Preview – Chapter One
Monday 9th September 1483
Belina squeezed Guillaume’s leg as a warning, but he continued to shout at her brother Jordi, banging the table so that his trencher jumped. Catalina snatched it away and threw it at the cats. Geraud tried to reach his beaker but his bandaged hand overturned it and cider flowed across the table…
Monday 9th September 1483
‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered.
‘Never mind, it’s because of your wounded arm,’ his brother replied, mopping up the cider.
The girl beside Geraud put her arm round him and muttered something that made him smile. The others wondered what it was that she’d said. So far no one had been able to speak to the new arrival, and they wished Geraud would explain who she was and where he had found her.
The couple had arrived at the mill two days ago, with Geraud unable to dismount without Jordi’s help and the girl astride a mule with two saddle-bags which she had unhooked and carried into the house, spreading dust everywhere. That was the first reason Catalina found it hard to accept her. Plenty more were to follow.
Guillaume and Jordi continued their argument about the Spanish Inquisition, each accusing the other of ignorance, while Belina watched the cats fighting over the remains of her husband’s trencher and her cousin Christau helped himself to more of Catalina’s delicious chicken with fennel.
No one noticed that the door had been pulled open until the visitor touched Guillaume’s shoulder.
‘Messire Guillaume,’ his groom said, ‘you must come at once to the Sainte Eulalie chapel.’
‘Whatever for?’ said Guillaume, scowling at him. ‘Antoni, you know very well that I told you not to disturb me when I am seeing my family.’
‘It’s urgent, Messire. There’s been a murder, and there’s blood everywhere.’
‘Who would fight in a chapel?’ Guillaume got off the bench and stretched.
‘Don’t know. A watchman was sent to find you and it took him ages. He was out of breath when he managed to track me down in your absence.’
Belina wondered if Antoni had been in his favourite tavern instead of the cathedral stables, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Best not to annoy Guillaume. He was already in a dangerous temper.
‘Antoni,’ Geraud said as loudly as he could, ‘please could you look at my horse sometime. She has carried me for hundreds of leagues right through Spain and over the Pyrenees and she’s worn out.’
But Antoni was already out of the house, helping Guillaume mount his own horse.
‘Don’t worry, Geraud,’ said Christau, wiping his hands on the tablecloth and taking no notice of Catalina’s scowls, ‘I will ask Sansas to look at your horse and deal with any sores or other problems. He is a groom and will know exactly what to do.’
Guillaume and Antoni rode into the town of Condom in silence until they reached the cathedral staff residence, where Guillaume dismounted and rushed up the stairs to his chamber. When he came back he was carrying his investigation bag. He had calmed down and put himself into observation mode, ready to start finding out what had happened in the chapel and why.
They rode down rue Jean-Baptiste past the leper colony and soon reached the chapel. Antoni’s horse pushed its way through the crowd near the chapel door, followed by Guillaume, who was watching the faces in the crowd for any telltale signs. He assumed that some of them crestias from the leper colony, but there were several pilgrims too at the chapel door asking the watchman guarding it to let them in.
Guillaume dismounted and shouldered his way through. He gave his reins to Antoni, who was still on his horse. ‘Look around carefully and remember what and who you see.’
Antoni touched his cap in acknowledgement. The crowd retreated a few feet, scared of being trampled by the two horses.
Guillaume had not been inside the Sainte Eulalie chapel for many months. It was outside his normal area of Condom, and when he went to Mass – which was not often – he joined Belina and their friends in the cathedral.
He looked around him, expecting to see the blood that Antoni had told him about. But all he saw was an altar, a dusty floor, walls with peeling paint, two large chests and another smaller one in the darkest corner.
He walked to the far end of the chapel, looked at the dust on the altar and pushed open the door to the vestry. It was there that he saw the blood – on the floor, on a green chasuble and on the body of a young woman who was lying on her back. Insects were buzzing around the blood which oozed out of her throat and on to the many jewels around her neck.
Guillaume knelt down beside the corpse, trying to stop his clothes touching the pools of blood, and noticed the flies laying their eggs in the mouth, nose and open eyes of the victim. This horrible sight told him that the death had happened that morning. He checked the eyelids and then peered at the left hand. The right one still held a needle and thread. The young woman’s skin was translucent, her lips and nails pale. Her hands were blue and her eyes were flattened.
He stood up and glowered at the man near the window. ‘Move away from the window so that I have more light.’
‘I don’t take orders from young men.’
‘Oh yes you do.’ Guillaume’s bad temper had returned. ‘I am in charge. Who are you and what are you doing here?’
