Jaclyn lifted the embroidered handkerchief up to her mouth, muffling her cough as she exited the upstairs room. Kneading the soft material in her hand, she walked down the long hall alone, accompanied only by the flickering candlelight. She did not even bother to throw a glance in the ornate hall mirror, as was her normal practice. There was no need; her appearance was hardly becoming in the last few weeks. Stylish dresses and jewels could no longer mask the pale complexion conquered by signs of deceit and age.
And yet for the first time in her life, the architect's wife could not bring herself to care.
A week previous, she had received a hastily delivered letter detailing that her young avocat had passed away without warning, leaving behind a trail of young broken hearts. Subject to a life full of lies and charms, it would only be so long until his exorbitant debts and her generous allowances were traced back to the Gardnier accounts. Then, without doubt, all of Paris would know her liaison. Aubert would know. Then again, Jaclyn chided, he already did.
Both seated at dinner, Aubert had made no comment as she paled upon reading the note. Her husband's stress-filled face held something darker now, though aimed at herself or at the world—perhaps both—she could not be sure. He had made no comment as she quickly exited the room, locking herself away to cry tears that would not come.
Jaclyn gripped the banister tightly as she made her way downstairs. The house was vacant of the normal servants talk, or her husband's gruff cough as he worked. She almost longed for that now, as much as she despised his work. There was a time when she would have simply left the place in favor of tea with other affluent Parisians or another party. Gossip provided a comforting, even if shallow, envelope for her to sink into.
She wanted no one to see her now. Straightening her posture, she walked with more composure than she felt, relishing the last few rays of light that fought past the curtained windows.
Jaclyn swallowed as she paused by the music room. One of the doors was ajar by just a fraction. It was a trivial detail that she would have never noticed or given care about before, but now it was so very quiet in the house. Perhaps if there was a chance she would stumble upon her son, even a maid…
How the ladies would laugh at me now, she thought bitterly. When have I ever dared to accept loneliness?
Tentatively, Jaclyn pushed it open further, her hopes dashed as she stared into the empty space. Yet right then, her eyes locked on an unusual shadow.
The young man stood silently, turned toward the window. She could hardly believe that a human could remain so still, apart from in death. Benoît was ever fidgeting, anxious and restive. But Erik—he was the epitome of solemn calm. Even his breathing was imperceptible to her peering eyes.
It had not always been so. With every passing day, he seemed to shed more and more traits shared by humanity, reminiscent of some dark, ethereal presence. A presence, Jaclyn had long since concluded, that inadvertently necessitated attention.
Without a word, Erik looked at her. Jaclyn could not see his eyes from the shadows of the mask, but all the while, she felt chilled.
Her voice was uncharacteristically weak. The apprentice had never particularly intimidated her, and yet now she wished for nothing more than to be rid of his harsh gaze. This time he would not be made victim to her intrusion…
Erik placed his hands neatly behind his back, his body still angled towards the window. "What is it?" he asked jadedly.
"I was…" She paused. "I was curious as to your purpose in this room."
"I value my privacy."
"There are other rooms."
Jaclyn earned only an elegant shrug. She gathered herself, taking a step forward. The apprentice did not move, though she was sure his mouth flattened.
"You have never shown any inclination toward music."
"Neither have you, Madame, and yet here we are."
She was too surprised by his apathy to even be offended by the blunt statement, true as it was. Jaclyn had never been blessed with a voice that would draw audiences to their feet, nor given the grace of a dancer on the lit stage. But she had power, nonetheless.
"You are finally afraid," he murmured, almost as an afterthought.
Jaclyn gave a weak smirk, even as she retreated a step. "I haven't the faintest clue what you are speaking of, boy."
"You don't?" Erik retorted, the corner of his mouth lifting sadly. Her slight insult did not even prick him, much to her disappointment. He stared back at the window, once again ignoring her. Jaclyn watched the apprentice with a mixture of shock and injury, as an animal stung by its master's lash.
Unsure of what to say, she left the room, stopping only when another bout of coughing overtook her. Delicately wiping her lips, Jaclyn lifted her head back up, surprised to see Erik's gaze back on her. Yet the warning that had been present before was absent, replaced by an emotion she could not place.
