Lola was tending to Jean-Philip when Francis barged into her rooms, his face pink as he fumed with rage.
"Francis!" she cried out with surprise.
"How well do you know Lord Narcisse?" he spat out.
The nanny instantly raised her eyebrows out of shock. Lola turned to the woman and motioned for her to leave the room. "Leave us please, try to feed Jean-Philip some bread, he should be old enough now. If not I'm sure he'd love to feed the ducks at the pond." The nanny nodded and left the room carrying Lola's little boy in her chubby arms.
Lola turned to Francis who had calmed himself by now. "What do you mean?"
"Bash told me that you visited his estate a few days ago. Do you deny this?" Francis asked.
Bash? Lola thought, What does Bash have to do with this?
"Uh…No…" she sighed. "It's true I've been spending time with Narcisse, but I'm not sure it's any of your concern."
She attempted to walk away from him, but he wouldn't leave it at that. "Lola," Francis called to her, gently this time, "I don't judge you, but Narcisse is dangerous."
Lola paused. Everyone at court was dangerous in one-way or another. Narcisse hadn't harmed her in any way yet, nor had he treated her too ungentlemanly (except for that one request involving a bath). She couldn't understand why Francis thought he was dangerous, but then again Mary and Francis never told her anything about politics. They only talked to her when Francis wanted to see her baby or when Mary wanted to complain about Francis. No one ever asked for her opinion. No one told her anything.
"And yet you seem willingly to embrace him politically," she answered finally.
Francis twiddled his thumbs uncomfortably before asking his next question. "I just want to know: have you grown close to him? What's between you?"
"I'm not sure…I-I…He's let me know he's interested is all." This was the only reason she could think of for his behavior of late. These games and tests must have all been done to let her knew that he was interested in her…interested in sex or marriage, or maybe both, beyond that Lola couldn't tell.
Francis took a breath. "Would he be surprised if you went back to his estate?"
Lola raised an eyebrow. "A moment ago you said he was dangerous."
"He is. More than you know, which is why I must ask you, for me, to go there tonight." Lola tilted her head, listening intently. "Tell him that you were on your way back to the castle and your horses needed attending. And when you're admitted—" he pulled an envelope out of his robes with a shaking hand, "hide this envelope somewhere he won't find it."
Lola looked at the envelope with alarm. "Well…what is it?"
"I can only say that it's insurance should he make himself an enemy to the crown." Of course he wouldn't tell her any more. Did he really think she couldn't handle the truth or keep his secret? She had spent many months keeping their secret. What was so different about this one?
"Where am I supposed to hide it?" she asked. "It's not as if he leaves me alone for hours."
"You'll find an opportunity," Francis said as if this wasn't a problem.
She shook her head in disbelief. "Francis, you're asking me to deceive and betray a powerful man for you."
Francis looked down at his feet, pausing. "You're not a French subject. I cannot order you to do this. So I am asking you to trust me."
Trust goes both ways, she thought.
"Lola, based on all you know of both of us, I'm asking you to choose who you think is the better man. If you think it's me, help me to take control of a man who would be willing to spill any amount of blood to get what he wanted."
He extended the envelope towards her, his eyes begging for her to take it. He would tell her no more, but still he trusted her enough to do this. He was her king, the father of her child, and even, possibly, her friend. He trusted her enough. But she wished he would trust her enough to tell her the truth. Fear crept into those big brown eyes, eyes belonging to the man she desperately wanted to trust. She did not love him in a romantic sense, but her relationship with him was deeper than her connections with Mary and Bash of late. Greer and Kenna were her best friends, while Mary was her queen. But Francis was so much more than that, something much more complicated than a friend or a lover. Jean-Philip depended on him. Lola depended on him. Trust me, he said, as if Lola's life was that simple.
Her fingers twitched with hesitation before grasping the envelope with a trembling hand. She looked up at those large brown eyes that shone with relief.
Trust goes both ways.
That night instead of readying herself for Princess Claude's homecoming, Lola had her hair tied up in a knot and the envelope stashed away in the inside of her dress as she reached Narcisse's house. The paper scraped against the side of her leg and left tiny paper cuts along the edge of her thigh.