‘I am Messire,’ – he stressed the word – ‘Chezelle, tooth-physician of Dame Senclar.’
‘Dead women don’t need their teeth pulled. I repeat, what are you doing inside this chapel?’
‘Dame Senclar requested me to keep a close eye on this young man here,’ he pointed to the prisoner, who was pinned to the wall by a watchman.
‘Why is Dame Senclar interested in his welfare?’
‘Because she disapproved of him very strongly indeed.’
‘Why,’ Guillaume repeated as he walked towards the watchman and the prisoner.
‘He has had the boldness to press his suit upon Dame Viola, the daughter of Consul Lussan.’ Chezelle pointed to the corpse.
Guillaume bit his lip. So the dead young woman was Viola Lussan. He wondered why she should have been in such a small chapel near the leper colony. And why she had been sewing something.
‘How does Dame Edith know that?’ Guillaume looked at the prisoner, who stared back, expressionless.
‘Dame Edith is absolutely certain this man is a murderer.’
‘What do you mean why?’ Chezelle pulled the prisoner sideways. ‘He has been working in Consul Lussan’s mansion, making furniture there in preparation for Viola’s marriage.’
‘When was that due to take place?’ said Guillaume.
‘Before Christmas. At Martinmas perchance. Depends on the dowry I expect.’
‘Consul Lussan is a rich man,’ Guillaume observed. ‘Who’s the lucky bridegroom?’
‘Not so lucky now. The girl is dead, as you can see.’
Guillaume turned round and shuddered in spite of his experience at dealing with dead bodies. He remembered that Belina used to talk about Viola Lussan. They’d been at school together. That meant the corpse was twenty-two years old, give or take.
He returned to questioning Chezelle. ‘I asked you who Dame Viola was going to marry.’
‘That’s my secret.’
‘Don’t be stupid. This is no time for secrets.’ Guillaume turned to the watchman. ‘Bring the young man out of the vestry – and don’t let him escape.’
‘He seems too docile to try that, Messire.’
‘I agree, but it could be just a ruse to catch us off guard.’
The watchman tightened his hold on the man and pushed him through the doorway into the chapel, while Chezelle began to rummage among the chasubles in the big wide chest that lay against the wall.
‘Take your hands off those holy vestments.’ Guillaume pulled the tooth-drawer away. ‘Get out of here. You’re not in your rightful place and you know it.’
‘And where is my rightful place, young man?’
‘Pulling Dame Edith’s teeth as if she were a horse, I’m sure,’ Guillaume pushed the older man through the doorway, removed the key to it from the vestry side and locked it behind him.
‘You will suffer for your bad manners,’ said Chezelle.
‘I doubt it. Just get out of the chapel before I get the watchman to sling you out.’
Guillaume thought of Belina and how much she loathed the Senclar family. Perchance she was right to hate them, and perhaps he was wrong to tease her about that hatred.
He brought himself back to the present and led Chezelle from the chapel. He could go to Dame Edith like a puppy if he wanted to, but he needed to get away from the scene of the crime right now.
Guillaume, the watchman and the prisoner followed the tooth-drawer out and Guillaume locked the door behind him, putting the long, heavy key in the purse attached to his belt. He waited until Chezelle had climbed into a carriage and been driven towards the town, then told the two watchmen to take the prisoner to the cathedral prison nearby.
‘Normally we put prisoners in the Seneschal’s gaol, Messire Lansac.’
‘I know you do. But this one has been found inside a religious building so he needs to be kept in the cathedral prison.’
The watchmen did not object – the cathedral prison was nearer. They set off with the docile prisoner, followed by Guillaume and Antoni on their horses, with Antoni telling Guillaume about the pilgrims and the musical instruments they had been carrying. ‘They all wore the same badge on their hats, Messire Guillaume. They bore an enamel Compostela shell above a pewter carving of four people.’
As they passed the leper colony Guillaume noticed that his prisoner looked straight ahead of him. No one called out from the cottages on his right, because they had formed a procession of their own, heading towards their tiny lepers’ cemetery carrying a dead child wrapped in sacking. Guillaume tried to block out the mournful singing and the sobbing of a young woman.
‘They have funerals every week, Messire,’ said the watchman in front of Guillaume. ‘Unhealthy crowd.’
‘Perchance they would be healthier if they were to get enough to eat,’ Guillaume suggested.
‘Leprosy, that’s what it is. And that’s what we shall get if this prisoner is a leper.’
Guillaume told him to keep his grip on the prisoner, but he checked the young man’s face for telltale signs of the disease, of which there were none.
