by Laura L. Sullivan


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From the glittering ballrooms of 17th Century England to the dangerous intrigues of the French court, Laura L. Sullivan brings an unlikely heroine to the page, turning on its head everything we’ve been told about The Three Musketeers and their ultimate rival.
I’ve gone by many names, though you most likely know me as Milady de Winter: Villainess. Seductress. A secondary player in someone else’s tale.
It’s finally time I tell my own story. The truth isn’t tidy or convenient, but it’s certainly more interesting.
Before you cast judgment, let me start at the beginning, and you shall learn how an innocent girl from the countryside became the most feared woman in all of Europe.
Because we all know history was written by men, and they so often get things wrong.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451489982
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 136,298
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Laura L. Sullivan is the author of five books for middle grade and young adult audiences. This is her adult debut. She lives in Florida with her son.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Laura L. Sullivan




The things a woman has to do to make her way in this world . . .

Mrs. Fox’s whorehouse attracts a peculiar clientele. Oh, to most women, any man who will pay for heartless amours must be a little bit peculiar. We women, you see, are polar creatures, careening wildly from one extreme to another, either wholly romantic or entirely practical. Lovemaking, for us, must either be about devotion or commerce. Never both. We don’t mix the two, although myopic men believe we do.

I have known many prostitutes, and not one of them has ever fallen in love with a client. Few indeed harbor anything but dislike for them, though occasionally a twinge of pity might creep into the most sensitive houri’s heart. Which is not to say that whores don’t fall in love. They do, harder than most. Just not with the men who pay them, no more than a blacksmith will fall in love with his bellows.

Somehow, though, men always believe that their whores secretly love them. They cannot be content simply to pay for pleasure, as they might pay a chef to prepare a sumptuous meal. No, they insist that the woman they rent must feel something. That, they think, is their right, and they feel cheated if their money cannot buy more than physical release. The best of the customers hope their gold will buy affection. These men are at least harmless, if deluded.

Others, however, insist on sharper feelings.

The marquis enjoys what his confreres call le vice anglais. Here, on the outskirts of Paris, the English Mrs. Fox is happy to provide all variations of vice. The English and French are in a constant state of agitation with each other, their royalty alternately bickering and intermarrying, their religious sects quibbling over minutiae they are willing to die over. And yet through peace and war (and war was threatening now at the Huguenot fortress city of La Rochelle), Mrs. Fox found that national relations were always cordial enough to keep her in business. Here, Frenchmen can conquer their traditional English enemy on comfortable feather beds rather than on the battlefield. Or, more often, yield.

For most of her customers like to be on the receiving end, whipped by a beautiful English wanton. Not the marquis. Few of the high-end girls will take him on, and he does not care for the ladies of the street, poxed and desperate. So you can imagine his glee when he spies me among Mrs. Fox’s bevy, an innocent young widow fresh from the English countryside, with hair as golden as ripe wheat at sunset and eyes like English bluebells.

Forewarned of his presence, I hide behind the more experienced girls, but this only serves to attract his attention. My fear acts like oysters and Spanish fly to him. Even through downturned lashes, I can see his breath quicken in excitement.

“Step forward, Charlotte,” the procuress says in her silky voice. “Let the gentleman see you.” I hang back, and she gestures to two of the other whores to guide me forward. “A new girl, not a virgin, true, but fresh to the trade. Her only lover was her husband, mangled in a mill, alas.”

I feel a tear tickle my cheek, but when one of the girls nudges me in the ribs, I look into the marquis’s eyes and manage to twitch a smile at him before dropping a curtsy. “Milord.”

“Yes,” he says ravenously. “Look at that skin. Your husband was a prosperous man, eh? You never had to work, I can tell.” He nods to Mrs. Fox. “She will do. She will do to a nicety.”

When the girl beside me whispers into my ear exactly what he intends to do, though, I balk and pull away from his reaching hand. Behind him, I catch a glimpse of Roger, who sails under the flag of “nephew” but is Mrs. Fox’s young lover and bully boy. He keeps the customers in line . . . and also the girls, if necessary. The marquis follows my terrified eyes, and we both watch as Roger clenches and unclenches his meaty hands, conveying a multitude of meanings. If the marquis gets too rough, that gesture tells me, I’ll step in. But if you refuse to please your first client, these hands will make you hurt in ways the marquis never dreamed of.

And so, I accept my fate. What else can a poor English widow do?

Feigning courage through my trembling, I lead him to a room that smells of, well, the sort of things a brothel is known for. But this isn’t an ordinary pleasure den. There is a propped ladder, a sturdy wooden X, a bench, and the sort of stand usually used to hold saddles. On the wall are paddles, short and thick, and long and slender. A sweating bucket full of birch rods waits in one corner, and a braided cat huddles in another, tossed aside by someone in the throes and forgotten. The walls are painted in roses and peonies, and the other furniture could be found in any middle-class English merchant’s parlor. The floor is oft-scrubbed wood, and the rugs are red.

He gestures to the crossed beams, and I know he means for me to pliantly place my hands in the thongs affixed to their capitals. He is a large man, a soldier and an expert swordsman who could easily move me into whatever position he chose, force the most abject submission. But that I would meekly thread my hands into the restraints myself excites him.

My will is the first thing he will break. After that, my skin.

I move to the X, then pause. “Will you take wine, sir?” I mumble.

“What?” he demands.

“W . . . wine, milord. Mrs. Fox said I . . . should offer you wine.” He laughs as I seek to delay the inevitable by shuffling up to a low table. While I pour a single cup of wine, he smirks, and turns to examine the birch rods.

I don’t spill a drop.

“Thank you, my dear,” he says as he takes the cup, just exactly as if I were a lady worthy of respect and not an English whore he means to thrash bloody. Down it goes, and he wipes his lips on the lace at his sleeve, then gestures me to bondage.

I face the X and slip my hands in. The leather is rough on the tendons of my wrists.

“The other way,” he says.

Slowly, I turn all my softest parts back toward him, and he secures my hands high above my head, spread wide. I assume he’ll buckle them to the tightest hole, but no. I can’t escape, but my hands are held loosely. I can wiggle and struggle. The pulling will chafe my tender wrists raw. Oh, he has done this before!

I’m still clothed. The marquis takes a knife from his belt. Mrs. Fox has factored the cost of my gown into my price, along with the inevitable doctor’s fees.

“Milord, I beg of you, wait a moment.” He pauses. There is no script for this—Mrs. Fox left it to my natural instincts—but if there were, I’m sure I commenced begging exactly on cue. “I am a widow, alone in the world. For the love of God, have mercy on me.”

His weapon is erect as he advances on me. “Alone,” he says. “Helpless. Will you scream, my pretty? If you don’t, I’ll give you ten livres for yourself. We won’t tell Mrs. Fox, eh?” He smiles at me, then a shadow crosses his face as he doubles over. In a moment, he has collected himself. The marquis wouldn’t let a pang of the guts interrupt his pleasure.

The blade touches my throat, just above my high bodice. Other harlots reveal their charms, but I know the thrill for him is that they are hidden, that he is the one who can unveil them. Down the knife presses to cut through my costly fabric, and I feel the honed edge kiss my skin beneath the layers. Did he cut me? I can’t tell, for the knife is so sharp I can’t distinguish pressure from pain. He will not be the first man to mark me.

I hear the breath of parting silk as he slices my gown farther open . . . and he staggers back. His hands clench in a spasm, then open uncontrollably. The knife clatters.

Now? No, too soon. But it will not be long.

“Milord!” I cry out. Whore that he thinks me, he won’t believe I care about his well being. The creature he has tied up only fears anything that might keep the madame from getting her coin. This day will be taken out in my skin one way or another—if he does not pay to flog me, the bawd will flog me for his lack of payment.

He tries to straighten, but then vomits over the red rug.

No matter. The poison in the wine is already deeply into his system. He can purge all he likes; his doom is still clear.

My frightened visage fades, and I stand calmly with my buckled arms widespread high over my head. I am bound and he is free, but only one of us is afraid now.

“You shouldn’t have defied the cardinal,” I say in my low purring voice. “Once, perhaps. Audacity amuses him. But never twice.”

“Gar!” he chokes out, looking at me in confusion.

“Is it a novelty to you, milord, having no control over your own body? I imagine so. You enjoy taking away others’ control. How do you like being helpless and in pain?”

He topples to his side in his own vomit.

