Payen de Montfer mouthed ‘go’, and Catherine le Rochefort thought it best to follow his advice. She, Mamie, and Fay walked to the inn, Mamie’s passionate nature denouncing the merchant the entire way.
Just as well or else she might voice an opinion or two of de Montfer. He’d eased himself into their business and no doubt he’d return to the queen and king with tales of the women’s transgressions.
“Queen Eleanor warned us to behave.” Fay twisted her fingers together. “King Louis told her if we even hinted at scandal—”
“We’d get sent back to France.” Mamie sighed. “I know. It was my fault. I should have kept my temper.”
“Blame the rude merchant for calling you an infidel.” Catherine’s chest ached with trepidation. “I made a vow to finish this pilgrimage. I cannot go back.” Not without making things right.
“Isabella’s pretending to be the queen in Constantinople is fresh in King Louis’s mind. The queen could have been accused of treason.” Fay shuddered.
The debacle remained vivid in Catherine’s memories too. Queen Eleanor thrived on intrigue, and their fellow guard had almost died because of it. “Isabella’s quick wit, taking the queen’s place to meet with Emperor Manuel, saved our liege.”
“King Louis moved many mountains to gain her banishment to England instead of hanging.” Mamie pursed her lips. “It is no wonder he is suspicious of us now.”
Fay slowed as they neared the front door of the inn, her cheeks rosy. “King Louis needs time to forget.”
Mamie pushed her hood from her head, her curls shimmering like burnished copper. “What the queen should do is get the king alone, where she can end the disagreement with a kiss—and more.”
“Mamie, that is your answer to everything.” Catherine laughed and took off her gloves. “King Louis’s advisors guard him from her as if she were a succubus and not his wife. She doesn’t stand a chance.”
“What if we were to help her?” Fay said, leading the way inside, Catherine and Mamie directly behind.
“There you are!”
Catherine turned with a start toward the table nearest the large fireplace. Eleanor sat shoulder to shoulder with Lady Abigail, a pretty dark-haired young woman. They seemed bound by conspiracy. What secrets had Eleanor pried from the poor maiden?
With a silent laugh, Catherine began walking toward the table.
Sarah, with her tousled hair and puffy eyes, looked as if she’d just woken from a nap. She yawned and sat on the other side of the queen.
“Take off your cloaks. Get comfortable. I ordered wine and cheese for the table. Catherine, did you get supplies for our journey?”
She swallowed, wondering what to share. Lady Abigail, while a member of the queen’s retinue, was not a part of the private guard. “It is a story for later, I think.”
“Oh? Intriguing.” Eleanor patted the table. “Join us. I sent de Montfer to look for you.”
Catherine bowed her head. He hadn’t mentioned that part. Then again, she hadn’t given him a chance. “He did. Find us.”
Just then the door swung open, and Payen entered the hall. A head above other men, he strode into the room, his cloak billowing behind him. He carried a bag. “Lady Catherine! You left without your purchase.”
You told me to. “My thanks,” she said through gritted teeth.
“You are welcome for my assistance in the matter. The merchant was quite pleased once I assured him the unpleasant incident was all a misunderstanding.”
As she looked at his smug countenance, Catherine reminded herself to tread lightly. He was not the man to be swayed by flirtatious glances or outright smiles. What did he want? Did he truly believe they needed his aid? “Well, let me assure you, Lord de Montfer, that though we were in disagreement over his foul manners—”
“Don’t forget the foul soap,” Mamie added, her temper flaring as she took a stand next to Catherine.
“We had the situation in hand.” Catherine calmly folded her fingers together, wishing for her flail. To knock some sense into one hardheaded nobleman.
His left brow rose in polite query. “You intended to cause a riot before our army leaves for Pergamum?”
The queen’s sharp intake of breath traveled like an arrow across the table.
Catherine flushed. “No.”
“No,” Mamie echoed. “You will regret buying so much just to keep the peace.”
“I plan to show them to the king,” he said. “Along with a few other items.”
Had he heard her suggestion yesterday after all?
Queen Eleanor tapped her dagger against her goblet, gaining their attention. “Join us. I would hear of this adventure in the market.” Her light eyes sparked. “Surely not a misadventure, mon fleurs?”
It was like being tattled on for misbehavior by a meddlesome older brother. Annoying. She sat at the table next to Sarah. Payen slid on the bench, his thigh bumping hers. Couldn’t he have sat anywhere else? The floor, perhaps?
This time she was the one who tensed. She liked it better when he was uncomfortable in her presence.
Eleanor sat at the head of the table, dressed informally in a green gown, her braided hair pinned in complicated coils atop her head. Rubies and emeralds winked from the auburn strands. “Who wants to start?” She directed her gaze at the redheaded guard. “Mamie?”