They came to the massive door of the cathedral prison and greeted the guards.
‘What’s this, Messire Lansac, a thief of pilgrims’ clothes?’
‘Not this time. Much worse. Perchance he is a murderer.’
One of the guards took the prisoner and removed the satchel that was slung across his shoulder. Guillaume told him to put the prisoner in the strongest cell and to lock the satchel inside the guardroom chest. He signed the register and went outside into the sunshine and fresh air.
Guillaume walked back along rue Jean-Baptiste towards the cathedral. Deep in thought, he collided with a mule turning into rue Barlet. “Look where you’re going,” snarled the mule-driver. “You lazy town folk spend your days dreaming.” He pressed his goad into the mule’s rump and swore.
Guillaume took no notice. He had just remembered that he’d left his investigation bag inside the vestry. Should he retrace his steps and fetch it, or should he go to Consul Lussan’s mansion and break the news of his daughter’s death to him? He decided on the latter, and walked on as far as the door of the cathedral’s staff residence.
As he was crossing the courtyard he heard a shout. His English neighbour, Sir John Keyham, was waving and beckoning him to come over to the table at which he was sitting. Although he was reluctant to waste any more time before visiting the consul, Guillaume did not want to upset his crippled neighbour. He walked over to greet him.
Sir John signed to Alain, his manservant, to pour out some hypocras for Guillaume to drink.
“Thanks, I need it.” Guillaume gulped the liquid down rather than sip it.
Sir John made a question mark in the air with his left hand.
“I have just come from the Sainte Eulalie chapel where there has been a horrible murder. It’s upset me.”
Sir John made another question mark.
“A schoolfriend of Belina’s. Viola Lussan, with her throat cut. Blood everywhere.” Guillaume held out his glass to Alain for another drink. “I don’t understand why she was there. It is near the leper colony and it looks as if the murderer is a crestian.” He drank the hypocras but declined a further refill.
“Why do you think that, Messire Guillaume?” Alain asked.
Guillaume told him how he had found the tooth-drawer in the chapel, and a young man pinned against the vestry wall by a watchman. He put his glass down and told them he had to go and change his clothes and then visit the Lussan mansion to break the bad news to the Consul that his daughter was dead.
He went up the stairs to his chamber and removed the clothes that had been made dirty in the prison and the chapel. He noticed several bloodstains and cursed. Belina was always cross with him for getting blood from corpses on his clothes. It was hard to get out, she said. He had a quick wash and put on his best doublet and hose, stroked the cat, and made sure she did not go out with him.
He strode to the Place Lion d’Or, turned right down rue des Armouriers, and banged on the front door of the Lussan mansion.
“Yes Messire?” a doorkeeper in the Lussan livery asked him.
“I need to talk urgently to Consul Lussan please.”
“He is not at home, Messire.”
“This is not a casual visit,” Guillaume snapped. “I have important news for him which cannot be delayed.”
The doorkeeper told him to come in and wait inside while he fetched the steward. Guillaume looked at the paintings and tapestries that adorned the walls of the splendid room. There were chairs instead of stools, and a table with a silver place on it, as befitted the abode of a wealthy consul.
The steward bustled into the hall accompanied by three small dogs which jumped up on to Guillaume. “Who are you and why do you request to see the Consul?” he asked.
Guillaume explained that he was the Bishop’s Inquirer and that he had an urgent and important message for the Consul.
The steward hesitated and frowned. “The Consul is not here today. He is at a betrothal banquet in the Prelet mansion.”
“A betrothal banquet?”
“Yes. At least, that was what we were told.”
“Who are the happy couple?” Guillaume asked.
“Dame Viola and the son of Consul Prelet.”
Guillaume gasped. The steward stared at him.
“How long have they been away?” Guillaume asked.
“That’s complicated to answer. The Consul and his wife left mid-morning, but Dame Viola’s maid said that her mistress had a difficulty with her gown and would be leaving the mansion as soon as possible.
“So when did she leave it?” Guillaume asked.
“She didn’t.” The steward sighed. “Consul Prelet sent his steward’s assistant down here to fetch her but Mounette – who is Dame Viola’s maid – explained that there was still a problem with the gown.”
“What was the problem?” Guillaume asked.
“I don’t know. I’m just telling you what Mounette told me.”
“How could they have a betrothal banquet without the lady to be betrothed?” Guillaume asked.
“Presumably the banquet did not take place.” The steward went over to the door and shut it. “Consul Lussan came here himself in a furious temper, and insisted on seeing Dame Viola in her bedchamber.”