One of the servants met her at the door, his eyebrows rising in surprise. A guest at this hour? She wondered if he and the other servants thought she was Narcisse's mistress. Why else would a beautiful young woman visit a rich and powerful lord at such an hour? Visiting at night without any warning or notice ahead of time. There would be gossip; there always was when Lola was involved.
"I am here to see Lord Narcisse. I am Lady Lola. My driver has already taken the liberty of letting my horses into your—Lord Narcisse's stables. Is that alright?"
"I will take the matter to my lord directly," the servant replied before leaving to search for his master. Lola waited in the doorway looking for a place to hide the envelope. No, not here, she thought when she saw another servant walk up to her. This next servant led her inside, eyeing her with as much curiosity as the first.
She wondered how Narcisse would react to hearing of her visit. Would he be annoyed that she arrived unannounced at night? Would he be puzzled and curious? Or would he be pleased at her visit? She imagined him hearing the news, his lips slipping into a smile at the mention of her name. The envelope was still hidden on her, ready to be planted somewhere.
She heard Lord Narcisse before she saw him. His footsteps echoed through the halls. His face shone with delight at the sight of her.
"Lady Lola—" he greeted, courteous as usual.
"I apologize for the hour, but I'm on my way home from the village and—"
"It's a pity you had not come sooner for I have just finished supper. I was in need of some good company."
"Sorry, but my carriage—"
"Whatever you need. I've sent some of my servants to help your horses. I'm sure they must famished. It is quite hot outside at this time of night."
Lola knew he said this as a double entendre, but the heat was immense. When they entered his apartments Lola was already sweating. She tried to calm herself but nothing about her behavior felt natural. She hoped that if Narcisse noticed her nervous behavior he would attribute it to the shock of being in his presence, instead of the real reason why the back of her neck was covered in sweat. She was intensely aware of every potential sound the envelope might make whenever she moved.
The servants that set down their tea looked very amused at her visit here, smirking slightly at each other after they eyed her and her dress. She had dressed this way to make it appear like she was about to attend the Princess's party, when in fact she dressed herself in these refined garments for him. He always wore grand clothing when at court to show off his station. Tonight it was her turn.
The roaring fire nearby did not quell her nerves. Instead it intensified heat in the already humid room and her dress, which was damp with perspiration.
Narcisse studied her with those all seeing, cat-like eyes. "Your hair's different," he commented finally.
"Uh, there's a shop in the village that sells the loveliest hairpieces." This part was true; she had even visited that shop and bought a hairpiece from there as a part of her ruse. He nodded, his amused facial expression making her face turn pink. Lola looked down at her hands and chuckled quietly. "You're not really interested in the details of my hair are you?"
"No. Just the hair."
She knew she had to tell him her reason for visiting and this was the perfect chance. "Yes, well, uh, I-I was on my way back to court from the village, as I said, and realized my horses needed tending," she stammered. "Thank you for that, by the way."
He smiled. "Of course."
She suddenly worried that he thought she was here for sex. Quickly she thought of a way to dissuade him: "But I shouldn't stay long. There's a welcome home party for Princess Claude—a boat party." Then she politely asked: "Will you be there?"
He shook his head, "no." Her face fell, disappointed by his answer. She couldn't understand why a part of her was so disappointed that he wouldn't be there. I suppose talking to him at the boat party would be easier than sitting here in his house with this enveloped strapped to my—
Narcisse continued to talk. "Why sail above the water when you could submerge yourself and enjoy it directly?"
It took her a moment, but then she realized what he meant and smiled nervously. "A bath? Again? Are you serious?"
"What is it about you and baths?" that slipped out before she could control her thoughts and her mouth.
"Well perhaps I'll tell you…as you bathe."
The smile faded from Lola's face and was replaced by lines of worry. She thought about it for a moment, but her instincts got the best of her.
"Draw it for me." The answer him and it surprised her too. She hadn't agreed to the bath only to find time to hide the envelope.
Narcisse stood up, pleased by her sudden choice. "I'll fetch a servant."
"Uh, no—" she stammered as she leapt to her feet. "You." She said this word with such a commanding tone she almost didn't believe the word had come out of her mouth. This Lola was cold and fierce, strong and clever. The real Lola tried her best not to tremble.
Narcisse turned around and looked at her with surprise once more. "Look at you making demands already." Lola held her breath expecting his criticisms. Instead he smiled, pleased. "You're learning."
