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Jehanne knew she was near the king when she heard the army crumbling about him.
“…should have your spurs for this, Durayne. We’re in the middle of planning a battle, and you thought it was fitting to interrupt us for some addled nun’s mumblings?” said a man’s voice.
“Isn’t it, General?” grunted another man. “Prayer could hardly make our disposition worse than it is now. Don’t be too hard on the man.”
“If our positioning is inadequate, Marquis,” said the General, “you have not improved it. Nor marched near the field of battle, though we outnumber the Usurper five to one!”
“I’ll give battle when there’s a battle to be given,” answered the Marquis. “But I’m not volunteering my men as statuary. No need to give the Usurper and Nygurd even better odds.”
“Courtesy, my lords,” said a third man’s voice. “Holy words would be better than fighting words. Show her in.”
At these words the page guiding Jehanne stepped forward too quickly. The woman deliberately stumbled, catching herself with her long staff. He muttered an apology, and slowed, giving her the time to see what she could through her thick veil.
“The holy sister Lenore, my lords. Sire.”
The tremble in the page’s voice as he announced her alias was matched by the nervous jump in the muscles of his elbow that she held in a firm grip.
“Ye gods,” muttered the thin blur that was General Desrai, folding his arms. “Are the holy sisters covering their faces entire, now?”
“For most of them, that’s doing men a favor,” said Marquis Dubech, his thick form shaking its head.
“Courtesy, my lords,” King Michael repeated. He raised his voice and a blurred hand in welcome. “Holy sister, Captain Durayne tells us that he believes you might give us a blessing to help defend our kingdom.”
“I can give you no blessing, Sire,” she husked. “The Marquis of Nygurd and Prince Ecferth the Usurper march ever southward behind their totem, which turns men to stone if they dare to glance upon it.”
“You bring intelligence, then, of Ecferth’s army?” said Dubech. She could hear the hope in his voice. The clergy favored King Michael, and helped where they could.
“What good is intelligence going to do us?” snorted Desrai.
“It’s always preferable to stupidity, General.” she croaked.
“Indeed? Every day the Usurper advances another fifteen miles, and we retreat fifteen. We can’t even scout his rabble’s progress without leaving behind a half-dozen new statues. How would a blind old woman get such intelligence?” He hesitated. “Blind?” he asked. “But then, what could you know?”
“Far from blind, General, although that would, of course, allow you to approach the Usurper’s army. But before I speak further, good page, could you verify to the assembled nobles that my veil is firmly fastened down, and not easily lifted?”
“Yes, sister,” he said, giving a gentle tug at the woven cords that kept the dark sackcloth from flapping upwards. “It is tied fast.”
“And the knot is quite firm?”
“Quite firm, sister.”
“You need have no fear, sister,” said the King. “No man among us feels the need to impugn your vows of chastity in the slightest.” The words were delivered courteously, but chuckles responded to it anyway.
“It’s not my fear that I speak to allay,” she said, straightening, and stretching out her hands. Her staff clattered to the floor and she threw back her cloak, revealing a lithe torso clad in leather armor and girt with a swordbelt. “Please note that my hands are empty and unmoving,” she said, clearly.
“What is this?” asked Desrai, his hand moving to his sword. “Who are you?”
“I am Jehanne Dark.”
The men in the room were very still.
“And do you have some proof of this…” Marquis Dubech’s mouth worked as he searched for the right word. “…audacious claim?”
“You might consider that I walked right past any number of guards and in the company of Captain Durayne without anyone penetrating my disguise as ‘Sister Lenore,’” she said. “But I do have other proof. I just have to ask you not to shoot me while I provide it. And remember. My hood is secure.” She concentrated.
And as slowly as she could contrive it, the heads of four of her vipers emerged from under the hood, tongues flickering languidly in their red-and-black heads.
It was difficult to tell which men gasped first and drew steel second, and which did the opposite. But all of them had backed up a step.
“Get out, Sire, and don’t look! We’ll cover your retreat!” shouted Desrai.
“I mean the king no harm!” cried Jehanne. “In fact,” she said. “I have come to pledge fealty and offer my services, to King Michael.” Slowly, she sank onto her knees.
“Don’t believe her, Sire! It’s a trap!” snarled Desrai. “And arrest that traitor!” He pointed his sword at Durayne, who raised his hands in protest.
“Yes, by all means waste your time arresting the poor man for being no wiser the rest of you,” Jehanne said.
“Sire, this diabolical monstrosity is the most infamous assassin on the continent! What answer do you make to that, villain?”
“Thank you?” Jehanne said.
“She cannot be trusted!” he cried.
“General, has it occurred to you that if I had wanted you killed, every man here would already be dead?”
Marquis Dubech gave a bitter laugh. “If Jehanne Dark wanted us all turned to stone, she’s taken an awfully long walk when she could have just stayed home for the next week.”
The king cleared his throat. “The Marquis and the lady may have the right of it, Giles.” He gently pushed down the general’s sword and approached. “Then if you are not here to assassinate me, Jehanne Dark, why are you here, disguised as a holy sister of the Church?”
“Well, the disguise was so that I would not be shot on sight by those who might be as skeptical of my intentions as General Desrai is,” said Jehanne. “But the reason I am here is that I want to deliver the Usurper to you. As an ornament for your palace lawn.”
“You know our situation, so you can’t be coming to us for help,” said Dubech. “If you could do that, why haven’t you just done it?”
“I’ve learned that after I’ve killed someone is a very poor time to negotiate the payment,” Jehanne said.
“Ah, yes, of course,” sneered Desrai. “Assassins. Well, how much gold is your “fealty” worth?”
“My price is not gold,” said Jehanne.
“What then, half my kingdom?” asked King Michael. “I’m afraid that hardly a third of it remains to me. What do you say to a sixth of the kingdom, Lady Dark?”
“I will wait for half,” said Jehanne. Slowly, she rose to her feet. “My price is that I wed King Michael after the Usurper is put down. He will make me his queen.”
The silence in the room was absolute for the space of five seconds.
“You cannot be queen! You are a medusa!” cried Desrai.
“Half-medusa,” said Jehanne.
“And you are a wanted criminal and murderess!”
“Well, the inclusion of a royal pardon was implied,” she said.
“It’s out of the question!” The general was practically frothing at the mouth.
“Shut up, Desrai,” said the king. And his voice was utterly flat.