“I understand the anger,” said Guillaume, “but surely it is not seemly for him to enter his daughter’s bedchamber?”
“Definitely not, and Mounette refused to let him inside it. There was much shouting, but in the end he left here alone and returned to the Prelet mansion.”
“Well, that means I must go to see Consul Lussan there,” Guillaume said. “Thank you for your information.”
He left the mansion abruptly, giving the steward no opportunity to ask him why he wanted to talk to the Consul in the first place. He hurried through the Place Lion d’Or, past the cathedral, but found his way blocked by people and horses in the rue Royale. He passed children to one side and a mule and cart to the other. Oblivious to shouts, he walked up to the very imposing door of the Prelet mansion.
Fortunately, Guillaume knew the doorkeeper, Bernard Baylac, from when he had worked in the cathedral. “Good to see you, Bernard. You are just the person to help me, because I need to talk to Consul Lussan urgently. I was at his mansion, but his steward told me that his master was here.”
“Indeed he is, Messire Lansac, and he is in the most awful temper. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He grinned, brought Guillaume inside the mansion and told a servant that the Bishop’s Inquirer needed to speak to Consul Lussan.
Guillaume was led through a magnificent room and into a dining-hall. The servant approached a portly man with grey hair and a very red face. “Messire Consul, the Bishop’s Inquirer is here to see you,” he said, indicating Guillaume.
“I’ve no time to see Bishop’s Inquirers. The only person I want to see here is my daughter, as well you know.” He waved his arm in Guillaume’s direction. “Tell this man to take himself off immediately.”
The servant looked at Guillaume. “Do you wish to leave, Messire Lansac?
“I cannot do so until I have spoken to Consul Lussan, either here in front of everyone or privately, but speak to him I must.”
Guillaume approached the Consul, but stopped before he came within arm’s reach. The man’s temper was extreme, and he wondered how best to deliver the appalling message about his daughter.
An elderly lady with many jewels round her neck scowled at Guillaume. “Who are you? What do you want?”
Guillaume bowed and approached her. “I am the Bishop’s Inquirer and - ” he began.
“I know that,” the lady snapped.
“I have an important message for Consul Lussan.” Guillaume wondered whether the stately lady in front of him was the wife of Consul Prelet, or of Consul Lussan, or indeed someone else entirely. The closed world of Condom’s consuls and their families was not one he shared.
“Do you want to deliver it here in front of us, or to the Consul in private?”
“That is for him to decide.”
“Is it about his daughter? Does the Bishop know why she is not here?”
“He does not know yet, but I know why she is missing and where she is now.”
Everyone in the room shouted at once, “Where? Tell us where?”
Guillaume had no idea what to say. He had been rehearsing his speech for Consul Lussan while he walked to rue Royale, but he had not anticipated an audience as large as the one that faced him now.
Consul Lussan stood up. “Answer our question at once, you wretched man.”
“Here? Or in private?”
“Here of course, you fool.” The consul approached Guillaume. “When next I see the Bishop I will insist that he removes you from his staff.”
Guillaume made no reply. The Bishop of Condom was so seldom in the town that the threat was meaningless.
“It is with great sadness that I must tell you Dame Viola has died. That is why she is not here.”
The atmosphere changed and the consul appeared to diminish in stature in front of Guillaume. One lady searched for the cloth in her alms-bag, wiped her tears and blew her nose.
Guillaume looked at them all, wishing he knew who they were. The oldest man, wearing beautifully cut clothes and a large ring on his hand, spoke first. “Why have Consul Lussan’s servants not informed us of this?”
Guillaume told him that the servants were not aware of Dame Viola’s death.
This surprising statement kept them all quiet for a few seconds, until they found their voices and began to question him.
Guillaume waited until they had calmed down and stopped shouting at him and each other. He explained as gently as possible that Dame Viola had been found this morning by Messire Chezelle, Dame Senclar’s tooth-drawer, in the vestry of the Sainte Eulalie chapel. Her throat had been cut. He had not yet discovered why she had been in such a place, who had murdered her, or what Chezelle was doing there.
“Was she wearing her betrothal gown?” asked one of the ladies who was being comforted by the people beside her. Guillaume wondered if she was Dame Lussan, Viola’s mother.
“No, she was wearing everyday clothes,” he replied.
“Did she have jewels on her?”
“How did she get to the chapel? I don’t understand it.”
Guillaume nodded. “I don’t understand that either but I will find out. I have only just begun my investigation into her death.”
“What have you discovered?”
