The sun was still high overhead when I stumbled on a loose stone on the path to the house. I barely managed to catch the fence. Four years ago, white paint was stark against the grass. Now green caterpillar vines crawled up the stakes and ivy sank into the wood.
The door to the parlor was open a hairline crack: back to that night, the poker in my hand slick with sweat, smoke choking my lungs...no.
They weren't here. We were safe. They weren't coming back.
I knocked before entering. My mother's head settled against the back of her favorite chair, a note in her lap. I turned to sneak out the way I'd come. But then there was a shifting sound, a cough. "Tania?"
"I brought you these." She looked at my outstretched arms, at the basket filled with flowers, then down at the letter. Was she struggling? Perhaps I could help her, like she helped me, and—"Is the handwriting too difficult to read? Too small? I could read it to you—"
"No. It's fine." Her words were tense and short as she folded the letter into quarters and tucked it into her shawl, away from my prying gaze.
"It's really no trouble," I continued. "I said it was fine, Tania."
"All right." My hand hovered near a small table in case I needed support.
She rubbed at her brow. "Your uncle sends his love. I'll be fine," she added as I began to protest. "Go work on that new embroidery pattern, the one your aunt sent you." It wasn't a suggestion.
I backed out of the room. But I didn't go to retrieve the untouched pattern design hidden inside a book in my bedroom.
I would never trade my sword for a needle and thread.
Papa practiced an intricate series of footwork in the barn, the movement of his right hand so fluid that his sword appeared to be an extension of his arm. He hadn't been the greatest swordsman in the Musketeers, but he'd certainly been one of the best. Though there was a chance he might've said that only to keep himself from getting too big a head. It was hard to imagine anyone more talented at fencing than he was. And he loved it more than anything...until he met my mother. A widowed vicomte's daughter who, after she made it clear that Papa wasn't a courtly fling, was cut off, despite her status as a second child with an older sister married off to a wealthy lord.
The Musketeers might've been heroes. But, unless King Louis XIII, and Louis XIV after him, decided to bestow their goodwill, the few who entered the Musketeers without land, without titles, exited in the same fashion. There weren't many of these men, like Papa; they were vastly outnumbered by the sons of noble families, those who regularly bought their way in. But Papa had his skill with a blade and that couldn't be bought with any amount of money in the world.
Papa gave up his Musketeer duties when I was born to be a constant presence in our family. At least, that was what he told me when I was little and hung on his every word, begging bedtime stories from the man who'd willingly given up glory beyond my comprehension, all for my mother and me. But now I knew better—Papa would never have given up his post voluntarily. Not even his brothers in arms could have protected him, a titleless Musketeer, against a vicomte's influence. No, Papa was forced into retirement. But he had my mother, who refused to obey her father's wishes. And together they had me.
If only they didn't have me to argue over, or to use up all their funds, perhaps it wouldn't have been such a terrible trade. Romantic, even. To love someone so much you were willing to give up everything for them. But then, I'd only ever fenced with Papa. I didn't know what it was like to be part of a community, dedicated to the study of the sword, only to have it ripped away.
Drawn out of my thoughts by a clap of foot to floor, I watched Papa switch seamlessly from pointe en ligne—arm and blade in one straight line, chest height—to a beautifully executed parry. His blade whistled through the air as he performed the block.
"I'm never going to be able to do that."
My father turned to look over his shoulder and pushed strands of graying hair out of his face with his free hand. "You will."
While the barn did house Papa's aging stallion, trusty Beau, its interior wasn't what one would expect. The walls were lined with practice swords and extra equipment, the center of the floor cleared and swept free of hay. A dummy fashioned from a used sack of flour and leftover straw was mounted in the corner for target practice.
"Not with an opponent running at me with a sword," I grumbled. Papa opened his mouth, but I continued before he could speak. "Not running; you know I didn't mean running. It was a figure of speech. You know I meant advancing."
A smile reached across his whole face, new wrinkles around the corners of his eyes, his mouth. It was times like these when he looked young and old all at once, when I understood how he could have disarmed even my mother, a proper courtier, into considering a man without an impressive title. His stories of wooing her, to my delight and her dismay, were ones filled with intrigue and danger, young lovers destined for one another but hauled apart by rank, by jealousy...
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.