It should have never come to this.
She had never thought things could advance to this point. Never expected to be standing where she was standing, looking upon that which she was looking upon.
They should be on their way to England now. Safely ensconced aboard Percy's yacht. Three friends and a slightly bitter Frenchman. She should have greeted the dawn kissing her daughter's downy head, with her husband at her side--and her precious brother at their ancestral home. All safe, warm, happy . . .
. . . And very much alive.
"What do you say?"
Five more minutes. If only she could somehow--stall things. Five more minutes. Percy would be there. He would fix things. He would. Good Lord, just LISTEN to her. She was grasping for straws.
Percy's not immortal, Lucy! Even he can't get you out of this mess now . . .
They had a plan. They had HAD a plan. What had gone wrong?
De Guinterre. They hadn't expected it of him.
But he had expected them. He had known what they had expected.
And he had changed everything.
Percy doesn't even know you're HERE, twit . . .
The mocking voice in her head began again. How she HATED that voice. All of her doubts. All of her fears. The voice fed upon them. It flourished in her misery.
Just as de Guinterre reveled now.
"You know you must make a choice, Lucy."
He rose from the chair he had been lounging in, walking behind her. His hands touched her shoulders, sliding up her neck to her chin. A strong, rough hand grasped her face, forcing her to look at the two men before her.
"One will live, one will die," de Guinterre taunted, his breath hot near her ear. "Who will it be, Lucy?"
She closed her eyes, unable to bear looking at her brother. His beautiful, deep eyes. Their father's eyes. The eyes which never wavered--which shone brilliant without fear, without doubt. He who had protected her through each childhood battle, loved her without condition when she had married the man who had tried with such desperation to destroy everything he believed true, and never stopped loving her . . .
How could she think of sending her own brother to the blade? To do so would be to cut off one of her own arms . . .
No. Not Andrew.
"You have such power, little cousin." Philippe left her side, returning to his chair. "Men would give anything to have this hold over another's life."
He smiled, lifting one of her soiled gloves from the desk. She had almost forgotten the soldiers relieving her of her possessions earlier. Her gloves. Her cape. They both still lay there--innocent enough possessions alongside Andrew's firearm, Armand's sword.
Steel and lace. Velvet and sulfur. Strange how the things she had never before thought of now turned her stomach . . .
"Two men's lives. Quite a burden to be held in such hands . . ."
He smiled--a sardonic, cruel twisting of the lips that expressed unholy pleasure . . .
"Perhaps you will choose to see your husband to his death?" A long pause. "It would be the height of irony. Citizen Chauvelin, brought down by the same guillotine that destroyed so many of his own enemies . . ."
Her husband didn't even flinch. But then, he wouldn't--would he? Armand was too strong to allow the mocking words of a bitter man destroy him. They may leave wounds--deep, lasting cuts in the body of a proud man--but he would never let them see. If only she could have an ounce of that defiant spirit, that proud nature . . .
Could she send that brave, patriotic man to that inhumane, humiliating demise? Would their child have to learn of her father through words and tales of the past? It was how Lucy had grown up. A young girl, learning of the kindness, the beauty, the gentleness of her mother only through bedtime tales told by a grieving father. The generous accolades showered upon her mother's memory had not been enough for her--why should she expect the same would ever satisfy darling Sophie?
No nightmare could be so horrible. No reality so cruel.
"Your brother or your husband, Lucy. Decide now--or shall you forfeit your own so that they may live?"
"Whatever your choice, I love you, Lucille. Remember that."
She raised her eyes at Andrew's quiet voice, staring back into those familiar eyes. Tears slipped down her own cheeks, and she raised her hand to touch them. When had she begun crying? She couldn't recall.
Her gaze moved onto her husband, still so proud and aloof. He lifted his right hand, placing it over his heart.
I love you, as well, Armand . . . and it is because I love you that I must do this . . .
"You will not go back on your word?" she demanded,"Two will leave this place--unharmed?"
Philippe nodded. "You have my word."
"Then it is my life which shall be forfeit. Let them go."
