An excerpt from…
The Mask of Night
by Tracy Grant
Rue St. Jacques, Paris
Mélanie Lescaut slid out from the weight of the sleeping man’s arm. The air sliced into her bare flesh, but she sat stock still while she counted out three minutes. The fire in the grate had burned down to acrid embers. The sheets–fine linen from Provence–lay tangled about her legs, damp with sweat and the other raw remnants of the acts she and the man in the bed had engaged in.
A half-full glass of cognac stood on the night-table. A single candle (he’d insisted on leaving one lit) guttered in its chased silver candlestick. The clean beeswax light flickered over the man’s wide cheekbones, his sleep-slackened lips, the puckered scar on his collarbone. He’d blackened his lashes to match his dyed hair. Traces of the blacking had smeared in the purple-shadowed creases round his eyes, but only someone trained to look would notice.
Julien St. Juste, the man lying in the bed beside her, was a legend among spies. Deadly with any weapon from poison to a blade, a master of disguise, so skilled at deception even his fellow spies couldn’t see through him. And she, an untried agent on her first mission, was going to try to outwit him.
Just the thought sent her heart hammering in her throat. She drew a breath. One step at a time. That was the only way she would get through this.
Three minutes and the even rise and fall of his chest hadn’t altered. She pushed herself up so she had a better view of the room. The sheet slid over her skin, bringing the memory of trailing fingers. She suppressed a shiver and shifted her gaze round the room. Where might he have hidden a paper that was so valuable? The calfskin binding of the books on the low shelf against the wall? The frame of the oil (Fragonard or a good imitation) that hung over the writing desk? A secret drawer in the desk itself? Or somewhere at once more obvious and less obtrusive…
She looked back at the bed. Had he moved? Cold terror washed over her. But his hand was still curled the same fraction of an inch away from the water spot on the damask coverlet. She watched him a moment longer, willing her heartbeat to slow, then forced herself to look for more hiding places. The fluted walnut bedposts, still looped round with crimson silk cords. (She rubbed her wrist where the cord had bitten into her skin. No, she couldn’t afford to think about that). The thick goose feather mattress (not that please, how the devil would she manage to slit it open without waking him?).
Below the bed, a Turkey rug in indigo and blood red covered the floorboards. Surely a secret compartment beneath the floorboards was too unimaginative for a man of Julien St. Juste’s talents. And yet he had taken care to cover the floor with their tangle of discarded clothes. She remembered him tossing them about, while his fingers drifted over her skin, stirring feelings she had had no intention of letting herself indulge in.
The second glass of cognac lay tipped on its side amid the garments. The candlelight made hills and valleys of light and shadow out of the peacock blue silk of her gown, the white linen of his shirt and her chemise, the gleaming black cassimere of his coat and the silk of his pantaloons. Her satin-ribboned slippers had somehow landed halfway across the carpet, but his silver-buckled shoes stood neatly beside the bed, along with his walking stick. Her gaze moved on to the crumpled velvet of her opera cloak, littered with a jumble of jeweled hairpins that he’d removed one by one. She looked back at the walking stick. It had an elaborate handle of carved ivory. She’d assumed it was a swordstick. But–
Her gaze darted back to St. Juste. His blackened lashes still rested against his pale skin. His hand still lay, slack-fingered, beside the water spot on the coverlet. His chest still moved in the same even rhythm. She watched him a moment longer, putting off the inevitable. If he woke now, she could explain it away. Once she reached for the walking stick–
She squeezed her eyes shut, calling on reserves she hadn’t known she possessed. After one last glance at the sleeping St Juste, she reached down and grasped the cool wood of the stick. She twisted the ivory handle. It moved with the ease of frequent use. She gave another twist. If it was this easy–
Fingers closed on her arm. She spun round, still gripping the walking stick, and felt the press of cold steel at her throat. A glass-sharp blue gaze pinned her where she sat.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he said in a voice that would have turned raw spirits to ice.
Later the same night
Mélanie followed the powdered head and liveried back of the footman down the labyrinth of passageways. The candle the footman carried made an island of golden warmth. Occasionally the light would flash against the gilt of a table leg or a sofa arm, the gleaming white of a piece of statuary, the glistening oils of a painting. Fragments of painted images shot past her gaze. Classical robes, Neptune’s trident, lovers in a rose-strewn bower. She could not see enough to put a name to any of the painters but the richness of color took her back to visits she had made with her father to the Louvre and the Prado. The old days when her world had been safe. Not so very long ago if measured by the calendar, yet the gulf between then and now was so wide that she could scarcely remember the girl she had been.
