Trial and Circumstance
For once, everything was quiet. The breeze blew gently through the barred window, bringing with it the scent of spring: jasmine and daffodils from the flowerbeds of the townhouses, apples from the orchards over the hill and grapes drooping from their vines just waiting to be picked and fermented.
Marguerite de Ghent watched the dying sunlight as it caught the specks of dust floating in the air. The shadow of a bird flashed across the grey stone wall, piercing the silence with a warble. As she watched the sunlight fade away, Marguerite noted that its disappearance marked the end of yet another year spent caged in the tiny room.
She rubbed the back of her neck – peering up at the window set high in the wall always caused her much pain – and resumed ripping apart a straw of hay, smiling with satisfaction as she tore strand after strand from it and discarded them on to the cold stone floor. Marguerite was past caring that dirt clogged itself underneath her jagged fingernails, her skin was brown with muck or that her blonde hair was greasy and in desperate need of a wash. She was no longer the whining, spoiled brat of an adolescent who cared only for herself and was conceited enough to believe that she, out of all of the eligible maidens of France, was certain to marry a royal prince. Ten years in the Bastille had hardened her and crushed all hope she had left.
Marguerite de Ghent was notorious for the suffering she had caused Prince Henry and Princess Danielle. Peasants and the bourgeoisie alike would come by to gawk at her and whisper behind their hands to one another at her incarcerated state. They used to come in droves, queuing up for hours with handkerchiefs held to their noses for their chance to point at and ridicule a person who had fallen so far, accusing her of committing every kind of transgression. If someone else had been in her place, Marguerite imagined that she would come by too, to laugh and make a mockery of the infamous Comtesse de Thiernot.
And didn't she look a sight! She sat in clothes that were cleaned but once a year, in a building where, when the wind refused to blow in, contained the stench of hundreds of other poor souls convicted of wrongdoings, which infiltrated her nose to the point where she would dry retch and long for the country air she had once been so disgusted with. Marguerite had had everything – wealth, privilege, the eye of many a nobleman. But all of that was lost now. Just as her mother had once taken hold of and caused havoc to Danielle and Jacqueline's lives, so had Rodmilla wrecked Marguerite's.
The sound of boots stomping against the stone floor echoed down the hallway. One of the girls Marguerite shared her cell with jumped up and pressed her face against the bars of the door, straining to see who was making the noise. She had murdered her husband when he had discovered that she was having an affair, after her lover promised they would run away together. Now, every time someone passed by the door, she thought it was her lover coming to rescue her from the horrors of the Bastille. It never was.
"Marguerite de Ghent?" boomed the cantankerous voice of the prison guard. Marguerite's cellmate gave her a disparaging look as she slumped back down in her corner to mourn her fate. Marguerite dropped the remnants of the hay she was holding, and eased herself up from the ground, feeling her back creak and her blood rush to her legs, punishing her with prickling sensations for sitting down for too long.
It was long past afternoon, which seemed the favourite time for her ill-wishers to come and make their stabs at her, and Marguerite hadn't received any actual visitors who were there to care about and worry after her since she had first walked through that cell door. Flicking back a lock of hair that had escaped from behind her shoulder, she peered through the darkness to the shape illuminated by the light of a torch. The flickering flame cast large eerie shadows on the walls and highlighted the features of her visitors that were usually in shadow, making them look like strange creatures from another world.
There were three of them – the hunched prison guard, with his prickly demeanour and sour face; the torchbearer, a young boy who could not have been not older than twelve; and a young man, who Marguerite could only assume was her visitor. His dark hair was cropped close to his head and his brow was furrowed. As her eyes continued looking, she could just barely glimpse the insignis of the House of Valois – a dragon of gold – embroidered on his clothing. She felt her body grow tense. Her grip on the iron bar of the cell door tightened. What would a member of the Royal Guard want with her after all of this time? She had been quite certain she would be left to rot in the Bastille. Surely they had no other punishment to deal to her?
"Who are you?" Marguerite spoke after the prison guard had retreated into the darkness. Her throat felt dry and her voice sounded scratchy as her own words reached her ears. She could not remember the last time she had drunk something – wine, juice, even a glass of that foul-smelling river water would do to ease the dryness in her throat.
"Damon Laurent, Madame." Marguerite took a step back in spite of herself. The last time she had seen him he had been barely six years old, trailing along after his father, playing at dragon-slaying with his cousins, and terrorising his twin sisters. And now here he was, her own nephew, a grown man who had met all of the expectations his parents had ever set for him.
It was hard to think that they had been so close all of those years ago, when the little boy would present her with flowers ripped away from the royal garden beds and demand that the Comtesse de Thiernot be the damsel in distress while he vanquished the fearsome invisible dragon with his wooden sword. Not that he would probably remember those times. Now what he remembered abut her was more likely gossip and myth than distant memories. It showed in the awkward silence that hung between them and in Damon's gestures as he shifted from foot to foot and scratched his head nervously.
"What is it that you wish to tell me, Monsieur Laurent?" Marguerite encouraged. Damon straightened his back and cleared his throat, before looking directly at her:
"I have news – whether it is good or bad I leave for you to decide. Rodmilla is dead."