This time, it was the apprentice that moved toward her, every step smooth as any cultured aristocrat.
"Madame?" he asked cautiously, the beautiful voice tinted with concern. Jaclyn folded up the handkerchief, looking away from him.
"My husband has been absent all day," she stammered. "Perhaps you can bring him home, should he desire it."
With that, she left Erik alone.
The apprentice did not summon a carriage to take him to the opera house. He left the Gardnier residence without a word, lacking all evening attire befitting a gentleman, though it was not for need of propriety. He was no fool. Night had fallen over Paris for hours now, and the walk to the opera house was not a short one. The route hardly comprised of all upper class housing. Erik remembered the corrupt neighborhoods of his youth well—very well.
The air was quite cold around him, but he ignored it, careful to avoid the telling streetlamps as he made his way silently through the mud-hardened streets. All around him, flashes of images from those few terrible years…
Erik stopped dead in his tracks, staring down a gloomy, decrepit street. The old woman had been there…
He recalled the sharp prick of the rose thorns against his palm, numb as his hands had been. Even then, he had wished to know the feel of those delicate scarlet petals, but they had been too beautiful…much too beautiful for his touch.
He lowered his head against the wind and moved forward again, almost thankful for the mask's protection of his face.
It was not long before the shape of the opera house loomed before him, its structure foreboding and stunning in the night. Erik slipped past the front doors with ease, his eyes adjusting to the dim interior. Every detail of the opera house was in order; he had made sure of it. Even in the night, the marble and precious metals shone brilliantly, echoing the dark, ghostly reflection as he passed.
Erik paused a moment, eyeing a top hat left carelessly on the stair. He had long since learned to recognize Monsieur Gardnier's accessories—all still bore a hint of dust from the opera's construction.
He picked up the hat gently, squeezing the brim before he respectfully placed it back on the stair. The architect was hardly a quiet man—his step was recognizable anywhere in the opera house, at least to Erik's ear. But the place was utterly silent.
Erik moved forward without thinking, driven by instinct, but more so by a feeling he despised even greater— the unsolicited twinge of hope.
This time, the apprentice did not hesitate entering through the archway. Aubert had indeed closed off the entryways into the bowels of the opera house, though not completely. The man was ever fearful of another flood of water or a cracked support, despite his protégé's assurances. Thus, there were ways past the doors, alternate routes meant for emergency, and known by no one save the architect himself.
However, the man never fully took into consideration his apprentice's photographic memory abilities. Just one chance glimpse at the clandestine blueprint was all it took. It was wise for Aubert not to tell him; the architect had enough dignity not to wish memories of their sad meeting upon the young man, and Erik had gratefully played along.
As the journey progressed, all light afforded by the moon was obliterated. Erik made his way blind, though he hardly needed his eyesight. He knew every step despite having last traveled it as a dying boy.
The air changed around him from the sweet scent of marble, stone, and paint to one of thick mildew. The stairs grew increasing slippery, but the young man did not lesson his pace.
The silence was broken only the scattering of an occasional rodent as he continued his descent, one turn after another, until the faintest glow shone ahead of him. Erik ran toward it, the stone mimicking his footsteps.
A torch lay half submerged in a puddle, its flaming dying by the moment. The apprentice grabbed it without losing a beat, his eyes searching the caverns around him. There were so many shadows, all following him, summoned by the rare light.
Erik spoke for the first time, tentatively calling the architect's name, his beautiful voice incongruous in the artificial Hades.
One more turn and he was at the edge of the lake. He held the torch up, staring at its gold reflection upon the black waters. It was calm here, unearthly calm, mocking his desperation.
He spun around at his name, heart racing as he moved toward the sound. It did not come again, but there was no need. The architect was sitting against a wall, his face pale.
"What are you doing here?" he whispered, coughing. Erik set the torch down, taking up the man's cold hand.
"I see now why you came here, all those years ago," Gardnier continued, his voice raspier with each word. "It is so peaceful. One could hide away from the world and the world would never know."
His apprentice was silent, looking at the ground. The architect pulled away his hand.
