The prince of midnight, p.1
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       The Prince of Midnight, p.1

           Laura Kinsale
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The Prince of Midnight


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  The Prince of Midnight

  Laura Kinsale

  This one’s not for David, either

  There’ll never be one good enough

  Chapter One

  La Paire, foothills of the French Alps—1772

  The lad had the deep, burning eyes of a zealot. S.T. Maitland shifted uncomfortably on his wooden bench and glanced again over his wine across the murky depths of the tavern. It was damnably disconcerting to find that measuring stare still fixed on him, as if he were up for admission to heaven and not particularly likely to get in.

  S.T. lifted his tankard in a lazy salute. He wasn’t proud. He reckoned he was a long enough shot for paradise that a nod was worth the trouble. If this comely youth with the absurdly black lashes and vivid blue eyes should turn out to be St. Peter, Jr., best to be decently civil.

  Rather to S.T.’s dismay, the youngster’s gaze intensified. The straight, dark brows drew into a frown and the boy stood, slim and silent, a figure of blue velvet and shabby gentility amid the usual lot of peasants chattering in Piedmontese and Provençal. S.T. rubbed his ear and brushed his tie wig nervously. A vision of eating his déjeuner in the clutches of an earnestly holy adolescent made him swig the last half of his wine and stand up in haste.

  He reached down for the packet of sable paintbrushes he’d come into the village to procure. The string loosened. He swore under his breath, trying to capture the precious sticks before they scattered into the rushes that covered the dirt floor.

  “Seigneur.”

  The soft voice seemed to be behind him. S.T. came upright, turning quickly to the left in the hope of escaping, but his bad ear tricked him amid the babble of laughter and conversation. His balance fluctuated for an instant; he grabbed instinctively for the table and found himself face-to-face with the youth.

  “Monseigneur du Minuit?”

  A bolt of alarm shot through him. The words were French, but it was very stilted French, and a name he hadn’t been called in three years.

  He’d been half expecting to hear it—for so long that it didn’t even sound remarkable. ’Twas the voice itself that seemed improbable, gruff and toneless, coming from this infant with the fresh, high-colored face. When S.T. had envisioned the hunters who might track him for the price on his head, he’d hardly imagined a greenling who hadn’t even started a beard.

  He relaxed against the table and gazed glumly down at the youth. Was this youngster all he was worth? He could kill the poor cub with one hand, for God’s sake.

  “You are le Seigneur du Minuit,” the boy stated, nodding stiffly, managing the pronunciation of “seyn-yuhr” and “minwhee” with careful dignity. In English, he added, “I am correct?”

  S.T. thought of answering in a torrent of annoyed French which would undoubtedly go right over the fellow’s head. His schoolroom accent sounded none too steady. But those eyes of burning deep blue had a force of their own, enough to keep S.T. wary. Fresh faced or not, the child had managed to locate him—a disturbing fact on all counts.

  The boy was tall for an adolescent, but S.T. still topped him by a head and certainly outweighed him by a good six stone. With that slender elegance and full, solemn mouth, the young whelp looked more like to grow into a dandy than a thieftaker. He dressed the beau, to be sure, even if the lace at his cuffs and linen jabot was frayed and grimy.

  “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” S.T. demanded brusquely.

  The dark, winged brows drew into a deeper line. “S’il vous plaît, the boy said with a little bobbing bow, “will you speak English, monsieur?”

  S.T. gave him a suspicious look. The lad was really outrageously beautiful, his black hair drawn back off high cheekbones into a short queue; a classical, perfect nose… and those eyes, alors, like the light through deep water: nightshade and violet and bluebells. S.T. had seen that effect once, in a rocky cave at the edge of the Mediterranean, with the sun shafts piercing aquamarine shadows and playing off jet-black stone—and this against skin soft and fine as a girl’s. The superbly modeled face held high color, a pink that looked almost feverish. Against his better judgment, S.T. found himself growing curious about the brat.

  “Little speak Eng-lish.” He made up the worst accent he could humanly execute, speaking loudly above the tavern noise. “Little! Good day! Yes?”

