Rogue's skin felt cold. Beneath the long sleeves that were shining white, the color of purity, her cursed flesh was uncommonly cool and irritated under all who were watching. She felt the unseeing eyes of Irene, the commanding glare of the Lady, the cool stare of Sir Erik, and the half-interested gazes of both her clan sisters and the men she was to soon call her brothers.
On her left Piotr stood, tall and striking, eyes forward. With some difficulty, she lifted her own to the person in front of them, a fat, balding middle-aged man with a Bible tucked under his arm as he spoke.
The same priest rarely performed both the Rite of Acceptance and the actual wedding. Should Rogue ever come to see the day of her matrimonial bonding, the odds that she would see this man again after today were low. Not that she minded; he kept drawing out a thick handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his round face as he droned on, and his low, heavy voice made her feel all the more claustrophobic.
"—And thus under the guidance and consent of these two leaders, Sir Erik Lensherr and Lady Raven Darkholme, this man before me, known formally as Colossus, has on this day appealed to this young lady, Rogue, for her hand—"
Trying to keep her frown from showing, Rogue reflected on some of the little history she knew—while the Church had insisted on using a slave's real name in something as holy as marriage, the government had forbidden it. It had said that giving them real names, treating them as real people, would have led to the supposition that the two classes were on equal terms. She swallowed a sigh; it was a darker bit of history, to be sure, and the man who had protested the loudest and longest against the Church's wish—his surname was Kelly, or so she thought—was said to be one of the leading influences in the decisions regarding the Second Class.
"You have, on this day, according to tradition and the ways stated for your class, asked Rogue for her hand, correct?"
"Correct." Piotr's voice was deep but blank, betraying no hint of the answer he had received. Not that it mattered. Everyone in the room had predicted the only possible outcome.
A twinge of annoyance flared in Rogue's chest, partly at herself and partly, she was surprised to discover, at the Lady. Doubtlessly, Lady Darkholme had thrown this arrangement together as hastily as was within her power, and for what she perceived was good reason.
Rogue watched the priest withdraw the handkerchief yet again, her mind flying back to the night before.
Nicolas, she thought, almost chanting the name. Nicolas. Nicolas. Why? Surely he must have known the effect that his words would have…
"For you see, that grey horse bears an exact resemblance t'one o' our own," he had said—"the master's son, or half-son, I should say."
Of course he knew; he can't possibly be that dense. He must've meant to alert the Lady, but why? What reason is there in betraying his master's son?
Following the old man's words, Lady Darkholme had pressed her incessantly for answers. Mind tired and blank, Rogue told what she had deemed a pack of half-lies—she described how two strangers had appeared in her bedroom and abducted her one night, how she had awoken in a strange place. She told of Bella Donna.
There, Rogue had paused for only a second, and then told of how a man she had never seen before, Gambit, had found her. He had not told much about himself, but she had assumed he was also a prisoner, for he spoke of the Assassins as his enemies. Guards showed up not long after, and in the foray she lost track of her rescuer, but not before he told her to take his horse and flee.
Whether or not the Lady believed her tale, she could not say for sure. When questioned about Scarlet's involvement, Rogue could only respond with silence. Scarlet was questioned next without delay, and having no reason to lie to her master, she related to Lady Darkholme how Gambit had shown up the morning after Rogue's disappearance, much of the conversation they had held, and his promise to help infiltrate the Assassin's property to get Rogue back.
Scarlet did not, however, mention anything about having met Gambit before that day.
Rogue was grateful for her clan sister's help, however small it may have been, but after that, she was on her own. Lady Darkholme did not voice her suspicions—at least not then—and Rogue had been sent to her chamber to remain there until told. As she was leaving, she had heard the Lady give orders for security to be doubled.
"And you, Rogue, have on this day, according to tradition and the ways stated for your class, been asked for your hand in marriage by Colossus, the man beside you now, and no other, correct?"
The stiffness in the room faded: this was the only important part, as far as all the onlookers were concerned.
