Authors: Dorian Mayfair
The Unknown Mistress
by Dorian Mayfair
Published July 2013
Amazon Kindle Edition
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This eBook uses some actual locations and family names, however all events are fictionalized and all persons appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living, dead or devilishly devious, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Dorian Mayfair
Castle cover photo by Philipp Hienstorfer @ Wikipedia commons
Lips cover photo by soffl @ Deviant Art
Toulouse, Les Jacobins district
If it was true what people said – that the devil had made his home in Toulouse – he had certainly brought a suitable weather with him.
Jany shuddered as she strode along Rue de May towards the castle. For three weeks, the downpour had fallen almost constantly over rooftops and cobblestones, and there was no sign of improvement. Rain had turned most roads into shallow, dirty rivers that crossed the town in haphazard patterns, forcing people to take long detours or wade through the filth. Oil lamps and torches hissed like snakes where the drizzle slipped past their covers. Merely walking was a challenge. There was a storm brewing in the mountains too; the town would soon see heavy rain.
To make matters worse, it was much too cold. The air held a bitter, wintery chill, even though summer had passed out of view only a month earlier. Thankfully, the rain was still light – the storm had yet to arrive – but her clothes would still be soaked by the time she arrived to her appointment. At this rate, she would be late as well. Not a good start to what promised to be a long and unpleasant night.
A barking dog rushed past her, splashed through an ankle-deep stream and disappeared into an alley between a butcher and a weaver’s warehouse. The street was almost empty; few were willing to brave weather like this. Around her, the streetlamps were muted by the rain to spheres of weak yellow, but they gave enough light to make the cast long shadows across the mud and the water. The last of the sun was long since lost behind the heavy rainclouds. Tall houses lined the street, the lit windows like gems in facades dark as night-time cliffs. In this weather, and at this hour, the street looked like a ghostly twin of its sunlit, crowded daytime sibling.
Jany ay missed the throng of people. She felt as if she was walking towards her punishment, even though she knew that she was not the one in trouble. Normally, there would have been hundreds of men and women promenading between taverns and homes, but the damp and icy conditions made most stay close to their hearths and stoves. Back in the small room Jany rented near the river, her hot wine was still cooling in its jug where she had left it.
The knock on her door had come just after the church bell rung nine. On her doorstep had been a council clerk, as brusque and surly as he was wet, who had informed her that her services were required at the castle. Then he had turned on his heel and left before Jany had the chance to ask when or why.
The abrupt call had left her worried and bewildered. Normally, she attended the court or one of the constables’ offices, where she spent evenings documenting statements and evidence. That was the normal procedure. Her job, as it always had been and the way she wanted it to stay. This was unusual, and she did not like it. Worse, she had a strong suspicion what was happening, and the idea made her uneasy.
But she had had to hurry. If she was needed at the castle, the duke – Philip de Longres – had requested her presence. Lingering or delaying could mean seven shades of problems. All she could do was gather her quills and her ink, snatch a half-filled journal from a shelf, scoop up a few unused papers, and set off.
Jany turned a corner and walked along the broad Rue de Metz. In the distance, across the bridge, was the duke’s caste, rising proudly out of the mist-like rain. A voice from an alleyway made her start, but when she peered into the murk, she saw nothing except a broken cart. Shaking her head, she hurried on towards the castle. All the rumours going around were playing tricks with her imagination. According to the priesthood, the town was being flooded for its sins, a punishment for plummeting into depravity. Tales of strange sights and noises at night had whipped the population into near-panic. Reports on immoral behaviour and heinous acts piled up on the local constable’s desks. In that respect, Toulouse was no different from the rest of France; the entire nation appeared to be in the grip of irrational fear and sporadic corruption.
Pulling her wet coat closer around her as she walked towards the castle, Jany wondered what sort of widespread paranoia that had caused so many stories. She had spent many nights thinking on the tales she had heard. Winged men and hoofed women, cats of black smoke and dogs that breathed flames. Some of the hearsay was untrue, to be sure, but there were so
mentions. Far too many for all of them to be lies.
Keep an open mind,
her mother had told her.
There is more to the world that you’d believe. Never take anything for granted.
Jany had followed that advice, and it had served her well. Her sharp eyes and analytic mind had been noted when she had worked as a maid at a judge’s home. The judge had allowed her time to perfect her writing skills, which in turn had found her a job at the court. There she had stayed for the past year, reporting, copying and filing away important documents that sometimes were consulted to settle dispute or check facts. The job was hard and paid little, but many other women suffered harsh workloads and tyrannical employers. Compared to that, she was lucky.
And there were other perks. One of the greatest benefits of her profession was that she could keep her own company. That was a blessing. Other people, once you got to know them, asked questions she did not want to answer:
Have you found a man yet? You must meet my husband; we’re moving to the countryside. Oh, but when you get married, you’ll be less lonely.
There would never be any husband for her. Not because she lacked courtiers, but they were all met with excuses or a locked door. Over the past years, quite a few had made more or less respectful approaches, and she had withdrawn at every point, often blaming work.
As she crossed a plaza, she glanced at the lit windows of a grand house. Inside were shadows, gliding around each other, passing the windows and making the drawn curtains flutter. They were dancing. Some of the guests would ride home in couples, some already married, others soon to be. Many seeking company only for the night. They would end the evening in beds shared with others, looking forward to long hours of passion and thoughtless abandon.