Her friend’s delicate skin flushed. “I had a disagreement with the soap merchant. Lord de Montfer came to our aid.”
“We were fine,” Catherine said.
Payen expelled a breath, not looking at her as he talked to the queen. “The deed is done. Dominus will get his soap, and I’ll give the rest to the king and council members. But this proves my point, Queen Eleanor. The women need assistance. Lady Abigail’s escape takes place tonight.” He tapped the table. “The gates close at ten, and the boat will be at the dock at eleven. I can do this myself.”
Lady Abigail shook her head, a timid lady in black. “I do not know you, monsieur. I want the queen’s guards.”
Catherine released a sigh. Payen de Montfer had no right barging into their business. Nimble Fay climbed anything and landed on her feet. If poison wasn’t needed, Sarah’s accuracy with a blade might be. Catherine’s own power of suggestion would keep a guard from looking their direction. And Mamie’s brash confidence buoyed them all.
“We will see you safely aboard, Lady Abigail,” Catherine said.
The queen cleared her throat. “King Louis dearly loves his sister, and de Montfer is a trusted friend. The city guards have been vigilant about closing the gates and prosecuting those who trespass. We must not be caught outside the walls.” She twisted the goblet stem between her fingers. “Catherine, you will go with Lord de Montfer.”
Biting the inside of her cheek saved her from voicing a rebuttal. She tasted blood.
“Tell me again, why must I leave?” Lady Abigail’s quiet voice trembled. “I am safe with you, my queen.”
“Emperor Manuel wants you married to his nephew as a bargain with the king.” Queen Eleanor covered the lady’s pale hand with her own. “As a show of good faith that all property seized on our pilgrimage in the name of the Franks will return to the Byzantine Empire.”
“But my brother is an honorable man.” Her gaze slid over Payen before landing on Catherine’s face.
“The Byzantine emperor is not.” Catherine spoke confidently, thanking all the saints she wasn’t afraid of her own shadow.
Trembling, Lady Abigail whispered, “Royals wed for that reason all the time.”
Sarah dropped her blade to the wooden tabletop. “You should be grateful for the king’s assistance. Will the marriage be annulled once we all return to France?” She shook her head. “Non. Will you be returned in the same chaste condition as when you were given?”
Mamie snorted. “Not unless the Virgin Mary grants the maiden another maidenhead. I used to pray for such a miracle on a daily basis, with no luck.”
“Mamie!” Eleanor smacked the table with her palm as she laughed. “God has more important things to do than keep up with your lovers. Abigail, your brother, the king, loves you enough to risk his treaty with the Greek emperor. Do him honor, darling, and lift that quivering chin, and remember what we discussed. You are braver than you realize.”
Fay stood. Payen noticed she wore yellow. She favored the color, just as Mamie chose red, Sarah orange, and Catherine pink. “Come, Lady Abigail,” Fay said kindly. “I will help you pack for your grand adventure.”
He did not want to go anywhere with Catherine le Rochefort, but just as the queen compromised, so would he.
It gave him the opportunity to watch her suspect behavior.
“Thank you, Fay.” Eleanor cleared her throat as the women left. Then she looked at Payen. “So do you have a plan?”
He sat up straight, taking charge of the event and creating order from chaos. “Bring the lady and a small sack for her clothing. Only what she needs for a fast departure. A boat will be waiting precisely at eleven at the east side of the lake. She will go to Egypt and, eventually, France.”
Lady Catherine’s mouth twitched.
He gave her a chilled look meant to reprimand even as his blood heated. “Do you find this amusing, mademoiselle?”
“My name is Catherine. And no, no.” She toyed with her fingernails. “The simplicity of your plan allowed my mind to wander.” She looked at Mamie, who was as expressionless as a porcelain doll. “Suppose I bribe the guards.”
“No!” He lowered his voice. “No bribing the guards. We cannot trust anybody else.” No wonder the queen’s guard had a reputation for finding trouble. “This requires secrecy and stealth.”
Catherine held up her right hand, raising the index finger. “East side of the lake.” She raised the second finger as well. “After curfew. I understand.”
“Wait,” Mamie cried. “Perhaps the lady should wear dark clothing?”
“And cover her hair,” Sarah drawled. “She has those lovely ringlets that might catch the light of the moon. We wouldn’t want anyone to see that.”
“Enough, ladies,” Queen Eleanor said, stifling a smile.
Payen realized they had fun at his expense but held his temper close. “Do you have a better idea?”
“No. I apologize. Your . . . earnestness tickled me. Lady Abigail and I will be ready. Shall we meet here or at the gate?” Catherine looked at him and flashed an unexpected grin, dimples showing.