She forced herself to smile back at him before he left the room. Once he was gone she gasped and tried to collect herself. She turned around and looked for a place to hide the envelope. She noticed the painting on the wall behind where she had been sitting.
The painting was of three men hunting a deer. How fitting, she thought when she looked at it. The main figure was on horseback flocked by hounds as they chased after a deer. The animal appeared to be attempting to escape through some trees or shrubbery. She noticed in the corner of the painting that a woman or a girl—the figure was difficult to make out—sat at the top of the hill under a tree watching the men hunt.
Again, quite fitting.
This was her chance and she decided to take it. She lifted up the back of the painting with shaking fingers. The doorknob rattled and Lola froze in alarm. When no one entered she quickly took the envelope from inside her dress and placed it behind the painting. She then shifted the canvas back to its proper place, leaving the envelope stuck behind the painting. She heard his footsteps outside the door.
Narcisse entered with a bottle of wine and a glass in hand. He noticed her nervousness right away.
"Here, while you wait, a little something to help you relax," he poured her a drink, "—because you seem a little nervous."
He handed her a glass and she gratefully took a long sip from it without a second thought. I really need this right about now!
He held out his hand, which she nervously accepted. His fingers were as cold as ice, but his palms radiated with warmth. From there he led her into his apartments, smirking as they passed his chambers before entering his wardrobe that connected to the bathroom. In the middle of the room there was a tub, which was settled in the shadow of another large fireplace. Near the fire there was a bucket of water that was being warmed by the flames.
"Would you like cold water or do you prefer the heat?" he asked, unsubtly flirting with her.
"Warm will do."
He rolled back his sleeves, showing off the pale skin of his forearms and the butterfly birthmark that lay there. He poured the warm water into the tub with care. Before leaving her to her own devices, he smiled and offered to assist her if she ever needed anything. When the door shut and he was finally gone, Lola could breathe again. She stared at the door with uncertainty, wondering if he would dare enter while she bathed. She knew she could count on it. Once she saw his shadow move away from the door and heard the sound of his receding footsteps, she quickly undressed herself.
The water was warm and comfortable, but she couldn't get herself to relax. Minutes rolled by and still she could not shake the nervous beads of sweat from her body. Then there was a quick succession of knocks upon the door. The door swung open and Lola brought her knees up to her chest, blocking the view of the rest of her body from prying eyes.
Of course he came back with a drink in hand and a towel draped over his arm, having no qualms about her nakedness. His eyes wondered over the tub and her body without shame. He closed the door behind him, sealing her in the room with no exit or defense. Lola didn't think Narcisse would hurt her, but she couldn't help but be worried that she had nothing to defend herself but her nails and wet, slippery hands. She covered herself even more, sinking further under the water, but still he approached her.
"You asked me what it was about baths that I liked and I suppose that it's the vulnerability," he admitted seriously. "The sense of comfort one feels—covered, embraced." He let those last two words sink in. "When in fact…one is quite exposed."
She pressed her legs together tightly and covered the rest of herself with her hands. Seeing a naked woman would be nothing new for him, just as letting a man see herself naked had happened three times before with Colin, Francis, and Remy. But still she wanted to shied her body from his eyes, not out of trust or fear, but because she didn't want to give him the satisfaction. I owe you nothing, especially not my body.
"Why are you here?" he asked without a trace of his usual sly and smug self.
"I told you, I was on my way back from the village." She hoped her voice didn't quake.
He set his drink down on a table and continued to talk. "You may feel that my bath is not a place to discuss philosophy, but I find it ideal because here both you and I are vulnerable."
A knowledgeable grin broke out over her face. "And yet you are the one with clothes on," she challenged.
"I can change that."
"No! Uh—it's just—I'm fine as we are." Her face reddened.
He continued, a serious man. "I promise you that if we go on you'll see me without defenses. The games I like, they go beyond games. We will share things that strip us both bare in every way possible. But none of this can happen without trust."
"I'd like to trust you," she replied honestly.
He looked at her with gentle eyes. "And I you. The risk is greater for me."
"The risk is always greater for the woman." The woman is always blamed for everything. Lola thought back to her pregnancy: she was blamed because she became pregnant and held the evidence of her indiscretion under her skin, but Francis, like all men, received none of the blame, scorn, anger, or pain.
