22nd January, 1793.
The Marquis d'Orfevre was famous for his wines.
Contained in his musty cellar were some of the finest products of the vineyards of France and Italy, Portugal and Spain. There were, rumour had it, vintages that the most reputable connoisseurs of the era believed lost, vintages that said connoisseurs had never even heard of; wines that could plunge the drinker into the ecstasy of a Bacchanalian orgy, wines that could stir the soul to ascend to the heavens to sup amidst angels and gods, wines whose very aroma sapped will and self control, wines that liberated the mind from the torturous constraints of reason, the very bottles from which the murderers of Pentheus and Orpheus had imbibed.
This was all very well, and the cause of much speculation amongst the populace; what was curious was that, in a time when aristocratic estates were being plundered like ships beset by pirates, the clergy was being hustled from its monasteries with barely time to advise the saints to pack and the nobility was having enough trouble retaining possession of its many well coiffed heads, nobody had thought to assemble a crowd with a few burning brands and pitchforks and go and investigate this fantastic store of liquor. But the charming manor house in the south of France where the Marquis spent his summers was one of the few left unmolested, his peasantry unusually docile, his business affairs flourishing.
It was over a year since the Marquis himself had entered his storeroom, and he did so now with rather more exertion than appreciation; the iron bound door had rusted in some places and rotted in others and seemed undecided as to whether it ought to stick or shatter, attempting to do both with the marginal success of leaving splinters in fingers and dusty brown smudges on its frame, and falling closed behind the entrant with a muffled 'humph!' Olivier Prouvaire, the Marquis d'Orfevre, was a stocky man of around thirty, with a pale complexion, the pinched, haughty nostrils of the aristocracy and a receding hairline rendered visible by the powdered wig knocked askew on his broad forehead. His lacy cuffs had been sullied in the tussle with the door and one of his stockings had developed a wrinkle to make laundresses cringe, so that he resembled Hamlet enacting a lunatic; the fact that his estates were so far regarded as sacrosanct didn't seem to have lessened his anxiety in the least.
Within it was dank and dim: the walls lined with racks and shelves, laden with casks swollen like underworld pomegranates oozing immortality and bottles layered over with particles of dust that pressed longingly against the glass that separated them from the liquor, the clutter of old furniture discarded in a corner, the inventory abandoned by a careless steward on the small table by the door, defined it as a cellar, but it needed only the addition of a rack of a different kind and a few chains to make of it an oubliette.
Those tiny slits of nostrils wrinkled in distaste, almost sealing up completely and giving the impression that too much displeasure might cause their owner to asphyxiate, and the Marquis extracted from his breast pocket a taper and a wooden rod, too thick for a pen and too short for a cane and despite its general high polish bearing the greasy smudge of the constant grasp of palm and fingers at one end. "Incendio," he murmured, waving the latter; the taper kindled as if sparked by flint and steel, and the Marquis walked solemnly around the room, touching his miraculous implement to the stubs of candles set in brackets around the damp walls. Several of these merely hissed and sputtered and went out again, so the effect produced was little better than a spectral glow, pooling in corners and fading away entirely before reaching the room's centre.
"My dear Prouvaire, you do choose the most dramatic settings for a rendezvous."
At first glance, one might have been forgiven for thinking that one of the candles had spoken. Where there had been no one a moment before there was now a tiny, weedy personage with fair, crystalline hair whose ends caught the light and flitted through the entire spectrum and an impressive sneer that ran from his equally colourless eyes right down to the toes that were concealed by the hem of an immaculate black velvet robe.
"My apologies, Monseigneur," the Marquis turned without surprise from the candle he was attempting to light to bow courteously to his guest. "Unfortunately, this is not likely to be a drawing room conversation."
"I would hope not, considering the hysterical tone of your letter," the other drawled, stepping out of the shadows and fastidiously dusting off hands that had, after all, come within a foot of the grimy walls. "What is the crisis, then?"
"If you will wait a moment for the others, Monseigneur," the Marquis suggested patiently, though not without a nervous glance at the door, "I will explain."
"You could as easily begin now and enlighten the others as they arrive."
"Impatient as ever, Malfoy?" Another voice, this one dry, spoke and two more men stepped out of the shadows.
"Enjolras," Malfoy murmured, by way of greeting. "How fares my sister?"
"Madame is well and sends her respects," Enjolras replied with the glib air of an indifferent actor reciting a prepared speech. "This is our son, Donatien. He may hear what you have to say, Prouvaire?"