“Can you hear me, milord?” I wish he were near enough to kick to attention, because I would particularly like him to hear this last part before he expires. “Cardinal Richelieu sent me to kill you for matters of state, but I have reason enough of my own to be glad to see you wiped from the earth. Your wife did me a kindness once. She was too good for the likes of you. I know the world believes she drowned, and pities you for your tragic loss. But I once saw her swim past the end of the pier at Nice in high waves. She would not perish in a horsepond. Admit that you drowned her, and I will give you the antidote.”

With the last of his strength, he rolls to his fallen knife and makes a pathetic lunge at me. Then with a guttural groan of agony, he stiffens in one last convulsion, and his eyes stare, forever unblinking, at the nothing that is his due.

I sigh. A confession would have been nice, if only so I could laugh as he begged for the antidote to the poison. But no matter.

A bit of simple acrobatics brings my ankle up to my bound hand, where I retrieve a knife—one of many; vital systems must have redundancies—and cut myself free.

Mrs. Fox peeks in the door. “Done already? That was fast.”

“My poisons always are. I would have liked him to linger a bit longer, but his heart was in such palpitations at the thought of violating me that the poison spread more swiftly through his veins than I’d anticipated.” I rub my wrists. Good, there are no welts this time. Other times men have tied me up, I have not been so lucky.

Mrs. Fox looks with distaste at the marquis. “I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me what you used. It could come in handy one day.”

“If you ever tire of Roger?”

She throws her head back and laughs. “When I tire of him, I’ll pension him off like I have the others. No, killing is not for me. You keep your poisons, Milady. I’ll keep men under control with my own methods.”

“They’ve worked well for you so far. Business seems to be going splendidly.”

She nods. “Thanks to your timely loan.”

“What would Paris be without Mrs. Fox?” I ask. “I couldn’t have you going back to England.”

She sighs. “Ah, the fog, the sunless skies. I miss it, times. Do you?”

I narrow my eyes at her. “Being a born Frenchwoman, I am happiest in my mother country.”

She chuckles again. “Of course, of course.”

Damn, but she’s a shrewd woman.

“Care for a cup of wine after your exertions?”

I glance at the emptied cup on the table. “I don’t care much for strong drink. It hides a multitude of sins. Shall I send someone to take care of that?” I gesture to the thing that was the wicked marquis.

“No, Roger will dump him in the river after moonset. You rest easy. No one will even know he was here tonight. So”—her eyes even craftier—“does this sufficiently repay the loan?”

“Hmm . . . how about some of your raspberry tarts? For the road. I won’t overstay my welcome. Then we’ll be square.”

“No, love, stay a bit. It isn’t often I get to talk with someone as witty as you.” She takes my hand, and we walk downstairs to her private parlor, gossiping about her girls, the local magistrate, the price of butter.

Women, you see, can combine affection and commerce with each other, if not in their relations with men.

I might say that my opinion of men is low. But then, my opinion of mankind is fairly poor to begin with. It is only that men generally have more scope for mischief and malice.

At home—the home only four people know about—I strip off clothes that carry the faint stench of brothel and splash my face in the basin. Ah, to wash the world away in a cold cascade! Off comes the kohl from my eyes, the cinnabar from my cheeks, the false flags that give whatever face I want to the wide world. I always have a mask on.

Everywhere except here.

I hear a step behind me and whirl with the instinct of long training. Water beading on my lashes blurs my vision, and I only vaguely make out a large masculine form bearing down on me. In an instant I’m overpowered, my arms pinned, helpless.

Helpless beneath his kisses.

I can hardly breathe. My heart is wild. When at last he releases me, I blink my eyes to clarity and gasp, “Darling!” and wiggle free enough to throw my arms around his neck. Pulling him close, I unbalance us both, and we go down on the carpet in a tangle of limbs and laughter. There’s a quick, violent tussle, and I end up on top, straddling his chest, my hands on the tender pulse of his throat.

I kiss that pulse, his blood thrumming against my lips.

Here, in this house, are all the things those who think they know Milady would say I don’t deserve. A prison cell, the torments of hell are more fitting for one such as me, many believe. My name—my title, rather, for no one knows who I truly am, and even in Paris I have many guises—is whispered in the dark as furtively as some speak of the devil, as if to breathe my name would conjure me up in the flesh. And oh, what flesh! My beauty is part of my legend. Deadly beauty.

But I am not so beautiful as they think, nor yet so deadly. I have some natural gifts, but above all, it is my training and practice that make me what I am today—the cardinal’s creature, the most feared assassin in France.

In comes the third part of our ménage, carrying with her the minuscule fourth. She looks down at our combative posture with wry eyebrows. “Mission successful? As if I have to ask.”

I unstraddle the Comte de Wardes and slip into a linen robe before taking the cooing little bundle from Madame Bonacieux, or however she styles herself at the moment. Another spy, she gained a position as the queen’s seamstress, secured through a false marriage to an elderly, influential merchant. The queen, of course, is charmed with her amusing, insinuating prattle, and tells her practically everything as she is fitted for her embroidered pantaloons. And it all goes to the queen’s enemy, the cardinal.

I look into the cherub’s face, mostly because when he is in the room, I cannot seem to turn elsewhere, such is the strange gravity of motherhood, but also so I don’t have to see the swift pained look that I know will cross my lover’s face at the thought of my mission. We both know, rationally, that such indignities and dangers are part of the job. That does not make it any easier for the heart to bear. I know I am in an ecstasy of nerves whenever he leaves on a mission.

Any small slip, the tiniest betrayal, an accident of chance, might tear all the happiness in this little house asunder.

And now, here comes another chance for fate to have its way with us. Madame Bonacieux has a message from our master. A new assignment.

My lover moves our child onto his lap as I take in the details. It skims by me, mere trivia. That Gascon boy D’Artagnan who appeared out of nowhere and, almost accidentally, thwarted two of the cardinal’s plots already—I am to befriend him. Easy enough. If I cannot make a nineteen-year-old bumpkin my devoted servant, I have lost my touch. Madame Bonacieux, too, had been tasked with seducing him in her own tricksy way, and already has the boy half mad with her feigned kidnappings and royal schemes. But the cardinal always prefers two strings to his bow. It is one of the easier assignments of my career.I breathe a weary breath, almost, but not quite, like a sigh, and ask my friend, “Why?”

“His Eminence is interested in the upstart gadfly, and wants to co-opt him for his own uses. The young man has made fast friends among the king’s Musketeers, and seems to be everywhere. It is he who brought the queen’s diamonds back from Buckingham, saving her honor.”

My son, all apricots and cream, makes a sound very like a snort. When I look over, though, he has only spit up on his father’s chest, a thing that both of them seem to find extravagantly amusing.

“It was a stupid plot to begin with,” I say, peevish, “if a goat from the country could thwart it. But I didn’t mean a small why. I meant a rather larger one.”

The three of us, spies all, fall silent. We had come to the cardinal as vessels, not empty, perhaps, but supremely porous, absorbing all his tales of duty and justice and peace. One strategic death can prevent thousands, he always said, as a daub of mud can save a dike. We do this for the widows, for the children, for the young soldiers.

I have done more for the widows and children out of my own pocket, my own will, than the cardinal has. As I look at the cruel and ravenous world around us, the best that can be said for our job is that without us, it might all be worse.

That is a far cry from making the world better.

In the shorthand of long acquaintance, we repeat a frequent conversation with a mere glance. We know all the arguments. We know we cannot leave.

“We should leave,” I say, the milky scent of my son driving the smell of sex and vomit from my memory, making me weak enough to speak my wish aloud.

The comte nods, but says what we all know. “He wouldn’t let us. He would kill us, and everything we love.”

I would like to argue that we are his best spies and assassins, that we are a match for the cardinal. But the world is not like that. Lions are torn apart by jackals, and desert sand can wear away a colossus. If I was alone, I could risk it. But look at what I have to lose.

I dress, very carefully, donning my clothes like a costume, like weapons. Last of all, I put on my rosary of red and black beads. For one can always use a little extra help.

If you had told me ten years ago that spy work could be tedious, I would have laughed. But any job, performed not with love but of necessity, becomes drudgery. Ferret out this secret, kidnap that prince, forge one missive and steal another . . . it is all so much housekeeping now. However well you scrub the floor, it becomes dirty again. Ten years make excitement dull.

Almost without thought, I catch D’Artagnan’s eye, make him follow me, stage a scene with Lord de Winter (my supposed brother-in-law; I’ve had as many sham husbands as Madame Bonacieux). Predictable as clockwork, the impetuous Gascon challenges de Winter to a duel. Spilled blood sharpens a young man’s appetite. If he wins, he will be so inflamed for me in his victory that he will do my bidding in exchange for promises never fulfilled. If he should be the one pinked by de Winter’s blade, I will play the loving nurse, and twist him to my ends just as easily.