Narcisse paused. "Not if the man is seen as an enemy of the king, or threat." Lola raised an eyebrow. "Once he learns of this, Francis will try to use you against me, that is a certainty."
"Why does Francis think that you're his enemy?"
"That's a reasonable question and a dangerous answer. So I will give you two choices: one, I can leave and you can finish this delightful bath and go home. Your world will remain as it is." He took this moment to place the towel he carried on a nearby chair. It was close enough that she could grab it if she reached for it, but it was far enough away that she would have to expose herself to reach the towel. Yet another game of his, she concluded. "Or you could join me in the drawing room downstairs and we could begin this journey to trust. It's not a journey you will return from unchanged, so consider it carefully," he added gravely.
Once he left she quickly wrapped the towel around her. She didn't even have to think about the ultimatum: she knew her decision before he had even finished his sentence. She dressed herself with nimble fingers. She did not hesitate as she opened the door, walked down the stairs, and entered the drawing room. She felt less like Pandora about to open a box out of curiosity, but instead thought of the tale of Bluebeard—the man with the mysterious past and several dead wives hidden in his closet, as his final wife would discover. Lola felt like a spy, a heroine. She had no doubt that Francis would agree with her choice.
Narcisse turned around at the sound of her footsteps. When she closed the door behind her a flood of relief washed across his face, followed by a naked look of fear. He may have been the one with the story to tell, but Lola was in complete control of the information he was about to impart on her. He knew her reaction would determine the rest of his life: if she kept his secret he could live in peace and security, but if she broke his trust and broached the subject with the king…surely he would be imprisoned or executed. Lola could tell the truth to Queen Mary, or worse, Catherine, neither of them would delay their actions of retaliation on him. Lola knew all of this and Narcisse knew that she did simply by looking into her large watchful eyes.
Lola crossed the room and sat down in a chair, her eyes never leaving his. "I'm ready," she said. "Now do you trust me?"
"I don't dare believe you," she spat at him after he told her all. "I only have your word that Francis killed Henry."
"Yes, I might be lying." He sat opposite her, his body stiff and pale.
Lola continued. "And even if he did, the king was mad. Those of us who heard him, who saw the terrible things that he did, know that."
"I make no moral judgments on Francis's actions."
Lola tried not to scoff. "But you are blackmailing him."
"Yes," he admitted without a shred of shame, "because France needs a strong, Catholic leader to hold the nation together."
"You just told me the most profound state secret, what am I supposed to do with it?"
"Well what can you do? You can't make it public—you don't want to see Francis moved from the throne-that would endanger you and your child." She sat up straight and clenched her teeth at the mention of her son. "And nor do I, unless forced, because that would endanger France."
Here he did not boast or brag. Now he was afraid: his fingers twitched as he fiddled with his wedding band and some perspiration gathered at the top of his head. Lola did not feel triumphant at seeing Lord Narcisse's nervousness. She always believed that the most dangerous animals were those that felt trapped and vulnerable, just as Narcisse and Francis felt. But why did both of these men come to her for aid when feeling vulnerable and trapped?
"Then why tell me?" she asked.
Narcisse exhaled, his breath rattling in the over heated room. "Because when Francis comes to you and um…asks you to betray my trust, I want you to remember which one of us told you the truth about who we are and what we are capable of."
She wondered if this was a threat directed at herself, Francis, or even both of them.
"How are you sure Francis will come to me? He loves Mary. He trusts Mary. I am simply the woman who became pregnant with his child."
"That is exactly why the king trusts you." She furrowed her brow. "Do you not see?" he asked. "The king trusts you more than any of the queen's other ladies. I have only been in the castle a few months, but I noticed this early on." This comment made her suspicious: is that why he talked to her? "He gave your son position when he did not have to. He lets you remain at court instead of sending you away. He treats you with more respect than most men would treat a former mistress."
"I have never been Francis's mistress!"
Narcisse raised an eyebrow. "And yet you are still the mother of his child. You of all people cannot ignore or be blind to the King's ties to you."
She folded her hands in her lap, not wishing to acknowledge this truth. Francis couldn't possibly be in love with her, she knew, but did he really trust her as much as Narcisse thought? Of course, she thought, why else would he ask you to do this?