The footman stopped before a pair of doors topped by two carved bees picked out in gilt. He rapped and flung the polished mahogany open.
Mélanie drew a breath that had the scrape of sandpaper. A few hours ago, she had had a knife pressed to her throat, but it was now that her blood chilled and her limbs shook as though she were a foolish, frightened child. Focused on the risks of her mission, she had quite failed to consider that having to admit she had failed in that mission might be an even more perilous task. She stepped over the threshold, feeling as though the blade of the guillotine hung over her head.
The room beyond was lit only by tapers on the mantle and two enamel lamps. She had a brief impression of jewel-toned carpets, a snowy-white mantle, a dark-haired woman seated on a deep-cushioned sofa of gold velvet.
The doors closed with a discreet click and the footman’s steps retreated down the corridor. The woman got to her feet. She wore a white gown and a heavy shawl of purple cashmere. Her face was half in shadow, but even so it was instantly recognizable. The softly rounded features, the chestnut hair clustered in curls over the high forehead, the wide deep blue eyes fringed by dark lashes made darker with blacking. The face Mélanie had studied in prints and drawings throughout her girlhood. The face immortalized in the David painting of the ceremony in Notre Dame. Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie. The Vicomtesse de Beauharnais. Josephine Bonaparte.
The Empress of France.
Mélanie reminded herself that this was a role like any other and sank into a curtsy. Her muscles trembled as though she had been pummeled black and blue. “Your–” The title stuck in her throat. She forced it out. “Your majesty.”
The Empress’s mouth curved. “A republican like your employer, I see.”
Mélanie straightened her shoulders. She was prepared for anger. She was prepared to be struck or ordered from the room or hauled off by armed men. But whatever she faced, she would face it with her head held high. “M. O’Roarke has served the Empire well.”
“Raoul O’Roarke is a pragmatist. I saw that when I first met him in Les Carmes prison during the Terror. In his view, better an Emperor with some belief in the rights of man than a return of the monarchy.” Josephine surveyed her for a moment. “I know Raoul is unorthodox in his choice of agents, but I hadn’t expected you to be quite so young. You can’t be a day over seventeen.”
She was in fact barely sixteen, but it seemed best not to enlighten the Empress. “M. O’Roarke said he needed someone for this mission who could get under Julien St. Juste’s guard.”
“No easy task. What is your name?”
“Lescaut. Mélanie Lescaut.”
“Mlle. Lescaut.” The Empress had a warm, lilting voice. Mélanie, trained to recognize accents, could hear an echo of Josephine’s native Martinique. But beneath the languor lay an unmistakable undertone of fear. As terrified as she was herself, Mélanie realized, this powerful woman was frightened too.
Josephine fingered the border of her shawl. “Where did Raoul find you?”
“In a brothel.”
Josephine inclined her head. “Raoul has always had a knack for seeing beyond the obvious. Your talents would have been sadly wasted had you remained there.” She swallowed, as though she could not quite bring herself to ask her next question. “I believe you have something for me, mademoiselle?”
Bitter ashes welled up on Mélanie’s tongue. The urge to run back to Raoul O’Roarke rather than keep this meeting with the Empress had been almost overmastering. But she had not let herself give way to it, and she would not run now. She looked straight into the Empress’s eyes. “I have failed, madame. I wasn’t able to recover the paper from M. St. Juste.”
All the blood drained from the Empress’s face. Josephine swayed on her feet and would have fallen had Mélanie not caught her arm. For a moment, the Empress was a dead weight against her shoulder. Mélanie half-carried her to the sofa.
She cast a quick glance about the room. A demi-lune table held a Venetian glass decanter and a set of glasses. She poured a glass of wine and pressed it into the Empress’s hand. When it nearly tumbled from the woman’s nerveless fingers, she put her hand over Josephine’s own and guided the glass to her lips. Josephine gulped down a swallow. A little color returned to her cheeks beneath the bright splotches of rouge.
“I failed to recover the paper,” Mélanie said. “But it may not be as bad as you fear.”
Josephine’s blue eyes fastened on her face, wracked by ghosts Mélanie could not begin to guess at. “You can’t know, child. Holy Mother–”
“No. I can’t know.” Mélanie sank back on her heels on the soft pile of the Aubusson carpet. “You’ll have to judge for yourself.”
