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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 46e - “Cardinal’s Gambit” by Catherine Lundoff

Friday, May 29, 2020 - 16:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 46e - “Cardinal’s Gambit” by Catherine Lundoff - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/05/30 - listen here)

For the second episode in our 2020 fiction series, we see the return of Jacquotte Delahaye and Celeste Girard in Catherine Lundoff’s “Cardinal’s Gambit,” continuing the adventures of the 17th century pirate and spy who appeared in the debut episode of the fiction series back in 2018.

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is quite familiar to regular listeners. She is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis where she lives with her wife, bookbinder Jana Pullman, and the cats who own them. She is the author of over 100 published short stories and essays, which have appeared or are forthcoming in such venues as Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, Respectable Horror, the SFWA Blog and SF Signal. Her books include Silver Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic. She is also the editor of the fantastical pirate tales anthology, Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) and two other anthologies. In addition, she is the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a genre fiction publisher specializing in fiction from out of this world, and she teaches online writing classes at the Rambo Academy and Hidden Timber Books.

You can find her online through her personal website at catherinelundoff.net or the website for her publishing house queenofswordspress.com.

Our narrator this time is Cherae Clark.

Cherae Clark

Cherae is a writer originally from Kansas City. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. Although, presumably the world-traveling is on hold at the moment. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. She’s currently one of the co-editors at PodCastle which--by the way--is one of my favorite fiction podcasts and you should check it out. Cherae’s short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, PodCastle and Uncanny Magazine.

You can follow her on Twitter @C_L_Clark or through her blog at www.clarkwrites.wordpress.com.

* * *

“Cardinal’s Gambit”

By Catherine Lundoff

           

Jacquotte Delahaye sighed and stretched her legs out before her. The impulse to scratch her head under the stiff, scratchy wig disguising her blazing red tresses was well nigh overpowering and she cast a quick glance at the others cooling their heels in his majesty’s antechamber to see if it would be noticed. Not surprisingly, the only one paying any attention to her was Mademoiselle Girard, who was frowning at her from a nearby, equally uncomfortable chair.

Unlike Jacquotte, Celeste was dressed as a lady, albeit a somewhat impoverished one. Still, the sight of her pretty face and exposed, and no doubt chilled, décolletage, made for a pleasant distraction from Jacquotte’s current discomfort. At least until Celeste noticed the direction of her gaze and wrapped her shawl tighter.

Celeste’s frown made Jacquotte smirk as she surrendered to impulse and scratched beneath her wig. For the kind of young gentleman that her disguise suggested she was: fresh up from the country, uncouth and brash, it was not unexpected. She surprised a sneer from one of the footmen and contemplated carving him a new smile with the blade she had hidden in her boot…but then neither Celeste nor the king were likely to condone that.

She settled for giving him one of her pirate captain glares, the kind calculated to get her a stool in any tavern in Port Royal. He paled and looked away and Celeste waved her fan before her face to hide a smile.

“Perhaps we should return tomorrow?” Jacquotte murmured softly.

“We are at his majesty’s pleasure since he has commanded us to attend him here. Really, it is not every day that the Sun King himself rewards a pirate and a spy. You might be more gracious about it,” Celeste leaned forward to murmur the words behind her fan.

As if summoned, a liveried footman in a large white wig appeared before them and said softly, “Cardinal Mazarin requests your presence.” His expression suggested that this was obligatory and that others in the antechamber were not intended to hear his words.

Jacquotte and Celeste glanced at each other in puzzlement, but since it was clear that they were expected to obey, Jacquotte rose to her feet and offered her companion her arm to assist in rising. “Let us not keep the Chief Minister of France waiting, chérie.” She kept her words soft but it was hard not to observe that many eyes followed them as they exited the chamber. She suspected that the Cardinal’s newfound preference for the company of country bumpkins would be all over the court in an hour or two.

The footman took them on a circuitous route through the palace, but Jacquotte could see Celeste noting each room and corridor that they passed down. She, at least, could lead them back out if they were abandoned in one of these gold-plated cherub-coated ridiculous excuses for rooms. Give me the ocean breeze and a wooden deck beneath my boots any day, instead of this smelly oversized rat hole with its wasted gold, Jacquotte thought.