My lover has taken our son to the countryside to roll in clover and no doubt try to befriend and embrace a bee, which will end with a sticky sweet to distract him from the pain, to everyone’s satisfaction but the bee’s. With nothing better to do, I disguise myself as a woman just poor enough to not be robbed, just well-off enough to not be mistaken for a streetwalker, and stroll off to see the duel.

There is quite a crowd behind the Luxembourg tonight. The combatants have brought seconds . . . and thirds . . . and fourths! It is usual to have a comrade to ensure fair play, or to take the duelist’s place should cowardice prevail. But to have three seconds? D’Artagnan’s friends are all in Musketeer uniform. They all negotiate in the shadows, and I see one of the Musketeers lean in to whisper something to de Winter’s man. Once they’ve determined the rules of casualty and mortality, they move into a circle of light cast by their torch-bearing lackeys.

Though I’d never laid eyes on them, I had learned something of D’Artagnan’s friends, those Musketeers with geographic sobriquets that obviously hid something. Portly bon vivant Porthos; lean Aramis with his holy, romantic air.

And then my breath stops as the third Musketeer’s face becomes clear. Taciturn Athos, older than the rest, deadliest of the three even when deeply in his cups, as he often was.

Athos. He took his name from the monastic mountain where all women are forbidden. Even female animals.

I should have known. But how could I? The man I trusted so long ago is dead.

Yet here he stands before me, absently chewing on a bit of braided gold looped on his shoulder, alive. And in that moment, everything I ever felt for him lives again, too. The affection. The betrayal.

Once, I was innocent. Once, when I bore another name, I had a credulous and open heart ready to embrace love. As I watch him, my hand flutters again to my throat. Along the left side, always hidden by a lovelock, is a smooth cicatrice, just barely differing from my own skin in color and texture.

Fury rages in me—fury and fear, one begetting the other. For anger can push someone to rash acts. I want, more than anything, to walk casually up behind him, an unnoticed and unimportant woman, and open his throat, let his blood spill on the thirsty earth. But his friends would end me on the spot. Therein lies the fear. Not of my own death, which has always hovered over me like a kestrel. The fear of losing what I have finally found.

And so, with a wrung and twisted soul, I step back and let Athos fight, let him hide behind his assumed name.



Part 1


Chapter 1


I don’t think my father, Lord Paget, had any idea he had a daughter until I became a woman. I wasn’t useful until then.

My mother had the rearing of me in our country estate near Yorkshire, a grim and beautiful land that filled my days and my dreams. When I recall my natal home, I envision not the banquet hall nor Maman’s sumptuous bedroom, but rather a crenellated speck on the horizon, an anchor in the vastness. We were always outside, Maman and I. She abhorred walls. She told me once that each life has cages enough around it without adding stone and mortar.

She named me Clarice, a prettier version of the old family name, Clarick, which for centuries had been used for boys and girls alike. The Yorkshire folk sometimes called me Lady Clarick when I walked or rode about the countryside. I made no effort to correct them. Nothing changes a Yorkshireman.

When I wasn’t with Maman, I romped with the children of the castle. I knew from whispers that some of them were my half brothers and sisters, from the rare but fecund times Lord Paget visited his lands. We ran together over the moors and dared one another to creep into the caves that riddled the dales. Denys, the falconer’s son, was an especial favorite. A bit older than me, he was hero and rival all at once. He was bolder even than I, and once got lost in a cave for two days.

Though I was allowed to mix freely, Maman kept careful watch to be sure I didn’t pick up their northern accents. She never struck me, never so much as raised her voice at me no matter what mischief I got into, but if I let loose with a dunna or owt or nowt, her eyebrows would dip down and I’d correct myself. She made sure I spoke either rarefied court English, or the elegant French of her own homeland.

By the time my playmates were eight or nine, they were put to work in the fields, the piggery, or household service. When I bemoaned their fate to Maman (with, I must own, a touch of superiority at my own free state), she told me there is nobility in service. Just be sure you only serve the cause of your choice.

For the most part, after that, Maman was my only companion. I still saw Denys, for Maman enjoyed spending time with the old falconer, his father. He was of French birth like herself, and had traveled with her to join the household upon her marriage. Our mews was a pathetic remnant of what it had been in generations past, and our falcons and hawks were old and rarely flew. Still, we were one of the few families below the rank of duke to have a gyrfalcon (though she was half bald and half blind), and we kept the ancient birds comfortable for the honor of the house.

Maman and I were so close that at times I hardly knew which thoughts were my own, and which were hers. Inside the castle, she was mostly silent. Outside, though, in the gardens and across the windswept fields of heather and thyme, she was forever talking to me, teaching me everything under the sun. Knowledge, she counseled me, is a weapon. I laughed, replying that as I had no enemies, I needed no weapons. A woman always has enemies, she said. Gossip, time, loneliness, regret . . .

Then she would brighten and take me through the herb garden where she grew the plants she used to physic the household. The blacksmith drew teeth and sawed off limbs, and my mother, like the lady of every estate, took care of the rest. One day, when I was chatelaine of my own lands, I would do the same, so Maman made sure she passed on her knowledge to me.

On the morning that my life would change, foxglove was in bloom. “Foxglove is very poisonous, ma chère,” Maman began. “It slows the heart. A handful of leaves in a tisane will calm a racing pulse, such as the stout and the elderly often have. Two handfuls brewed in a decoction will kill the strongest man within an hour. His heart will beat so.” She tapped out a rhythm on her thigh, first brisk and healthy, then growing slower. She ended his life with one resounding clap. “And la, that’s the end of him.”

I bore it patiently, for she’d been teaching me the same things since I could speak sense. She always began with dire warnings about how all these helpful herbs could kill a man if they weren’t used exactly right. I supposed that was only natural in a healer. I shouldn’t like to poison my patients by mistake.

“Comfrey,” she went on, “resembles the foxglove before it is in full flower. It is taken in a tea to help with chest complaints. I often make Lord Paget a brew of comfrey and catmint when the northern cold disagrees with him. But you must never confuse the two.”

“Then why do you have them planted right next to each other?” I asked. It seemed that even an experienced herbalist like my mother might make a mistake one day.

She only laughed and said, “Pour l’amour de la beauté.” The two blossoms looked well together, nothing more.

This was peculiar, too, for unlike the formal gardens on our estate, this one was jumbled, with innocuous treatments like rhubarb and rue growing in disorderly clusters beside hemlock (whose lesson always came with the tale of Socrates) and wolfsbane (which we could not touch ungloved, for its poison could seep through the skin).

It was made for function, not appearance, Maman told me. These plants, she said, are like the finger of God. With them, she could touch any man or woman to the very quick, to their inner parts, and do with them as she pleased. That, she said, is what makes the garden lovely. I wouldn’t have called it a beautiful garden, but like all things connected with my mother, I adored it.

We went riding after that, racing across the moors. I had a new mare, a dark bay roan who was proving difficult to handle. Her mettlesomeness gave her speed—so long as I gave the mare her head—and for the first time, I beat Maman and her big gray gelding.

“Well done!” she shouted, laughing. I loved to hear her voice big and bold like that under the mauve sky. Inside the castle, she barely spoke above a whisper. I don’t remember her ever speaking the few times my father was home. Out here, though, she was herself. Even from my youngest days, I understood, dimly, how some of us have to be two people, or three.

We dismounted and loosely hobbled our horses so they could graze. My eyes absently picked up all the things they had been taught to see—the crowberry and hair grass, the winking asphodel in a low boggy spot. I saw the telltale spray of feathers where a hawk had taken down some unfortunate bird, and the rocky crevice that might conceal an adder. I saw the gathering of clouds like a mackerel’s speckled sides that told of a storm come evening. Maman said that most folk go through life half blind. She wished to give me the gift of clear sight.

You will think I was a savage, with all this talk of racing and beasts and physicking. Behind the castle stones, Maman taught me the skills a lady needs, too. I didn’t have the patience for embroidery, preferring my scenery ready-made and natural, but I had a neat hand and stitched well when I had to. I had an eye for beauty, and though neither my mother nor I cared for weaving, we collaborated on designs that she set her lady’s maids to crafting. When I married, I would take them to my husband’s house and call them mine, for the genius behind them was my own, if not the menial labor.

She made me spin, though, for endless hours, because she said the distaff and spindle teach patience. People are undone by impatience more than by any other sin, she told me. Greed, lust, anger, murder—they are all the fruits of impatience. Women, above all, need patience.

