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Lenobia's Vow, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  “Are you daft, man? Do you not see the mademoiselle has waited here for you for far too long already? Help her inside the coach and out of this horrid dampness before she does fall ill,” her mother snapped at the servant.

  The driver scrambled down immediately, opening the door to the coach and offering his hand.

  Lenobia felt as if all of the air had been knocked from her body. She looked wildly at her mother.

  Tears were washing down her mother’s face, but she simply curtseyed deeply and said, “Bon voyage to you, child.”

  Lenobia ignored the gaping coachman and pulled her mother up, hugging her so tightly the rosary beads dug painfully into her skin. “Tell my mother I love her and will remember her and miss her every day of my life,” she said in a shaky voice.

  “And my prayer, to the Holy Mother of us all, is that she let this sin be attributed to me. Let this curse be on my head, not yours,” Elizabeth whispered against her daughter’s cheek.

  Then she broke Lenobia’s embrace, curtseyed again, and turned away, walking with no hesitation back the way they’d come.

  “Mademoiselle d’Auvergne?” Lenobia looked at the coachman. “Shall I take the casquette for you?”

  “No,” she said woodenly, surprised that her voice still worked. “I’ll keep my casquette with me.” He gave her an odd look but held out his hand for her. She saw her hand being placed in his, and her legs carried her up and into the coach. He bowed briefly and then clambered back to his position as driver. As the coach lurched forward, Lenobia turned to look back at the gates of the Château de Navarre and saw her mother collapsed to the ground, weeping with both hands covering her mouth to stifle her wails of grief.

  Hand pressed against the expensive glass of the carriage window, Lenobia sobbed, watching her mother and her world fade into mist and memory.


  With a swirl of skirts and throaty, low laughter, Laetitia disappeared around a marble wall carved with images of saints, leaving only the scent of her perfume and the remnants of unsatisfied desire in her wake.

  Charles cursed, “Ah, ventrebleu!” and adjusted his velvet robes.

  “Father?” the acolyte repeated, calling down the inner hallway that ran behind the chancel of the cathedral. “Did you hear me? It is the Archbishop! He is here and asking for you.”

  “I heard you!” Father Charles glared at the boy. As the priest approached him, he lifted his hand and made a shooing motion. Charles noted that the child flinched like a skittish colt, which made the priest smile.

  Charles’s smile was not a pleasant thing to behold, and the boy backed quickly down the steps that led up to the chancel, putting more space between the two of them.

  “Where is de Juigne?” Charles asked.

  “Not far from here, just inside the main entrance to the cathedral, Father.”

  “I trust he has not been waiting long?”

  “Not too long, Father. But you were, uh—” The boy broke off, his face filled with consternation.

  “I was deep in prayer, and you did not wish to disturb me,” Charles finished for him, staring hard at the boy.

  “Y-yes, Father.”

  The boy was unable to look away from him. He’d begun to sweat, and his face had turned an alarming shade of pink. Charles couldn’t tell if the child was going to cry or explode. Either would have amused the priest.

  “Ah, but we have no time for amusement,” he mused aloud, breaking his gaze with the boy and walking quickly past him. “We have an unexpected guest.” Enjoying the fact that the boy flattened himself against the screening wall so that his priestly robes didn’t so much as brush his skin, Charles felt his mood lighten. He shouldn’t allow small things to distress him. He would simply call for Laetitia as soon as he could free himself of the Archbishop, and they would resume where they’d left off—which would put her willing and bent before him.

  Charles was thinking of Laetitia’s shapely bare bottom when he greeted the old priest. “It is a great pleasure to see you, Father Antoine. I am honored to welcome you to the Cathédrale Notre Dame d’Évreux,” Charles de Beaumont, Bishop of Évreux, lied smoothly.

  “Merci beaucoup, Father Charles.” The archbishop of Paris, Antoine le Clerc de Juigne, kissed him chastely on one cheek and then the other.

  Charles thought the old fool’s lips felt dry and dead.