"Leave me here, Erik. I don't want to return. I…" He licked his lips, "I don't want to return to…her."
For the first time since his childhood, Erik felt the sting of tears against his skin, creeping beneath the mask. It would be all too easy to obey the architect's plea. He could return, feign ignorance and let the man die alone.Die alone…
Erik closed his eyes. He had been just a small boy in this place, but he had had every right to perish in seclusion…there had been no one to search for him, no one to mourn his loss. A man could not wish for a grander tomb.
But as he had lain there, barely conscious, it was not solitude that comforted him. No…his mind had been cruel. He had remembered her, had pretended that she was with him once again, willing to reach out and hold her deformed son.
Erik looked back up at the fragile man. Without a word, he gripped the architect and brought him to his feet, supporting him. Gardnier did not utter a word of protest as they climbed slowly back up to the surface.
The apprentice did not fully appreciate the sprawling size of the opera house as he did supporting the weight of another. Gardnier was lifeless, his feet barely moving with Erik's. The young man listened to the other's ragged breathing, willing himself to move forward with greater haste.
They exited from a side door. Erik took a moment to adjust his grasp on Gardnier before they moved along the dark streets. It was not long before Gardnier stopped walking altogether, collapsing to the ground. Erik hauled him over to a streetlight, letting the architect rest a moment while he hailed a passing caddy. The driver took one glance at Erik before he snapped the reins against the horse's flank, hurrying its pace. His hands in fists, the apprentice watched as the caddy disappeared into the night, abandoning them.
Gardnier looked up at Erik as the youth kneeled down before him. "Are we almost there?" he asked softly, his eyes closing as he shivered. Erik placed the architect's arm around his shoulders once more, rising. The dull ache awakened in his back as he took the other's weight upon himself. Glancing over at the suspicious persons of the night, he started forward again. "Yes, Monsieur," he lied. "Yes, we are."
Galen Gardnier had not arrived in Paris until that morning, cheered by the sight of the city. London was his home, without doubt, but there was something about the vibrancy of this place, the passion of its people and its art; it never failed to move him.
He had no designs of disturbing his brother's family before evening, despite his longing to see his nephew. Instead, the physician took advantage of the crisp afternoon weather, taking a long walk from his affluent hotel to the various signature spots of the city, taking in the sights of the place that had once been his home. It had been only by chance that he happened upon the opera house. Most Parisians passed by it with indifference, used to its presence. But to a visitor—the opera house demanded attention.
Galen stood across the street, a smile crossing his lips. He could hardly believe the great edifice was completed, the epitome of his brother's artistic vision. Had he really been gone from France so long? It had been just a skeleton structure when he had seen it last.
Having wet his palette with the tastes of the city, the rest of the day had been spent in the relative quiet of his hotel suite. Lounged out at a table, the physician pored over the only letter he had received in reply to his own, composed in his nephew's neat hand. The young man apologized for his intrusiveness, but made no effort to conceal his excitement of a visit from his beloved uncle. The letter was politely ambiguous, but Galen had no reason to doubt it was only the boy's sense of decency that withheld him from speaking freely of the difficulties within the family. He had urged his uncle to seek ulterior lodgings within Paris, though his reasoning was thin.
Galen frowned, folding the letter up and placing it in his coat pocket. A quick glance at the clock told him that he had several hours to wait before he could even consider calling upon his brother.
With a sigh, he leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.
The long journey from England had been more taxing than he had first presumed—Galen woke up with a start, cursing as the clock read only an hour until midnight. Shedding the wrinkled travel clothes, he put on a fresh suit, smoothing out the front as he examined himself in the mirror. It would do, at least for a short visit.
If only to see Benoît, he reminded himself unhappily.
The hotel was situated in a wealthy sector of the city, and Galen had no trouble finding a willing driver to take him. After all, the aristocrats were just beginning their parties, he thought wryly.