Josephine raked Mélanie’s face with a fever-bright gaze. “Tell me.”
Mélanie folded her hands in her lap. She was sitting before the most powerful woman in all France. She had been asked to recover a paper that contained information the Empress feared could destroy her. A paper in the possession of Julien St. Juste, a spy with deadly talents. A man who had once been Josephine’s lover. She had dangerous knowledge, and she had completely failed in her mission. From the Empress’s perspective, there were any number of reasons to simply get rid of her.
“I contrived to meet Julien St. Juste at the Comédie Française,” Mélanie said, her voice thin to her own ears. “I persuaded him to take me to his rooms.” She slid over what had happened subsequently. There were only so many ways to describe such acts in any case, and she couldn’t bring herself to voice them to Josephine, who had also shared St. Juste’s bed. “He caught me searching for the paper. I thought he was asleep.”
“I took every precaution M. O’Roarke taught me. But I misjudged it. St. Juste put a knife to my throat. It was no more than I deserved for my clumsiness.” She could still feel the imprint of steel against her collarbone. For a moment, she’d been sure her first mission would be her last. “But St. Juste asked who sent me. M. O’Roarke told me to admit the truth if I was caught, so I did so.”
“And St. Juste–”
“He said I hadn’t done badly all things considered. Far more seasoned agents had failed to outwit him.” The words stuck in her throat. The amusement in his gaze still stung. “He said he couldn’t afford to give up the paper. But–” Mélanie looked into Josephine’s eyes, repeating the speech word for word as that strange, violent man had repeated it to her. “He said you were one of the few people on this earth he’d never hurt. He said to tell you he would never use the information in that paper against you, and that should you ever have need of his services you could command him in anything.”
The Empress closed her eyes for a moment. Lines stood out stark against her skin. “I’d be a fool to believe him.”
“Yes. But in that moment I found myself doing so. I can’t speak for the future, but for the present, I don’t believe he will use the paper against you.”
“Do you know what the paper contains?”
Mélanie swallowed, aware that she was picking her way through a field set with mines. It was common knowledge that Josephine Bonaparte had had lovers. But that one of her lovers was a spy known to serve the highest bidder was another matter entirely. What had led to the Empress’s entanglement with Julien St. Juste? And what secrets were contained in that paper she was so desperate to recover from him? That was the sort of knowledge powerful people killed to conceal. “No,” Mélanie said truthfully. “M. O’Roarke only told me what I needed to know to recognize the paper. And that it was in code.”
“Surely you know how to break codes.”
“I had no need to break this one. I was simply supposed to recover the paper and return it to you. And in the end I never saw it.”
“But you knew how important it was that I recovered it.”
Tension pressed against Mélanie’s throat, sharp and lethal. A knife in her ribs in a crowded boulevard, a bungled robbery in a dark alley– Easily enough arranged, surely, and the Empress would have no more need to fear the inconvenient knowledge of a sixteen-year-old ex-whore turned spy. “It would be awkward for you if it fell into the wrong hands,” Mélanie said.
“You have a gift for understatement, chérie. It would be a disaster. Do you think I don’t hear the whispers? My husband’s family have never liked me, but now they and half the court are clamoring for him to divorce me.”
Mélanie recalled the one time she had seen Napoleon Bonaparte, handing Josephine down from a carriage before the Opéra. Even as a child, she hadn’t missed the tenderness in his eyes. “The Emperor loves–“
“The Emperor needs a son. Love is a feeble shield in the face of politics. And if he knew the contents of that paper you failed to recover from Julien St. Juste–“ Josephine began to laugh. The high, brittle sound split the candle-scented air and reverberated off the silk-hung walls.
Mélanie reached out to her, but as she did so, the door was flung open.
“Maman!” A gold-haired young woman in blue stopped short on the threshold. She cast a quick glance at Mélanie, then ran to the Empress’s side.
“Maman, please, you’ll make yourself ill.” The girl rocked Josephine in her arms.
As abruptly as it had started, the laughter ceased. Josephine pulled away from her daughter. “Enough, chérie.”
“I’m all right,” Josephine said in the tone of a woman used to having her smallest command obeyed.
The young woman darted a quick glance at Mélanie. She must be Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte, Mélanie realized. Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage, now the wife of Napoleon’s younger brother.