“Only what I have just told you. I wanted to inform Consul Lussan and his wife before I started investigating.”
“Of course. Thank you for your consideration.”
Guillume tried to see who had uttered those words. The voice was calm, polite and sensible. He looked at the back of the room where the voice had come from and saw a young man sitting on a stool and reading a document. Beside him was a young woman who was trying to catch the man’s attention, leaning over to look at the document, her breasts almost falling out of the low-cut gown. The effect was spoilt by the fact that the breasts were rather insignificant, apparently too small to attract the young man’s attention, or so Guillaume thought.
“Answer my question,” snapped Consul Lussan.
Guillaume looked away from the couple. “I am sorry, Consul, I did not hear your question.”
“Are you deaf like Viola?”
“I did not know she was deaf, Consul.”
“Not completely, just enough to make her unaware if someone came into her room unexpectedly,” said Consul Lussan.
A few comments were muttered about Viola’s deafness, and two of the ladies began to cry again.
Guillaume decided to take back control. “In due course I will need to ask each of you about Dame Viola so that I can piece together how her life was, who her enemies were, and so on. But first of all I would like to question your steward, Consul Prelet.”
“Because that is part of my method of working. The Bishop insists upon it,” Guillaume replied smoothly.
The Consul stood up with some difficulty, Guillaume noticed, and walked slowly towards the door leaning on a silver-topped cane. “Follow me, young man.”
A servant was ordered to take the Bishop’s Inquirer to the steward.
Guillaume followed the servant into the steward’s room, where he told him that Dame Viola Lussan had died and asked him who all the guests were. The steward did not invite Guillaume to take a seat, and stood up, indicating that his reply would be brief.
The steward reeled off the names of those who had been present at the betrothal banquet: Consul Prelet and his wife and his son, Messire Charles; Consul Lussan and his wife – but without their daughter; Consul Senclar, his mother and his wife; Consuls Courial, Volpato, Gaudé, Ardit, Toupié and their wives; Messire Galerne and his wife, Dame Pauline, who was the elder daughter of Consul Prelet; Notaire Corloni and his wife, the notaire’s eldest son and his wife and the notaire’s eldest daughter. The list was delivered in a rapid monotone, the steward expecting Guillaume to forget most of the names. Consul Prelet’s younger daughter and her husband lived in Auch and had not been able to travel to Condom for the banquet. Neither had the younger son, who was a priest in Auch.
Guillaume regretted that he had no wax tablets with him so that he could list all the names. He concentrated on memorising them. Most were familiar, including Notaire Corloni, who according to Belina was a crooked lawyer from Montreal who had forged her father’s testament so that her stepmother would inherit money and property which Belina and her brother Jordi should have received. And Geraud too, Guillaume remembered, now that her soldier brother had returned from Spain.
“I understand why the consuls and their wives were guests,” he said to the steward, “but why are Notaire Corloni and his family present?”
“I do not know.”
“Is he Consul Prelet’s notaire?”
“I do not know that either.”
Guillaume changed direction and asked how long ago the steward had been told to organise the betrothal banquet.
“Several weeks at least. Soon after the Consul’s health worsened.”
“The limp?” Guillaume prompted and waited for more information. The steward was silent. The clock on his table chimed into the silence. “When was the wedding planned for?” he asked.
“Christmas, or even Martinmas. The Consul was anxious not to delay it any longer than that.”
“Was that for health reasons?”
“I am not at liberty to answer such questions.” The steward walked to the door and held it open for Guillaume to leave the room, asking one of the servants to show the Bishop’s Inquirer out.
Guillaume followed the servant slowly, giving himself time to savour the splendid decor of the mansion.
Bernard Baylac greeted him with a broad smile, the first smile Guillaume had seen since he’d been at the Moulié mill. No, not even there, he realised. The atmosphere had been too bitter, what with his argument with Belina’s brother Jordi about the Spanish Inquisition and Catalina’s obvious dislike of the mysterious girl who was with Geraud.
“Bernard, I need your help,” said Guillaume, leaning against the wall of the doorkeeper’s little room.
“Of course. Anything to help you, Messire Guillaume.”
“Can you tell me please when each person arrived for the banquet and who they were? And do you have a wax tablet I could use, please? I will bring it back as soon as I have transcribed the information.”
“Well now, let me think.” The doorkeeper scratched his head and rearranged his cap. He gave Guillaume a much-used wax tablet and a stylus and scratched his head again. “The first two arrived very early. Notaire Corloni and his wife. But they came no distance; they live in the mansion next door.”