There was complete silence in the room for some time. Then, slowly, a cruel grin spread itself across Philippe’s face, filling his every feature with the triumph born of hate.
“As you wish, cousin,” he said quietly. His eyes never leaving the tortured woman’s features, he gestured to the guards at the door. “Let them go.”
“Lucy . . .” Her brother’s voice, laced with pain and grief, cut through the air like a whip. “Please . . .”
Her husband, too proud to plead, was nevertheless not about to leave the room without a fight. “I will not--”
Vicious as a beast, Philippe suddenly rounded on the two. “It is not for you to choose, either of you. The decision has been made--it will not be changed.”
And they fell silent. But neither one did so out of fear, or submission.
Andrew was a prudent man, a brave soul with instincts rendered twice as keen by the adventures he had engaged in these past few years. He realized at once that his plea would gain him nothing, but would almost certainly cause things to get worse for Lucy, and the two captives as well . . . so he held his tongue, in the ever-present hope that something, anything would happen to save her from this fate. Hope, once kindled, is never easily extinguished.
Armand, however, possessed no less courage or prudence than his brother-in-law, but did lack the keen instinct; so he might have continued in his protests, had Lucy’s gaze not caught his as their captor’s attention was distracted. In her eyes he saw a frantic appeal; she couldn’t let him die, any more than she could let her own brother perish for her sake, couldn’t he see? Please, go and be a good father to our dear Sophie . . .
Sophie. She had the very same eyes as her mother . . . swallowing his panic before it engulfed him, he shut his eyes and nodded once. And he made no more sound.
The two men, such marked enemies, were ushered out of the house into the dark, cold alley, and the door shut behind them with a sharp bang. But they didn’t go anywhere, as they perhaps should have. They simply stood in the dark, not believing that this was reality, hoping to wake from this awful nightmare that had become too real . . .
And a pistol shot sounded from the room above.
Andrew sank to his knees weakly, unable to remain on his feet any longer; Armand staggered against the wall behind him, as if the bullet had struck his heart. The night was silent as death, as it came to them both at the same time; this was no dream, they would not wake . . . then, softly, bitterly, the sound of the brother’s quiet sobs broke the stillness.
It was a tragedy like none before seen in this quarter of Paris, not even in the tumultuous days of the Terror--a brother sobbing on his knees, a husband pierced to the heart at the wall--and only the cold stars bore witness to their grief. Gradually, it came into Armand’s stifled mind that if they were found here, the oath would most likely be unacknowledged; and so, burying the hatred of the citizen beneath the sympathy of the widower, he approached Andrew’s crumpled form and gently helped his enemy’s friend--no, not tonight; tonight, he was his dear wife’s brother--to his feet.
The morning would bring difficult futures to face; until then, they could only console one another, for they had no one else.
“Sir Andrew, where are your lodgings? We must get in off the street.”
Armand Chauvelin spoke in the softest possible whisper as they stumbled along--he had to keep hold of Andrew’s shoulders as they walked, for the man was too grief-stricken to walk on his own--trying to find someplace safe. He felt obligated, at least for the moment, to see that her brother was not harmed . . .
Andrew jerked free from Chauvelin’s grasp violently, with a glare that could easily kill a man. “Inhuman wretch! What kind of a man has his own wife killed for the satisfaction of getting at his enemy? What kind of man sacrifices her to his own obsession and then uses her distracted brother as a homing pigeon to find his target . . .”
Words left him, and again he collapsed to the ground, weak.
Chauvelin clenched his fists, his blood boiling at the accusations. How dare he even think that he would have Lucy, his dear Lucy, have her killed just for another chance to capture that Englishman . . .
But wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you give anything just for that? Isn’t that what you desire more than life itself--yours OR hers?
In horror, he opened his eyes wide, recognizing the voice of truth in those mocking inner doubts. He had never thought about making such a choice, a choice between Lucy and his vengeance . . . thank God it had never come to that . . .
Yet that was the decision she had been forced so cruelly to face. Her husband or her brother. Two men she loved so dearly. The bond of matrimony or the bond of blood--and she had chosen to preserve both, by sacrificing herself . . .