"By the power of God granted in me," the priest said, obviously relieved at nearly finishing, "I now ask you to relay your answer before these gathered witnesses as you have decided, to either bond you in holy matrimony for life, or to turn away from this path so that, God willing, another may be found."
Her hands were light and trembling.
"Rogue—do you accept this man's proposal and agree, upon your word, to give him your hand as soon as the Lord may grant?"
Four hours ago
"So you see," said Rogue finally, eyes averted, "ah cannot accept. To do so would be unfair to you—you, who deserve a wife who would love you unconditionally, an' although ah confess that ah was attracted to you at one point, an' for good reason, you deserve more than ah could give." Reluctant, but feeling that the man had earned it, she looked into Piotr's face. "Please forgive me, an' try to understand."
He was silent for a good minute, giving her time to feel relief at having confessed the truth and guilt for her rejection. Then he squeezed her gloved hand affectionately and looked at her with a small but genuine smile.
"Of course I understand. Having been turned down once has certainly softened the blow." Here he sighed in good humor, and then a little more gravely added, "I will not pretend that I am not disappointed; but even so, I would not want to fulfill my own happiness by taking a wife who, if for only an instant, would regret her choice."
Following his words, Rogue felt an enormous rush of gratitude. Had he pressed hard enough, Piotr could well have forced her into the marriage, as long as the Lady and Sir Erik had had no objections.
Stepping out of her usual lines of comfort, she threw her arms around him in a brief embrace. "Thank you. Ah pray that you'll find someone as kind-hearted an' worthy of you as ah hope ah may one day be." He returned the gesture warmly, and Rogue drew back onto the bench they shared and brushed aside a strand of her hair, set loose by the breeze sliding through the courtyard.
"And I send my blessings to the man who has earned your affection, although I see that he has no need of them," he replied. "If…I may," he began hesitantly, "I know it is none of my concern…"
"No, please," she urged. "Go on."
"I am just curious as to why this man has deserved you while I have not." Seeing that she was about to object, Piotr raised a hand. "My words hold no bitterness. I wish only to improve upon myself so that I might be a better suitor in the years to come."
Rogue could not help smiling at the wit in his tone, but it faded from her lips as she attempted to come up with an answer. "Ah…ah don't know," she admitted finally. "Ah tried to tell mahself that ah hated him once, but perhaps ah was just tryin' to deny what ah already knew was true." The thought gave her a strange feeling that she could not place. "Ah don't even know if he's still alive."
Her voice was even, despite that the possibility made her stomach twist. Admitting it made the truth harder to bear, but a part of her was comforted by sharing her concern with someone who would listen. "It's…hard to say, precisely."
"Things like these often are." She looked at Piotr and received a knowing smile as he stood. "But come—we have a ceremony to attend soon, and I am afraid that the guests might not be as easy to convince as I." He offered his arm, which she took, and escorted her back inside.
It came out as a breath rather than a word. Rogue's heart had stopped. The priest leaned forward. "Come again, my lady?"
Her breathing quickened and she felt her eyes narrow as she forced her head up. Swallowing once, she breathed in and said again, now louder and more fervently, "No."
As predicted, a wave of murmuring broke out in one corner of the room and spread rapidly. She spoke over them, directly to the priest: "Ah decline his offer of engagement—"
"Rogue!" The Lady's appalled voice, rising above everyone else's.
"—an' any offer as such that he may make in the future."
"Very well." The priest nodded and made as if to speak further, but then stopped. An instant later, strong fingers seized Rogue's arm and wrenched her around to bring her face to face with Lady Darkholme. The woman was still composed, albeit somewhat whiter than usual, and her lips had formed a thin line.
"Rogue," she hissed, low and bristling with a barely contained anger, "I do not know how you have the impudence to act as you just have, but I refuse to walk out of this hall without your word to marry this man." Flashing, her eyes turned briefly upon Piotr before coming back to Rogue. "Do you understand me?"
