PART ONE: THE ASSASSIN

Chapter 1

THE SHARP tac tac of the dueling blades made a clear ringing sound in the dusk below the Montfaucon gibbets where the bodies of two condemned thieves still swung. The taller and more agile of the fencers fought with steady wrist and flickering blade that seemed to wink out of existence after every parry, only to appear as a deadly riposte that made the other man curse hoarsely. After every interplay of ringing steel, he advanced another foot through the black shadows made by the dangling bodies.

There was a grim, haunted look about the duelist who fought so constantly on the defensive. Sweat beaded his forehead and spotted the ruffles of his lace jabot. There were grass stains on a knee of his tubular breeches where he had slipped and fallen. His arm was tired; fatigue made deep furrows at the corners of his mouth.

"And now, m'sieu," whispered the attacker, the taller man.

His blade drove forward, blurring—

His opponent opened his eyes wide as three feet of thin, cold steel slid into him and stood out behind his shoulder. He tottered on numbed legs a moment before twisting sideways and falling, almost tearing the blade from the fingers which held the haft.

He sprawled on the grass, twitching.

Michel de Lusignac watched him with narrowed eyes. He did not care for this role of hired duelist which fate had forced upon him because of the magic of his sword. He accepted it doing what was expected of him with a resigned shrug of wide shoulders, being too much the philosopher to be a rebel.

His hand lifted now to whip away a black domino mask.

The role of l'Inconnu—the unknown—he wore as easily as he wore the black cloak and mask. In this early spring of the year 1678, with all France bowed before the weight of the wars waged by Louis XIV, only a few men dared to speak out against the tyranny of the Sun King. L'Inconnu was one of these, using his sword-blade as a steel tongue.

A Huygens watch lifted into a hand.

The night was well along. He had less than an hour to walk the two miles between the Montfaucon gibbets and the Coq d'Or tavern, where the Marquis de Lally was to make an appearance. Before dawn lifted above the twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, he planned to fight a second duel.

His hand flipped the edge of his Roquelaure cape over a shoulder. He strode toward a high stone wall which served to prevent the bodies of executed criminals from being stolen by their families. He took a running leap. His foot touched a jutting brick. A moment later he was vaulting to the top of the wall, one hand clutching the capping, drawing himself up and over.

One glance he gave the wounded man lying so close to the open burial hole. He would be in bed for two weeks, at least. The man on the wall hoped he had learned his lesson, as Duke Etienne de la Bourgogne wished.

Michel glanced at the moon.

Peste! The night wore on. If he hoped to intercept the Marquis de Lally at the Coq d'Or tavern, he must be on his way. Swinging both legs in the air, he leaped for the ground below, landed and skidded, then was up and striding down a narrow dirt pathway with a jaunty step.

Silvery moonlight touched the windowed walls and slanted rooftops of the city of Paris with white fire in this early evening hour, casting thick black shadows across the narrow street where Michel de Lusignac trailed his second victim, the Marquis de Lally, Lucien du Frossard. His left hand held the hilt of his long Spanish rapier at a gay angle so that as he swaggered his way between the spilled slops on the cobblestones, he seemed only a merrymaker bent on an evening with a wine tankard and a wench.

The pale beams of a leaded lantern hanging on an iron crane caught his eye. The lantern illumined a wooden sign carved as a golden rooster. Beneath it he could see the Marquis de Lally moving to the oaken door and hammering his fist against it for admittance. Michel drew back into a building recess, and waited. In a moment, lamplight bathed Frossard in its yellow brilliance, revealing him for a man slightly above average height, with reddish hair set in ringlets and a small mustache waxed outward above a wide, thin mouth. His cloak was of wine velvet edged in ermine, and the richness of his breeches and coat was enhanced by the thick purple satin that formed their ribbon loops and ruffles.

"An arrogant cock," murmured Michel, "who conceives himself to have been created by le bon Dieu solely to pleasure women!"

Michel sighed and moved out from the shadows toward the oaken door. A toss of his hand swung his cloak up over his left shoulder. He shortened his stride so that he could give his walk an impudent grace. There was an inner gaiety about Michel de Lusignac that made him regard the world with something of amusement in his eyes, which he was honest enough to admit sometimes masked the deep bitterness of injured pride.

The fog bad thickened as he stood in the building angle. It came with puffs like smoke from the muzzle of a cannon up the narrow street, hiding everything but the lantern on its crane. Michel felt the bite of the sudden cold and shivered.