So shall I, he silently vowed. For your sake, Lucy, and the sake of the one you died for . . . I will sacrifice every ounce of my pride to save him . . .
“We’ll go to my rooms, then,” he said quietly, all anger vanished beneath the surface of forced calm. Once again, he helped Andrew to his feet. “We are not safe where we stand.”
* * * * * * *
Sir Andrew had never been in Chauvelin’s private apartments. Even business with the League--which had taken him to every corner of Paris and most of the French countryside--had never penetrated these walls, and entering the rooms of the “Terrorist” (as he had been aptly named) was considered a task too dangerous for any but the chief himself to accomplish.
Yet on this supremely tragic night, Andrew found himself ushered in with gentle sympathy--gentle! From Chauvelin! It was unheard of--and mutely shown a chair, while the owner of the rooms obligingly lit a candle and prepared to heat a pot of water.
If he had ever cared to speculate what his sister’s husband’s apartments might look like, he would have imagined something quite like what he saw. The furniture was plain, definitely no rival to the ornate, comfortably stuffed chairs and sofas in his stately English home; but sturdy even so, and practical. There was a strange form of beauty in its simplicity; the wood was well-polished, and shone with a warm, inviting glow, and while there was no gold edging or fine silk in the upholstery, the deep green fabric looked quite elegant against the polished oak. Through the doorway opposite him, he spotted a cherrywood four-poster without canopy, its spindles shining in the moonlight from the open window, and a china pitcher and basin on the matching stand; it was from this pitcher that the water was taken for the stove. And everything, from floor to ceiling, was swept and scrubbed clean. Even the dark rug, while not exactly thick and plush, was clean and well cared for.
“I can’t offer you what might do you better, a strong brandy,” Chauvelin was saying, his voice mechanical and monotonic; “it’s difficult to find even a good bottle of wine these days. But I have a bit of tea, and I should think we both need something.”
The tea was not very strong, and there was no sugar or cream, but on the whole it had a calming effect on both men. They sat in silence, their only light the single candle, their only sensation the warm cups in their hands. Neither was talkative by nature, and they had little to say to one another; nothing could help.
“I am sorry,” Andrew said presently, “for what I said before. It was unfair of me. I know you loved her--she would never have married a man who didn’t return her love . . .”
Chauvelin only nodded.
When he had taken the last sip from his cup, Andrew turned his gaze placidly to Chauvelin. “Why did you bring me here?”
“To have a cup of tea. To sit in a quiet place. To regain some little bit of your strength,” he replied quietly.
“There is another reason.”
“What reason is that?”
“I don’t know,” Andrew whispered, “but there has to be. There is always a motive behind actions.”
“Behind my actions, you mean,” Chauvelin muttered, shaking his head. “Well, you may be right. Perhaps I do have a selfish reason for bringing you back to my rooms with me.”
Andrew nodded absently, but kept silent. Chauvelin paused, then continued in a quieter whisper.
“Perhaps I was afraid that if I was alone, I would throw myself into the river, or go searching for a soldier with a loaded musket to end my misery.” He turned to Andrew with a sadly ironical smile. “Sir Andrew, you are lucky. You have friends, a leader, a cause to blindly throw yourself into. I had Lucy, and nothing more; now, she is gone . . .” He trailed off, burying his head in his hands. “Gone . . .”
Despite himself, Andrew’s sympathetic nature was reaching out to his enemy. “There’s Sophie . . .”
“Sophie . . .” Chauvelin’s heart broke at the thought of his little girl, who looked so much like her mother. “I am a coward to leave her, but I cannot be a father to her now. Her uncle would be a better father to her than I ever could. She deserves to be happy, with a laughing father, a loving mother . . . I will never laugh again, and without Lucy, I will die soon; I fear that even my love for Sophie will die with me . . .”
“And what of your pursuit of the Pimpernel . . .”