  The youth hesitated, staring intensely from beneath those slanted brows. S.T. found himself vaguely embarrassed by the farce. What a silly language, French—it made a man sound like some backstage cardsharp to imitate the proper Gallic inflections.

  “You are not the Seigneur,” the boy said in his husky, toneless voice.

  “Seigneur!” Did the young dullard suppose that S.T. was going to announce it to any English stranger who happened along? “Mon petit bouffon! I look a seigneur, no? A lord! But yes!” He gestured down at his jackboots and paint-stained breeches. “Bien sûr! A prince, of course!”

  “Je m’excuse.” The youth gave a second awkward bow. “I seek another.” He hesitated, looked hard at S.T., and then began to turn away.

  S.T. clamped his hand on the slender shoulder. He couldn’t afford to let the cub go quite so easily as that. “Seek an-oth-er? An-o-ther? Pardon; but this I comprehend not.”

  The boy’s frown deepened. “A man.” He moved his hand in a slight gesture of frustration. “Un home.”

  “Le Seigneur du Minuit?” S.T. put just a trace of patient patronage in his tone. “The Lord—of the Midnight, eh? Zut! Is a name absurd. I know not he. You seek? Pardon, pardon, monsieur, for why you seek?”

  “I must find him.” The youth watched S.T.’s face with the intensity of a cat at a mouse hole. “It doesn’t matter why.” He paused and then said slowly, “Perhaps he goes by a different name here.”

  “Of course. I give to you help, hm? Ah—the hair.” S.T. tugged at the queue on his tie wig. “Color? The color, you know it?”

  “Yes. Brown hair, monsieur. I’m told he doesn’t like a wig or powder. Brown hair, dark, but with gold in it. Streaked with gold, all over. Similar to a lion, monsieur. S.T. rolled his eyes, playing Frenchman. “Alors. Le beau!”

  The boy nodded seriously. “Yes, they say he is handsome. Quite good-looking. Tall. With eyes of green. Comprenez ‘green,’ monsieur? Emerald? With gold in them. And gold on his eyelashes and brows.” The boy stared at S.T. significantly. “Very unusual, I’m told. As if someone had sprinkled gold dust over him. And his eyebrows are quite distinctive, too, so they say—” He touched his own. “With a curl at the arch of them like the horns on a devil.”

  S.T. hesitated. The blue eyes held constant, no change in expression, just a shade too level, the tone of voice a trace too mild—he looked down at the youth and saw someone a thousand years old gazing out of that unfledged face.

  It chilled him. There was a devil inside this one, and it knew full well who he was but chose to play the game S.T. had started.

  He carried on with the performance anyway. The only other recourse was to lure the poor pup out back and hold a stiletto to his throat. S.T. needed to know how he’d been found… and why.

  Tapping his forehead, he said wisely, “Ah. Eye-brow. Je comprends. See this eye-brow you, and think… I is he. This seigneur. Yes?”

  “Yes.” The boy smiled faintly. “But I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

  The smile erased all trace of subterfuge. It was sweet and wistful and feminine, and S.T. had to sit down to keep from sinking under the sudden shock of revelation.

  For the love of—

  She was a girl.

>   He was certain of it. Abruptly and utterly certain. That soft, husky voice that didn’t rise and fall in ordinary tones, but stayed stubbornly gruff; that skin, those lips, the slender build—oh, she was a female, the sly little cat. She had the face to carry it off, too, clean and striking, marvelous, with a full jaw and dramatic brows, and enough height and carriage to pass for a youth of sixteen. He’d wager a gold guinea that she’d cut her eyelashes to blunt them—that was why they looked so black and stubby.

  And he’d wager a hundred on why she’d come. No threat of capture here. No cunning pursuit to drag him back to England for the king’s reward. Just another damsel in distress, looking for help like a thousand others.

  She’d traveled a devil of a long way to plague him.

  But so beautiful. So beautiful.

  “Sit,” he said suddenly, waving his hand at the roughhewn table. “Sit, sit, mon petit monsieur. I help. I think. Marc!” He shouted for the innkeeper above the mundane racket of lunchtime. “Vin … Hé! Vin pour deux.” He slapped his sheaf of brushes on the table, straddling the bench. “Monsieur. How you are call?”

