to be supported by the other two. The Spaniard watched them limp away, sighed, and heard a voice behind him say: “My congratulations. The years have not dulled your skills.”

He turned to discover captain La Fargue standing there.

A twitch of the eyelid was the only sign that betrayed Almades’s surprise.

* * *

They took a table in the near-empty inn. Almades ordered and paid for a jug of wine, which would deprive him of dinner later, then filled their glasses, pouring three times in each case.

“How did you know where to find me?” he asked.

“I didn’t.”

“The cardinal?”

“His spies.”

The Spaniard swallowed a mouthful of wine while La Fargue slid a letter toward him. Richelieu’s seal was stamped into the red wax seal.

“I have come,” said the captain, “to bring you this.”

“What does it say?”

“That the Blades have returned to the light of day and they wish for your return.”

Almades took in the news with a slight movement of his head.

“After five years?”

“Yes.”

“Under your command?”

The captain nodded.

Almades mulled this over, keeping his silence while twisting his signet ring around, over and over, in series of threes. Memories, not all of which were happy, flooded into his mind. Then he gave his current surroundings a long sweeping glance.

“You’ll need to buy me a horse,” he said finally.

15

 

In Paris, the vicomte d’Orvand’s coach left Marciac, as he requested, on rue Grenouillère, or more precisely, in front of a small, cosy house which had no real distinguishing features compared to the rest except that it was known to locals as Les Petites Grenouilles (“the Little Frogs”). Being familiar with the neighbourhood, the Gascon knew he would find the front door closed at this hour of the afternoon. So he went around to the rear and climbed over a wall, before crossing an attractive garden and entering the house through a low door.

He walked soundlessly into the kitchen where a very plump woman dressed in a skirt, apron, and white bonnet had her back turned to him. He approached her on tiptoe and surprised her with a sound kiss on the cheek.

“Monsieur Nicolas! Where did you spring from? You almost scared me to death!”

“Another kiss, to win your forgiveness?”

“Be off, monsieur. You know very well that I have passed the age where such gallantries—”

“Really? And what about that handsome, strapping carpenter who curls his moustaches on the doorstep every time you go to the market?”

“I don’t know of whom you speak,” replied the blushing cook.

“Now, now … where are the young ladies?”

“In the next room.”

Moments later Marciac made his appearance in a bright and elegantly furnished room, where he immediately attracted the notice of four pretty young ladies who were sitting about in casual dress. The first was an ample blonde; the second was a slim brunette; the third was a mischievous redhead; and the last was a Jewish beauty with green eyes and dusky skin. The blonde read from a book while the brunette embroidered and chattered with the other two.

Armed with his most roguish smile, Marciac bowed, doffed his hat with a flourish, and exclaimed: “Greetings, mesdemoiselles! How are my charming little frogs?”

He was welcomed with fervent cries of joy.

“Monsieur Nicolas!”

“How are you—?”

“It’s been so long—!”

“Do you know how much we’ve missed you—?”

“We were worried—!”

The eager young women, relieving Marciac of his hat and sword, made him sit on a divan.

“Are you thirsty?” asked one of them.

“Hungry?” asked another.

“Desire anything else?” asked the most daring of the lot.

Marciac, delighted, accepted both a glass of wine and the demonstrations of affection that were lavished upon him with such good grace. Teasing fingers roamed over his chest and toyed with his shirt collar.

“So, monsieur Nicolas, what do you have to recount for us after all this time?”

“Oh, not much, I’m afraid.…”

The young women made a show of profound disappointment.

“… merely that I fought a duel today!”

This news produced rapture.

“A duel? Tell us! Tell us!” the redhead cried, clapping her hands.

“Before anything else, I must describe my adversary, because he was rather formidable—”

“Who was he? Did you kill him?”

“Patience, patience.… If memory serves me, I believe he was almost four measures tall.”

A measure was equal to two metres. They laughed.

“You’re mocking us!”

“Not at all!” Marciac protested in a joyful tone. “He even had six arms.”

More laughter.

“And to complete his portrait, I should add that this demon came straight from hell, had horns, and breathed fire from both his mouth and his ars—”

“And just what is going on here?” demanded a voice which rang with authority.

A heavy silence fell. Everyone froze, while the temperature in the room seemed to fall by several degrees. Marciac, like some Levantine pasha in the midst of his harem, found himself caught with one little frog on his right, one to his left, another kneeling at his feet, and the last perched on his knee. He attempted a smile, which only worsened the delicate situation in which he had been surprised.

Gabrielle had just made her entrance.

She had shimmering strawberry-blonde hair and was one of those women who are less striking for their beauty—however great—than for their imperious presence. A gown of silk and satin emphasised the perfection of her skin and the spark of her royal blue eyes. Tiny wrinkles had begun to appear at the corners of her eyelids over the passing years—lines which usually denote experience, as well as a certain penchant for laughter.

But Gabrielle neither laughed, nor even smiled.

Icily, she took in each detail of the Gascon from head to toe, as though he were a muddy dog who threatened to ruin her carpets.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to pay my respects to your little frogs.”

“Have you?”

“Uh … yes.”

“Then you can go. Goodbye.”

She turned on her heels.