“There is nothing left of that. I have no power, no rights, nothing; what would I pursue him with? No, Blakeney need have no more fear of me, if he had any in the first place, which I find myself seriously doubting.” He sighed heavily. “She was all that kept me going . . . ”
“She was good at that,” Andrew reflected softly. “Any time I needed a joke, or even just a word of encouragement--she gave it, and willingly . . .” He sighed, an echo of Chauvelin’s. “Without her . . .” The question went unspoken--what am I going to do--but was understood anyway.
“I don’t know,” Chauvelin replied quietly. “I don’t know.”
The wind began to blow outside the window, through a single broken pane; there were no trees outside to show its direction, but the curtains began to sway slightly . . . towards the north . . . towards England . . .
It was a reminder to them that time was short.
“You no longer have any reason to take me with you, Sir Andrew,” Chauvelin said in the same mechanical, monotone voice as before. “The door is not locked. Return to your chief and leave France as fast as you can, for your own safety.” He raised his head slowly to look into Andrew’s eyes. “I wish you luck . . . I implore you, care for Sophie as you would your own child, for her sake . . . tell her that her mother was brave and noble. You may say of her father what you wish.”
Slowly, Andrew stood and walked to the door. It seemed as if there was nothing else to do. At the door, he turned and looked at the grieving man in the chair, the citizen, who had lost his country and his love in the space of only a few days. He was staring at the door blankly, as if he could see right through it. He seemed half-dead already.
“Quickly,” he whispered, as he noticed Andrew was hesitating. “Collect your wits and have care.” With a reluctant nod, Andrew opened the door and walked out into the lonely night.
He had been gone for about ten minutes when Chauvelin rose and poured a second cup of tea. Then he walked to the window and gazed out at the street, wondering how long it would be before the Guard came for him.
Maybe they would shoot him if he ran away.
* * * * * * *
Somehow, though he would be hard-pressed to remember precisely how, Andrew reached the small flat they had recently taken as a meeting place.
The rooms were deserted, still, save for the quiet undertone of voices.
He closed the door silently behind him, leaning for a moment--his eyes
closed, his breathing ragged.
"By my word, I feel fine," a woman's low murmur.
He shook his head. Now, he was hearing her voice. His mind was playing cruel tricks upon him...
"The truth now . . ."
"I ache--but not so much as you shall if you do not cease with these tiresome questions, Percival!"
It was his friend's laugh--a long, rich, joyous sound--that made Andrew stand at attention. Hearing her voice was one thing--a cruel jest his treacherous mind played upon him. Hearing--and truly recognizing--Percy's was something different entirely.
"It can't be . . ."
He hadn’t even realized that he was speaking out loud until he saw the bedroom door open slowly. To his amazement, out she flew and into his arms, even though all reason told him it was impossible. Her embrace was warm and rapturous, the desperate grasp of one who has experienced a plethora of emotions in the space of a few hours, and who now wants nothing more than to rest and be happy.
“Andrew! You’re here!”
He held her close to him, fearing that at any moment she would vanish into thin air forever . . . “I must be dead, or dreaming,” he murmured.
She laughed merrily, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Neither one, dear brother . . . we are both alive and well, and for the moment, safe.”
He shut his eyes tightly, willing himself to never awaken. “I don’t understand.”
“Then do not try,” Percy said quietly, with a slightly amused smile. “There will be ample time for explanations later on.”
* * * * * * *
While the two guards marched Andrew and Armand out of the second-story room and down the stairs, Philippe turned to the small side table. Slowly, contemplating its every curve, he picked up the small pistol that had belonged to her brother. It was a well-made weapon, almost beautiful in its perfection . . . yes, it would do nicely. The irony of it appealed to him . . .
“Your brother has perfect taste in firearms,” he whispered lowly. “Have you ever had the opportunity to hold this, to feel its cold steel against your palm, Lucy? It is a pleasure unlike any other in the world, I assure you.”
Lucy stared at him steadily. Her heart beat fast in her chest, but she was not very afraid. “You are a fool if you think I have never fired a gun.” *Armand, I do not leave you . . . do not grieve for me . . .*
“Yes, I suppose that would be foolish,” he sighed, cocking the pistol solemnly. “A fire-spirited woman like you has most likely had plenty of experience in shooting, unladylike though it may be. But I wonder if you have ever used such an exquisite weapon as this. I am eagerly looking forward to the experience, you know.”