"Trust goes both ways." She looked at Narcisse directly. "You have entrusted this horrible secret with me. You trust that I will keep it. Tell me why I should. Why should I trust you after what you have told me this night?"
"I want what is best for France."
"And overthrowing the royal family during an already chaotic time is best for France?" she asked, her eyes bulging.
"I am making Francis a stronger king."
"You are risking too many lives. Francis needs a friend, someone he trusts, someone who knows the right decisions to make. He does not need another enemy." She stood up forcefully. "Perhaps you haven't thought this through as much as you should have. Goodnight," she said curtly and walked towards the door.
"Francis is our king whether you like it or not. He has royal blood, he is anointed by God!" She took a deep breath, calming herself. "You should be more careful," she warned quietly. "He does not know you like I do."
It was then that Lola worried that she did not truly know Lord Narcisse at all. But she did not know Francis either, not anymore. She hated both men and feared for them on her journey home. She feared that neither could truly free themselves of the shackles, secrets, and threats each man cast on the other.
Then she was struck by Narcisse's words. He had told her the truth, or at least a large part of the truth. She wondered if this was a strategical tactic on his part done to unnerve her and throw her off balanced. If this theory was true then it certainly worked, for Lola then thought of Francis and his secrecy. Why did he not tell her the truth? Why did he keep everything hidden from her? Why did he not trust her enough with this information, but could trust her to hide the envelope? The envelope: what was in it? What had she done? Would the contents of that envelope lead to Narcisse's death? Yes blackmailing the king was a horrible and stupid move on his part, but Lola did not know if he deserved to die for this.
What act of treachery had Francis commanded her to preform?
She found Francis pacing alone in his room, twisting his wedding band nervously just as she had seen Narcisse do hours earlier. His face turned white as he looked at her standing in the doorway. He managed to breathe before rushing to her side. She peeked out in the hallway to make sure that no one was around, just as she had before entering. When she was satisfied that their conversation would be in secret, she closed the door.
"What happened? Did you succeed?" Francis asked breathlessly.
"What was in that envelope?" she asked sternly.
"I told you before, it's best for you if you don't know." Lola wanted to reprimand him, but she held back her anger for the moment.
"Francis, could whatever you wanted me to leave there cause his death?"
He froze for a moment before hesitatingly answering: "Yes."
"Because I need something in place in case the threat of Narcisse becomes too great. Lola, did you plant it or not?"
"I'm sorry I wasn't able to," she lied, defiant. "He became too suspicious and I left."
He exhaled and furrowed his brow, raising his voice in frustration. "Lola, I know that you are frightened but I needed you to do this!"
"Because you're the better man? Well one of you used me and it wasn't him."
Then she left the room in a huff before he could think to ask her where the envelope was.
The next day Kenna took Lola to the grand hall and introduced her to Claude. Lola found the doll faced young woman to be rude and too willful for her own good. During this brief meeting, which only came to an abrupt end because Claude quickly tired of them and left to seek other drinking companions, Kenna tried her best to impress the princess, desperately seeking the young woman's approval. Lola almost could not believe that Kenna would want to befriend this creature, but stranger things had happened recently.
The rest of the day only continued to aggravate Lola. She desperately needed a friend to talk to. She tried to find Mary, but was told that the queen was elsewhere at the moment with Lord Conde. Kenna was no place to be found and Greer was still on her honeymoon as far as Lola knew. Lola wondered how Greer would adjust to having many stepchildren barely younger than herself.
She entered the apartments she and the other ladies had once shared mere months ago. It now stood nearly empty with only some furniture and furnishings to occupy space since all of its inhabitants had left to live with their husbands. Lola had not been back there since Francis had moved her to other apartments closer to his so he could reach their son more easily. She was only there for a few moments, but could have sworn that she heard the sound of a bed in the next room creaking. When she left, Lola thought she saw a flash of gold hair dart into the room. Lola assumed this was a servant, perhaps a pair of servants interrupted during their duties, or lovemaking more likely.
At dinner Lola looked for her friends once again, but instead of seeing Kenna or Mary, she was greeted with shocked and excited gossip in their place. The rest of court was shocked to hear that Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Conde, had publically confessed to being a Protestant along with a few other men in a meeting before the king. This news surprised Lola, as it did everyone else, but then she thought of other rumors she had heard concerning the religious beliefs of his brother, Antoine de Bourbon, the King of Navarre, and became less surprised at this revelation. Lola's father had a certain amount of distain for Protestants, whom he felt had overtaken Scotland at an alarming speed, but Lola was more open-minded. The idea of meeting a Protestant had seemed so far away to her a few years ago, but now times certainly had changed.