He preferred his women plain. Well, not plain. His lovers had been pretty in their own way. More important, lacking in artifice and completely trustworthy. Beautiful women, like the one smiling at him now, played mental games.
“At the back of the stables.” He looked to Queen Eleanor. “I promise nothing will go wrong.” Hours later, Payen remembered in painful detail the royal arched brow and thinned lips of the queen, Eleanor’s only response to his assured vow.
He may have been overconfident. Crouched by the second gate, he, Lady Catherine, and Lady Abigail hid a few steps from discovery. Lady Abigail’s continuous tears since they’d left the stables grated on his nerves.
The brawny Nicaean guard paused in his pacing under the moonlight.
Lady Abigail hiccupped.
The guard tilted his head and looked toward the bushes a few feet from them.
“You understand the ramifications if we get caught?” Payen whispered in harsh tones. Discovery meant the lady’s immediate nuptials to a stranger and possible death for him, if the guard decided to slice him in two for trespassing. “Do you?”
Lady Abigail nodded. And cried.
Catherine brought one gloved finger to her lips. Her brows furrowed as if she blamed him for this mess; her eyes, pale green orbs, hid secrets. She’d shown courage assisting Lady Abigail as they made their way across the path from the stables toward the east gate. Lady Abigail hadn’t let him help her. Catherine tapped Abigail’s shoulder and put her index finger over her mouth. The terrified woman nodded and gulped back her hiccups.
Pulse accelerating, Payen pointed toward the guard, who blocked the hidden crevice leading beyond the gate.
He’d never been more aware of violating a direct order from the Byzantine emperor. If they were caught, the tenuous peace between King Louis and Emperor Manuel would be broken.
Catherine le Rochefort blended in the shadows, her breathing steady. Calm. It bothered him to admit, even to himself, that he could not have done this without her. She picked up a pebble, tossing it in the far opposite direction.
The guard cocked his head and walked after the noise.
Abigail wilted against Catherine.
Payen nodded, then crawled toward the crack in the wall.
At last they reached the lakeshore. Rocks and shells crunched beneath their boots, though once they reached the sand closest to the dock, their steps quieted.
Relieved, he saw the small fishing boat at the end of the dock. “This way.” He looked back, ensuring the women followed, and noticed Catherine’s hand on her hip. Payen realized with a start she wore a sword beneath her black cloak.
“Watch your step.” Catherine spoke quietly as she assisted Lady Abigail into the small wooden watercraft, where the woman’s true love waited.
Dark haired and thin faced, the handsome Robert, Count of Perche, guided Lady Abigail by the hand until she took a wobbling seat on the unpainted bench.
“Thank you,” Lady Abigail whispered. Head bowed, she seemed uncomfortably timid, especially compared to Catherine.
Payen coughed. “You’re safe now.”
“You were very brave,” Catherine said, reaching into her pocket for a folded packet. “From the queen.” She handed it to Lady Abigail, who smiled. For the first time, Payen saw a hint of her beauty.
The count sat and dipped the oars in the water, his face set like stone. “We must catch the tide. Give my thanks to Louis and Eleanor?” Count Robert pushed away from the dock with the oar, turning to Abigail. “All will be well, my love.”
The moon hid behind a cloud, plunging the beach in darkness. Love. For love of the teary-eyed Lady Abigail, the count risked his station. His wealth and security. His life.
Payen did not understand allowing such emotion to direct one’s fate. Clouds shifting, the soft moonlight returned to show them rowing away.
Catherine sighed deeply. “It is done.”
He felt as if he should acknowledge her in some way but didn’t know how. During the months he’d watched her, the beautiful lady had given no hint of treachery and he’d come close to believing in her innate goodness. He gave thanks that he’d witnessed her single act of thievery.
But now? She’d proven a worthy companion.
They walked toward shore in silence, and he hopped down from the dock to the sand. He turned to offer a hand, but Catherine jumped on her own, her gaze returning to the rocks on the hill.
“What?” he finally asked.
She stilled, her expression somber. “Wide awake and seeing ghosts,” she said softly. “Listen. Do you hear anything?”
“The water lapping against rock. Did you say ghosts?”
“There.” She pointed to the mound nearest the road, a gentle sigh escaping her lips. “No ghost at all. I think I know who. The ragged boy from the market.”
Payen squinted, his palm on the hilt of his sword. “A boy?” He heard and saw nothing.
She darted into the shadows. As she ran, her cloak flew back, revealing dark hose and a black tunic that fell to mid-thigh. He did not dare shout after her and risk alerting any guards on patrol. He had no choice but to follow Catherine into the night.