Further, I could dance, sing, declaim poetry, and strum an adequate tune on the fifteen-string lute. I discoursed upon the latest literature, and partnered with Maman to read the plays of Jonson and Shakespeare aloud for our own amusement. We put on pantomimes of dress-up, wearing her old court gowns and adding assorted frippery to emulate the clever maidens and dashing young men of the dramas and comedies. Once a year, in late spring when the muddy thaw cleared and the roads were passable, we watched the touring actors under a tent at the village fete. Side by side with enthusiastic cottagers, we laughed at the men dressed as women dressed as men in Twelfth Night, and thrilled at the court scheming of Hamlet and Macbeth. This was my glimpse into the world, and I dreamed vaguely of excitement in iambic pentameter.

As the years went by, my body began to fill out Maman’s old gowns more completely. I learned to move as a lady moves, to mince in heeled slippers and twitch my fan just so. It was formal and constrained, but it was all acting, and at that age, I thought it fun. I didn’t know that every time a man’s eyes are on her, a woman has to be acting. She is only herself when she is alone.

I was, my mother said, prepared for almost anything life might fling my way.

Which meant, of course, marriage. What else could there be? Marriage or the nunnery. Even in plays, there are few other options for women, though the lucky ones have some adventure on the road to matrimony. Perhaps the poorhouse, or a tangential existence in some relative’s household, but I was not meant to be a maiden aunt.

Marriage was the only choice for me, and I knew even then that I didn’t want a marriage like my parents had. Theirs was cold and unfathomable. I craved a marriage of warmth and sunlight, of laughter and conversation. At that age, I firmly believed I was the equal to any man alive, and I wanted a marriage that reflected that.

We sat in the scratchy heather like any Yorkshire milkmaids, our legs outspread, bonnets off, the sun kissing our cheeks. “I have something for you,” Maman said, and I clapped my hands in delight. There was still much of the child about me then.

Maman was always giving me presents. Once, it was a lamb to raise; another time, a strange glass she bought from a peddler, which when gazed through made my hand look immense, the lines of my fingertips a geography of valleys and hills. Mostly, though, she gave me things of her own, objects she had kept to herself for many years, things from her childhood in France. Old books, a porcelain figurine, a small jewel. She bade me keep them safe and, as far as possible, secret. From who, I did not know. I knew no one beyond Maman and the castle servants. Our nearest neighbor was a two-day journey away, and some old feud kept us from civility.

Now, Maman drew a small wrapped bundle from beneath her cloak. I felt my excitement growing. I hoped it was a book. I’d read the collection in the castle a hundred times. The Faerie Queene, Piers Plowman, and The Canterbury Tales in English, and Gargantua, Pantagruel, and Daphnis and Chloe in French. Her present might be some just-published tale of adventure.

I was deeply disappointed when I saw it was the wrong shape for a book. Maman peeled back the layers of fabric: a rich brocade on the outside, but beneath that, rough oiled cloth.

“Zut!” I gasped at what she revealed. A slim dagger, no thicker than my thumb at its widest point, winked in the sun. She drew it from its scabbard, and I looked in amazement. Double-edged, it tapered to a cruel point. The unadorned hilt flared slightly.

If a book gently offered me a phantom of adventure, this weapon seemed to thrust endless possibilities upon me, whether I willed it or no.

I was no stranger to knives. Like most people in the north country, be they man, woman, or child, I carried a blade that I used for everything from paring my nails to spearing my meat at the dinner table. Maman had introduced the Continental habit of forks, but as I’ve said, Yorkshire customs are a long time dying. The lady’s maids and hangers-on of our small household stabbed at their food as if it might run away. I also had a smaller single-edged knife with a blunt tip that I used for cutting herbs. They were tools, used for benign ends.

This knife my mother held so caressingly in her lap was something else entirely. The moment I saw it, I knew it had one purpose only: to kill.

I felt repulsed by that blade. And yet . . . my finger reached out to touch the deadly edge. My mother shifted to keep it from my reach.

“Do not touch the blade except to clean it. Its sharpness is for other flesh than yours.” I had never heard her speak in this tone before. My skin prickled, and I reached for the hilt instead.

Something in me thrilled when I touched it. I held the dagger up before my face. My own reflection, thin and distorted, gazed back at me in the highly polished steel.

“I’ve taught you about the insides of man,” Maman said. Though we were alone with miles of moors between us and the nearest humanity, she spoke in a very low voice, as if she didn’t want so much as the dirt beneath us to hear her words. To me they were sharp and clear, burned on my memory.

“You know where the heart lies, and the kidneys. You know where the body’s rivers bring blood near the surface.” Lightly, she touched parts of her own body: her throat, the hollow of her thigh, the soft curve of her stomach near her navel.

I nodded. Pigs were butchered for the castle weekly, and Maman had taken me to see when they were cut open. Their parts, she’d explained, are very like a man’s. And whenever she was called upon to physic one of the servants or villagers, I helped her. She might stitch a wound, slice a vein to purge ill humors, or cup their backs with hot glass. As she worked, she taught. I knew just where the heart nestled warm and snug beneath the ribs, where the thrum of blood pulsed under the skin.

“This blade will reach them all, mon cœur,” she said, her eyes strangely vivid. “It will slip past bones and slice through meat. It is a fine and subtle instrument.”

“But why do I need a knife such as this?” I asked, knowing all the while that I could never abandon it now. Already, it seemed like an extension of my body. Without it, I would be bereft. “I thought you said that knowledge is the only weapon I’ll ever need.”

“This blade is another form of knowledge,” she told me. “When you know you hold the potential of life and death, and other people don’t, it gives you power. The best kind of knowledge is secret.”

We rode home shortly after that, galloping without speaking. I could feel the chill of the scabbard against my belly, where I’d concealed it beneath my skirts.

Maman couldn’t have known what was coming. There had been no message, and he wasn’t expected. Still, I cannot quite think it was a coincidence that she gave me the dagger that day. Maman had a way of knowing things.

When we rode our lathered horses into the courtyard, the steward informed us that my father was home from court.

“Merde,” my mother said under her breath.

In peasant homes, long-absent fathers are greeted instantly with embraces and tears of joy, with heartfelt benedictions and thanks to the maker for their safe return. In our castle, and in other noble households, the master’s rare homecoming is a signal for everyone to run to their chambers to make themselves presentable, a panic of propriety. Previous homecomings had been formal and cold, and this, I was sure, would be no different.

Maman summoned her ladies and set them to work. “Never mind about me; see to Clarice. She smells of the stables.”

It was true, there was a distinctly horsey air about me. But why did it seem to worry her? Lord Paget had never paid attention to me. I don’t mean only that he didn’t ask after my little cares, or consult me about affairs of state. I mean that, to the best of my memory, he had never spoken a single word to me. His life was elsewhere. He visited often enough to plant a child in Maman, until my rather difficult birth put an end to that. Afterward, he came to his northern estate but rarely, taking away first one brother, then another, to set them on their way to being soldiers or lawyers or courtiers. But not me. Never me.

I was nothing to him, but overall happiest that way. He frightened me, as children are frightened of pale-eyed bogeymen. When I saw him at lengthy intervals in my childhood, I would watch him from across the hall, or at the far end of the banquet table, and thank my stars he was not the sort of papa to dandle me on his knee. I would have screamed.

Court business must have been pressing, for he had not been here for nearly five years. Still, my suspicion of him lingered. I can’t say why. My mother never spoke ill of him, and the servants didn’t bear tales. He had done no crime, committed no sin, other than absence, to earn my suspicion. I suppose it was because his coming temporarily stopped all my pleasures, robbed me for a few days or weeks of my mother’s close attention.

Or was it the disturbing way Maman transformed when he was here? She seemed to bury her true self somewhere deep within. When we were alone in the castle, Maman was everything—the sun, the stars, the lady of the estate. When Papa arrived, she became nothing. It made me feel sick whenever he came. Yet Maman was strong, clever—there must be some reason behind it that I couldn’t fathom at the time.

Or perhaps I feared my father simply for those cold blue eyes that raked over me without seeing. Like Death or the Devil, he had a way of turning me, too, into nothing.

My mother’s ladies stripped me so fast, I scarcely had time to hide my dagger in my bedclothes. They fairly threw me into a clean linen smock, tugging it low over my breasts. I was to wear an old gown of Maman’s, nipped in to fit my waist. It was a tedious process for one used to wearing no more than a hastily fastened skirt and bodice over an unlined corset. My body wasn’t accustomed to being squeezed in such an undignified manner. Whenever I wore these sorts of clothes before, it had been a masque for my mother’s amusement and mine. Now it felt in earnest, as if I were a knight girding on armor.