  “Leigh Strachan.” She gave her little bow. “At your service.”

  “Sra-hon. Srah-hen.” He grinned. “Difficile. Lee, eh?” He whacked his chest. “I name… Este.” There was no use trying to hide that; everyone in the village knew him by it, and thought it was vastly Italian of him to call himself by a cardinal point on the map. “Sit. Sit. Très bien. You eat, no? Cheese—” He reached up and helped himself to a slab of sausage that swung with the cheese from a rafter over the table. Slicing off a generous portion of each, he pushed the food toward her, along with a pot of mustard. Marc brought hot bread, and gave S.T. a significant glance as he thumped another wine bottle down on the table. With a defeated grimace, S.T. promised in French to paint his ugly daughter before the winter was out, which was a considerable capitulation, and enough to send the aubergiste off with a smug look and no demand for payment, which would have been futile in any case.

  Monsieur Leigh Strachan eyed the sweet-smelling bread as S.T. broke it into steaming chunks. She looked hungry, but shook her head. “I’ve—already eaten. Merci.”

  S.T. glanced at her. He shrugged and poured her wine. If she wasn’t starving he was a pig’s knuckle, but these greenlings had their pride. He leaned back against the wall and smeared mustard on a large hunk of cheese. ’Twas a long walk uphill back to his castle.

  He met her eyes in mid bite and grinned around the bread. She looked positively pale, but returned the smile bravely. How he ever could have thought she was a male, he couldn’t fathom.

  Those eyes. Magnificent. Now how the devil was a man to get up a flirt, with her dressed in that rig?

  “This seigneur,” he said, finishing off his bread. “Hair bronze. Eyes of emerald. Tall man.”

  “Handsome,” she offered, in that husky flat voice.

  The little minx. S.T. poured himself wine. “What is this word? Hond-soom.”

  She took a swig of wine, quite a decent imitation of his. He considered belching, just to see if she’d copy him.

  “Un bel homme, she said. “Handsome.”

  “Ha. He is French?”

  “He is of English parents.” She drank again. “But he speaks French very fluently. That is why they called him the Seigneur in England.”

  “Quelle stupidité.” S.T. swept his arm around the crowded tavern. “All speak French. All lords here, eh?”

  She didn’t blink. “In England it is not so common. They say he has—a certain air about him. A newspaper dubbed him by that name, and now it sticks.”

  “Le Seigneur du Minuit,” he mused, and shook his head. He’d really hoped that sobriquet had died along with his reputation. “Absurd. Midnight, pourquoi?”

  She lifted her wine and took a long swallow. The chipped porcelain mug made a solid sound when she set it down. She gave him a straight look. “I think you know why ‘midnight,’ Monsieur Este.”

  He smiled a little. “Do I?”

  She watched him silently as he poured her another portion. He leaned back against the wall again. He didn’t want to hear her sad story. He didn’t want to listen to her pleas. He just wanted to gaze at her and fantasize about the one great lack in his life these days.

  She took a breath, and another swallow of wine. He could see her thinking, trying to reckon him. A faint touch of desperation had begun to seep into her brooding expression. After another generous gulp of wine, she came at him directly.

  “Monsieur Este,” she said, “I can understand that the Seigneur does not wish to show himself to strangers. I know the danger.”

  He made his eyes grow wide. “Dan-ger? What is this? I like not dan-ger.”

  “There is none. For him.”

  S.T. snorted. “For him I care not,” he said indignantly. “Is for me I care! I think maybe well I do not know this bad Seigneur, yes? I think I do not help seek for he.”

  She looked a bit disconcerted. The wine was having its effect: the fire in those lovely eyes had grown a little smokier.

  “Mon cher ami, “he said gently. “You go to the home. You no seek dan-ger… this Seigneur so absurd.”

  The cold blaze sprang up again. “I have no home.”

  “And so—” He examined his thumbnail. “You go seek. I think I know this ‘prince’ I con-jec-ture. I hear ‘midnight’ and ‘Seigneur,’ and I know-what kind of man this. Bad man. Bad dan-ger. He is a highwayman, no? He is chase from England like a chien, tail under legs, no? Here we do not want him. Good men here only. Good king’s men. No dan-ger. No trouble. Go to the home, mon petit.”