She thought that even harder when they were finally ushered into a small ornate chamber, crowded with a desk, several chairs and a man in cardinal’s robes. And a tremendous number of paintings, quite a few cherubs, a great expanse of ornamented plaster and several rich carpets. If there had been any doubt as to his identity, the large portrait hanging on the wall behind the man at the desk certainly dispelled it.

“Your Eminence.” Celeste swept her skirts to either side in a deep curtsey and Jacquotte, much against her will, managed an awkward bow.

The dark-haired man studying them might have been carved of stone for all the reaction he showed. After a long few moments, however, he flickered long fingers in a gesture that suggested that they could be seated in the chairs that faced him. Jacquotte noticed that he did not also signal the guards to depart and the space between her shoulders itched at the thought of blades at her unguarded back. Celeste gave her an unnecessary warning glance before perching daintily on her chosen seat.

            “You honor us, Your Eminence. How may we serve you?” Celeste asked quietly as Jacquotte took the seat beside her. It was a good question, she thought. She herself had no desire to serve the cardinal, the church or even the king, if she could help it, but she had, reluctantly, promised Celeste her assistance. Celeste served the king, and Cardinal Mazarin was well known for seeing no contradiction between serving the king and serving him. How complicated her life had become since she allowed Mademoiselle Celeste Girard into it!

            “A spy and a privateer,” the cardinal murmured speculatively. “What use I could make of you! But that is for the future. For now, you need to know no more than that a Spanish ship will be at the dock in Calais in four days time. It brings the new ambassador from His Spanish Majesty, the Count of Olivares. The count carries certain papers of interest to me and, therefore, to France.”

            Jacquotte quirked one red eyebrow upwards and asked the question she could no longer contain, “Your pardon, Eminence, but I am only a simple privateer and a woman at that. Such subtle machinations as kings and their advisors engage in are outside my understanding. If I comprehend your meaning correctly, you wish the ambassador and his papers to…part ways? Surely Your Eminence has servants who might serve you better in this endeavor than two humble women such as ourselves?”

            Cardinal Mazarin laughed, the sound dry and echoing in the small chamber. “How hasty you are, Captain Delahaye. Do you think me a foolish or rash man? I am well aware of how all the king’s servants may be of service to France and I am able to advise him on this, as well as all other matters of import. If I intend to trust you with a mission of this delicacy, you may be assured that I know the nature of the tools that I wish to employ.”

            Celeste’s breath hissed between her teeth. “Of course you do, Eminence. What my…friend meant to ask was how such poor tools as ourselves might have come to your attention and how we could possibly be of service.” Her bright blue eyes met Jacquotte’s eyes for a moment with an unreadable expression before she glanced back to the cardinal.

            “And how such service might reward you? I am inclined to say that being of service to the king should be all the reward that you require, but I suspect that such will not suffice for the Captain, and her expertise with naval documents may be of some use in the success of this enterprise. In short, I wish you to work together to acquire the plans for the King of Spain’s new warship from the ambassador. I shall need those plans in my hands within a fortnight. “

            Jacquotte blinked in astonishment. How…Celeste’s subtle headshake caught her eye and she closed her lips against further questions. Presumably as a spy in the king’s employ, she was accustomed to receiving her orders this way. That said, Jacquotte herself would not have ordered her crew to sack a captured ship with so little information.

            A few more details were exchanged and they were dismissed to go back to cooling their heels at the king’s pleasure. When the day finally ended with them at a nearby inn, Jacquotte reflected that they were one small bag of gold the richer, still had not seen the king himself, had seen the cardinal and all in all, would have been better off had they taken her ship and raided boats on the Seine instead.

            With that thought, came another: why not set sail immediately? The cardinal’s reach would not be so long in Madagascar or in the English seas of the Caribbean. Perhaps they could disguise themselves and live incognito somewhere for a year or two, until Mazarin’s attention turned elsewhere; she had enough gold for that.