Josephine straightened her back and smoothed her shawl. “This is Mlle. Lescaut, Hortense. Raoul O’Roarke engaged her to do a service for me.”
Hortense gave an artless, unaffected smile that held none of the hauteur Mélanie would have expected from royalty. “M. O’Roarke has always been a good friend to us. You have my thanks, mademoiselle.” She cast a worried look at her mother. “It’s over then? What’s been worrying you these past days?”
“Over?” The Empress’s hands closed on the folds of her shawl. “Oh, no, chérie. I fear it’s only just beginning.” She caught Mélanie’s wrist in a hard grip. “I must have your word. That you won’t reveal tonight’s events to anyone.”
Mélanie looked into the desperate gaze of the Empress of France and received yet another shock on an evening full of them. For what she felt was not fear or remorse but a wholly unexpected welling of sympathy. “Madame–”
Mélanie stared into Josephine’s fever-bright gaze and made the promise she feared even then she would not be able to keep.
“I swear it.”
…regretter de n’avoir pu trouver, avec tant de braves, ma mort à Waterloo…
Charles-Auguste de Flahaut to Hortense Bonaparte, 1815
Ten years later
Berkeley Square, London
Mélanie Fraser crossed eight feet of Savonnèrie carpet and hesitated before the gleaming oak of the dressing room door. Despite the coals burning behind the satin-stitched firescreen and the tapers sparkling in their girandole candlesticks, the bedchamber felt cold. Or perhaps the cold came from anticipation of the evening ahead.
She turned the handle and pushed the door open. The candlelight wavered, shifting over a tall figure in the act of fastening the cuffs of his black velvet doublet. The pier glass and the mirrored panels on the wardrobe doors reflected his image. She felt as though she had stumbled into one of her childrens’ picture books and was looking at some sort of fantastical creature of the night. A study in slashed black velvet and starched white linen, his face reduced to a full-lipped mouth and a shock of dark hair with a mask of jet beads covering the space in between.
“I can’t manage the clasp on my necklace,” she said, “and I sent Blanca downstairs.”
He tugged off the mask, revealing sharp, Celtic cheekbones, deep set gray eyes, slanting dark brows. A collection of features as familiar to her as the parched slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains or the intricacies of a set of picklocks. But for a disconcerting moment she felt she was looking at a stranger. A stranger who happened to be her husband.
Charles Malcolm Kenneth Fraser, the man to whom she was bound by circumstance, a yellowing set of marriage lines, and a tangle of emotions she could not begin to unravel crossed to her side and took the necklace from her fingers. He slid his hands beneath the curls her maid had so carefully arranged and fastened the gold links of the clasp. His hands closed round her throat for a moment as he set the cool pearls against her skin.
“I never realized what an effective weapon a strand of pearls could make,” he said.
“Fatal lack of imagination, darling. And you’re usually so inventive.”
“We all have our blind spots.” He pressed his lips to the nape of her neck. A shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with apprehension. Whatever had happened between them, some things never changed.
“Thank you, dearest.” She turned round and summoned up a bright smile. “It’s nice to have all the armor safely in place.”
He gave one of those unexpected schoolboy grins that always made her heart turn over.
“Don’t be pessimistic, Mel. For once, there’s no reason to think we’re going onto a battlefield.”
“That depends on how one defines a London ballroom.” Mélanie recalled her conversation over the teacups that afternoon with her friend Isobel Lydgate, the hostess of this evening’s masquerade ball. “Bel told me she didn’t know what to be more worried about tonight–Whigs and Tories coming to blows over the Corn Laws or Russian and Austrian attachés quarreling about the Polish situation.”
“Or Bonapartists and Ultra Royalists debating the future of France?”
“It seemed politic not to mention that.”
“Tactful as always, wife.”
He lifted his cloak from a shield-back chair and watched her for a moment, with that look he’d so often worn in the last two months. As though she were a code he was searching for the key to.
Her throat went tight. A betraying weakness. She turned, perhaps a little too quickly, and went back into the bedroom. Her cloak and mask and beaded reticule lay decorously on the striped green satin bench at the foot of the bed. She picked up the mask and found herself looking at the mahogany four-poster. In the shifting balance of power that was their marriage, it too had been a battlefield, more often than she cared to admit.