Then his knuckles banged the panels of the oak door, which swung open to reveal the fat face of Pierre Cestine, who owned the Coq d'Or Tavern and ran it with a worldliness that brought more than a few nobles and titled ladies in face-masks to his common room.

As the door swung shut behind him, Michel found himself on a little wooden dais a few feet above the tavern floor itself. Thick wooden posts and rails formed a tiny balcony from which narrow steps led downward to the main room. The air was thick with wine smells and bluish fumes drifting close to the beamed ceiling where a few adventurous men tried this sport of tobacco smoking brought back from the New World by English adventurers.

His eyes searched every nook and corner of the big room as he moved down the little steps but he found no sign of the Marquis de Lally. Disappointment kindled an anger in him. Peste! Where could the man have hidden himself?

A table against the far wall was almost in darkness. Michel threw himself onto the high-backed wooden chair, tossing his gloves on the tabletop. A pert barmaid, with a trace of Picardy accent in her voice, came hurrying from the kitchen, soft breasts jiggling loosely in a low-cut blouse.

"A pasty, m'sieu?” she asked. “Or a slice of venison?"

"Nothing to eat. A bottle of wine only."

As she moved away Michel took a more careful inventory of the tavern. The man had to be some place in here! Not even a court favorite can disappear in midair. It was then, while the fury and the disappointment ate in him, that he saw the screen.

It was a clever thing, that standing blind, taut silk carefully painted to give the illusion of a blank wall. In the dimness of the common room, no man would give it a second thought. Michel chuckled. The barmaid was returning from the kitchen with his wine. She wore a somewhat tattered blue velvet plackard tight to her middle, below which a striped cambric skirt clung to swaying hips. The frilled edging of the blouse had been tucked into the upper rim of her bodice, so that as she bent to put his goblet and dusty bottle on the table, she gave a generous display of ripe breasts.

Michel grinned and hooked an arm about her slender waist, drawing her to his knee. It had been close to a month since he had visited Suzanne Poutain at the Blackamoor tavern, and the touch of her soft rump to his thigh made Michel realize that this tavern girl was more than usually alluring.

"Is your name as pretty as your face, little pullet?"

The girl was used to the free manner of these cavaliers. She leaned against him, whispering, "My name is Marthe, m'sieu. Unlike the claret you drink, though, I'm not for sale.”

"Did I even hint as much? Still, you must admit you're a lot more appetizing than any cordial.”

She caught the direction of his gaze and teased him with her laughter. "M'sieu has his own ideas on how to press grapes, hein? And which grapes he'll choose for the pressing?”

"White ones, Marthe. Fine, round, white grapes grown in Picardy!"

His hand brought out a black velvet purse. As her dark eyes watched, he loosed the drawstrings and shook several of the golden louis d'or out onto the tabletop. He was pleased to observe, with a sidelong glance of his gray eyes, that her gaze grew brighter at sight of the coins.

His laughter stirred the linen hems where they were tucked into her bodice. His lips were so close that she could feel them move against a nipple when he spoke. "Can you find us a screen, too, little one? A nice wall screen that will hide us from prying eyes?"

"Us, m'sieu?" she mocked. "I've already told you I'm not for sale. I'm an honest girl from Picardy, in Paris to make my dowry. I—"

With a finger, he pushed two golden louis d'or at her. "For the privilege of talking with ma'mselle Marthe behind such a screen."

Her eyes were sly, but Michel smiled grimly and shook his head. “For once, I speak the truth, ma petite. Only talk between us concerns me this night."

Marthe shrugged a white shoulder out of her thin blouse, a little piqued. How could a girl defend her honor when a gentleman gave her no reason to take alarm? Injured pride made her pout. Ma foi! He was a handsome one, too, with that black hair all curled and blued where the dim lamplight caught it. He was smooth-shaven, which pleased the girl, for she took no enjoyment from a mop of bristles thrust into her face with every kiss.

His hand rested on her soft thigh, slowly stroking the skin beneath the cambric. Ah! So he showed signs of life, after all. Marthe put her hand over his languid fingers, drawing them upward. She would not mind a few caresses and perhaps even a hug or two behind a screen. She rose to her feet, bringing him with her, bumping a rounded hip into him.

"Come along, then. I'll summon Jean to bring another length of silk from below stairs."