  “I cannot.”

  Of course not. Naturally he wouldn’t get rid of her that easily. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to. He watched her gulp down the rest of her wine. When he did not offer to pour, she served herself from the fresh bottle Marc had brought.

  “Mon dieu. What you want, boy?” he demanded suddenly. “Be criminal? Thief? Why seek you this bastard?”

  “He is not a bastard.” Her head came up. She frowned, and when she spoke, the wine was already slurring her voice. “You’re not him, are you? You don’t… understand.”

  S.T. rubbed his forehead. He drank deeply and leaned on his elbow.

  “He is a good man,” she said, her voice breaking upward carelessly. She polished off her mug and poured herself another. Beneath the tattered lace cuff, her wrist seemed touchingly pale and slender. “Not a thief.”

  He smiled in derision. “People give to him jewels, oui? Rain on him gold.”

  She bridled, flashing him a glance of blue fire. “You don’t understand.” She’d forgotten her male role completely, but her natural voice had a luscious soft huskiness. “He would help me.”

  “How?”

  “I want him to teach me.” She tilted the mug up and drank. She had to hold it with both hands, well on her way to being half crocked. When she set it down, she twisted a lock of loose hair around her forefinger with a delicate gesture that was so feminine it made him smile.

  Softly, he asked, “Teach you what, ma belle?”

  She didn’t notice the adjective. “Swordplay,” she said with passion.

  S.T.’s mug hit the table.

  “How to use a pistol,” she added. “And to ride. He’s the best alive. In the world. He can make a horse do anything.”

  She looked feverishly at S.T., who was shaking his head and swearing beneath his breath. He met that concentrated stare and looked away, pushing his hand into his hair in discomfort.

  That was a mistake. He’d forgotten he was wearing the tie wig for his foray into the village of La Paire; it slid askew beneath his fingers and he had to pull it off. He cursed in French and tossed the scratchy nuisance on the table. Swordplay! Of all the damned crazy notions. He leaned on his elbows, chafing his hands in his hair.

  When he looked up, he realized it was far more of a mistake than he’d understood. She was staring at him, intense and half-drunk
.

  “You are the Seigneur.” Her lips worked. “I knew it. I knew it.”

  “Allons-y!” He stood up, hauling her to her feet. She was clearly one of those females who couldn’t hold her claret. She’d passed the point of discretion—in a moment she’d be bursting into tears or performing some other purely female exploit—and whoever she was, or whyever she’d come, ’twas hardly chivalrous to leave her to reveal herself in a public ordinary. He grabbed the bottle of wine, slapped his tricorne on his head, and took her around the waist. She wilted against him. “Adolescent cabbage,” he said disgustedly to Marc on his way past.

  The tavern keeper beamed, all benevolence and grimy apron. “Don’t forget my Chantal’s portrait,” he called after them.

  S.T. lifted the half-empty bottle in salute, not even bothering to turn around as he carted Monsieur Leigh Strachan away.

  He left her to sleep it off in a granary above La Paire and started home. He’d see her again soon enough—that was one thing as certain as death and the king’s taxes.

  It was sunset and he was breathing hard from the climb before the ruined towers of Col du Noir appeared, clinging to the cliff at the head of the canyon, silhouetted against a clear, cool sky. The ducks came out to greet him, nipping at his feet until he bought them off with a chunk of bread. He stopped at the garden and dug among the dry weeds for a garlic to flavor his dinner. Dusting dirt off his hands onto his breeches, he ambled beneath the turreted gate of his castle and through the lavender that grew wild in the courtyard.

  He whistled, and Nemo came bounding out of some shadowed crevice where he’d been hiding. The great wolf leaped up and licked enthusiastically at S.T.’s face, then dropped down to fawn and whine in pleasure, getting a tussle and a bite of cheese for his trouble. He jogged circles around S.T. as he trudged up the uneven stone stairs.

  S.T. paused in the armory, looking up at the huge painting just visible in the last of the daylight. With Nemo snuffling at his boots, he gave the portrait a fleeting stroke in the place where his hand had worn the painted luster from the flank of a shining black horse.

 
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