  “To what do my cathedral and I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

  “Your cathedral, Father? Surely it is more accurate to say that this is God’s house.”

  Charles’s anger began to build. Automatically, his long fingers began to stroke the huge ruby cross that always hung from a thick chain around his throat. The flames of the lit votive candles at the feet of the nearby statue of the beheaded Saint Denis fluttered spasmodically.

  “To say this is my cathedral is simply a term of endearment and not one of possession,” Charles said. “Shall we retire to my offices to share wine and break bread?”

  “Indeed, my journey was long, and though in February I should be thankful it is rain and not snow falling from the gray skies, the damp weather is tiring.”

  “Have the wine and a decent meal brought immediately to my offices.” Charles motioned impatiently to one of the nearby acolytes, who jumped nervously before scurrying away to do his bidding. When Charles’s gaze returned to the older priest, he saw that de Juigne was studying the retreating acolyte with an expression that was his first warning that something was amiss with this unannounced visit. “Come, Antoine, you do look weary. My offices are warm and welcoming. You will be comfortable there.” Charles led the old priest away from the nave, across the cathedral, through the pleasant little garden, and to the opulent offices that adjoined his spacious private chambers. All the while the archbishop gazed around them, silent and contemplative.

  It wasn’t until they were finally settled in front of Charles’s marble fireplace, a goblet of excellent red wine in his hand and a sumptuous repast placed before him, that de Juigne deigned to speak.

  “The climate of the world is changing, Father Charles.”

  Charles raised his brows and wondered if the old man was as daft as he appeared. He’d traveled all the way from Paris to talk of the weather? “Indeed, it seems this winter is warmer and wetter than any in my memory,” Charles said, wishing this useless conversation to be over soon.

  Antoine le Clerc de Juigne’s blue eyes, which had appeared watery and unfocused just seconds before, sharpened. His gaze skewered Charles. “Idiot! Why would I be speaking of the weather? It is the climate of the people that concerns me.”

  “Ah, of course.” For the moment, Charles was too surprised by the sharpness in the old man’s voice even to feel anger. “The people.”

  “There is talk of a revolution.”

  “There is always talk of a revolution,” Charles said, choosing a succulent piece of pork to go with the smooth goat cheese he’d sliced for his bread.

  “It is more than simple talk,” said the old priest.

  “Perhaps,” Charles said through a full mouth.

  “The world changes around us. We draw near a new century, though I will pass into Grace before it arrives and younger men, men like yourself, will be left to lead the church through the tumult that approaches.”

  Charles fervently wished the old priest had expired before he’d made this visit, but he hid his feelings, chewed, and nodded sagely, saying only, “I will pray that I am worthy of such a weighty responsibility.”

  “I am pleased that you are in agreement about the need to take responsibility for your actions,” said de Juigne.

  Charles narrowed his eyes. “My actions? We were speaking of the people and the change within them.”

  “Yes, and that is why your actions have come to the attention of His Holiness.”

  Charles’s mouth suddenly went dry and he had to gulp wine to swallow. He tried to speak, but de Juigne continued, not allowing him to talk.

  “In times
of upheaval, especially as the tide of popular attitude sways toward bourgeois beliefs, it has become increasingly important that the church does not drown in the wake of change.” The priest paused to sip delicately at his wine.

  “Forgive me, Father. I am at a loss to understand you.”

  “Oh, I doubt that very much. You could not believe your behavior would be ignored forever. You weaken the church, and that cannot be ignored.”

  “My behavior? Weaken the church?” Charles was too astounded to be truly angry. He swept a well-manicured hand around them. “Does my church appear weakened to you? I am loved by my parishioners. They show their devotion by tithing with the generosity that fills this table.”

  “You are feared by your parishioners. They fill your table and your coffers because they are more afraid of the fire of your rage than the burning of their empty stomachs.”