When I was dressed, Maman came in to examine me. For an instant I, saw her eyes flash with pride and approval. Then she shook her head. “What am I thinking?” she asked herself. “Take it off, all of it.” She consulted briefly with one of her ladies-in-waiting, who left and swiftly returned with another dress, neat and serviceable, a lady’s dress, but drab brown and unadorned. The bodice snugged high against my throat, and my chest was pressed flat.

“Did I do something wrong, Maman?” I asked, but she did not have time to answer.

Before I knew it, I was standing in the great hall with the rest of the household. The servants lined up in fidgety rows at the lower end, while my mother, in the full court dress of twenty years ago, waited patiently at the head of the hall. I started to go to her, but she shooed me with a gesture back to the line of her ladies-in-waiting.

You’ll think a lady-in-waiting is a grand thing, and so she is at the king’s court. There, the queen’s ladies are the daughters of dukes, and foreign princesses. Their duties are light—holding a fan, aiding a love affair. Mostly, they are there to converse with the queen, bear the brunt of her occasional spite, and provide lovely foils to her grandeur, until they are married off.

My mother’s ladies-in-waiting were much more humble specimens. The loftiest of them was the sister of a knight who spoke of little more than the age of her family name and the current decrepitude of the family fortunes. There was the ruddy-cheeked daughter of a yeoman farmer whose loud, infectious laugh and good nature made up for her garish manners. One was a lawyer’s daughter, another a pretty and penniless orphan, niece of the estate’s steward. Their title might have been impressive, but in truth, they were mostly maids, airing Maman’s bedding, mending her clothes, and drawing her bath. At dinner, they would sit near Maman and me and chatter with us; so, as is usual in the country, the servants were midway between slave and family.

I thought I would be unnoticed among them. Lord Paget was here to see Maman, and to be certain that all his acres were providing the most income possible. He would care for me no more than for my mother’s women, I was sure.

When he stepped into the hall, everyone fell instantly silent. I hadn’t seen him for at least five years. I had been a veritable child then, scrawny and wild. My father had changed, too. The acres must have been providing, for he’d grown infinitely finer in clothes and manner.

He moved with studied grace through the center of the chamber. He was dressed in the most stunning garments I had ever seen. His tightly fitted doublet was a shimmering white that gleamed like mother-of-pearl, embroidered all over with golden sunbursts. On his legs he wore the kind of short puffed breeches I’d heard about but never seen. They were the lush black of a midnight forest, stitched with silver flowers and vines. His hose were an alarming crimson, the hue of fresh-spilled blood. Fine Flanders lace made clouds at his wrist and throat. He looked more costume than man, a walking wardrobe.

But no, there were those pale blue eyes, sliding critically sideways over his assembled household. However fine the clothes, the man was still inside. He had never dressed so well before. He must have had some promotion at court.

Halfway across the room, my father made a formal bow. The rapier belted at his waist swung up provocatively erect, challenging the room. Maman returned his greeting with a deep, graceful sweep of her skirts, sinking almost to the floor and rising with her head demurely bowed. She looked physically smaller, weaker. It was hard to believe this was the same woman who had only this morning galloped across the moors like a Valkyrie. I didn’t understand how she managed the dramatic change, as if her very nature had shifted. When I examined her, I couldn’t see any tension in her face. She didn’t look like she was acting. She had simply become different.

I wondered if I could do it, if I tried.

He walked toward her again, lifting his feet in a peculiar affectation like a cat on ice. There was a little sneer on his mouth as he glanced right, no doubt noticing that Denys’s shoes had splashes of falcon excrement on them, then left, toward the ladies-in-waiting and myself. I held myself still, prepared to be ignored, or at most briefly noticed and as soon dismissed. Five years ago I’d been an adolescent, coltish and pimpled. I hoped I made a better impression now.

Lord Paget stopped abruptly. His eyes locked on me. Not on my own eyes, but simply on me, wandering over my body as if it were a specimen. I lowered my head self-consciously, and in a panic made an inventory of my person. Were my shoes clean? My hair tidy? Had my petticoat and skirt hem accidentally caught in my bodice fastening, showing the world my drawers? All these years, and he had never acknowledged my existence.

Timidly, I raised my head to meet his gaze, which lingered lower for a moment, then finally found my eyes. My heart beat wildly. My father! For the first time, I felt a tentative surge of affection. Perhaps he was not so scary. That was just childish fancy, the fear of the unknown. For now he was looking at me, smiling. I ventured a small smile in return, making myself be bold.

But he held my gaze, and though I couldn’t describe what I saw there, it made my flesh creep. It certainly wasn’t paternal love.

He regarded me a moment longer, then continued to Maman. He kissed her hand, and then they retreated together. The entire banquet hall exhaled in relief. I was left with a curious dread in the pit of my stomach.

The servants dispersed, but Denys strolled up to me with a grin. He was near twenty, but my milk brother. His mother, a Yorkshire woman, had nursed me when Maman’s milk failed. (She perished of the white plague a few years later.) As children, we would play from sunup to sundown, me always a step behind my hero as I struggled to keep pace. Other lads might have slipped away, annoyed at a young, female burden. Not Denys. He showed me snake’s eggs and four-leaf clovers, and how to tickle trout in the stream. And he always, always waited for me when I fell behind. When I grew older and left most of my peasant playmates behind, I’d still seek him out in the mews.

Lately, though, I almost never saw him. Weeks, months would pass without us meeting, and I decided he was avoiding me, too caught up in adult concerns these days to care about playing with a child.. It was bound to happen, but I both yearned for him and resented his desertion.

Now, though, we slipped easily into our old childhood camaraderie. I remembered how he could switch from the most elegant French to almost indecipherable Yorkshire dialect, and always had a joke for me. Like my mother, he used to make me little presents—the glossy feather of a rare black stork, dark with a green and purple sheen; a pebble with a winking bit of opal; a chubby baby dormouse. I still kept them all in a box in my chamber—except the dormouse, of course. That wee greedy beast all but lived on my shoulder and gorged himself to death on hazelnuts and marzipan within a year.

“Would you believe it?” Denys said as we walked out of the hall, my wide skirts brushing his leg. “Isolde laid an egg.”

I forgot that strange feeling my father’s look had given me, and burst out laughing. “At her age?”

“The old biddy has a bit of life left in her. It’s unfertilized, of course. Unless Robber got to her.” Robber was the only male in the mews, a little merlin who thought very well of himself.

“Could they really?” I asked. I tried to picture the petite gaudy bird atop the dignified old matriarch, and laughed again.

“No. Some birds can crossbreed, but not those two. Come on, Isolde wants to show it off.” He took my hand and pulled me along to the mews. My bare skin had hardly been touched by a male since my rough-and-tumble days of play with the servants’ children. Even the stable lads who helped me mount took care. Denys grabbed my fingers as though it were the most natural thing in the world, and it felt like flint striking steel, making a spark that leaped from my hand to my heart.

It was a day of odd sensations. This one, though pleasant, was no less baffling.

In the mews, I praised Isolde for her egg. She’d crafted a makeshift nest of her own feathers and a bit of bone she’d regurgitated from some prior meal. There she hunkered with her speckled breast puffed, protecting a chick that would never be. She snapped at me when I tried to touch her, though she was usually very gentle. She’d known me all my life.

“I’ll take it away in a few days,” Denys said. “But for now, she deserves to think she’s accomplished something.”

“How sad, to lose a child,” I said. “Even one that’s just an empty egg.”

“You’re so tenderhearted,” Denys said. We stood close as my skirts allowed. I looked up into his face. I was tall for a woman, but he was taller still. I was so used to that face, the green jasper of his eyes, the fine features framed by shaggy, sandy hair. I knew that countenance as well as my mother’s, and better than my own, for we had only one mirror in the castle. It was a face to be easy with.

“I’ve always loved that about you,” he went on. “The care you lavish on small animals, your generous way with the servants, especially yours truly.”

“Which are you?” I asked with a smile. “Servant or small animal?”

“Your humble servant, of course,” he answered, then gave a crooked smile. “Though, do you remember how Sylvan used to perch on your breast while you fed him sweetmeats?” Sylvan was the dormouse.

He said no more than this, but something seemed to give way within me, so that I felt suddenly weak and dizzy.

“I . . . I should go.” I picked up my skirts, suddenly conscious that the fine material was scraping a floor full of straw and guano.

I felt his eyes burning on me as he watched me leave.

When my father found me in the passageway just outside the mews, I was flushed and flustered.

“What have we here?” he asked. His voice was higher pitched than I would have imagined. I thought he would loom intimidatingly tall, but we were of a height exactly. Both of us were wearing heels.