            Celeste eyed her askance as they entered their room but said nothing until the door was closed. Then she sat down on the one sturdy chair that the room provided and tilted her head up at Jacquotte. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said at last, “but I don’t want to flee. Not unless we must.”

            “If we fail, you mean. If we fail at this fool’s errand that has almost no chance of succeeding.” Jacquotte swept off her hat and wig and tossed them onto the small table.

            Celeste looked away for a moment, jaw set. Then she fixed her gaze on Jacquotte. “I have an idea.”

***

            After two days by post and a broken night’s rest, Celeste walked slowly past a portside tavern in Calais. The ambassador’s ship was at the dock and the ambassador himself merely waiting on the King’s pleasure to disembark. Now there remained only the need to create an opportunity to board the ship, find the papers, steal the papers and get back to Paris. She suppressed a gesture of frustration at the thought of the huge obstacles that this list encompassed.

            Jacquotte had left the inn that morning, clad in a sailor’s disguise with hair and eyebrows dyed black, bound for the taverns on the docks to see what she could learn. Celeste had not been able to bring herself to tell her that she had met the Count de Olivares once before. It had been two years ago and she had been passing herself off as the daughter of a visiting French nobleman when Olivares had stopped in Saint Martin briefly on his way to Cuba. There had been some papers involved then as well, along with an uncomfortable hour in which she had to wait for the sleeping draught that she gave him to take effect.

But would he remember her? She had been in disguise, her face powdered, her hair hidden by an elaborate wig. Robbers had been blamed for the loss of the papers, not she. How great a risk was she taking by trying a different ruse to see him now? In any case, she couldn’t see anything that Jacquotte could do about it and they were, after all, only here because she insisted on it.

            Celeste bit back a heavy sigh as she slipped down a side street, her mind still awhirl in thought. Her distraction made her oblivious to some crude advances by passing sailors, but not to a sudden sound behind her. Celeste pulled a small knife from the hidden sheath in her skirts and turned quickly. Jacquotte emerged from a nearby alleyway, two Spanish sailors at her heels. She sauntered up to Celeste and gave her a ringing rum-soaked kiss. “What ho, my beauty! Looking for me, were you?”

            Celeste found her hand tucked in the crook of Jacquotte’s arm as she was towed unsteadily down the street, the sailors trailing behind. “Where are we going? Did you find…the ship you were looking for?” She had been going to ask a different question, but the presence of the sailors behind them and the appearance of two guardsmen in uniform at the top of the street was inspiration to change her mind.

            But conversation was not what Jacquotte had in mind. Instead, her companion staggered and stumbled, suddenly much drunker than she had been a moment ago. Celeste found herself first off balance, then pitched into the guardsmen, resulting in all of them tumbling to the ground in a heap. Jacquotte gave a drunken yell of outrage and waded in, nearly stepping on her hand.

            The melee lasted a few minutes, long enough for Celeste to scramble to the side and out of immediate danger. She turned just in time to see Jacquotte’s Spanish companions seize her arms and drag her away. The guardsmen lurched to their feet, cursing, and charged after them, leaving Celeste sitting on the cobbles with her dress in disarray and her basket upended. With a curse or two of her own, she scrambled to her feet, retrieved her possessions and started after them. At least now she had a strong suspicion about how Jacquotte intended to get aboard the vessel.

***

            Jacquotte nearly laughed out loud as Arturo and Felipe dragged her away from the guards toward the San Cristobal. She was a big ship, a galleon with 36 guns or more, and Jacquotte’s pirate heart ached to seize her, put the surviving crew to the articles or the sword and sail away. She could almost picture sailing into the harbor at Maracaibo in this beauty, flying the flag of the Spanish king and none any the wiser until they opened fire on the fort and seized the next gold shipment.

            She shook her head a little and forced herself to abandon the vision as the shouts of the guards behind them grew louder. Once aboard, she would be under the ambassador’s protection, at least temporarily. Then it was up to her to prove to her new Spanish friends that she could be useful enough to keep aboard for a night or two. If she could smuggle Celeste onto the ship tonight…no, she knew that she was imagining a lack of obstacles where, in truth, there would only be obstacles. Get aboard, establish herself, steal the papers and make the cardinal ransom them: that was clearly the path to follow.