  Charles’s own stomach lurched. How could the old bastard know? And if he knows, does that mean the Pope does as well? Charles forced himself to remain calm. He even managed a dry chuckle. “Absurd! If it is fires they fear, it is brought on by the weight of their own sins and the possibility of eternal damnation. So they give generously to me to alleviate those fears, and I duly absolve them.”

  The Archbishop continued as if Charles had never spoken. “You should have kept to the whores. No one notices what happens to them. Isabelle Varlot was the daughter of a marquis.”

  Charles’s stomach continued to churn. “That girl was the victim of a horrible accident. She passed too close to a torch. A spark lit her dress afire. She burned before anyone could save her.”

  “She burned after spurning your advances.”

  “That is ridiculous! I did not—”

  “You should also have kept your cruelty in check,” the Archbishop interrupted. “Too many of the novices come from noble families. There has been talk.”

  “Talk!” Charles sputtered.

  “Yes, talk supported by the scars of burns. Jean du Bellay returned to his father’s barony minus the robes of a priest and instead carrying scars that will disfigure him for the rest of his life.”

  “It is a shame his faith was not as great as his clumsiness. He almost burned my stables to the ground. It has naught to do with me that after an injury of his own causing he renounced his charge to our priesthood and retreated home to the wealth of his family.”

  “Jean tells a very different story. He says he confronted you about your cruel treatment of his fellow novices and your anger was so great that you set him, and the stables around him, afire.”

  Charles felt the rage begin to burn within him, and as he spoke, the flames of the candles in their ornate silver holders that sat at either end of the dining table flickered wildly, growing brighter with each word. “You will not come into my church and make accusations against me.”

  The old priest’s eyes widened as he stared at the growing flames. “It is true what they are saying about you. I did not believe it until now.” But instead of retreating or reacting in fear, as Charles had come to expect, de Juigne reached into his robes and pulled out a folded parchment, holding it before him like a warrior’s shield.

  Charles stroked the ruby cross that sat hot and heavy on his chest. He had actually begun to move his other hand—to flick his fingers toward the nearest candle flame, which writhed brighter and brighter, as if beckoning his touch—but the thick leaden seal on the parchment sent ice through his veins.

  “A papal bull!” Charles felt his breath leave him with his words, as if the seal had, indeed, been a shield that had been hurled against his body.

  “Yes, His Holiness sent me. His Holiness knows I am here and, as you may read for yourself, if I or any in my party meet with an unfortunate fiery accident, his mercy will turn to retribution and his vengeance against you will be swift. Had you not been so distracted with defiling the chancel you would have noticed my escort was not made up of priests. The Pope sent his own personal guard with me.”

  With hands that trembled, Charles took the bull and broke the seal. As he read, the Archbishop’s voice filled the chamber around him as if narrating the younger priest’s doom.

  “You have been watched closely for almost one year. Reports have been made to His Holiness, who has come to the decision that your predilection for fire may not be the manifestation of demonic influence, as many of us believe. His Holiness is willing to give you an opportunity to use your unusual affinity in service of the church by protecting those who are most vulnerable. And nowhere is the church more vulnerable than in New France.”

  Charles came to the end of the bull and looked up at the Archbishop. “The Pope is sending me to New Orleans.”

  “He is.”

  “I will not go. I will not leave my cathedral.”

  “That is your decision to make, Father Charles. But know that if you choose not to obey, His Holiness has commanded that you be seized by his guards, excommunicated, found guilty of sorcery, and then we shall all see if your love of fire is as great when you are bound to a stake and set ablaze yourself.”

  “Then I have no choice at all.”

  The Archbishop shrugged and then stood. “It is more of a choice than I advised you be given.”

  “When do I leave?”

  “You must leave here immediately. It is a two-day carriage ride to Le Havre. In three days the Minerva sets sail. His Holiness charges that your protection of the Catholic Church begins the moment you step upon the soil of the New World, where you will take up the seat of Bishop of the Cathedral Saint Louis.” Antoine’s smile was disdainful. “You will not find New Orleans as generous as Évreux, but you may find that the parishioners in the New World are more forgiving of your, shall we say, eccentricities.” The Archbishop began to shuffle toward the door, but he paused and looked back at Charles. “What are you? Tell me truly and I will say nothing to His Holiness.”