The resemblance between Messieurs Malfoy and Enjolras was so striking that they might have been brothers. Both were slight, diminutive figures, long bodied and with legs shorter than Odysseus', giving them a stoop to their shoulders usually associated with tall men, their cheekbones were chiselled, their complexions marble, their noses Grecian. Only the eyes offered any definite difference: where Malfoy's were a murky grey, Enjolras' were a vibrant blue, and if what grew on his son's head was any indication, Monsieur Enjolras' hoary curls had once been golden. By some stroke of good fortune the young man had escaped his father's unimpressive stature; he was the only one of the present company capable of looking the Marquis in the eye.
"Bonsoir, Olivier," he said cheerfully, looking with frank amusement at his host's disordered hair. "What the devil is that thing on your head?"
"Donatien! I haven't seen you since you were a child- oh. Muggle fashion," the Marquis said wryly, hastily snatching the wig from his scalp. "There's no accounting for it."
"If we are all assembled, Prouvaire?" Malfoy interrupted the pleasantries irritably.
"One more, Monseigneur- ah, there he is."
And as the Marquis spoke, another man materialised, this one white haired and venerable, with gold embroidery on his robe.
"Monsieur Saulnier," said Malfoy, with dislike thinly disguised beneath a veneer of respect. "Now, Prouvaire?"
"Certainly, Monseigneur, I will begin," replied Prouvaire, suddenly grave. "The king is dead."
"Which king?" Enjolras senior sounded puzzled.
"Louis XVI, the King of France!" the Marquis slapped his palm against the wall in exasperation, scorching his hand on the taper, still lit in his hand. "They executed him yesterday."
"Well, what difference does that make to us?" Malfoy's eyes rolled towards the ceiling. "Ordering clandestine meetings in damp cellars because some ridiculous Moldu monarch has been strung up by a usurper. You've grown too attached to these creatures you study, Prouvaire."
"Careful with your candle: it's still lit," Donatien murmured, and added compassionately: "Did you know him?"
"I've met the man," Prouvaire said, regarding the assembled company with growing dismay. "But that isn't the point; and it isn't a usurper, it's the revolution. Didn't I tell you it wouldn't end with the Bastille?"
"You mean the Muggle prison?" Donatien asked, brow furrowed. "What of it?"
"They tore it down, years ago."
"Why would they do that..?"
"What's the date?" the Marquis demanded in response to this question, in an apparent non sequitor.
"It's- the twenty-second of January, I believe."
"And the year?"
"Prouvaire, what are you playing at?"
"Seventeen Ninety-three, as well you know."
"Wrong on both counts," Prouvaire replied smugly. "It is the second of Pluviôse, year one. Gentlemen, a new world is clambering out of a womb of the gods, and you've managed not to hear its newborn cries. May any god help you when the thunderbolt hits."
"Then you predict danger to us, from this?" rumbled Saulnier, theretofore silent, his bushy eyebrows drawn down over his eyes like fur cowls. "You expect repercussions?"
"Monsieur," said Prouvaire seriously, "my drawing room is at present occupied by a cluster of terrified young Muggle noblemen, who thought they could ride out the revolution, and are beginning to think otherwise. Half of them killed their horses getting here, and they claim to have four comrades who were stopped and held by the authorities along the way. Most of their parents emigrated years ago; if the situation continues to deteriorate they will all be dead men or paupers. We are sheltered by our separation from Muggle concerns; our bourgeoisie have not yet caught the whiff of rebellion, but they're not far from it. Do you know what your peasants are doing, messieurs?"
"Not paying their rent on time, if my steward is to be believed," Malfoy shook his head. "Though I suspect he's robbing me. Other than that, very little."
"Wrong again, Monseigneur," Prouvaire retorted, with only the barest hint of courtesy. "My spies report that there have been more escapes from your estate than any other. They say the Muggle borns have discovered how to break memory charms. And the rebels, dispersed as they are amongst the Muggle population, are well aware of current events. How long before they subvert the lesser pureblood families to their cause? How long before our heads rot on pikes beside those of the Muggle aristocrats?"
"Will there be a war, then?" Donatien asked; the flush of excitement that rushed to his cheeks with these words made him look suddenly, and improvingly, unlike his stern father.
"There's no need to exaggerate, mon fils," Enjolras said quellingly. And more thoughtfully: "My aurors have been bringing in unusually large numbers of unregistered magic users. The trouble with broken memory charms is that they leave gaps, and make the subject's testimony legally invalid. I daresay none of my people have bothered to interrogate the men they apprehended. What are you suggesting, Prouvaire?"
"Only that inactivity hasn't served the Muggles well. I doubt emulating them will help us."
"And what are you going to do?" from the laconic Saulnier, still frowning.