Over her shoulder, the onlookers were watching, waiting. There was Scarlet, her expression unreadable; at her side, Pyro, with an amused look that said he was glad to have accompanied his clan brothers to the ceremony. At the sight of him, Rogue felt a little strength seep into her and she faced the Lady.
"That ah cannot do."
Lady Darkholme's eyes seemed ready to burst out of their sockets. She rounded on the priest as if her subordinate's defiance were his fault, but then only ordered, "Do not close this ceremony, do you hear me?" and pulled Rogue, none too gently, after her from the room.
Whispers and open stares followed them into the corridor, where the Lady all but slammed the heavy door behind them. Released, Rogue retreated against the wall and resisted the urge to rub her forearm.
"Rogue," said the Lady almost immediately, almost trembling with rage as she approached, "I have done nothing—nothing, do you understand me?—to warrant this behavior from you. I have only cared for you as well as I could—"
"With all due respect, milady," Rogue interrupted stiffly, "spitin' you would be the last reason ah would turn down a promisin' marriage. Ah assure you that mah own concerns were the only ones in mind—"
"Silence." This was said in a whisper, but held enough of a threat to have an effect. "That much was obvious, child. Anyone present could have seen that your own interests were the only thing you found time to consider." Rogue's interjection was hushed at a glare. "After the life you've had, I had thought you would stop making idiotic decisions on your own and let someone else guide you—but apparently I was hoping too much." Her black hair poured about her shoulders as she shook her head. "When did you plan to tell me?"
"Or was I to find out when you disappeared one day, running off to marry that filthy lapdog of a thief?"
All of Rogue's senses stopped. Suddenly she was only aware of a jolt of painful surprise that had gripped her chest at those last words, and a small noise escaped her in disbelief.
"Of course I knew," Lady Darkholme scowled, reading the question that Rogue could not voice. "News of your little venture in town reached me rather quickly, and when you didn't repeat it to anyone, I thought you had done so out of pride. But then you were actually stupid enough to bring him to my very gate."
Rogue did not move. She only breathed, remembering the night the Lady was speaking of.
"He…he was mah guide," she managed, "nothin'—"
"Nothing? Nothing?" The Lady was almost laughing. "Need I mention when he snuck onto my grounds during the summer ball? Or perhaps when you encountered him in the market not long after?"
She's lying. She has to be.
"The only reason I didn't have him put to death was because I thought you were wise enough to see him for what he really was. I sent you to Sir Erik's in search of a suitor in hopes that you would put such foolishness behind you, but apparently you're more immature than I had thought you to be. After that, I realized there was nothing left to do but deal with him permanently."
Realization hit Rogue; the room began to spin and she gripped her head.
"It…it was you," she said quietly. "The Assassins…you had them capture me to draw Gambit out…"
"Hmm." A bright-colored smile. "You are quick, aren't you?" She frowned. "But unfortunately, those Assassins are quite the primitive bunch. I can tell they hadn't handled you as carefully as I specified. Now I'm doubtful as to whether they even got the job done." Her arms crossed her chest in annoyance.
"Then, Nicolas…" Rogue was still finding it difficult to speak in complete sentences.
Waving a hand, the Lady scoffed. "Don't associate that doddering old fool with me. I imagine it was either his own idiocy or some resentment that led him to reveal to me what he did."
Bile raged at the back of Rogue's throat. Everything…it was all her…she tried to kill Gambit…she could've killed me…
"But while he was here, he could have at least told you what that thief obviously neglected to. I don't suppose he told you about his past?" Rogue winced involuntarily, and the Lady mistook that as a sign that he had not. "Then you don't know about the Assassins? How he's responsible for the disappearance of Julien Boudreaux, the master's only grandson?"
"Or how about the fact that this Bella Donna was actually once his fiancée? That he abandoned her when he was forced to flee town for his crimes?"
"Don't speak of him like you know him," Rogue murmured hoarsely.
"And I suppose he was kind enough to tell you of his history with a number of women, wenches and nobles alike?"
"Ah know of his past. Those days are behind him."