Michel found the little cubicle of wooden table and benches perfect for his use. He was hidden from everyone but pert Marthe, and since the benches were not partitioned off from bench-back to ceiling, he could hear faint snatches of the low conversation that went back and forth in the booth behind him.

Michel grimaced. One of those speakers was the Sieur du Frossard. The other was a woman. He had hoped to find them fuddled with wine, which would make his task of forcing a duel on the marquis that much simpler. Eh, well! He would find some other way to make trouble.

He reached out and lifted his glass. "To your eyes, little one," he whispered softly, and drained bis goblet. Aware that Marthe watched him eagerly, he refilled the glass and let his gaze assess the white fleshiness of her bared shoulders.

"To your lovely épaules, ma cherie!"

Marthe moved restlessly. Hein! If this gentleman were to toast her every charm in his progression from her eyes and shoulders downward, he'd wind up snoring, cheek cradled on the tabletop. The Valognes claret drew her gaze. If she helped him dispose of the stuff, he'd not be so slow to begin the caresses her flesh was now honestly hungering to receive. She pressed a thigh against him and reached for a wine-cup.

Marthe drank, and drank again. Her black eyes grew misty. Now when he lifted his glass to toast the pointed fullnesses of les seins, she giggled and rubbed against him. She was growing fuddled. She did not see that her young gentleman failed to refill his goblet though he displayed every indication of drinking two glasses to her one. When he pulled her in against him to crush her soft mouth under his lips, her senses reeled. Dazedly, she told herself that she had enough of this heady claret. Any more and she would be unable to resist the tingling excitement running upward from her curling toes.

Marthe leaned her head against the tall bench-back and breathed deeply. Très bien! Let her handsome seigneur discover the ripeness of her flesh, if he wanted. Let his hand come hunting along her hip, or dip into the loose linen bodice above the blue velvet plackard. She would not resist him. To her surprise he was ignoring her, to rise from the table and move at a lurching gait to the side door of the Coq d'Or.

The door opened onto a little alleyway. Michel walked up and down the cobbles, studying the building wall to one side, the brickwork wall on the other. The alley made a splendid fencing strip. Small dark stains on the cobblestones showed that other men had fought duels here. Michel stood and breathed deeply of the cool spring air, smiling grimly.

When he went back into the tavern he would find the Marquis de Lally and taunt him into a duel. Michel sighed. It took wits, sometimes, to invent new methods of whipping a man into the mood to risk his life across a stretch of paving stone or meadow grass. It would have meant disaster to let his victims suspect the real reason that brought him out at night on his lonely missions.

As if he stood now before him, he could hear the Duc de la Bourgogne say, "Above all else, Michel, be cautious! You may quarrel over a woman, over the shape of a man's leg, over the manner in which he wears his periwig. But never, never, quarrel with him because he serves the king!"

Even tonight, the Duke had been most explicit in his orders, standing straight and tall before the rich maroon draperies that hung from beamed ceiling to the carpeted floor of his town house library. He was an elderly man, the duke, with thin features almost translucent in their pallor, his black eyes burning like coals under white brows.

"Lucien du Frossard, Marquis de Lally, throws his weight overmuch on the side of the war party, Michel. Even if Louis were to weaken, such courtiers as Lally and LaMayenne fill his head with dazzling visions of a French Europe. Ventre Saint Gris! These wars are ruining France!"

His slim figure paced from the heavy Flemish arras to a floor globe of bronze and satinwood. His white, long fingers reached out to spin the great ball. As the map painted on its round surface blurred in its spinning, the Duke gestured at it, an ironic smile on his thin, wide lips. "He imagines the world created especially for his play, does our Louis XIV. He hungers after Holland and Spain. Already, in the lowlands, he has fought one war with them. Now he is deep in another.

He uses French gold to buy off Sweden and England. He drains French provinces for men to water the fields of Flanders with their blood."

A spate of passion went through the old man, so that he shook as an aspen shakes in the wind off the Seine. "Ruin! Ruin! That's what Louis brings with his wars that he conceives makes him so grandiose!"

All over France in this year of 1678, the soldiers of Louis Quatorze were going into the countryside, to pause at neat farmhouses and bring out the farmer and his dame, their two hulking sons, and the hired hand. The two sons and the hired man they marched off to join the army being gathered by Louis XIV. His armies had been meeting with reverses in the Low Countries, where the fleur-de-lys fought with Spain and Holland. Sometimes the soldiers took the farmer himself, if he was young and lusty, and had a strong back. It did not matter that he had two infant children, and another on the way. France needed soldiers: Louis Quatorze was at war.