  “I am a humble servant of the church. Anything else has been exaggerated by the jealousy and superstition of others.”

  The Archbishop shook his head and said no more before leaving the room. As the door closed, Charles fisted both of his hands and smashed them into the table, causing the cutlery and plates to tremble and the flames of the candles to writhe and spill wax down their sides as if they wept with pain.

  * * *

  For the two-day journey from the Château de Navarre to the port of Le Havre, mist and rain wrapped Lenobia’s carriage in a veil of gray that was so thick and impenetrable, it seemed to Lenobia that she had been carried from the world she knew and the mother she loved to an unending purgatory. She spoke to no one during the day. The coach paused briefly only for her to attend to the most basic of bodily functions, and then they continued until dark. Each of the two nights, the driver stopped at lovely roadside inns where the madams of the establishments would take charge of Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne, clucking about her being so young and unchaperoned and, almost beyond her hearing, gossip with the serving girls about how atroce and effrayant it must be to be on her way to marry a faceless stranger in another world.

  “Terrible … frightening…” Lenobia would repeat. Then she’d hold her mother’s rosary beads and pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women…” over and over again, just as her mother had for as long as she could remember, until the sounds of the servants’ whispering were drowned out by the memory of her mother’s voice.

  On the third morning they arrived in the port city of Le Havre and, for a fleeting moment, the rain stopped and the mist parted. The scent of fish and the sea permeated everything. When the driver finally stopped and Lenobia stepped from the carriage down to the dock, a brisk, cool breeze chased away the last of the clouds and the sun beamed as if in welcome, flashing on a lavishly painted frigate that bobbed restlessly at anchor nearby in the bay.

  Lenobia stared at the ship in awe. All across the top of the hull was a band of blue on which intricate gold filigree was painted that rem
inded her of flowers and ivy. She could see orange and black and yellow decorating other parts of the hull, as well as the deck. And facing her was the figurehead of a goddess, arms outstretched, gown flowing fiercely in carved and captured wind. She was helmeted as if for war. Lenobia had no idea why, but the sight of the goddess had her breath catching and her heart fluttering.

  “Mademoiselle d’Auvergne? Mademoiselle? Excusez-moi, êtes vous Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne?”

  The flapping of the nun’s brown habit caught Lenobia’s attention before her words were truly understandable. Am I Cecile? With a jolt Lenobia realized that the Sister had been calling to her from across the dock, and in getting no response, the nun had broken from a group of richly dressed young women and approached her, concern clear in her expression as well as her voice.

  “It—it is beautiful!” Lenobia blurted the first thought that fully formed in her mind.

  The nun smiled. “It is, indeed. And if you are Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne you will be pleased to know that it is more than just beautiful. It is the means by which you will embark upon an entirely new life.”

  Lenobia drew a deep breath, pressed her hand to her breast so that she could feel the pressure of her mother’s rosary beads, and said, “Yes, I am Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne.”

  “Oh, I am so glad! I am Sister Marie Madeleine Hachard, and you are the last of the mademoiselles. Now that you are here we can board.” The nun’s brown eyes were kind. “Is it not a lovely omen that you brought the sun with your arrival?”

  “I hope so, Sister Marie Madeleine,” Lenobia said, and then had to walk quickly to catch up with the nun as she hurried, with a flutter of her robes, back to the waiting, staring girls.

  “It is Mademoiselle d’Auvergne, and we are now all arrived.” The nun motioned imperiously to several dockhands who were standing about doing nothing more than sneaking curious looks at the group of girls. “Allons-y! Take us to the Minerva, and be careful and quick about it. Commodore Cornwallis is eager to sail with the tide.” As the men were scrambling to do her bidding and get a rowboat ready to transport them to the ship, the nun turned back to the girls. With a sweep of her hand she said, “Mademoiselles, let us step into the future!”