"Moi, monsieur?" the Marquis shrugged. "Until the Council tells me otherwise, I will continue in my position as Ambassador. In that guise, I will thus be concealed in the hold of a very disreputable merchant vessel on its way to England tomorrow morning, with my fellow panicked noblemen, before my arrest is ordered and I am forced to do something it would take an enormous amount of work to cover up in defending myself. From Angleterre I will await further instructions."
"I see; you'll continue to play games," Malfoy snapped, "leaving us to clean up the mess you were supposed to be monitoring-"
"Have been monitoring, if any attention had been paid to my reports."
"Were supposed to be monitoring, Monsieur Prouvaire, and if we are only being informed of this now, have failed to do. If there are runaway serfs, they will have to be retrieved, memory charms will have to be reset, aurors will have to be sent after the radical groups, countless tampered with devices will have to be collected. Who knows what botched spells those incompetents will have cast that will have to be undone. And-"
"And when the situation is resolved, one way or another, contact with the Muggle world will have to be re-established." Prouvaire's fingers unconsciously tightened on his wand. "My family has held this position for nearly a hundred years; my contacts have been damaged enough these past few years, if I lose them entirely, who will take my place? You, Monseigneur Malfoy? Play the Muggle? Or will you send some pretentious Courfeyrac or Chastel or Farjeon with barely enough pure blood to pass through the census? A Bahorel, as likely as not to betray us to his Giant cousins?"
"If you continue in this vein, monsieur," Malfoy said icily, "I will be obliged to challenge you to a duel."
"Messieurs!" It was Enjolras' turn to look exasperated, though his son, who had been watching the exchange avidly, looked disappointed at the interruption. "This is hardly improving the situation."
"Prouvaire is right," said Saulnier reflectively. "But you should use a portkey to transport those Moldus boys out, to save mishap; I authorise you, only remember to correct their memories afterwards, and for God's sake don't splinch anyone. You'll be called back to report at the next Council meeting, on the seventh of February."
"Or whatever month it happens to be in the new world," quipped Donatien, earning himself glares from his father and Malfoy.
"I'll have a word with my aurors," said Enjolras grimly. "We lost too many in the Great Gigantomachy, though I thought the new lot were better trained. Viable testimony or not, they should have questioned those escaped serfs. We'll fetch them out of incarceration, and see what they have to say about the Muggle born rebels."
"Will they talk, do you think?" asked Saulnier.
"Would you protect men who abducted you from your home, stripped you of your illusions and then abandoned you to the authorities? They'll talk."
"And if they don't," said Malfoy, equally severe, "there are methods to loosen their tongues."
"You know my opinion on your truth serums, Malfoy," said Enjolras, calmly. "Until you kill fewer than half of your test subjects, I prefer not to use them on people I would like to keep in a condition conducive to answering questions."
"Let's not have another quarrel," said Saulnier reasonably. "Enjolras will deal with the aurors and Prouvaire will continue to monitor events from the Muggle world. I suggest, Malfoy, that you-- and all of us-- attend to our estates and limit the number of escapees that the aurors have to deal with. I will make enquiries of my own. This situation can be salvaged, from our perspective. We are not, I hope, as short sighted as Muggles."
"Merci, Monsieur," Prouvaire said with a bow. Malfoy and Enjolras nodded curtly; Donatien observed, wide-eyed.
"Now, I am sure we all have things to do. Where were you planning to take those Muggle boys, Prouvaire?"
"Our eventual destination was London. It will be simpler if we go straight there."
"Very good. Owl me when you arrive. You will be at the Prefecture, Enjolras?"
"No doubt all night," Enjolras said ruefully.
"Then I will contact you there."
"Let us depart, then."
There were three soft pops as the others Disapparated, and only the Marquis and the younger Enjolras were left in the wine cellar. Donatien hesitated.
"Is it so bad as all that, Olivier?"
"It might be," said Prouvaire. "If the Muggle borns have been absconding in small numbers since 1692, and have been surviving, consider how many there may be by now. And if they're getting bold enough to carry off serfs in noticeably large numbers--"
"Then it will be war."
"After a fashion," the Marquis smiled. "Go along, Donatien, I have to explain about portkeys to fifteen confused Muggles and have their memories wiped of it all by tomorrow. And your father will wonder what's become of you."
"I was afraid you'd say that," Donation grinned. "Mon père will have me owling summons and howlers to aurors well into tomorrow, if I go back. Anyway, au revoir, until the next crisis."
A final pop, and the Marquis was alone. "Nox," he said, extinguishing the candles he had taken such pains to light with a single wave of his wand, and went to gather up his Muggle charges.