“I thought they lived in Montreal,” Guillaume said.
“In theory, yes they do, but the notaire and his family are often next door. The mansion belongs to the Widow Créon, the notaire’s sister, but she is usually in Bordeaux.”
“So how many of the family came with the notaire?” Guillaume asked.
“His eldest son and his wife, and his eldest daughter,” said Bernard, “but they came much later, after Dame Pauline, Consul Prelet’s eldest daughter, had arrived with her husband. They live further down rue Royale.
“Perchance the notaire needed to show documents to the Consul,” Guillaume suggested.
“It’s possible. He had papers with him.”
“Who else arrived?”
“Several consuls and their wives all together, as if they had met up earlier somewhere.” He paused and scratched his head again. “They were talking and laughing until they saw me watching them.”
“What about Consul Senclar, was he among them?”
“No. He’s not popular, so I’ve heard. The others say he’s lazy and that he wouldn’t even be a consul if his mother hadn’t bought his position for him.”
“Really?” Guillaume tried to sound surprised, just in case other Prelet servants were within earshot. “Did he come alone?”
“No, not him. He trailed behind his tiny mother and his big-bosomed wife.” Bernard Baylac carved Jeanne Senclar’s bosom in the air with his hands, raising both eyebrows towards Guillaume.
The gesture reminded Guillaume of the flat-chested young woman he had seen in the main room. “There was a girl among the consuls and their wives. Not at all Jeanne Senclar’s shape. Not much more than bee-stings.”
Bernard laughed. “That would be Dame Ana Corloni, the notaire’s daughter. She often stays in the mansion next door.”
“She was trying to attract a young man,” said Guillaume. “Who would that be? He wasn’t Consul Senclar.”
“That was Consul Prelet’s son, Messire Charles, the future bridegroom. He arrived here last week, first time I’d seen him in months. He left Condom for Toulouse ten years ago, but when he was just a student in Toulouse he used to spend his holidays here. He would slip into the mansion next door and stay there all night with Ana Corloni. She was far too young to behave like that, really. Only just fifteen, she was.”
“Did his parents know?”
“I doubt it. I think they might have had something to say about it.”
“Had Charles Prelet met Dame Viola before today?” Guillaume asked.
“No idea. He spends most of his days here going riding, usually alone. I don’t know where he goes – or why.”
“Perchance he was meeting Dame Viola,” Guillaume suggested. “Maybe they wanted a chance to get to know each other. That would be a wise idea.”
“He wasn’t dressed for love-making, if that’s what you mean,” said Bernard. “He was in a mess when he came back from his ride this morning, apparently. Went straight to the stables of course, not here.”
“So how do you know he went riding this morning?”
“I’ve just come back from the stables.” He smiled at Guillaume. “The lads were very annoyed because he threw his dusty clothes at them, saying he was in a hurry because of the banquet.”
“He doesn’t sound as if he was keen on the banquet, or perhaps even the marriage itself,” Guillaume observed.
“Who knows? Consuls marry for money, so they say. Consul Prelet certainly did. His wife is fabulously rich.”
“Is that the lady who was wearing lots of jewels round her neck?” Guillaume asked.
Bernard gave him a detailed reply about Dame Prelet that included her background, her wealth, her looks, her behaviour, her health. “She’s a better lady than Consul Lussan’s wife, who comes from Agen and she doesn’t fit in here. She too wears lots of jewellery, but her style is more modern.”
Guillaume asked if Consul Lussan and his wife had arrived at the same time as the group of consuls, or with Consul Senclar.
“They arrived soon after the notaire. They looked really cross. They were riding along rue Royale arguing. I could see it from here.”
“Could you hear the argument?”
“Oh no. When they arrived here they told me that their daughter would arrive later, escorted by their steward. She had a problem with her gown and did not want to delay her parents carrying precious documents and the betrothal gift.”
“Did they leave their horses by this main entrance?”
“Yes, and one of the lads took them round to the stables.” He paused. “That’s the funny thing. I learned just now when I was in the stables myself that Consul Lussan came out of the mansion shortly after he arrived and got them to saddle up his horse. He left at a furious pace.”
“Perchance he went back to his mansion to fetch some forgotten document or other,” said Guillaume.
“I have no idea where he went. But he came back all dusty, like Messire Charles had done.”
Guillaume asked who had left first, who had come back first, and whether anyone else had gone out riding.
