Isabel opened her eyes. In every direction her gaze was hindered by a thick smoke that smelled of brimstone. Out of the haze a shadow took shape. Isabel held her breath and tried to keep herself from shaking.
“My lord?” the shadow cried out.
Isabel breathed. It was Jacques, Malfait’s servant.
“I am here,” replied Malfait, his voice was little more than a croak.
Isabel watched as the shadow neared and then knelt down. The smoke was beginning to dissipate and she was able to make out the form of the Comte. He sat up and coughed as Jacques helped him to his feet.
“Are you hurt my lord?” Jacques asked. Isabel thought she heard genuine concern in the servant’s voice.
“I shall be fine,” the aristocrat said. “Quick, you must find the Lady Isabel.”
Isabel did not move. What was she to do? The Comte had extracted from her a most scandalous promise and was about to make her participate in something only the Devil himself would approve of.
And yet the thought of the armour – possessed by some malevolent spirit – provided her no comfort. Isabel glanced over her shoulder and looked at the pile of armour. It seemed to be the source of the hellish smoke. Isabel blinked for she fancied that the iron gauntlet had moved. A bit of wind cleared more of the smoke and yes, to her horror, it was moving. Isabel let out a sharp cry.
“There she is my lord!”
In a moment, Jacques was at Isabel’s side helping her to her feet and helping her reassemble her outfit. Then, the three set off down a path toward the Comte’s villa.
Once there, the Comte disappeared into a room with Jacques. Presently, Jacques reemerged from the room and ushered Isabel into what was apparently the villa’s library. The walls were covered with shelves groaning under the weight of countless books. A gallery, blanketed in gloom, circled the edges of the room, and Isabel could just discern that it contained even more books. A large fire burned in the fireplace, and in the center of the room Isabel found the Comte reclining on a divan. He was wearing a long robe of some foreign style, and his left hand held a crystal goblet filled with a dark wine. Jacques led Isabel to a seat near the divan and put a matching goblet in her hand. After this was completed, he silently left the room.
Malfait was the first to speak. “Please forgive me,” he said leaning forward. “No one, especially my betrothed, should be menaced in such a way while a guest here. I feel a deep shame for letting such a thing get so near you.”
“You stopped it,” she said. “For that, I am very grateful.”
Malfait drained his goblet and putting it aside, took Isabel’s hand into his own. “I promise you shall never be in such danger again.”
“But what was it?” Isabel shivered. “Was it…” she could not bring herself to say his name.
“No my dearest. It was not him. Not the man you knew in life anyway.” Malfait moved closer so that his knees were now touching Isabel’s. “But you are still in grave danger. You believe me now?”
Isabel nodded. “Yes I do. I thought you were trying to frighten me merely for sport. But I was wrong. Spirits of evil do indeed walk abroad in this world.” The wind howled outside and the flames in the fireplace danced violently. “But what can we do?”
Malfait squeezed Isabel’s much smaller hand. “We must go to my ancestral chateau in France. There I can protect you and find a way to defeat this evil in my family’s library.”
Isabel nodded silently at first, but then she started. “Wait, I could not travel with you unaccompanied – to foreign lands! And my mother could not travel with me. I could not take her away from my father.”
“Very true,” Malfait agreed. “The only solution is for us to be married presently. Then it would only be natural for a husband to take his bride to visit the land of his birth. No one would object or could possibly find the slightest impropriety.”
“But the wedding was to take place almost two months from now,” Isabel said looking around the room, her eyes wide. “What would you tell my father to explain the haste?”
Malfait lifted his hand and gently took a lose strand of Isabel’s hair and tucked it behind her ear. “The approaching army of France will besiege the city. Bombardment. Starvation. A host of evils could befall the city. You will be far safer with me in France.”
How many frantic inhabitants of Villefranche had expressed those very fears. Indeed, her father had wondered out loud whether it would be advisable to quit the city. Isabel nodded. “Very well,” she said. “You will go and speak with my father in the morning?”
“Yes,” Malfait said. “And now, as much as I am loath to part with you, Jacques should take you back to your father’s house before anyone discovers you are missing.”
Isabel started to rise but the stopped. “Will I be safe? Will not the, the spectre return?”
Malfait nodded. “Tis a fair question,” the Comte said. “While I was taken by surprise tonight, which could reasonably cause you to doubt my knowledge and skills in this area, I can assure you that the malevolent spirits that haunt you expended a great about of their power getting to close to you tonight. They will not be able to return tonight.”
Isabel nodded and stood up. She was not sure what was the appropriate thing to say. After a moment’s thought, she looked up intending to simply say goodnight. However, when her gaze fell upon the Comte’s dark eyes, she exclaimed, “Oh! I have not fulfilled my part of the bargain.”
Isabel felt her face flush when she realized what she had just said. Silently, she cursed herself for her truthfulness.
“Ah, very true. You have not been fully initiated into the Villa of Mysteries,” Malfait said. He then leaned forward and stretched out his left hand. Slowly, he drew his fingers across Isabel’s cheek. “I have lost my fennel staff. So we will have to devise some other way to seal your lips.” His fingers than slide passed Isabel’s ear and entwined themselves in her hair.
“My lord?” was all Isabel could manage.
His left hand still entwined in her hair, Malfait pulled Isabel closer and closer still. Presently, she could not help but fall into the Comte’s chest. “This shall have to suffice,” Malfait whispered, before pressing his lips to hers.