The young man entered the tavern, glad to have finally reached a place of relative safety, and warily looked around him. A few of the habitués gave him a quick glance, then returned to their wine or their game of dice. Indeed, there was little in Pierre de Pevel's outward appearance that would attract idle curiosity. His plainly cut doublet and travel-stained boots had clearly seen better days, as had his wide-brimmed hat, ornamented with a single osprey feather. But a closer inspection would have revealed the rapier that hung by his side, forged from the finest Toledo steel, a rarity in the France of 1633 where Cardinal Richelieu's devious policies against Spain had restricted trade between the two countries to the barest minimum. Few men could boast a blade as keen as the one that rested in de Pevel's ordinary-looking scabbard, or a heart that beat as fearlessly and true in the service of the country he loved. Now he sat in the darkest corner of the room and toyed with the curious signet-ring that ornamented the fourth finger of his left hand. A buxom serving-wench came over to greet him.
", she smiled. "Et alors,
what can we be getting the gentleman?"
De Pevel relaxed a little as he heard her Gascon accent. "Just a pitcher of Beaujolais," he replied, as he pressed a gold doubloon into her hand. "And if anyone... bookish... should enter, I would greatly appreciate it if you had the kindness to inform me. Immediately."
The girl looked at him, evidently in no doubt as to his meaning. The Chaude-Dentelle
, founded by Henri IV shortly after his ascension to the throne in 1589, was the most feared organization in France. Fanatically devoted to high critical standards and taking their recruits only from men with the most impeccable literary antecedents, their web of power stretched throughout the country, and even the Cardinal dared not openly oppose them. Their spies were everywhere, and de Pevel knew he was taking a risk in approaching this unknown girl. But, at the same time, his instinct told him that she could be trusted.
"You need not be concerned, monsieur," she said, as the coin disappeared into her corsage. "In Gascony, we have no love for the Hot Lace. Now I will bring you your wine."
She disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, and de Pevel tried to relax. Surely he had managed to shake off his pursuers? But a moment later, the door opened again, and the blood froze in his veins.
. Five of them, led by a man whose face was only too familiar: the Baron de Piquy, last scion of a decadent family who could trace their ancestry back to Dagobert II, and author of countless critical pamphlets, the least of which had the power to make or break an author's reputation. And when the written word was insufficient, de Piquy was known to have other methods at his disposal. He turned his gaze insolently around the room, examining each person in turn until he finally spied de Pevel. An affected smile creased his features as he sauntered over to the young nobleman's corner, his ruffians a step behind.
"But what a pleasant surprise!" he lisped, as he levered his bulk into the seat opposite de Pevel's. "I trust you will not object to my joining you? No? But this is splendid, now we will be able to resume the conversation we were having when we were so... rudely interrupted the other day. You do not agree?"
De Pevel gritted his teeth and said nothing. The critic smiled mirthlessly.
"I was merely offering you a few opinions on your little novel, Les Lames du Cardinal
," he continued. "A fine effort, but even the best work can be improved, n'est-ce pas
? Perhaps it is a trifle too melodramatic in places? The character development slightly thin? The writing, I dare suggest, lacking a certain je ne sais quoi
De Pevel still kept his silence. The critic shrugged.
"I was trying to be constructive, you understand," he said. "All the same, you are right, there is no point in making pretences. The book, let us speak plainly, is abominably badly written. A miserable parody of Dumas. Stilted, unimaginative dialogue. Slipshod construction. Every woman a ridiculous, sexist stereotype. And above all," - his voice slipped into an English accent - "you neglect the most basic rule of competent writing. Show, don't tell."
"I was wondering where the name came from," said de Pevel.
"Toujours du sang-froid
," replied the critic. "But is that the best retort you can make?"
"Possibly not," mused de Pevel. "I would also like to add - this!"
With a single motion, he flung the heavy table at his adversaries, drawing his blade at the same time. One of Piquy's henchment was crushed against the wall, and a slash of Spanish steel opened up another's face from chin to eyebrows. Breathing heavily, Piquy drew his own sword, as his two remaining men fanned out, one on each side. De Pevel kicked his left-hand opponent in the crotch, pivoted gracefully, and disarmed the other with a neat flick of his sword. But suddenly he found himself pinned in the corner, Piquy's dagger an inch from his throat.
"I admit it," said the critic. "You do capable fight scenes. But nonetheless---"
With a look of great surprise, he left the sentence unfinished, slumped forward and collapsed on the floor. The serving wench pulled the carving knife from his back and wiped it clean on de Piquy's lace collar.
"That's for 'ridiculous, sexist stereotype'," she murmured. "And now, monsieur de Pevel, I think it is high time we end this terrible review."