She left the busy great hall, eager to return to her rooms. She passed Lord Narcisse in the corridors. She realized that he must have returned to court soon after her visit, perhaps only a few hours after she had left if he had arrived early in the day as she believed he must have. This idea frightened her: he must have found the envelope or at least suspect something. Then Lola remembered that he would have been present to hear Conde's confession and attributed Narcisse's presence to political matters instead of personal ones that she was concerned with.
Narcisse caught sight of her as she passed him, a small smile forming on his lips. He finished his conversation with another man before approaching her.
"Lady Lola." There was something about the way he said her name that tickled her. Whenever he spoke her name aloud she felt that a feather was tickling the back of her neck. Her name on his lips reminded her of red and purple velvet: a violet pillow atop a soft, silky bed. Stop that! she commanded herself.
She turned around in time to see him bow courteously with that typical smug look on his face. "Always a delight."
Lola decided that now was the time for answers. She spoke: "You ask why I came to you, but I could ask the same of you." This question did not phase him, instead he merely stared at her with that smug grin still plastered to his face as if it were chiseled into his features from birth. Disappointed by his silence, she continued. "You say you seek something beyond games, but your reputation proceeds you. I've read all about it."
He grinned at the knowledge that she had read about his sexual prowess in that book. "In the famed journals I thought existed." He stepped forward presumptuously. "What detail gripped you most?"
"Not the point," she said firmly. "Court is over-full with available women, uncomplicated women to explore and discard. Why me?"
He paused, either preparing a lie or preparing to tell the truth. "I have…" he swallowed, perhaps out of nervousness or to appear sincere, "…no ulterior motive Lola." She was relieved for a moment. "I suppose I do enjoy games, but I've never had a worthy opponent." You should try Queen Catherine, Lola wanted to say. Of course Lola was flattered that he thought she was a worthy opponent to his games, but that still did not make his words any more true.
Lola decided to admit the truth too. "You make me do things I would not do otherwise." It frightened Lola that he brought out this side of her. But it was a side she enjoyed in one way or another. Narcisse smiled at her words. She wanted to return his smile, but he was still a danger to Francis. Francis. "But you are an adversary to Francis. An enemy." He did not appear to be listening, instead he stared down at her with that happy little grin that looked both gentle and wolfish. She tried to gain his attention by speaking louder. "And he is not only the father of my child. He's my king. And my friend. So you and I we cannot continue—"
He stopped her from finishing her sentence with a sudden kiss. Her instincts overtook her sense, making her close her eyes and lean in without a thought to the action. It must be a primal instinct: when someone leans in to kiss a woman the woman either flinches and draws back in surprise or the woman instinctively kisses back, regardless of the identity of the sender and receiver of the kiss. Lola received his lips, his mouth willingly. He pulled her closer to him, wrapping his arms around her back. She placed her hands on his shoulders, the warmth of her skin melting into the fabric of his clothes. He quietly moaned before pulling her behind a wall to hide themselves from passersby. Lola did not hear anyone approach them. She could only hear the sound of her own shallow breathing, his low moans, and their lips mashing together.
Then it hit her. She must not do this! She cannot do this! How dare he cut her off, ignore her words, invade her thoughts. Well, that last part he had no control over, but still Lola knew she had to stop this now. She reared her head back and pushed him away. When he tried to kiss her again she greeted him with a hard slap. The force made him cry out and turn his head in the other direction. What a good slap, she thought, complimenting herself. The slap echoed down the corridor. When Narcisse realized what had happened he gasped and then a pleased smile crossed his face, rather enjoying the feeling of her hand against him.
His enjoyment bewildered her. "Do not seek to take before I give," she commanded gently before stomping away from him.
She heard his heavy breathing behind her as he gathered his wits. "I'm glad to hear you're thinking of giving," he called to her as she receded down the corridor.
Lola gave him a quick look of disapproval over her shoulder before turning the corner. She didn't want to let him have any sort of power over her, even if she had enjoyed that kiss.