Sometimes she could still not quite believe where her life had brought her. Ten years ago, she had been a young agent on her first mission, fired by Republican fervor. Seven years ago, in the course of a mission during the Peninsular War, she had met a British agent named Charles Fraser. Charles had believed her masquerade as a war refugee in need of protection. So well that to her own surprise, he had asked her to marry him. And she had accepted.
A tactical marriage that positioned her perfectly to spy for the Bonapartist French. The sort of cool, ruthless decision a good spy makes. Only then she had made the fatal mistake that no agent could afford to make. She had fallen in love. Worse, she had fallen in love with her own husband, her enemy, a man whom she could never tell the truth of her identity. Even when the French were defeated at Waterloo and she stopped her work as a spy, she had known that if Charles ever learned the truth of her past their marriage would be over.
And then two months ago, the unthinkable had happened. Their six-year-old son had been abducted, precipitating a chain of events that led to Charles learning she had been a Bonapartist spy. For a time, she’d been sure she’d never see him look at her with anything but hatred. But somehow they were still together. They had their son back and they were reconstructing their marriage. Lying in his arms in their darkened bedchamber, she could even believe their marriage might one day be stronger for the truth being in the open. She had far more than she had ever dared to hope for. And the devil of it was, every time Charles told her he loved her, she knew she didn’t deserve it.
She draped the cloak over her arm, slipped her wrist through the silver strap on the reticule, and returned to the dressing room doorway. Her husband was settling his cloak over his shoulders with the ease of one used to disguises. “Charles–”
She pressed her finger over a wrinkle in her glove. “Thank you.”
“For what?” He knotted the silk cords on his cloak.
“If you have to ask, you aren’t the man I take you for.”
“Which is entirely possible.” His gaze moved over face, her pearl-dressed hair, her black velvet Elizabethan gown. “We’re only going to a ball given by two of our closest friends.”
“Did I say otherwise?”
“I can read your silences rather well.”
She tucked a curl behind her ear. “It’s nothing.”
“Surely you can lie better than that.”
“I’m afraid”–the words caught for a moment, because she wasn’t used to admitting to being afraid of anything–“I’m afraid it’s too early.”
“We can’t hide forever.” He stretched out a hand and cupped her cheek.
She leaned her cheek against his palm. Everything he risked by being married to her reverberated through her mind. If her past was exposed, at best he’d lose the political career he was so carefully building and the friendship of people he’d known since boyhood. At worst he’d be branded a traitor himself. “I’m an appallingly selfish woman,” she said.
“Don’t talk twaddle, Mel.” He took her hand and laced his fingers through her own. “We’ll get through this.”
Something prickled behind her eyelids that might have been tears. “You sound so very sure.”
“Because we don’t have any other option. And because I know just how much I love you. And I think I know how much you love me.”
“Love is a feeble shield in the face of politics,” she said, echoing something the Empress Josephine had once said to her. Not long before Napoleon Bonaparte divorced her.
“Only if one has one’s priorities the wrong way round.” He lifted her hand and pressed his lips against her palm. “We’ve both made mistakes, sweetheart. We’ve both had complicated loyalties. But the fact that we’re together now matters far more than why we married in the first place.”
She let herself lean into him for a moment, resting her head against the familiar warmth of his shoulder. “You’re very brave, darling, but I know just what you’re risking.”
He touched her hair, lightly so as not to disarrange it. “I could walk away from it all tomorrow and be happy as long as I had you and the children.”
“But I couldn’t bear to see you do it.” Her voice came out husky.
“And with any luck you won’t have to.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Do you want to send our regrets and not go to the ball?”
She drew back and summoned up one of the bright smiles she’d worn like armor for years. “No, I was just indulging in a craven moment. We can’t fail Bel and Oliver.” Oliver and Isobel Lydgate were two of their closest friends, precisely the sort of friends she didn’t want Charles to lose because of her past. Oliver had gone to Oxford with Charles and they now sat in Parliament together. “Bel said she needed some friendly faces. There’s a throng of new attachés and charges d’affaires on the guest list. I’m not going to recognize half of them.”
“I shouldn’t worry.” Charles smiled into her eyes. “They’ll all be wearing masks.”
Mélanie gathered up her skirt and moved to the door. “Oh, my darling. In this world, who doesn’t?”
The foregoing is excerpted from The Mask of Night by Tracy Grant. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address Nancy Yost Literary 350 Seventh Avenue, Suite 2003, New York, NY 10001.