It took time to fit all Bernard’s information together, but he learned that Charles Prelet had left early and Consul Lussan had left soon after his arrival mid-morning in rue Royale. He was back before Messire Charles and had gone into the mansion. Soon afterwards, the steward’s assistant had taken a horse and ridden it to rue des Armuries to fetch Dame Viola, but had come back without her. After that, Consul Lussan had stormed into the stables, ordered his horse to be re-saddled and said he was going to rue des Armuries. He cursed the steward’s assistant for his stupidity. He was thoroughly nasty and the Prelet stable staff despise him.
Bernard’s story was interrupted by Notaire Corloni coming out of the door. “Do not criticise your betters, doorkeeper.”
The fat notaire and his family walked slowly down the steps to the street and then up the steps of the mansion next door. All five of them looked as if they had swallowed vinegar.
Guillaume commented on their sour faces. He sat down on a stool, put Bernard’s wax tablet on his knee and began to write down everything that he had heard. His mind was racing. He presumed that the crestian had killed Viola, but was he alone when he did it? Who had supplied the knife? How was Chezelle involved? He was a tooth-drawer, so he must have sharp tools. But the crestian would have been a carpenter – all crestias were carpenters – and he too must possess sharp tools.
A Mystery of Blood and Dust - the new Belina Lansac murder mystery
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False Rumours – A Belina Lansac Murder Mystery
Preview – Chapter One
30th August 1483
T he storm broke when Belina was waiting her turn in the apothecary’s store. To curb her impatience she gazed at the porcelain jars on the shelves, trying to decipher the Latin scripts on them. Everyone jumped at the sudden clap of thunder and the apothecary spilt the arsenic he was transferring on to a tiny cloth square lying on his poisons scales. He cursed and began again…
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30th August 1483
The storm broke when Belina was waiting her turn in the apothecary’s store. To curb her impatience she gazed at the porcelain jars on the shelves, trying to decipher the Latin scripts on them. Everyone jumped at the sudden clap of thunder and the apothecary spilt the arsenic he was transferring on to a tiny cloth square lying on his poisons scales. He cursed and began again.
A small man in a physician’s red gown pushed his way to the front of the line, elbowing Belina aside. “Dame Senclar is waiting for her medicines. Hurry. Serve me first.”
The apothecary took no notice of the man and continued to weigh out two ounces of crushed arsenic for his customer’s rat poison.
The physician banged his fist on the counter so hard that everything upon it bounced. The blacksmith in the doorway growled. So did his dog.
The apothecary looked up at the man. “I have already spilled this arsenic once, and I do not intend to do so again,” he said. “You will wait your turn.” He finished concocting the rat poison and looked towards Belina, “Dame Lansac, what can I get for you?”
“A dozen phials of aygue ardente and two dozen pots of foot balm, please.”
The physician scowled at Belina. “Young women should never drink aygue ardente. Dame Senclar would disapprove of you buying such firewater.”
Belina stared at him and refrained from answering, well aware that she dare not deliberately offend the richest landowner in Condom.
Rain began to lash the cobbles outside the store and the crowds of Saturday shoppers ran to take refuge inside the cathedral. Belina paid her bill and followed them in, holding up the skirt of her tunic and taking care not to be pushed against the heap of rubble piled just outside the doorway.
It was dark and very noisy in the nave, with everyone complaining about the storm and how it would ruin the grapes. Pilgrims wandered around, glancing at the side chapels, deciding whether or not to spend the night in one of them. Several pilgrims had spread cloaks on the floor and were drinking wine from their gourds while discussing what to do next.
“This is the worst summer I have known for a pilgrimage,” declared a wiry, sunburnt pilgrim, “and I have been walking the Way of St James for over fifteen years.”
“Have you committed that many crimes?” asked a passing chorister.
“Don’t be cheeky. I walk to Compostela every year because I’m paid to by people who have inherited such an obligation. Instead of wasting four or five months going to Galicia and back they pay me to fulfil the vows of their ancestors.” He drank from his terracotta flask and hooked it back on to his belt. “And to pray for them,” he added. But the chorister had already disappeared into the vestry.
Belina looked at the pilgrim’s flask, admiring its engraving. She was about to ask him where he had acquired it when a hand reached out to grab one of the newly bought aygue ardente phials in her basket. She thumped the hand, turned and stamped on the thief’s foot.
“I was only looking,” the thief whined, withdrawing his empty hand.
“Then look with your eyes, and keep your hands to yourself,” Belina retorted. “If you want to buy some it will cost you two sous.”
He tried to bargain with her, but she was adamant. The cathedral treasurer set the price and she was forbidden to lower it. The unsuccessful thief cursed the treasurer and limped away empty-handed.