            The direction that her thoughts were taking made her hide a smirk. Besides, when had she become so concerned about Celeste? The spy could take care of herself, and would, if the past was anything to go by.  Jacquotte shook her head. She must be getting soft. Next she’d even be dreaming about leaving her fleet and settling down on an island, Celeste at her side.

            A dagger point hovering before her nose brought her abruptly back to the present. Evidently, Spanish bosuns were harder to convince than those under their command.  A flood of Spanish, liberally sprinkled with curses she’d learned from years of seizing Spanish ships, filled her ears and the guards shouted their own versions in French from the dock.

She narrowed her eyes and pushed the dagger point back from her throat before responding in pure dockside Spanish with a tale about pirates seizing her previous ship and marooning the crew, herself included, then being abandoned anew on French soil by the ship that found them. She had only been trying to find a ship sailing back to Spain when she was attacked by those fools. Here, she gestured at the dock and the French guards who were still swearing as they walked away. Her newfound friends had assured her that there was a place aboard the San Cristobal that needed filling. Were they correct? Did not this magnificent ship need more seasoned hands?

Some fast words followed, including the suggestion that her story was, perhaps, embroidered. But it was true, to some extent, and she told it most convincingly. She had commanded the pirates herself and several Spaniards had joined her crew rather than be marooned. Eventually, the boson reluctantly sheathed his blade and agreed to let her demonstrate that she knew her way around ropes and sails.

By the time she slumped into her tiny new bunk below decks, she had little energy left to wonder about documents or Celeste.

***

            Celeste gazed up at the Spanish ship from the dock. A day of gathering gossip in the marketplace had given her a sprawling and often contradictory, picture of the habits of those who sailed aboard her. She had even gathered a few tidbits about the ambassador himself. Now it only remained to apply them and get herself aboard, presumably to join Jacquotte, who she hoped was already there. She had arrived too late to be certain of that.

            The clothes she had bought from a lightskirt she’d met in one of the taverns fit well enough, did she not have the sneaking suspicion that the other woman had an infestation of what might be fleas. She tried to scratch unobtrusively while she waited for the deck watch to turn over. Once the senior commanders were gone, it was a matter of convincing one of the less experienced men that she had just what the ambassador needed to bring him joy.

            According to the gossips on the docks, it was not her delightful person, as such, that she needed to present to him. Rather it was the somewhat motley bag of dried leaves in the small sack at her belt. The count was said to have been separated from his beloved tobacco for a fortnight now, by secret order of the king. Or the cardinal, so went the tales in the dockside taverns, and no reward was too high for the smuggler that brought him what he craved. Celeste glanced at the moon and judged the time to be about right. She made her way to the bottom of the gangplank.

            Her journey aboard did not go as smoothly as Jacquotte’s and she found herself cornered on deck by a minor ship’s officer and one of the sailors, both of whom seemed eager to sample what they perceived as her wares. Neither of them spoke French and Celeste spoke little Spanish. She was holding one of her daggers and was making plans to use it by the time that Jacquotte herself appeared behind her interrogators.

            “Ah, chéri, is it you?” she greeted her companion in rough, heavily accented French. She grinned impishly at Celeste before engaging the two men in a rambling conversation in Spanish. Jacquotte insinuated herself between Celeste and the sailor and appealed to the officer, man to man, in a stream of words of which Celeste understood only “tobacco” and “Conde.”

Celeste tried not to tap her foot impatiently or fidget. In their way, these were negotiations as subtle as any she had performed as a king’s agent in the Caribbean. At a lull in the flood of words, Jacquotte seized her elbow and towed her between the men, hustling her toward the entrance to the largest cabin on deck. A quick word here, a touch of the knife at her belt when words did not suffice, and the pirate captain provided her with safe escort to the vicinity of the man they needed to rob as if their feet had wings.

