1 Rue St. Albert, Toulouse, Provençe
2 March 1016
My dearest cousin Armand,
The worst has happened, and now I must make a terrible decision.
I was sitting by the fire in the study of the student’s lodgings, assiduously re-reading the opening chapters of Damask and Derogation and resisting any temptation to ask questions of M. Lavigne—who knows the material, and could answer if he but chose to do so—when one of the school servants came to the door and told me the Masters had need of me.
I stared at him. “The Masters? Whatever for?” I had never spoken with any of the Masters before but Dr. Laguerre, had hardly even seen them. What could they possibly want with me?
“They are waiting, Madame Archer,” he said.
“Very well.” I closed my book and put on my warmest coat, which was ready to hand, for as I have noted before the study is the only room in the lodgings with a fire; and followed him into the cold.
To my surprise, the servant led me not to the Grand Hall, but to the gatehouse. Five of the Masters were waiting there, with the porter, and facing them was a man in an officer’s coat with four soldiers behind them.
“Madame Archer,” said a master I did not know, a lean, spiky fellow in an academic robe, “this man has words for you.”
I felt my heart skip beneath my coat as I came to a stop between the master who had spoken and Dr. Laguerre.
“Yes?” I said. “What have you to say to me?” I was proud that my voice did not quaver at all. Dr. Laguerre gave me an approving look.
The officer smiled at me. It was not a nice smile, the way it sat there on his coarse red face beneath his freezing eyes.
“You are Madame Amelia Archer,” he said, “wife of Maximilian Archer?”
His smile widened.
“Colonel Marchant has sent me to request your assistance.”
“In what way could I possibly be of help to such as he?”
“Avec le sorcellerie, n’est-ce-pas?“, he said. “Your teachers here are too haughty to work for the glory of Provençe.” And he spit on the floor of the gatehouse. “But you, Madame Archer, you will find you are in a position to help us.”
“I am Cumbrian. It will not have escaped you that our countries are at war.”
The toad chuckled.
“Nor has your husband escaped us, Madame Archer. It would be a shame if he were to be mistreated.”
My voice grew colder, if that were possible.
“He is Embassy Staff, and has diplomatic immunity.”
“Oh, but Madame Archer,” he said in tones that were offensively arch, “Le Maréchal, he has no diplomatic relations with the government of Cumbria. And your husband was found out of uniform in an act of sabotage.” He shook his head in mock sadness. “So you see, it is quite simple.”
“It is not simple at all. I have no skill at practical sorcery.”
“I think you do,” he said. “Are you not a student here?”
“She must have time to consider,” said the spiky master.
“Colonel Marchant is not a patient man.”
The Masters glared at him as one, and if he did not wilt at least he relented.
“I shall return at this time tomorrow,” he said. “If you love your husband, Madame Archer, you will be waiting. Allons!”
The porter shut the gatehouse door tightly behind them, and barred it for good measure.
“Madame Archer,” said the spiky master to me, “we do not go to war, as you know—but we will not stand between you and your husband should you choose to go to him. And if you should choose to remain here, be assured that the walls of L’École are proof against any number of Maréchalist swine.” He nodded, and he and the other masters filed out, leaving me with Dr. Laguerre.
“You will of course go to him,” she said. There was no censure on her face, nor any encouragement.
I took a moment to breathe. “I believe I must,” I said at last. “I shall not aid them, but if I go I may be able to spare his life.”
“Would you hinder them, if you could?”
“They would likely kill you for it.”
“My brother, my cousin, and my husband have fought against Le Maréchal,” I said. “How can I do less?”
“Bon,” she said, and nodded. “Come. There is little time.”
That was early this afternoon. Now I am in my frigid little room, far too cold to sleep. Tomorrow I will meet with Dr. Laguerre again, and then after midday, I will go into enemy hands.
Your frightened but determined cousin,