The tankard dropped hard on the table and was accompanied by a leer that Giselle could see from right across the room in the dark inn. Frothy beer spilling onto the floor. She bared her teeth back at him, and the man’s eyes widened, his smile disappearing.
Giselle wrapped her cloak around her more tightly, and tried not to shiver. Merde. She should have known better than to accept a meeting at the Loxham Inn – or however it was that this English pronounced it. She had known that it was a mistake as soon as she had opened the letter the day before, but there had not been time to get a message back to her contact. And so the Loxham Inn, on the very edge of this Kentish coast, was to be her rendezvous.
She swallowed. Being this close to her home in France and yet so far was douloureux, too painful – but she could not go back there. Not since… Well, it was safer for her here, en Angleterre.
Giselle took a slow and meaningful look around the dingy room, decorated poorly for the Christmas season, trying not to grimace as she held her arm close to her chest. It was a small stab wound to start with, but constant movement in that carriage to get here had pulled at the healing, and now it was bleeding through her sleeve. It was a pity it was her right hand, for it meant that she was forced to hold her dagger in her left.
You could not be too careful when meeting a man you’ve never even set your eyes on before.
Giselle shivered and took a deep breath as a card game two tables over ended in mutterings and a punch that forced one man to the ground. Here she was, a young woman in a silk gown and elegant diamond ear bobs, sitting in one of the most dangerous inns in England. C’est stupide.
Another deep breath was needed as the minutes ticked by, and the innkeeper glared at her for keeping the small table to herself. You are the Great Whisperer, Giselle said to herself, trying to keep a stern and forbidding look on her face. Courage. You have always managed to get out of scrapes before.
There was a heavy thundering and her cobalt blue eyes looked around, anxious, until she realised it was the sound of her own heart rattling her ribcage. She wasn’t merely frightened: she was terrified. How could she have known, four months ago – and it felt so much longer – that wanting to pass on a letter for her friends would start her on a path like this? But she had had no choice, no choice at all – and now she had a spy’s reputation that she did not deserve!
Giselle swallowed, and tried to imagine what anyone in the Loxham Inn would see if they looked at her. A lady, she hoped; une femme, well bred, and strong, with a determined stare that did not give in. She had not wanted to live a life of subterfuge, and this last transfer of letters was the last one. On Christmas Day, she would be free.
Then she could go and find Pierre, wherever he was. No one’s brother should be missing for that length of time. Ah, mon frère…
Giselle started; the hair on the back of her neck was starting to prickle. What was it? Her eyes darted around the room until they fell on a gentleman almost exactly opposite her, sitting in a small recess but still facing her.
He was staring at her.
She gasped as their eyes met, but he did not look away, and she found herself unable to break the connection. He was a young man, probably not more than one or two and thirty. He looked remarkably clean, which was unusual for the Loxham Inn, and his chestnut hair was cropped short. Even from this distance, Giselle could see his eyes were dark, sparkling with intelligence and focus.
He was focused on her. There was no denying it, his entire attention was fixed upon her, and Giselle hated that her cheeks rushed with colour at the thought of his admiration.
And yet she was not blind. He was a handsome man, richly dressed but poorly kempt. He looked like a man who had spent a few too many nights on the road, but had a servant just waiting to clean him, dress him, and send him onto a court ball.
A man smelling rather pungently of pigs dropped into the seat beside her, and Giselle stiffened. Could this be the man that she had been waiting for all day? Could he be the one that she could pass these dratted letters onto, and then she would be free – free to just be Giselle d'Épiluçon, not the Great Whisperer any longer?
The man was badly shaven, and his eyes were bloodshot from drink. “You’re a mighty pretty one, aren’t you?” He murmured in the deep Kentish accents that she now knew so well. “Whatcha doing here, nice lady like you? Looking for some fun?”
The hand that was not grasped around his tankard had now found her leg. Giselle’s lips smiled, but the mirth did not reach her eyes. In one swift movement, she had grasp of his little finger and twisted it back, causing the man to cry out in pain and tears appear in his eyes.
“Was this,” she whispered in a meaningful voice, “what you were looking for, mon amie?”
She pulled it back a little further and the man shook his head, whimpering. Giselle pushed back her cloak slightly to reveal the shine of her dagger, and his eyes widened even further, tears now falling onto his cheeks.
“I think it is best if you leave the Loxham Inn,” Giselle said, the false smile now completely gone from her mouth. “Perhaps you do not come back. Perhaps you never come back, tu comprends?”
The man nodded, pleading with his eyes to be released. She let go of his hand but brought her dagger out of her cloak’s folds ever so slightly, as a warning.
He did not need it. Without another word but a quiet whimper, the man half walked, half ran towards the door of the Loxham Inn and left without a backward glance.
Giselle sighed and rolled her shoulders, trying to loosen the tension that had built up there. Mon Dieu, but she hated what her life had become. She lived in fear from moment to moment, never able to rest, never comfortable – and yet she was a lady of France, not some London urchin who enjoyed fighting to its life from day to day!
It had all started when the Revolution happened. 1798 had been a difficult one for all of France, but far more so for families like the d'Épiluçon. Rich, powerful, and noble, they were everything that the revolutionaries hated.
It had not taken them long to start executing them for the crime of simply being rich.
The d'Épiluçon family had managed to survive for a few years, keeping their heads down, not getting involved in anything political, just wanting to live in peace. Until that day when “they” had come.
