Chapter 4: A Most Peculiar Mademoiselle
When she woke, Sable dimly wondered why there was no hay. Then the memories of last night's wild ride came to her, and she remembered. She had no idea what time it was; no windows meant no sunlight. The fire had smoldered into a cold heap of ashes. Even under the blankets she was freezing; then she realized she only wore her slip, and she was far from balmy New France.
The shackles were gone, too. Had he removed them during the night?
Her pink dress was nowhere to be found. Maybe Adrien had taken it to be cleaned. In its place were a creamy linen blouse, grey bodice and homespun forest green skirt draped over a chair. He had the good sense to leave her favorite soft leather boots, now dried out. If I can't have my buckskins, this is a little more practical than that damned pink, she thought as she began to dress. The new clothes were a little loose, but otherwise comfortable.
She realized what was out of place. Along with the dress, her cloak was gone. Without it she felt naked. She couldn't go wandering around with only the mask; it drew too many questions.
Sable was aware that she was alone, unbound, and her master was nowhere in sight. It was an unfamiliar feeling. The thought of escape danced across her mind. But she was without anything but the clothes on her back, no horse and wagon, and stranded in a strange place. The idea swam away as quickly as a startled fish in a pond.
Edouard Thierry had been good to his word; a fresh-baked croissant and a teapot awaited her on the floor as she tentatively opened the door. Having not eaten since lunch yesterday, she was ravenous. She chased her breakfast with two cups of hot tea.
Emboldened with the thought of freedom, she decided to explore her new surroundings. She took one of the blankets as a makeshift cloak, threw it around her head, and stepped outside.
The tavern was silent as a monastery at this early hour. She tiptoed down the hall. Four other rooms lined the corridor; maybe Adrien had slept in one of them. No trophies were to be found on the walls here, only several moth-eaten tapestries and a pair of portraits, a man and a woman. She stared at them for a moment. The man was handsome, with an angular face and a smug expression. He held the reins of a fierce-looking black horse. The other portrait depicted a seated woman hardly older than herself. She had kind brown eyes and cinnamon hair; her hands were demurely crossed on her lap.
Someone's mother. She felt the tears suddenly welling. Maman was gone but the pain lingered. The only person whom she knew anymore was mercurial and cruel.
But Adrien was nowhere to be seen at the moment. He hadn't warned her against going out, so she decided to chance it.
Downstairs, pale sunlight streamed through the windows into the barroom. A dray was parked outside, from which two young men unloaded kegs of ale. Neither Matthieu Navarre, his nieces, or anyone else was around. She decided to head to the stables and see how the cob was doing. At least I'll have some privacy there.
Judging by the position of the sun, it was already mid-morning. Had she really slept that long? She wondered. But she felt rejuvenated, and her soreness had already begun to ebb. A brisk wind gusted, and she remembered it was late fall here. Maybe the blanket would not be so conspicuous after all.
Normally at this time of day she'd be sitting in the wagon, watching the clouds as the scenery lazily rolled by. Today was different. She allowed herself to take in the sights and sounds of the village.
She seemed to be right in the town square. A fountain flowed in its midst. A pair of older women chattered and did laundry while a boy led a donkey laden with chicken cages past. At every shopfront and street corner, a vendor sold fresh fruit or eggs, candles or shoes. She caught a whiff of something delicious from the bakery. Maybe she'd try and get another of those croissants.
"Mademoiselle, you look a bit lost. Anything I can do to help?" It was one of the young draymen, a wiry redhead.
Speaking to strangers was something her master frowned upon. She uttered a few words in Basque that the ship's mate had taught her.
"Sorry, didn't catch that?"
Sable mimed a horse and rider, then shrugged her shoulders questioningly. She kept her eyes safely downward.
"The stables?" She nodded. "Right across the way."
Safely away, she was grateful no one else tried to start a conversation. These types always gossiped, and a newcomer was good fodder for discussion. She opened the barn door and peered inside. Once again, she was alone with only the pleasant and familiar scents of horses and harness.
"Ouille! Son of a…" The noise was sudden and followed by the heavy clank of a dropped bucket. She melted into the shadows and waited for the speaker to come into view.
His long shadow was much taller than he was. Sable repressed the sudden urge to laugh at the sight of him. He cut a strange figure, hardly taller than a young boy, dressed in mismatched clothes much too big for him. In each hand he held a bucket of feed; he'd clearly dropped a third.
"Damn you, Lefou, pick that up!" She remembered Edouard's gruff baritone from the previous night. "No more fooling around!"
"Sorry, boss," muttered the unfortunate Lefou, kneeling to scoop up the grain with his hands.
For once, here was someone even more downtrodden than her. Her wry smile had turned into an expression of pity. She felt suddenly compelled to speak, and emerged from her hiding place.
"I'm trying, I'm trying…" he fumbled, clearly expecting a beating or worse as her shadow fell across him. Then he looked up. "Who…who are you?"
She knelt and began to gather some of the grain in her skirt. "I'm Sable," she said.
"Never seen you around here," replied Lefou.
"That's because I'm not from this place. I came to check on our horse."