It was a life Jany never could lead. In the past four years, she had been in love twice: once with Augustine, a temporary scullery maid; and Isabelle, a seamstress who lived with a husband twice her aged. Over and over, Jany had dreamed how she would sweep them away from the dust-laden boredom of Toulouse. At night, she had pictured them undressing in the moonlight at the foot of her bed. But she never had she let her feelings show. She knew exactly how her kind was treated. At the very least, she would have to leave the city.
While men called her pretty, she often felt mousy and nondescript, with her slim and short build. Her dark and almost perfectly straight hair was always cropped above her shoulders; any longer than that, and she faced a hopeless tangle at the end of the day. When she first had discovered that women made her heart race, she had considered disguising as a man but quickly abandoned the idea. There was no way to hide her large eyes and full lips, and she had noticed how men straightened their backs on the rare occasions when she smiled at them. Flattering, but pointless. If only she could have the same effect on women.
No, she would stay away from attention, and remain independent. That way she would be left alone. Whenever she was not around the members of the court or the police, she was her own master. A life on her own, but without the risk of being harassed.
But while she appreciated the solitude of her work, the irregular hours were slowly driving her out of her mind. Good sleep was becoming a rare luxury. Whenever there was a crisis, she was often called upon to write down what was said and done, even if it was in the middle of the night or twenty times in one day. It was both tiresome and maddening. More than once, she had found herself standing in freezing cold or fierce heat, noting down statements regarding a murder while the body lay only a few steps away. Those nights, she tended to cry herself to sleep.
This evening was especially bad. Not only was it late; the horrid weather added to the misery, and the town had been aflame with manic rumours all afternoon. Then the witchfinder had arrived, adding to the general fear. Jany would bet an arm on that he was involved in whatever drama she had been asked to witness.
She had looked on earlier that day as a cortege of men and wagons arrived at Toulouse’s gates. As soon as the soldiers on duty had spotted the stakes and banners on the wagon at the front, the rumours had begun, murmurs quickly escalating into deafening roars.
The truthsayer, the witchfinder, the exorcist! He’s come to save us!
First thinking it was a fire – a mad idea in this weather, but some fears were deeply rooted – Jany had rushed to catch a glimpse of what was going on, and the sight had made her recoil.
Passing through the gates was a caravan of carriages and carts, all of them surrounded by a guard of scrawny, wild-eyed men armed with pitchforks and scythes. There had to have been several hundred people, and not one looked reasonable. The first wagon stood out from the rest: larger than those that followed behind and painted in bright, angry red. Dozens of spikes and crude banners decorated its sides. On its board stood a cage of crude iron, large enough to hold a man. Or, Jany knew, a woman.
The man who was standing up in the large wagon at the front needed no introduction; everyone in the town knew about Gerome De Silker. Poised like a captain at the helm of a battleship, he ignored the cheering crowed and looked straight ahead, his eyes fixed at some unknown Godsend principle. He was rumoured to have a knack for hunting down supernatural beings, and he had burned a path from Paris to Toulouse in a relentless search for demons and their cohorts. Jany suspected that few who had suffered at the witchfinder’s hands ever had seen a demon, let alone been their cohorts. Fifty-odd people had met a terrible end in his cage as fire consumed them. Even from where she stood, she could make out the stains of soot on the iron cage.
Disgusted, she turned away from the scene. There was a crazed look to the men’s eyes that made her uneasy, and Gerome’s stern expression scared her the most. It was the face of someone without remorse or compassion. And while the dark might hide creatures out of this world, no one should be executed so cruelly and on such vague grounds. It was simply wrong.
Apart from an increasing number of rumours, the day had passed quietly until the clerk had banged on her door. Now she was forcing her way through the mud towards the castle, due to document a critical event at this hour and in this weather. Gerome had to be reason. The timing was too perfect for anything else.
On top of everything else, the witchfinder had arrived the day before the duke’s grand ball. Throughout the week, countless nobles had descended on the city in a long stream of luxurious carriages and columns of guards, maids and butlers. Now they were joined by a fanatical self-proclaimed holy man who burned anyone who as much as looked at him the wrong way. Had Gerome not held so much sway over the public, the church would have locked him away in a moment. She wished they had.
Jany was dizzy with worry as she half-walked and half-ran towards the castle. There would be a throng of people there, and crowds were dangerous. Not even nobility were safe from witch hunters and their paranoia. What would happen if they felt threatened?
She slowed down as she finally neared the castle. A row of bright lanterns hung over the massive gates and cast a reddish glow over the mud below. Next to the gates were two shelters, in which a pair of guards in heavy armour and red capes watched her approach. Despite the dim light, she could tell by their faces that they were wary and nervous. Long halberds rested against the stone walls, close to their hands.
Shivering, Jany hoped her troubles would not start before she even had entered the castle.
As Jany approached the guards, they reached for their halberds and barred her path. She stopped and waited while rain ran down her face. Given that the duke had called her here, the guards would expect her at the gate. Still, caution never hurt. Misunderstandings were the forerunners of questions, suspicion, and nasty painful problems.
“State your name and business,” one of the guardsmen demanded. His tone suggested that he already knew the answer.
“Jany Armidere,” Jany replied. “I am a scribe for the council and the law.” She paused. “I’m also very cold, and very wet.”
The man nodded and moved his weapon out of Jany’s path. “I thought it was you,” he said. “I’ve seen you around the constables’ offices. They’re waiting for you inside.”