Giselle swallowed as her eyes filled with tears that she forced away. The important thing was that she had survived, and she had not survived just to feel sorry for herself. The counter-revolutionaries had found her, and convinced her that the only way to protect Pierre was to turn spy against the revolutionaries, to move information about the nobles and how they could be protected. Only for a few weeks, they had said. And then she could be free.
Code name, the Great Whisperer.
She glanced up and once again caught the eyes of the handsome gentleman, who was still watching her.
Her eyes dropped, unable to match the intensity in his dark eyes. It could not be much longer, she told herself. Her contact would arrive soon, and she would be free from being the Great Whisperer, and would be Giselle d'Épiluçon once more.
Just one more rendezvous.
* * *
Éduard shifted uncomfortably. His breeches were sticking horribly to the wooden seat and there was a taste of tin every time he brought the tankard to his lips, but neither of those reasons were why he was so discomforted.
Neither was it because he was so unaccustomed to associating with these lower classes, he thought, lip curling as a pair of drunkards stumbled past his table to, by the sound of it, vomit loudly outside the door of the inn.
It wasn’t even because he had not eaten in nigh on twelve hours, something that his younger self would have found incomprehensible.
But he was nearing thirty now, d’accord, and his long hunt seemed to be nearing its end, and in time for the festive season too. The Great Whisperer was going to be here, he just knew it. A sweeping glance of the inn revealed only two men that he could conceive as the mysterious spy that had kept France in awe the last few months: the innkeeper, and the man who had just left the inn, apparently fighting back tears.
No, what truly made Éduard uncomfortable was the strikingly beautiful woman who was seated almost exactly opposite him.
By God, but it would be much easier if she was not such a distraction. It had been her diamond earrings that had caught his eye at first, glinting in the candlelight. Willowy in figure, and tall, as far as he could make out, with long thick curls of dark hair piled upon her head in that elegant way that Éduard could not comprehend. Just one pin always seemed to hold it all together, and the thought of that lady reaching up delicately and removing just one to let it all sweep down her shoulders …
It was enough to make parts of his body stiff, and that wasn’t the worst of it. The light lilac gown just visible underneath a rich purple cloak seemed to shimmer in the candlelight, highly suggestive of swells and curves exactly, and here Éduard swallowed, where they should be.
She was out of place: too elegant, too refined to be found in the Loxham Inn. What she could be doing there, he could not tell, but the longer that he looked at her …
Éduard shook his head. He should not even be thinking of her at all. With great reluctance, and against the better judgement of his hungry body – for it was more than food that could satisfy him – he dragged his eyes away, and looked around the room once more.
He should be concentrating every part of his being on discovering the Great Whisperer. Had he not hunted for this man day and night for weeks? Had he not taken a solemn vow, one that he intended to keep, that he would join him?
It seemed almost impossible that he had reached the end of the road: that he would soon have his hands on the culprit. Mon Dieu, but it had been a long ride, up and down the country of England, at least one foray that he could remember back to the old country, back to France, and even an excursion up to Scotland, which had made him shiver just thinking about the temperatures there.
But it was here, in a dirty, dank, and decrepit Kentish inn, three days before Christmas, that he, Prince Éduard of Aviroux, that the Great Whisperer was finally to meet his match.
Éduard jolted as the door to the Loxham Inn opened. The man who entered was broad in the shoulder and had a heavy greatcoat wrapped around him, hiding part of his face to the drinkers who looked away from him almost immediately. He did not look like a gentleman to cross.
After surveying the room with a glint in his eye, the stranger strode across the room with purpose, and seated himself beside the beautiful woman who had stolen Éduard’s admiration. Without looking around, the stranger pulled out a sheaf of papers from the inside of his greatcoat.
Éduard’s heart leapt painfully as his pulse quickened. This was it! This was the man: this spy had finally revealed himself, though he knew not yet, and the woman who had distracted him and caused him to think deliciously pleasant thoughts was his contact!
Hardly daring to breathe, lest they somehow hear his thoughts, Éduard shifted slightly in his seat, trying to raise himself up a little higher – but even with his tall build, he could not see what was inscribed on the papers.
Éduard could hear the thunder of his blood in his ears. He had never been this close, so close to victory: he had never seen the Great Whisperer before, save for one glimpse as he had ridden off on a horse into darkness, when Éduard had cursed his own bad fortune, and sworn once more that he would not rest until he had caught up with him.
And now he was so close, mere moments away from the final discovery. Éduard rose slowly and moved into the seat just to his right, at the same table. It brought him perhaps six inches closer to the couple, and his heart hammered in his chest as he tried to swallow and wet his dry throat.
His sword: he needed to get his sword out from under his greatcoat, but it was a complex process at the best of times, and here he was, trying not to catch anyone’s attention!
Moving by inches only, sweat starting to form on his forehead, Éduard moved slightly – but he was not careful enough. The woman’s eyes, blue and shining, darted to him and widened as she saw the sword.
“Danger!” She cried in a terrified voice, and the stranger beside her started.
Éduard tried to pull the sword out from under his greatcoat and step forward at the same time, and the ensuing tangle gave them exactly what they needed: time.
The man and woman rose and rushed towards the door, he just ahead of her who was hampered slightly by the whipping of her cloak around her, so fast was their movement.
Éduard cursed under his breath. “Merde – wait!”
There was nothing for it. He raced after them, heart pounding painfully now, determination flowing through him as bitterly as the beer he had been drinking, all his energy now focused on catching the Great Whisperer.