In Maine and Anjou, troops of cavalry pounded through the town squares on their way to Paris. On the ribs of the pack horses trotting behind them hung small brass-bound coffers, filled with money. Those coins, stuffed so thickly into the boxes they could not even jingle, were the golden fruit of the taille, the tax on personal and real property from which the nobility was exempt. Some of the coins had been levied for the gabelle, the monies that men paid for the privilege of using salt with their meat and potatoes.

There were also the excise taxes, les aides, and custom taxes, provincial tariffs and local toll systems, such as the pied fourché, the vingtain de caresme, the chemins obliques, the patente de Languedoc and the trépas de la Louire, and perhaps a hundred and one others or even more, depending on that part of the country in which a man was traveling.

Man-less women walked with empty purses across the roads of France, but in the Low Countries, French arms began winning battles for dike-flooded lowlands, and in the court and Fontainebleau and Versailles, men fawned on Louis le Grande and vied with one another in discovering new ways to practice flattery on him. He was le Conquereur, le Monarch Grand, world ruler and le Roi Soleil.

The common man in France stood on the brink of disaster, yet there was no way to let his plight be known. There was always the Bastille and the Conciergerie for complaining men who wearied officials with their troubles.

In such an emergency, an unknown swordsman came out of the cobble-stoned gutters of Paris. His steel spoke for the common man, for Jacques l'Homme. It told the world of Louis Quatorze, by disposing of the most eloquent supporters of his war policy, that the people were against it. No man knew the name of this swaggering ruffler, though Louis XIV offered a thousand crowns for his apprehension. Paris knew him only as M. l'Inconnu—the unknown one—a man who moved alone and unseen through the dark, narrow alleyways and twisting streets of the quartiers with a sword at his side, seeking out his human prey.

A fisherman rising early in the morning might hear the sharp clicking of steel blades and a muffled cry from the direction of a deserted quay, or a housewife standing chilled and breathless by her open window might catch the beat of swords or the thud of moving feet and the ring of rapiers meeting at the quillions. But their eyes never saw him. He was one man against all France, this M. l'Inconnu, one man to stand against Louis Roi-Soleil, who fought always alone, with the archer guard of le Cité and the King's own musketeers searching daily for him.

They never found the swordsman.

All they could find were his victims.

De la Bourgogne shook himself. His face flushed as he looked again at Michel. "Your pardon, sir. I grow overwrought. I tell myself I can do nothing against this war coalition. I am only an old man: rich, but with little influence at court. I have only one weapon.”

He came from the revolving globe to Michel. His pale hands lifted to grasp the broad shoulders of the younger man. There was affection in his smile, and pain in his black eyes. "You are that weapon, Michel. You and that long blade you own.”

He turned to the large flat desk of highly polished rosewood. A velvet purse lay on that otherwise bare desktop, swollen fat with golden crowns and louis d'or. The Duc de la Bourgogne lifted the purse, hefting it in his hand, brooding.

"Your father was my friend. He was a poor nobleman, but proud. Too proud to accept my help. When he died in the musketeers' uniform that his pride made him don to support you, I promised you'd never want. I did not know then that I would carry out my promise in this fashion."

The Duke smiled and swung on a heel. His hands lifted and tossed the heavy purse to Michel, who caught it in his palm. "You are a good swordsman, Michel. The best in Paris, the best in all France. Perhaps even, the best in Europe. D'Artagnan and de Bergerac taught you well! You know what to do about du Frossard. See to it. As always, I put my faith in your discretion."

Michel smiled grimly. He loved this fine old nobleman who fought such a losing fight against his king and the men who served him rather than France. Alone, he did what he could to stay Louis from this mad course of wars and battles that were like a leech fastened to the country.

Michel said softly, "DeSaulles I provoked into a quarrel by taunting him on his miserliness. Mayrence insulted me when I drew him into a discussion of his family. This Lally, now: it comes to me that he's been seen in the Coq d'Or tavern off the Rue Dante with a masked woman."

Michel laughed softly, "I will discover that I am very attracted to this madame la masque! Is she a court woman? A grande dame? Or just some silly baker's wife out to learn for herself how the caresses of a blue-blood differ from those her husband gives her? Du Frossard will rise to the bait.”