"Oh." He sighed in relief. "That bay? He's all right, I think. I wrapped his leg and gave him some hot mash this morning."
"You did?" The old horse was in the last stall on the right; he stood gingerly with his front leg bandaged. "Thanks," she said with a smile.
It was not a word Lefou was used to hearing. He studied his shoes and blushed. "It was nothing, really. Just my job."
"You wouldn't have run into a Monsieur Arseneault this morning, would you? Tall, dark hair, a goatee?"
The young man chuckled. "Sounds a little like Gaston, only with a goatee."
"You're really not from around Ste.-Eulalie, are you?"
So that was the name of this village. "That's what they tell me." She sighed.
There were so many questions she wanted to ask him, but he spoke first.
"Your accent's kind of weird. Where did you say you were from, anyway?"
Why were these people always asking that? She spat out Adrien's all-purpose response. "I've traveled my whole life. We never stay in one place very long." At least for the last few months, it had been the truth. A pang of homesickness washed over her.
"What brings you here? We're kind of off the main road." He sat on a bale of hay, his chin cupped under his hands. Evidently he was just as curious about her.
"Our horse broke down last night. We were on the way to…" Adrien had never told her, so she was forced to improvise. "Toulouse," she quickly managed. It was one of the only place names he had mentioned.
"Wow," breathed Lefou. "I've never been more than a couple villages away, and to the horse fair every year. Gaston has, though. He likes to tell stories about some of the places he's been. But he always says this is his home."
She smiled at his enthusiasm. "I guess I've got to ask: just who is this Gaston?"
Words came gushing from the other like water from a burst dam. "He's the best! He's a hunter, a really great shot, everybody in town loves him. He's a great fighter, too…"
Sable's ears only heard the last words as Lefou babbled on and on about his hero. Gaston, whomever he was, was probably her next opponent.
"So why do you have that scarf thing on, anyway?" She snapped her head up. Curiosity had gotten the better of him, after all.
"It's…complicated. I can't tell you."
"What's under there? Can you take it off?"
"No!" He cowered at her sudden outburst.
Neither one spoke for a moment. She hadn't expected her temper to be so sudden and fierce. Maybe this Gaston has a bit of a temper, too.
"I…I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that," she said. "Like I said, it's complicated. I really don't know who I can trust."
"It's okay," answered Lefou, not too convincingly. "If I see this friend of yours, I'll try and let you know. I gotta get back to work, though. I guess I'll see you around?"
She did not think to correct him about Adrien. "Maybe. I'm not sure when we'll be leaving." It was the truth. "Thanks again for taking good care of the horse."
"No problem, Miss Sable."
"Who did you say she is, Lefou?" asked Gaston for the third time.
"Dunno. Some kind of traveler. She really didn't say, but mentioned something about Toulouse," offered Lefou.
The de Valois family chalet at the outskirts of town was beginning to fall into disrepair, but was still as warm and inviting as the tavern. Gaston stood before his full-length mirror, holding up two different dress coats and trying to decide. Lefou had made a beeline there as soon as his work at the stables was done, and the hunter had immediately peppered him with questions. He hadn't known most of the answers, but he had been able to offer some advice on an outfit for the party.
"I heard some of the guys talking about her at the blacksmith's. Tanguy swears she's a gypsy, but old Valentin made her out to be a Basque. Who does she think she is, anyway? This is supposed to be my day!" he spat, throwing one of the coats aside in disgust.
Lefou sighed and picked up the coat. "I actually liked this one better."
"Too right. Why was I thinking gold instead of red?"
"She mentioned a guy called Monsieur Arseneault. I never met anyone with that name."
Gaston scowled, trying to think. "Nah, doesn't ring a bell. Besides, no one in town's ever seen her before. What's she look like?"
"Couldn't tell that either, really. Kinda dark brown hair, I think She had some kind of wrap on…" Trying to change the subject, his friend picked up a pair of boots from the floor. "I bet these would look great with that red coat."
"Of course. Give me those," ordered Gaston. " 'Sable.' Strange name for a girl. Now, more importantly, how do I look?"
The question seemed redundant. Gaston always cut a stunning figure, and was especially dashing tonight in his favorite tailcoat, vest and pants. The black boots completed the look. Lefou favored him with two thumbs up, and smiled idiotically. "Looks really good," he said.
"I know." Gaston basked for a moment in the praise. "Now get on back. I'm sure you've got something to take care of. I promise I'll pretend to be surprised," he said.
The ostler's apprentice trotted obediently out the door, back to town.
Gaston picked up his comb and absently ran it once more through his glossy black hair. The chalet seemed eerily quiet now that he was alone again. But that was more often than not these days. He'd been on his own since just before his sixteenth birthday. Five years later and he was still a bachelor.
It won't always be like this, he thought, surveying his disheveled home. Once I find the perfect little wife, there'll be someone to handle the dishes, and the cooking, and the sewing and cleaning. And not long afterwards, the sound of little feet on the floor. A man could get used to that. Not to mention a nice foot massage every night…
One more glance in the mirror at perfection, and he was satisfied. He blew out the oil lamp on the dresser and headed out.