But there, their progress hit a snag. Bemused, Celeste listened as Jacquotte attempted to charm their way into the ambassador’s cabin. That attempt was a failure until Celeste flaunted both her décolletage and her precious packet of leaves. Even then, she had to insist on Jacquotte’s staying at her side as her translator. The count himself emerged briefly at the sound of raised voices and a woman’s laughter, and with a bemused expression, allowed them to be escorted inside.

And once in his quarters, Celeste had a moment to grasp the full impossibility of the mission that the cardinal had sent them on: a single room where the count slept and worked, a pallet for his valet at his feet, two guards at the door, the only other way into the cabin the great glass windows more than halfway up the ship’s side. She knew a moment of pure despair.

From the flicker of Jacquotte’s eyes, the pirate had seen what she saw. Celeste wondered if they would set sail for Madagascar tonight or wait for a new tide. But then, the count’s attention turned to her and she was instantly alert. She named the most outrageous price she could think of for her tobacco leaves and was astonished when the servant was ordered to fetch the ambassador’s purse.

Jacquotte gave her an almost apologetic look and volunteered what sounded like some unkind speculation on her virtue, and the count gave her a considering glance. Celeste begged the fleas to itch less, just long enough for her to appear desirable. Long enough for her to get the ambassador and his documents alone.

He looked somewhat interested, though his eyes lingered more on the pouch than on her person, Celeste noted. A few more comments from Jacquotte, some minutes of consideration by the count, and the guards were dismissed with a wave of his hand. It took somewhat longer to be rid of the servant and the pirate, but by then, Celeste was seated in a carved and cushioned chair with a flagon of wine at her lips.

Jacquotte gave her an infinitesimal nod before stepping outside, a small Spanish coin in her fist. Celeste pulled her precious pouch of tobacco free from her belt and placed on the table before the ambassador. He did not hesitate to reach out and seize it, holding it open and inhaling its scent with a loud, “Ah!”

She licked her lips and leaned forward, hoping to look distractingly seductive, but he held up his hand, then bend down to extract a pipe from a drawer. In silence, she watched as he filled the bowl, then lit it from the candle on the desk. He puffed slowly, eyes closed as a cloud of smoke enveloped his face.

Celeste wondered how long this would take. Would he require her to watch him smoke until the herbs she had added to the tobacco took effect? Would she have to find some other way to distract him until then? Whatever happened next, she promised herself that she would take his purse, as well as the documents, if the opportunity presented itself. 

While he busied himself with the pipe, she risked a look around, trying to guess where he was most likely to store important papers. She could only hope that she would recognize what they looked like without Jacquotte’s assistance.  But perhaps that wouldn’t be necessary…

He was still quietly puffing at his pipe, head wreathed in smoke, eyes closed, when she looked back. Celeste sent up a silent prayer that it would not take long to take effect. But what was she to do then? Claim the ambassador had fallen ill and summon the guards and the servant, and Jacquotte, if she was nearby, for help? Hope to take both purse and documents in the ensuing chaos? Hope merely to flee unscathed? She wished that there were better options; how had the cardinal expected them to succeed in this endeavor?

She decided that he was most likely keeping the documents in the locked strongbox on the table before him or in the drawers that he had kept his pipe in. She could see nothing else in this room that might serve the purpose and with an effort, she strangled the small voice in her head that suggested secret compartments or other rooms.

The ambassador gestured, eyes open and more alert now, the glint in them unmistakable, despite the cloud of smoke, and Celeste put her flagon down and rose reluctantly to her feet. She had resigned herself to being pawed, hopefully no more, when she caught the light of dawning recognition on his sleepy face. No! He opened his mouth to shout just as the candle caught her eye. She had a moment of inspiration and blundered into the table, flailing wildly as if to catch herself.

It tipped over slowly, the flame meeting the wood with a fiery kiss. A letter on the table caught light as the ambassador lurched unsteadily to his feet, reaching for the strongbox. Celeste screamed and scrambled backwards while he shouted for assistance. The guards thumped against the door as the table caught light and Celeste got to her feet to let them in. It was no part of her plan to let the Spaniards all burn, at least not if she had to join them.