The Duke shook his head. His face was grave. "I find myself unable to sleep nights, Michel. Am I doing the right thing in pitting myself and your sword against Louis XIV and his courtiers? If either of us are discovered—ma foi! How the court buzzes these days about the unknown duelist who put DeSaulles and Mayrence flat on their backs for weeks!—it means the Bastille, or worse."

Michel de Lusignac smiled grimly. How could he tell this old man that it was not only for him that he hunted down noblemen in the city taverns, but for his daughter, Barbette. In his boyhood and early youth he had played with blonde and lovely Barbette de la Bourgogne, played and laughed and romped on the vast Bourgogne estates in Poitou. She was just a playmate to him in those days. When his father had come to Paris to take service in the musketeers, he had come with him.

He had forgotten Barbette de la Bourgogne until a few months ago. In the late fall of '77, the Duke had sent a page to find Michel at the Blackamoor, in whose cellar rooms he taught fencing to the small sons of Paris nobles. That letter changed the course of his life. On his visit to the Duke, in answer to his letter, he found Barbette a grown woman. Her pale golden hair hung in ringlets to the white shoulders she bared in the fashionable silk gowns of the court. There was still the same laughter in her bright blue eyes, but it was a merriment subdued by maturity. When she grew aware that her hands in his brought a strange, delicious tingle to her heart, she denied them to him.

Yet her laughter and the touch of her smooth fingers lived inside him. When the Duke first broached his plan to avert the costly wars with which Louis XIV plagued France, Michel thought him mad. The troubled face that Barbette let him see occasionally when he called on her father lay deep in his heart. It was because of that worried face that came so often to him in his dreams that he accepted the offer the Duke made him: remove the men who counseled war.

At least, Michel thought, I only wound the men he wants killed. Another man might not be so dexterous with his blade. That would make the father of the woman he loved—hopelessly, for what had a penniless de Lusignac to offer the heiress of the de la Bourgogne fortunes?—a murderer.

His woundings accomplished almost the same result as death. His victims, during their recuperations, discovered that urgent business required their presence far from Paris, thus removing their voices from the war coalition that surrounded Louis XIV with their flattery.

The Duke went on, "It is not for myself I mind this threat of the Bastille or a chopping block for my neck. I think of you. I am old. You are young, with all your life before you."

Michel shrugged wide shoulders. “They have to catch me, m'sieu le duc, before they can imprison me. From my rambles during my youth, I know le Cité as I know my face. There are little back alleys and old, forgotten tunnels between houses that make themselves available for those who know where to find them. Don't worry about me. Worry instead about Lally and this masked woman who shows her bosom as a cow its udders. If things go well, I hope to see her face also, before the night is out."

The Duke smiled grimly and moved restlessly to the maroon drapes. These he thrust aside, revealing a stone wall from which protruded a small iron lever. The handle moved down in his fist, and a section of the stone wall rolled inward to expose a narrow flight of spiraled stairs.

"Go with God, Michel," whispered the Duke as his hand came out to rest a moment on the younger man's shoulder.

Then Michel ducked his head and moved swiftly into the stairwell. He had hoped to see Barbette this night, but she knew nothing of the secret steps, and she rarely came to the musty old library with its scrolls and leather-bound volumes. As he went down the staircase, he realized that he hadn't seen Barbette de la Bourgogne in more than a month.

Set flush into the stone wall of the old town house was another lever. Putting his hand on it, Michel let his gray eyes assess the empty street outside through a narrow slit cleverly disguised as a chink between two stones. Then the lever moved down and the wall parted.

He was through the opening and closing the door behind him in a matter of seconds.

It was a clear night, crisp with spring coolness. The moon hung high overhead, like a shining silver coin. He drew his cloak tighter about him against the sudden cold, and moved off down the street.

It was then that he saw a man standing in the shadows of an overhanging balcony, his dark cloak wrapped about him, watching Michel closely. When he saw that he was observed, the man whirled on a heel and moved off down an intersecting street. Michel frowned, feeling a coldness that was not from the wind move down his spine. Then he shrugged and laughed softly. He started at shadows these nights!

Now as he opened the door off the alleyway behind the Coq d'Or and came back across the common-room floor, his legs swayed beneath him, and his body lurched a little as he sought to maintain balance. He knew that men watched him with understanding grins on their faces. Bien! That was what he wanted. Yes, even those words of scorn mixed in with the sympathy. They added to the illusion of drunkenness his playacting sought to create.

Michel put his hand out, and turned the screen.

In a moment, the trouble he hungered for would begin.

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