“My lord,” I said, bobbing a curtsy. I couldn’t bring myself to call him Papa.

He stepped closer, and I could feel the wall at my back. Was he going to embrace me? Why was he suddenly noticing me after all these years? I should have been glad that he was finally paying attention to me, but instead I was suspicious.

“I heard that Lady Paget had a new handmaid,” he said. His breath was stale.

“Y-yes, my lord.” I was thoroughly puzzled. It was true that the steward’s niece had entered my mother’s service only a month ago, but why was he talking with me about household affairs?

“You are so sweet,” he said, stroking my cheek with the back of his hand. “So fair.” He twined a lock of my blond hair around his fingers and stepped closer, a feat I had not thought possible. I was now pressed flat against the stones, and our garments were touching all along the front of our bodies.

“Are you a good girl?” he asked. I had to make myself not turn away from his breath. I dared not cause offense. “If you are a good girl, I’ll give you a gold coin. Would you like that?”

It occurred to me that after five years’ absence, he must still think of me as the thirteen-year-old I was, pimpled and scarcely out of short skirts. It must be hard for him to suddenly strike up a conversation with a grown daughter. He might even feel guilty about showing me so little attention before now.

I almost wished he had continued his old habits. I was decidedly uncomfortable.

“Do you know what a good girl does?” he asked me. “A good girl never tells.”

He put his hand on my bosom, rubbing with the palm. I can’t imagine he got much joy of it, as my corset and wooden busk made a hard, flat line, and the bodice of my old-fashioned dress rose to my throat.

“Lord Paget!” I tried to cry, but then his mouth was upon me, lips like worms and stinking breath, and I was crushed.

Suddenly, he was ripped away from me. I saw Denys wrestling with him. Denys was stronger, and he easily heaved my father across the passageway.

“Insolent varlet!” my father cried. “You’ll hang for laying hands on me!”

“Lord Paget, this is your daughter,” Denys said firmly.

My father gaped, his mustachioed mouth working like a whiskered carp. “She . . . I . . . she’s not a lady-in-waiting?”

“No, sir. She is Lady Clarice, your only daughter.”

“But my daughter is . . .” He counted up on his fingers, his face pale. Then he forced a hearty laugh. “Of course she is! That was only a test of her virtue. She has passed admirably. Her mother has raised her to be a proper lady. She’ll make some man an honest wife.”

He pulled Denys aside, and I could plainly hear him offer the lad gold for his silence. Apparently, a good boy never tells, either. To my surprise, Denys accepted. I heard the coins clinking, then my father stalked away without a backward glance at me.

You will notice that even then it was the men who conferred and schemed. Though one was a lord, the other a mere assistant falconer, it was the men who made the decisions. I was not considered.

Alone, I panted against the wall. “What just happened?” I asked Denys.

“Your fool father mistook you for a servant ripe for seducing,” he said.

“You mean he intended to . . .”

“To do what Robber would like to do to Isolde, if he were able.”

Foremost in my mind was not the question of incest. It was natural he not recognize the face of a daughter he had never spoken to. That wasn’t his crime. But to think that a lone virgin in this household could be so accosted. What if I had in truth been a servant? He would have almost absolute power over me. At the very least, I would be cast out, penniless, for refusing him. If I truly vexed him, he might trump up any charge he liked and see me flogged in the village square, or pilloried, or hung. He might never have exercised it, but he held that power in his fist, and any servant would know it.

They could not have said no. Many men would have considered him a gentleman for offering coin for what he could have taken for free.

My father was a monster after all.

“And you took his gold?” I asked Denys with bitterness. I thought he at least would have been better than that.

He shrugged. “He had my silence anyway. Why not take his gold in the bargain? It might be useful one day.”

“What will Maman say when she knows?” I felt more sorry for every other woman than for myself.

“Clarice,” he said gently, laying a hand on my arm, “everybody knows what your father is. Half the children in this castle are his get, and a fair number of the village brats, too. Telling your mother about this particular incident would do no good.”

“Poor Maman!” I said. “But something must be done to stop him. He can’t go about . . . violating women.”

“What shall I do, eh? Tell the village priest? Perhaps you’d like me to murder Lord Paget in his sleep? Talk to him, man-to-man? Oh, Clarice, this is what the world is.” His fingers brushed my cheek, wiping away the memory of my father’s vile touch. “Only know that all men aren’t like your father. Far too many are, but not all. It shouldn’t be like that—coarse and brutal, coercion or transaction.”

He touched my hair. He kissed me lightly on the lips.

“Love should be tender. You should be willing.”

I should have screamed, or slapped him, or called for our elderly castle guards to haul him away.

But I didn’t.

Not even when he kissed me again.

My mother wasn’t there when I entered her chambers, so I sat on a velvet cushion to wait. I had resolved not to tell her what my father had attempted. And yet, I needed the comfort that only she could provide. Maybe I could awaken her from the staid, demure state my father’s visit seemed to put her in, and we could scheme to keep him so occupied he had no time to foist himself on the women of our house.

Or perhaps a concoction of valerian and chamomile. If he was busy during the day, and slept soundly after dark, the castle girls would be safe. Oh, but that would be a weak formula. Perhaps valerian with a pinch of something stronger. I ran through all the herb lore Maman had taught me. Dosage was all, she often said, the difference between cure and poison. A leaf or two of belladonna, perhaps, or the most minuscule bit of wolfsbane would put him out for the night.

I gasped. I was thinking of poisoning my own father!

No, I corrected myself. I was contemplating giving him an unsolicited medical treatment for his disease.

I heard voices outside Maman’s chamber. One of them was Lord Paget. Like Polonius in Hamlet, which we once saw staged by a group of traveling mummers, I scurried behind a long hanging tapestry and hoped I would not meet Polonius’s grisly end.

“She’s a woman grown, Victoire,” my father said. “I’ve never seen such glowing golden hair, such a flawless complexion. And her figure! She will set the Thames afire. She’ll be the toast of Whitehall.”

“My lord, she is scarcely more than a child, untutored in the world’s ways.” Mother’s voice was soft and reasonable, but I could feel the tension in it thrumming like the strings of a viol.

“She’s eighteen, and at court they say a woman’s past her prime at eighteen, and a positive medlar at twenty, rotten before she’s ripe. I warrant she’ll secure herself no less than a duke before she’s there a fortnight. Perhaps she can even aim higher.”

“Higher than a duke?” Maman asked. “That’s a very small number of candidates, most of them already wed, I believe.”

“The best one isn’t, though.”

“You can’t mean Charles?” Charles was the younger son of the king, heir to the crown now that his elder brother Henry died a few years ago. “He could only marry a princess, and a foreigner at that to cement one union or another.”

“Perhaps,” my father owned. “But he is fifteen, and all fifteen-year-old boys are like bucks in rut. A marriage made in secret may be legitamized later. At the least, its annulment might buy a duchy.”

“Your ambition flies high,” Maman said. “She is but a baron’s daughter.”

“You’ve been away from royal courts too long. You forget the power of a beauty as exquisite as Clarice’s. Yours certainly charmed me against my better judgment all those years ago. My sons have served the family well. Now it’s her turn. A good marriage will lift us higher. A great liaison might do even more. She’s old enough to marry. She’s coming to court.”

“But my lord! Please, give me another year with her. There is so much she doesn’t know.”

I thought he would be angry that she was opposing him. But my father’s voice when he answered was soft and lazy, as if he were talking about the weather with a farmer. There was no need to have an argument when there was no chance of him losing it. Whatever he decided was law for the family. “What she doesn’t know, I will teach her.”

“Then let me come to court with her. I was one of Marie de’ Medici’s ladies. I know how to navigate the intrigues of a royal court.”

“A woman’s place is in the home,” he said.

“Précisément,” Maman replied. “And so Clarice should remain here, educated by me, unsullied by the world, until she is ready to take her place as wife to a man of our choosing.”

“You would marry her to some bumpkin of a baron with hundreds of acres and thousands of sheep, whom His Majesty has never heard of? There are many kinds of wealth in this world, my dear, but the only one that matters is the trust of the king. I have that now—in part. Soon, I hope to have more. In time, I could be one of the rulers of the land, one of the powers behind the crown.”

I heard him leave.

“Clarice,” Maman said, “you can come out now.”

“I’m sorry I eavesdropped, Maman,” I said in a small voice.

“Quelle absurdité,” she replied. “A woman has to know where she stands in the world, and all too often no one is willing to tell her. You have to find out for yourself, by whatever means necessary.” Her voice had an edge to it.