"Did he tell you what happened during the three years that he was banished from this country? Did he tell you how he helped to slaughter scores of the Second Class for pay—"
"Shut up!" Doubled over, Rogue tried to ignore the memories that had resurfaced, memories that were not her own, but Gambit's, taken from him the day that he had consented to touching her. That was when she had found out about the man who had paid him to lead a team of murderers into a hidden camp of refugee slaves. She had felt the same horror and sickness as Gambit at the realization that he had been tricked into initiating a mass homicide.
She also knew that the memory of that night haunted him to this day, that it had poisoned his dreams and fed his nightmares for months. How he managed to keep such a cheerful countenance despite his pain was beyond her.
"—Being honest," Lady Darkholme was saying, "I'll go ahead and tell you that I expect nothing less than for you to follow me back to that priest and announce that you're going to accept Colossus' proposal."
Her head snapped up. "No," she said immediately, more out of instinct than will.
"Be careful how you address me. I've already a mind to teach you some manners—" Reaching for Rogue's arm again, the Lady glowered when she drew back.
"Ah said, no—" A slap met the side of Rogue's face faster than she could bat an eye. Caught off guard, she stumbled to the side before catching herself, fury rising. She met the Lady's fiery gaze, almost wishing that the hand had not been protected by its silk glove, and froze.
The inner parts of the Lady's dark eyes appeared to have elongated, stretching out like a cat's. The area around them had taken on a yellow tint, and as Rogue watched, the burgundy dress that the woman wore seemed to ripple over her form.
But then she blinked and Lady Darkholme was herself once more, although she seemed to have lost some of the self-assured air that had clouded her moments before.
"Get to your chamber, now," she ordered in a flustered calm. When Rogue did not act right away, she all but screamed, "Now!"
Only a raindrop of light broke the blanket of darkness.
Rogue had watched as it sank lower and lower towards the top of the candlestick, the orange and yellow aura that it gave off steadily shrinking out of sight in the nearby mirror. The flame continued to waver despite the absence of a breeze, and the way it darted randomly to and fro, as though twisted by invisible hands, reflected the solemn river of thoughts that flowed through her mind.
She was utterly alone, seated on her bed with her back to the starry sky that shone through the balcony curtains. The room was, for the time being, to be hers only, as the Lady had relocated Scarlet shortly after the ceremony ended. That action could not have been more of a blessing, for Rogue had wanted nothing but to be by herself for as long as the day permitted to sit and think uninterrupted.
Beside her, the ceremonial dress lay crumpled and forgotten like a wounded animal, its hem the color of late sunset due to the quivering candlelight.
When footsteps sounded on her balcony, her hope was overcome by grief at the news she had to deliver and she at first did not move; but then her heart was threatening to burst and she was on her feet, moving swiftly but silently towards the figure that stood just beyond the curtains.
She could already see the shine of the half-moon on his red eyes, and despite herself she nearly smiled. The circumstances held her mouth in check, and where she should have been saying how relieved she was to see him alive, she was instead urging in a low voice,
"Gambit, you must leave—if they find you here, they'll kill you—please—"
"Hey, hey," he said calmly—too calmly, she thought with irritation—"it's all right. After las' night, the Assassins'll think twice b'fore steppin' foot around here—" He stopped as he caught her expression. Even through the veil-thin drapes, Rogue guessed that her anxiety was more apparent than she anticipated.
"It's not them," she whispered, shaking her head. "Gambit, Lady Darkholme knows—she knows everythin'—there are guards outside mah door right now ready to kill you if you're seen here, an' they're not the only ones—you have to leave, now—"
It took Gambit several attempts to calm her down into speaking more legibly, and once this was done, he asked, "What does she know?"
"Everythin'—about you an' me—the day in town, the ball, everythin'." Rogue's voice was shaking. "Gambit, she hired the Assassins—"
"They had orders to kill you, but they didn't do what she said—ah don't know—but she's expectin' you now—" He started to step through into the room, but she stopped him. "Don't. If she catches you—"
"Rogue." There was more power and influence in that one word than anything else he could have said, and she held her tongue. "What you're sayin', it's—it's hard t'believe—"
"Don't you think ah know that?" she snapped, still quietly. "Ah never would've believed it if she hadn't told me herself."