He heard the soldiers come in the room behind him, but did not turn around. His eyes sparkled greedily as he pointed the pistol at her chest, not two feet from where she sat bound to her chair.
Lucy clenched her teeth in anger as well as in preparation for the blast . . .*Andrew, you have much left in this world . . . I shall see you again soon enough . . .*
“You think you have saved them. You could not be more wrong. By morning I shall have your husband in custody, and before the week is out your brother AND his leader shall be caught in the same net that I have caught you in tonight . . . and by the same pistol that was supposed to protect you, you now die, knowing that you will not be alone in death for long.”
*Sophie, your mother loves you . . .*
He pulled the trigger. The explosion hit Lucy in the chest violently, the pain hitting her brain a second later . . . a dull pain, aching and throbbing . . .
Her breath coming in ragged gasps, she glanced down in weird curiosity, wondering what her own life-blood would look like, spilling out upon her gown . . .
Where blood should have been she saw nothing but powder-burns, and the cloth of her gown was intact. Surprised, she took a deep breath--and realized that she felt no weakening in her chest, as she should, if she were truly dying . . .
De Guinterre swallowed hard, his eyes widening at the sight of the woman who had not died from a point-blank pistol shot. He couldn’t understand it--he couldn’t possibly have missed . . . “What the he--”
And then he felt the point of a sword in his back, firm and peremptory. “Such language in the presence of a lady is unfitting, citizen,” a mocking voice whispered behind him.
* * * * * * *
Andrew leaned forward in his seat, his brain frantic in its attempts to piece the outrageous scene together. “So, you and Wallescourt switched places with the guards, then?”
“Right after they so unceremoniously let you and Chauvelin out, yes,” Percy answered calmly. “I’m afraid we couldn’t have tried it any sooner than that, or we would have, and spared you both the anxiety.”
“But Lucy, how did you survive the shot? It’s impossible at such range . . .”
“There was no shot, Andrew,” she grinned. “That was your pistol, remember? Percy loaded it with powder. There was no ball in the barrel.”
“So all that occurred when he fired the gun was a powder explosion and some residual burn . . .” Slowly, he was able to see it in his mind. “The sword . . .”
“. . . Was Chauvelin’s,” Percy finished with a grin. “It was fortunate that he had that sword in the first place, and that de Guinterre was more entranced by the pistol than the sword as his chosen instrument of execution.”
“But if he had chosen the sword instead?”
“Then we would have had to change the plan. There was so little time to form it in the first place; everything relied on chance. And chance favored us this evening.”
“I know de Guinterre,” Lucy said, grasping Andrew’s hand. “He would rather choose the finality of a gunshot over a stab wound for his enemies. Using a sword is far too messy and unsure a way to kill for him.”
". . . And de Guinterre?"
Lucy laughed now, pouring more of the coffee into Andrew's cup. "Trussed up like a Christmas goose! I do almost wish I could see the look on his face when his soldiers find him in the morning."
"By morning, we will be boarding the Daydream. I apologize most heartily for relieving you of that pleasure, Luce."
She sobered suddenly. "When can we go to Armand, Percy?"
"I'll have Wallescourt deliver a message . . ."
"He won't read it," Andrew said quietly. "He doesn't want any chance for salvation."
"Let me go."
Percy shook his head. "Absolutely not. The streets are no place for a young woman."
"I'll put on trousers. And leave my hair up. Jeremiah can even escort me."
"Jeremiah can escort you where?"
Everyone looked towards the tall Englishman who had just entered, and Andrew spoke.
"Lucy needs an escort to Chauvelin's apartments."
"Percy?" Wallescourt turned to their leader.
He paused, lost in thought, before speaking. "Fine. Jeremiah will escort you to the Citizen. I don't want you in those apartments for long, Lucy. We don't know if the Guard will be watching Chauvelin. The three of you will go then to the rooms on Mouffetard. Andrew and I will be there, waiting. You'll have to change out of that gown."