Belina held her basket close to her damp tunic and watched a group of pilgrims shuffling from one side-chapel to another, praying before each statue. Their progress was hampered by the cloaks spread out on the floor near many of the statues, but no one was dropping alms into the coin boxes placed prominently in front of each chapel. Until March that year the coin boxes had been smaller and less obvious. Rocca, the new Treasurer from Paris, had changed that. All the cathedral staff had received orders to keep their accounts up-to-date and to submit their ledgers to Rocca’s assistant, Loupmont, every Wednesday afternoon. Quiteira, Belina’s colleague in the cathedral shop, could read but not write so Belina had to find time to comply, grudgingly, with Rocca’s orders.
She edged her way through the crowd of pilgrims, avoiding the wine gourds swinging from the tops of their staffs, and joined a group of local shoppers and street tradesmen who were shouting at each other about the demonstration that morning against fines and evictions. Two ribbon sellers maintained that protesting had done more harm than good but several shoppers voiced loud disagreement. In their view, the French habit of taking to the street to demonstrate was something a Parisian like Rocca would understand. Now that Gascony had become part of south-west France, its inhabitants needed to adopt French ways of behaviour, they said.
Belina stopped listening to the argument and thought about how she would spend Sunday with her husband: getting up late, a quick Mass, and then walking with Guillaume down to the wharf and along the towpath of the river Baïse to the fishponds at Cahuzac. Perhaps they would get further, to the Beauregard mill where long ago her aunt had fed her delicious merveilles to eat while her cousin Christau took her home by boat, letting the current wash them gently down to her grandmother’s mill at Autièges, saving his strength for the more arduous row home. Now she was looking forward to eating those same honey cakes with Guillaume at the end of a special dinner in the Pont Barlet inn, a celebration he had promised for her birthday two weeks ago. His promise had been broken: the Bishop of Condom had ordered him to take an urgent message to Archdeacon Marre in Auch, and Belina’s indignant protests had been brushed aside.
Back in the present, she saw that people were leaving the cathedral. The rain had turned to drizzle. It was a good opportunity for her to walk back to the shop in case the storm returned.
Quiteira had removed all the small objects from the display counter and brought them back inside the shop. She scowled at Belina’s greeting. “You have been a long time.”
“I got caught in the rain and had to shelter in the cathedral. Someone tried to steal one of the aygue ardente phials from my basket.”
“A pilgrim or a soldier?” Quiteira asked.
“Don’t know. Might even have been a local person.”
Quiteira shook her head. Gascons did not steal, even though so many of them were hard up now-a-days what with the king’s taxes and the bishop’s taxes and the bad harvest.
Belina had had enough of listening to complaints that afternoon. She walked into the inner storeroom and arranged the firewater phials inside the cupboard and the foot balm pots on a high shelf, forgetting the moans of the citizens of Condom and beginning to hum at the thought of spending the morrow in her husband’s company. She went over to the copper basin and glanced at her face in the tin mirror, admiring the aquiline nose and large black eyes which had first attracted Guillaume to her, or so he often told her.
She unwrapped her soggy head-cloth and hung it on the rail. Her glossy dark hair tumbled down her back and she smiled at herself in the mirror. She picked up her empty basket and returned to the shop.
Quiteira was putting on her pattens and grumbling about the muddy street outside. “It’s all right for you, Belina, you live here. All you need to do is cross the courtyard and go up the stairs.” She sighed and flexed her left foot on its patten. “While I have to walk all the way to rue Cadeot. It’s not fair.”
Belina took no notice. Instead, she went outside and began to pull up the shutter. A passerby helped her and then pulled the awning down for her, spattering them both with drips from the storm. Belina’s hair clung to her cheeks and she laughed at the sudden chill touch of the water. Her helper gazed at her with great interest, and Belina supposed that he presumed her unmarried because she was not wearing a head-cloth.
“Thank you so much,” she said with a small smile and walked briskly back inside the darkened shop, colliding with Quiteira.
“Look where you’re going.” Quiteira tried to flounce off down the street, but found it difficult to walk in her pattens on the muddy cobbles. Belina lit a tallow candle so that she could lock and bolt the street door of the shop. She went through the darkened shop to the courtyard door, unlocked it and blew out the candle, wrinkling her nose at the smell.
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““It is a welcome pleasure to have a woman lead in a historical murder mystery. So often, women depicted in these stories, especially novels set in the medieval ages, are given secondary roles to heroic men. Here, Penn elegantly gets the man out of the picture quickly so that her star Belina can hog the limelight. It has all the makings of a thrilling adventure.”