But the ship shifted under her feet and she fell, tangled in her skirts. The door shuddered as the guards outside brought a ram of some kind to it. The ambassador staggered toward it as the flame caught the edge of his cape, and he dropped the strongbox. Celeste looked up to find a spreading wall of flames between her and the door and she screamed again with renewed urgency. The cabin filled with smoke and she scrambled to her feet and pulled her kerchief free from her neck to tie it over her mouth and nose.

The door shuddered and she threw herself forward through the flames, flinging herself on the count to smother the embers on his cloak. She also contrived to cut his purse free in a single motion. The door crashed open and soldiers and sailors poured in with buckets of water. The ambassador babbled like a man well into his cups and Celeste scrambled to her feet to make her way outside to cough and choke in the night air.

“Strongbox!” she coughed imperiously at Jacquotte as the latter ran past with a bucket. Celeste made her way across the deck, staggering as she went, trying to avoid the rush of men headed for the ambassador’s quarters. She lost sight of Jacquotte and was feeling her way along the rail when a man’s hand fell heavily on her shoulder. Reeling backward, she saw the sailor who had stopped her at the gangplank when she came aboard, just before he crushed her to him with a bruising embrace that reeked of fish oil, garlic and sweat.

Celeste coughed directly into his mouth and he sputtered and pulled away, but did not let her go. Clouds of smoke and men were beginning to pour from the ambassador’s cabin. If she was to free herself and flee, it must be now. She twisted and stomped on one of his booted feet with all the force she possessed. A sharp box of his ear loosened his grip and she tore free of his grasp.

Cursing, he grabbed for her again, just as an arm emerged from the smoke and a silver blade flashed across his throat. Jacquotte dropped him to the deck, then nudged his body behind a pile of rope. She seized Celeste’s arm and together, they scrambled down the gangplank with Jacquotte yelling something about orders and the ambassador’s commands as they shoved past the disoriented sailors.

Once they reached the dock, they ran, scrambling past some French guardsmen who had come to see what the commotion was all about. Jacquotte shouted they were following orders from some unnamed important someone, since using the ambassador’s name would not get them past French guards. And somehow, they were not stopped. They kept running until they reached a noisome alley between the taverns, just out of sight of the ship. Celeste slumped up against the side of a building and coughed for a few minutes.

Jacquotte put a flask in her hands and she drew a long draught of rum, which only made her cough more at first. But at last, she recovered enough to notice the sea bag at Jacquotte’s feet. “Is that them?” she gasped.

“I thought it would be easier to break the lock and take the contents than to take the box.” Jacquotte looked amused, even though it was clear from the bleeding cut on her cheek and her smoke-stained and burned clothes that it had been anything but “easy.”

“Did you think about keeping them?”

“Of course.”

Celeste took another swig of the rum and laughed. She couldn’t stop herself from giving a quick glance back towards San Cristobal. A familiar face stood at the rail, seemingly watching them, even though she knew they could not be seen. The ambassador had recovered quickly, both from the herbs she’d put in the tobacco and the smoke from the fire. Too quickly.

Jacquotte followed her gaze. “Do you think he knows?”

“Of a certainty. That was far too easy. He also recognized me right before I knocked the candle over.” They looked at each other for a long moment and started laughing, the sound echoing off the walls around them.

“What do we do now?” Jacquotte asked at last, wiping the tears from the edges of her eyes.

“Claim our reward, I expect. Then off to Maracaibo or whatever benighted place you wish to sail to next,” Celeste grinned and crossed the alley to Jacquotte’s side. “No, I don’t think the cardinal will object to receiving whatever is in your bag, regardless of whether or not it includes the documents he claimed that he wanted. I think he sent us here to test vulnerabilities, not to succeed.”

“In that case, the sooner we leave France, the less likely we are to be immediately useful to him,” Jacquotte leaned down and gave Celeste a gentle kiss. The spy returned it, burns, smoke and all and when they broke apart, they gave each other smiles of perfect understanding.

 “Shall we?” Celeste took her arm and they made their way down the alley, eagerly anticipating a different kind of adventure.

END

Major category: 
historical