She rose from the chair. "The trunks are still in the bedchamber?"
"Dress warmly," Andrew said softly, as his sister left the room.
* * * * * * *
When the sun showed its first edge over the distant horizon, Chauvelin was still standing at his window, gazing out at the sleeping city below.
The tea had gone cold long ago, but he still clutched the cup tightly. In this way he hung on to the barest shreds of reality, remained a part of the world around him; without it, he would fly off into the empty space of insanity, so deep that nothing--save one voice--could ever bring him back again.
That one voice had been silenced some hours ago, by the cruel, harsh sound of a pistol. Her own brother’s pistol, too; which made the silence doubly cruel.
The pain throbbed in his heart constantly--not a steady pain, which he could have bore, but a pain which came and subsided only to come again sharper than before. He was like a man haunted; sometimes one, sometimes the other, and--worst of all--other times both of those he loved seemed to be attacking him, stabbing at his heart, tearing him apart from the inside out.
Lucy. Sophie. Lucy. Sophie. Memories of his beloved wife and his darling child came and went, torturing him with their vividness, their startling semblance of reality. He could almost see Lucy standing before him, holding the daughter he would never again see; he could practically hear her impassioned rebukes, her tender pleas . . . the child’s mournful cry for her father . . .
No wonder he held the cup so tightly.
The long-awaited peremptory knock on the door offered him another foothold on reality; gratefully, he turned to face the expected call:
“In the name of the Republic!”
Silently he crossed the small room to welcome in his fate. He did not speak as he opened the door; at times like this, words are seldom necessary.
Instead of soldiers, he saw only two men shrouded in the shadows, the taller of the two making his shorter companion seem almost dwarflike. They were dressed as officials of the Republic of France--the tricolor sashes they wore painfully visible, mocking the former accredited agent.
They think I am too weak to fight arrest, he thought bitterly. This time, they are right . . .
Without waiting for his invitation they marched into the apartments, as silent as he was, and the tall one shut the door.
And at that moment he was sure that he had lost the whole of his mind to grief; for the shorter of the two officials had turned to him with a tender, loving smile, and had spoken in her dear, silenced voice.
“My darling Armand . . . I’m here.”
What bliss is insanity! As Chauvelin looked closer and closer at his captors’ faces with widened eyes, they began to look more and more familiar to him . . . the tall one, that was the one they had called Wallescourt . . . but he was not concerned with the taller at this moment. It was the short one that captured his full attention . . . for that face was Lucy’s, he knew, not shot through with anguish and sorrow as it was the last time he saw it, but filled with joy and hope . . . and love.
As if in a dream, he opened his arms to her slowly, the wonder on his face growing brighter as he realized he was not insane at all . . . had he not seen stranger things than this when the Englishman was involved? But none of those incidents had ever held such extreme joy . . .
“Lucy . . .”
And with a sob of pure happiness, she gladly fell into his arms, and he shed the tears of a redeemed soul--tears he could not hold back, and wouldn’t even if he could--for he no longer stood upon the dangerous brink of insanity and death.
The one he thought dead was alive, and she had pulled him back away from the danger and into her warm embrace.
He wasn’t ever going to let go of her.
“How can it be . . .” he murmured, pressing frantic kisses to her hair. “We heard a gunshot . . .”
“Percy . . . he was there . . . a plan . . .”
“Yes.” He chuckled at his own ignorance. “Of course. He always has some plan, doesn’t he? I ought to have known.” He tightened his hold on her fiercely, almost hurting her--but she didn’t cry out, for she was holding him as tightly. “Don’t scare me like that anymore. Do you know how much of myself I nearly lost, because I believed I would never hold you again?”
“No,” she murmured into his shoulder. “Please don’t tell me . . . I don’t ever want to know.”
Sir Jeremiah Wallescourt, who had taken a great interest in the bedroom when they had come in, now emerged, clearing his throat softly. “Lucy . . .”
She lifted her face regretfully. “Yes. I know.” Smiling through her tears, she smoothed his hair back gently. “Come, Armand. Let’s go home.”