Gambit blinked. "She told you?"
Rogue's head began to clear as she recalled the day's events, enough to feel an indication of discomfiture, and she hesitated. "…Ah was to enter an engagement today. You know Piotr—Colossus—of Sir Erik's clan?" No amount of courage could convince her to face Gambit directly, but in the corner of her eye she saw him nod. "The Lady had arranged for us to be married, but ah refused his proposal. She was infuriated." She said nothing more, allowing him to decipher the rest as he would. "An' now ah'm afraid she might take her anger out on you. So please, for both our sakes, go. Never set foot in these grounds again if you can help it."
This last order seemed to startle him. Gambit retained his silence for a moment longer before saying in reluctant submission, "If you fear for my safety in sayin' so, then I'll heed your wish, Rogue." He gave an uncertain smile. "After all, we've still got Ithirath." To this she shook her head again.
"Ah've already heard that orders have been given to restrain me here. When ah do go into town, doubtlessly ah'll either be appointed personal guards or followed." All too suddenly, her voice broke, and the shield she had erected so many years ago began to shudder under the pressure of its unseen enemy, the force she had striven so long to ignore. "Ah won't risk your life like that. Ah refuse."
"Ah'm not gonna get you killed, you stupid bandit!" The shield was cracking. "Why else do you think ah never spoke a word of you to anyone? Even before now, ah never wanted to see you die!" Rogue wanted to strike him for his idiocy, as if he were to blame for what she felt. "Ever since that day when you just had to step into mah life, ah've felt nothin' but this responsibility to protect you as much as ah could, even if that meant turnin' against mah clan, and ah'm not about to let all the lies 'n secrets go to waste—"
"Rogue, would you stop thinkin' about yourself for one damn minute?" Low though it was, Gambit's voice was fiercer than she had ever heard it. She did not notice that he had gripped her arms through the curtains, which were frail enough to let her feel the heat of his skin against hers, only just separated. "You think this is all one-sided? You think I haven' looked at you wit' more than jus' friendship in mind?"
His bluntness made her face burn and she looked away, but he kept going. "Did you seriously allow yourself t'fancy that I snuck around here t'meet you jus' for the thrill of it? That I'd confront the Assassins without a second thought for jus' anyone?"
"No," she managed, with less force than she had hoped.
"Then why d'you assume that I'll stop seein' you jus' b'cause it means takin' a li'l more risk? Why d'you think you're the only one who would suffer?"
Because ah was afraid to believe it was possible.
The truth rang clear in Rogue's mind, but she could not bring herself to speak it. She met his eyes slowly, and something told her that Gambit read that silent thought in her gaze. As they both fell still, she felt what remained of her shield break and collapse into rubble.
Although he was the one to make the first move, she knew she was equally guilty in seeing it and making no attempt to stop him. All she cared about right then was that they were together, possibly for the last time. That was partly why she welcomed the kiss he leaned forward to place on her lips.
The flimsy curtain shaped easily between the two of them, permitting them to slip into a natural embrace as they parted and kissed again, both protected and hindered by the purple fabric. His arms were around her, holding her close, and she gripped his sleeves in response as much as she did for support.
Strange and tangled though it was, this contact-but-not-contact interaction possessed something in it that her kiss with Piotr—now nothing more than a distant memory—had never held and could never hope to: enthusiasm. Patience. Hope. Possibility. All these had built up since that day in the market when they first met and combined into a single feeling.
For that instant, there were no classes, no ranks, no names, no clans. There was only the two of them, and they were together. That was enough.
Even when the kiss ended, he kept holding her, and they stayed there until the candlelight had burned down into nothing.
Author's note: Short? Yes. This chapter could have been twice as long--16 pages instead of 8--but I figured I'd just go ahead and give y'all this much and leave you on a cliffhanger rather than make you wait another few weeks.