“I have to leave you?” I asked, tears welling.

“Ma souris, children always have to leave their mothers. It is the curse of being a woman, one of the few we can’t overcome with cleverness. I’d hoped you wouldn’t have to marry for a few more years at least, and then . . .” She sighed, and I saw her hands working nervously, squeezing at each other as if each were a small struggling animal she had to subdue. I realized she wasn’t just sad to be losing me. She was angry. Furious. She tried, but she couldn’t hide it.

“I had so many plans for you, Clarice. All your life I managed to turn his eyes away from you, to make him forget you. Ill favored, I called you whenever he asked, or sickly, until he stopped asking. This time I tried to hide you among my ladies-in-waiting, hoping he would pass over you. I hoped to have another year or two. But some fool must have told him who you were, curse it. I should have sent you away the moment I knew he was here!”

“Plans?” I wondered aloud. “Did you have a man in mind?”

She looked just the slightest bit scornful, which was another way I could tell how distraught she was. “Is there no higher ambition on your mind, my love?”

I bowed my head, chagrined, but thought, what does she mean? She had taught me so much . . . except what, exactly, to strive for. All of my lessons had practical implications for a role as wife, mother, chatelaine, herbalist, healer. I had come to realize that doing any one of those things well was an accomplishment in itself, and beyond the scope of most of the people Maman and I helped each day. To do them all superbly, as I was trained to do, would place me in a sphere beyond that of most women.

But that, I thought, is not what she meant. I had never before marveled that she took such care with my education, but assumed that every mother schooled her girl-children so. And yet, it now began to tickle my mind that she might have some other plans for me. I thought of Viola shipwrecked, of spirited, plotting Portia, and felt a frisson of anticipation jolt through my shock and sorrow. I wanted to ask, but seeing her so upset, my foremost thought was to soothe her.

“Don’t worry, Maman. I don’t want to go, but just think of everything you’ve taught me. A daughter of yours can survive anything.”

She threw her arms around me. “I know you can, Clarice. But there are things I haven’t told you. Things I don’t even know if I should tell you. I’ve spent my life . . . But no. You deserve a better life than mine.”

“Have you been unhappy, Maman?” I asked.

“Never with you, mon bijou! But my life has been spent waiting, always waiting, for a call that never came. I married to serve a cause, my child.”

I thought she must mean that her family was impoverished, that she had married my father for money. It is a common enough tale.

“Ah,” she went on, “maybe this will be for the best. Mayhap at court you will find a man worthy of your love. A man who will cherish you and protect you. A marriage, when it is a union of loving equals, is not such a bad thing.”

“I don’t want to leave you, Maman!” I cried, and held her tight, weeping.

And yet there was a certain allure in my new future. Much as I would miss my mother, I had begun, vaguely, to think of other things. That kiss from Denys meant nothing, of course, because he was only a commoner. But it sparked piquant fantasies.

Maman had been everything to me, but the only thing, really, all of my life.

Soon I would be in a world I had only read about, seen on a makeshift stage—a magical realm of light and music, of witty conversation and politics and poetry.

And so, though my grief was unfeigned, there was an adventuresome spark beneath it that I didn’t let Maman see.

“I have another gift for you,” she said. I watched her press a panel of her wall here, there, and then a little hidden cabinet sprang open. It was so cleverly constructed that when it was closed, no one could know it was there. I saw papers inside, a glass vial, a small pile of jewels. Maman left these things and took out a piece of ivory, closing the door swiftly.

“It’s a busk,” I said as I examined it. I had worn one when dressing up for practice. I wore one today. It was meant to be placed in a pocket at the front of my corset to keep my stomach and chest in that firm, flat shape fine clothing demanded. It pushed my bosoms up almost to my shoulders. In my high-necked gown, it made little difference, but Maman had told me that in more fashionable circles, dresses were worn so low that the bosoms would all but hop out, ballooning upward with each breath.

The busk was marked with three carved fleur-de-lis, the stylized lilies emblematic of France, Maman’s mother country. There were words, too.

“Un pour tous,” I read. “One for all. What does it mean?”

Maman closed her eyes for a moment. “In the tide of great affairs, it is not the many who make the crucial choices, but the individual. Mobs do not decide the fate of the world, nor even armies. It is always one man—or one woman—often unknown to history, working in secret, dedicated to a greater good, who shifts the tides.”

Her words made me feel strange—grand, somehow, but also small.

“I’ll speak more of that tomorrow. We’ll have a week or two at least, and there is a great deal I must tell you, secrets I had meant to keep until you were married. But for tonight, this is enough. This busk is made for a particular purpose. Do you see the opening here?”

She tilted it so I could see the top. For a moment, I was puzzled, then my eyes opened wide. “It’s just the right size for my new dagger.”

Maman nodded. “I had them made together, before I was wed. The busk will hold your blade perfectly secure and concealed. But you will know it’s there, close to your heart, should you ever need it.”

I still couldn’t imagine why I would ever need it, or why, in fact, Maman had needed it before her marriage. But it comforted me to know I would have a piece of Maman near to me no matter how far away she was.

I burned with curiosity to hear the secrets she had to tell me. I thought they might have something to do with the wedding night. I had asked Cook about it once, and she’d told me to watch pigs in springtime. That experience hadn’t left me much enlightened.

I’d thought to have more time, to get used to the idea of leaving Maman, and to get to know my father, to see if there was any good in him after all. But when I woke the next morning, I found that the servants had already packed my things and readied the coach.

“You can’t take her yet,” Maman pleaded as I was bundled, all unprepared, into the creaking carriage.

“Why let moss grow on my plan? The Howard faction needs to go, so the Paget and Villiers families can rise.”

“And you will use our daughter to achieve your ends?”

“Why else have children? A woman, however limited her abilities or empty her brain, can achieve some things a man can’t. She can ferret out secrets with a giggle, or inspire jealousy, even duels. Using her beauty, I can contrive to twist half the men at court to my particular ends.”

How cold and calculating he sounded as he discussed my fate.

“Do you have a specific plan?” Maman asked more sharply than she usually spoke to my father. I was intensely curious, too. How could I possibly do any of those things?

“I have a few ideas, and will consult with my allies about others. Now tell me, is Clarice a resourceful girl? Obedient? Can she think, and speak without simpering?”

“She is clever,” Maman said. “More clever than she knows, I think.”

“Clever enough to hide what brains she has, I hope.”

I embraced my mother then, clinging as if I would never let go. I felt numb.

“I will follow as soon as I am able,” Maman swore as she pressed a rosary into my hand. My tears fell on the rosary, and I saw it in a blur. It was a curious thing, made of what looked on first inspection to be red beads with tiny black staring eyes.

“Keep your secrets,” Maman whispered fiercely in my ear, “for they are your treasure. Keep your knowledge, for that is your weapon. Speak softly to your enemies, and make them love you. And when you strike your foes, be sure they never know who wielded the weapon. Men fight with swords face-to-face, over stupid quarrels. When you do battle, do it quietly, in the dark.”

I took in her words, stored them like precious jewels in my heart, beneath the dagger. I didn’t fully understand them or realize how they would guide my life. But they were her last gift to me, and precious.

Reading Group Guide

Laura L. Sullivan
Questions for Discussion

1. A constant theme in Milady is having multiple personas. Milady has many names, identities, and disguises. Her mother is also described as having two distinct personas, one when she is alone with her daughter, another when she is with her husband. That is necessary in the spy trade, but is it also something every woman has to do? Every person?

2. Milady is portrayed in The Three Musketeers as a sexual, seductive person who mostly manipulates men. Yet in the novel Milady it is her ability to form relationships with women that is her real strength. Did women need this to succeed in a world dominated by men? How is that relevant today?

3. Do you think Milady should have told the Comte de la Fere (Athos) her secret during their courtship or marriage? When, and what would have been the consequences? Knowing what you do of Athos’s character, why do you think he acted as quickly and decisively as he did when he saw her brand?

4. Poison is sometimes called a woman’s weapon, or a coward’s. And yet, it can be argued that it takes greater subtlety and skill to use it well. As with Milady, a poisoner might also be a healer, using herbs, chemicals, and knowledge of the human body for vastly different purposes. Why do you think poison is associated with female assassins?

5. Do you think that Milady believes herself to be a fundamentally good person? Is a person defined by their worst act, their best, an average, or what they are capable of?

6. Milady is a woman capable of profound independence and self sufficiency. When a woman of her habits and abilities chooses a partner, what does it take to make that partnership work?

7. Winners and the powerful write the histories . . . but in this book, Milady has taken control of her own story away from the men who have always told it so far. Have women and minorities been done a disservice by not having their stories told? How can this be corrected?