Marciac extricated himself, not without difficulty, from the divan and its little frogs. He caught up with Gabrielle in the corridor and detained her by the elbow, but, when skewered by her deadly stare, promptly released his hold.

“Gabrielle, my beauty, please.… One word—”

“Don’t you dare speak to me. After that nasty trick you played, I should have you beaten! … Ah, actually, that’s an idea.”

She called out: “Thibault!”

A door—leading into the front hall through which visitors to the house normally passed—opened. A giant dressed as a lackey appeared, who seemed at first astonished and then delighted to see Marciac.

“Hello, monsieur.”

“Hello, Thibault. How is your son, the one who broke his arm in a fall?”

“He has recovered, monsieur. Thank you for your concern, monsieur.”

“And your littlest one? How is she?”

“She cries a great deal. She’s teething.”

“Just how many children do you have, exactly?”

“Eight, monsieur.”

“Eight! Well, well, you know your business, my lusty chap!”

Thibault blushed and dropped his gaze.

“Have you finished?” Gabrielle asked in a frosty voice. “Thibault, I am not pleased.”

When he looked at her without comprehension she had to explain: “He waltzed in here as though we live in a barn!”

Thibault turned toward the front hall and the main entrance.

“But he didn’t. The door is shut tight and I swear to you I never left my stool. Although I wouldn’t say no to a cushion, due to the pains which—”

Marciac made an effort not to laugh.

“That’s enough, Thibault,” Gabrielle decreed. “Return to your stool and your tightly shut door.”

And catching sight of the little frogs peeping at them from the salon door, she ordered: “And you! Off with you! Now! And close the door.”

Swiftly obeyed, but still dissatisfied, she added: “Well, there’s never a moment’s peace in this house. Come.”

Marciac followed her into an antechamber, one adjoining her bedroom, whose delicious pleasures he remembered well. But the door to that retreat remained closed and Gabrielle, standing very stiff with her arms folded, prompted him: “You wanted a word with me? Very well. Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“Gabrielle,” the Gascon began in a conciliatory tone—

“There. A word. You’ve said it. Now, goodbye. You know the way.… And do not make me ask Thibault to accompany you.”

“Under these circumstances,” Marciac said contritely but gamely, “I wager that even a chaste kiss would be too much to ask—”

“A kiss from Thibault? I’m sure you can arrange that.”

His shoulders lowered, Marciac made a show of leaving. Then he turned and proffered, as a peace offering, the ring won in his duel against the marquis de Brévaux.

“A gift?”

Gabrielle made an effort to remain unmoved. In her eyes, however, there was a gleam with the same sparkle as the ruby in its setting.

“Stolen?”

“You wound me. Handed over willingly by its former owner.”

“Before witnesses?”

“Yes. D’Orvand. You can ask him.”

“He no longer visits me.”

“I’ll make him come see you again.”

“It’s a man’s ring.”

“But the stone is still beautiful.”

She softened somewhat.

“That’s true.”

“And it has no regard for gender.”

With a shrug of her shoulders, Gabrielle took the ring with a swift gesture and, pointing her finger menacingly, she snapped: “Don’t believe that all is forgiven because of this!”

Marciac, now happy and seeking to endear himself further, gave her a knowing look and replied: “But it’s a start, no?”

16

 

Inside the inn on the road to Clermont, no one had dared to speak or move since the five mercenaries had entered.

“Malencontre,” their leader repeated, tucking his flaxen hair behind his ear. “It’s a memorable name for a warrior, isn’t it?”

He was still seated at Leprat’s table and, having ordered wine, made conversation in a tone that was too self-confident to be at all innocent. Three of his men gathered together behind him while the last of the band, the drac with slate grey scales, guarded the door and kept an eye on everything.

“And yet,” continued Malencontre, “my name means nothing to you. Do you know why?”

“No,” said Leprat.

“Because all those who have heard it from my mouth, without being my friends, soon met their end.”

“Ah.”

“That doesn’t worry you?”

“Hardly.”

Malencontre scraped the scar at the corner of his mouth with a fingernail, and forced himself to smile.

“You’re right. Because you see, today, I happen to be in a merciful mood. I am ready to forget the numerous difficulties which you have created for us. I am even disposed to forgive you for the two bodies you left on the bridge at the border. Not to mention that trick you played on us in Amiens. But …”

“But?”

“But you have to give us what we seek.”

The mercenaries smelled victory. They were five against a single adversary who had no hope of reinforcements. They smiled, anticipating the moment when they would draw swords and let blood spill.

Leprat appeared to take stock of his situation, and then said: “Understood.”

He slowly plunged his left hand into his dusty doublet and withdrew a letter sealed with a blob of red wax. He placed the document on the table, pushed it in front of him, and waited.

Malencontre watched this, frowning.

He made no move to pick up this missive which had already cost two lives.

“That’s all?” he said in surprise.

“That’s all.”

“You simply comply? Without even making a show of resistance?”

“I’ve already done enough, it seems to me. I will no doubt be held accountable for my actions, but it does not serve me at all if, in the end, you pluck a piece of paper from my corpse, does it? In any case, I must have been betrayed for you to have found me so quickly. Someone told you which route I would follow. I believe that this authorises me to take a few liberties as far as my masters’ orders are concerned. One owes nothing to those who prove unworthy of one’s trust.”

BOOK: The Cardinal's Blades
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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