8. The fleur-de-lis is a symbol of France. As a brand on Milady’s bosom, it is supposed to be a mark of shame and criminality. Yet in her career she served France’s interests. Do you think that for Milady (and for the reader) the fleur-de-lis brand has any other symbolism? Who was Milady actually serving?

9. In The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan, the supposed hero, rapes Milady by deception. He also seduces a married woman, and an unprotected servant. In this book, Milady is far too clever to allow that to happen. Discuss the sort of things people have to accept in order to see D’Artagnan as a hero in the original book. Is it acceptable because Milady is called the villain? Because she is already assumed to be promiscuous? Think about the mores of the time that contribute to this, and whether they exist today.

10. Is Milady legitimately in love with George Villiers? If so, how does this first love affect her future relationships?

11. This book contains many scenes of a woman bound and presumably helpless. Is it ever useful for a woman (or anyone) to pretend to be weaker than they are, to allow themselves to be seen as helpless?

12. Discuss the phrase “one for all, all for one” as it is used in Milady, and as it is used in The Three Musketeers. How are the usages different? How does Milady’s final version of the phrase “nous pour nous” or “us for us” sum up the theme of this novel?

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Milady 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
CharlotteLynnsReviews 5 days ago
I had no idea who Milady was. I have not read The Three Musketeers and I am not at all familiar with who Milady de Winter was or what her story was. That being said I picked up this story excited to learn all that I could about this girl who was young and naive living with her mother until her father comes for her and has other plans for the path her life will be taking. Milady is an interesting story. It takes a young girl and turns her into a feared and dangerous woman. The paths she takes, the people she meets, and the things she does are scary, amazing, and sometimes deadly. I enjoyed meeting the diverse characters with their different social status’, different levels of education, and different upbringings. There was an interesting mix of cultures and I was amazed at how easily Milady was able to find her place in each one. This is a fun historical fiction story. I recommend picking up your own copy and learning more about the woman who many men fear and many men loved.
PNWBookworm 10 days ago
This was a fascinating read. This book takes the villainess of the Three Musketeers story and explains how she came to take that role. Although it is easy to see her as the villain in the Three Musketeers, understanding her past and her motives makes it easier to understand, empathize and even like her, at least a little bit. It’s clear from the writing and the story that Sullivan did a good amount of research to make the story seem realistic. She did a great job with the atmosphere and dialogue, leading to feel as though they have stepped back in time. Overall, it was a very enjoyable read.
marongm8 12 days ago
This book was received as an ARC from Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. Opinions and thoughts expressed in this review are completely my own. I was not expecting to read a book like this from the description and cover. While reading the book, I could not help but to think of the other sister and even the other bolyen girl in how historically similar both of these books are. Also, from the legend of the three musketeers and how they really came to be was such a treat of interest to read and completely unexpected. Knowing the truth and how she was viewed as a villianess and how the musketeers viewed her as the problem and it was them the whole time. We will consider adding this title to our historical fiction section at our library. That is why we are giving it 5 stars.
cyndecat1 12 days ago
A Victorian look into a world of women and intrigue with racy undertones,this book was recommended for those who enjoy Victorian mysteries/ romances. The beginning scene is in a brothel but once I realized the woman was there to assassinate the gentleman, I realized that this would be a novel of intrigue set in the Victorian time period. It was a bit racy for my tastes but would be enjoyed by most who read novels from this period.
BookAddictFL 13 days ago
I have mixed feelings about this book. I'll start with the good stuff: The writing has a beautiful literary quality. Sometimes I'd stop and linger over an elegantly worded sentence. Sullivan clearly knows her history. The dialogue rings true for the times. Little details are sprinkled throughout that thoroughly immerse us in the historical period. Now the stuff I didn't love: The Three Musketeers are vilified here. If you're a fan of the original Musketeers, you might not like where this story takes you. In fact, most every male in this story is either a rapist, abuser, con artist, or some combination of all those things. While I know life was intensely difficult for women back then, the backdrop is too black-and-white, men versus women. The author relies on readers having a firm understanding of the Three Musketeers story. I've forgotten more than I remember, and consequently I felt I was missing major pieces of this story. And, finally, the pacing becomes oh so slow. At about the one-third point, we come to a place where the story seems to stand endlessly still. I got bored, started skimming, put the book down a lot, and could have easily left it at that. While this book will absolutely hold appeal for a lot of readers, ultimately I'm not part of the ideal target audience.
Anonymous 17 days ago
As a fan of The Three Musketeers and anything by Alexandre Dumas I was excited to read this new work by Laura Sullivan. Milady de Winter, the femme fatale of Dumas’ classic is given life in this adventure filled fictional narrative. The reader is given insight to the Milday’s early life and the events that led to her infamous status as seductress, spy, and assassin. Sullivan’s portrayal of the main character Clarice (or Milady) melds well with the classic character blending her strength and cunning with a softer side of loyalty, duty, and intelligence. The flow of the book is engaging using well-envisioned plot twists to draw the reader in. At times, the books drags a little but the end is well worth sticking it out. I would recommend reading The Three Musketeers prior to this book, or at least acquainting oneself with the story’s plot because at times this book drops you into original events. Over all I really enjoyed this book and would gladly recommend.
taramichelle 18 days ago
As soon as I saw that Milday was a retelling of The Three Musketeers from the villainess's perspective, I knew I had to read it. And this book was just wonderful. It was quite obvious that the author had done her research, both in regard to the time period and the original source material. It was a bit difficult to keep track of the timelines at first but I ended up loving how the story played out. It was fascinating to see how Milady came to be and what she was at the peak of her powers. I loved how Sullivan turned the original story on its head and was able to create this brilliant, vibrant, powerful woman from a villainess. This book ultimately examines how the difference between good and evil depends entirely on who is telling the tale. I'd highly recommend it for fans of historical fiction or unique retellings. *Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
taramichelle 18 days ago
As soon as I saw that Milday was a retelling of The Three Musketeers from the villainess's perspective, I knew I had to read it. And this book was just wonderful. It was quite obvious that the author had done her research, both in regard to the time period and the original source material. It was a bit difficult to keep track of the timelines at first but I ended up loving how the story played out. It was fascinating to see how Milady came to be and what she was at the peak of her powers. I loved how Sullivan turned the original story on its head and was able to create this brilliant, vibrant, powerful woman from a villainess. This book ultimately examines how the difference between good and evil depends entirely on who is telling the tale. I'd highly recommend it for fans of historical fiction or unique retellings. *Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
thegeekishbrunette 18 days ago
The premise seemed to be different than the book and its hard to enjoy it when they don't seem to coincide. It took longer for me to get through this book since there was no real connection for me to the plot or the characters. I wanted to enjoy this one but for reasons, I couldn't. When it came to Milady, she did a lot of vile things but at the same time she also blamed it on others and love. She also seemed to have multiple personalities and I am not sure if one was for show or not. I had a hard time connecting with her and that always plays a huge role in grabbing my attention for the book as a whole. I can't say that I was interested in any of the other characters and some didn't have much background or a lot of character development. The writing style was one that I was not fond of. At times the narrative seemed to switch from past to present within the same chapter and it made for quite a confusing read. The plot was somewhat interesting but still needed something and it didn't grasp my attention. There were certain scenes that also rubbed me the wrong way early on in the book and could also be another reason I couldn't get into it. Although it was quite creative and had a strong female character, it just wasn't for me. Overall, it is another case of the, "its me, not you". I know others will find this book to be wonderful. So like always, take my review with a grain of salt. eARC provided by publisher through NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
teachlz 18 days ago
Linda’s Book Obsession Review “Milady” by Laura L. Sullivan, Berkley, Penguin Random House, July 2, 2019 Laura L. Sullivan, Author of “MILADY” has written a unique, intense, captivating, bewitching, and exciting adventure. The Genres for this novel are Fiction and Historical Fiction. The timeline for this story is the seventeenth century. The author describes her characters as good and evil, loyal and betraying, complex and complicated. Laura L. Sullivan has provided what could be the truth of Milady de Winter and is the opposite version of “The Three Musketeers” by Dumas. What if Milady were to tell the story as she sees it? In the seventeenth century, women were not treated equally in any way to men. As the author retells the story, Milady is either a heroine or anti-heroine in a hostile and complex time and place. Milady has had only the best training from her mother to be able to protect herself in any way that she can. At times Milady is a victim or a villain. What do you think? There are secrets, spies, kidnappings, murders, treason, and twists and turns. This is an edgy and intense adventure filled with danger and excitement. I highly recommend this unusual story.