Lulled by the constant rhythm of the horse's hooves against the cobblestone, Galen looked out the window, the streetlights blurring together as he passed them. Within minutes, the safe, glowing environment of the Paris' upper class transformed into the cheap brick complexes riddled with poverty and crime. By instinct, he reached for his black doctor's bag, a habitual accessory. You fool, he berated himself, noting the bag's absence. He had been in a rush departing from the hotel—but perhaps it was for the best. His occupation followed him wherever he went. It would be good to pretend he was on vacation, illusory as the real prospect was.
But Galen was hardly so fortunate. Only a few blocks from his brother's residence and he caught sight of two miserable figures walking, one man draped over the other, both wearing the mud of the street.
Probably a drunk, Galen consoled himself, even as he commanded the driver to slow. Yet the more he watched, the more he felt ill at ease about the quick justification. Having passed by the ghettos, this area was prosperous. What reason was there for such men out in this place?
His conscience pitted against his reasoning, Galen swore under his breath. "Stop. Stop now!" he commanded, the driver pulling the horse to a halt. They were now a block from the Gardnier residence—Galen could see it. He turned his head back, watching their slow progress. They were on the other side of the street now, and he could just make out the coughing of the debilitated man.
With every passing moment grew the gnawing fear grew that these men were no ordinary vagrants. The way the one carried the other — even stooped, he moved with a refined manner. Forgetting decorum, Galen leaned out of the carriage window, only to catch a minute glance of the man.
The face young, but it was not the reason his heart rate quickened. Only half of it was visible, the other half camouflage with the night…The physician blinked. It could not be…
"Good God," he whispered. He remained paralyzed for a moment, helplessly watching as the two figures made their way up the path to the Gardnier house.
Reality taking hold, Galen shoved money into the driver's hand, running across the street just as the panicked maid opened door. She stared at the disheveled apprentice and Gardnier, then back at the gentleman coming toward them.
"Sir?" she asked timidly, moving back. Erik moved by her quickly, thankful to be in the warm house once more. Without a word, he started up the stairs, Aubert struggling beside him.
"Let me in, that's my brother!"
Erik glanced back at the commotion. He remembered that voice...
Meeting the gaze of the physician, he gave a brief nod. "Let him in," he commanded.
Galen shoved past the maid, hurrying up the stairs. Taking the other arm of his brother, they both carried Aubert to his room.
The young man looked exhausted, but he did not rest. Issuing orders to another maid, he stirred the fire and brought over another blanket to lie over the architect.
Galen did not even ask where they had been—their dank smelling clothing was evidence enough. Resting a hand over his brother's forehead, he shook his head. "Aubert…" he whispered, a mix of compassion and reprove in his voice.
The other lay against the pillows with his eyes closed, motionless. The cough that Galen had heard had subsided, but the man's pallor and fever was enough to worry him. The maid brought in a basin of water, and the doctor dipped the cloth in, swabbing his brother's face.
He glanced over at the silent masked youth, a fragile grin appearing on his face.
"I thought I had witnessed a ghost," he said. "I never knew what had transpired…" He let the sentence end delicately, offering another weak smile. "Aubert is not fond of writing," he continued, his attention fixed back upon his brother. "It is no surprise to me, really."
Erik nodded, watching the physician's every movement with the same wariness he had displayed as a child. Galen moved quickly, without panic or anger. At length, he stepped back from the bedside, pulling down his rolled up sleeves. Glancing at his observer, he gave a friendly smile, though it could not hide the worry in his eyes.
"I apologize; we have yet to be properly acquainted." The physician took a step forward, extending his hand. "You are no longer the small patient I remember."
The apprentice met his grip, politely inclining his head. "You may call me Erik, Monsieur."
"Erik…" Galen repeated. "Have you been well all these years?"
The youth stepped back, aware of the physician's steady gaze on the mask. Reflexively, his hand moved to cold edges, even as he cursed himself for the action. You fool, he knows, Erik berated himself. After all, he stood before one of the few people privileged enough to have witnessed the fleshly massacre that was his face.
"Yes. I am content," he finally answered. Swallowing, Erik looked past the doctor and rested his gaze on the sleeping architect.
"He'll be fine," Galen said quietly, following the youth's stare, "much in thanks to you." He shook his head, glancing back over at the apprentice. "Do you visit the opera house often?"
Erik nodded. "I am privileged to be present during its completion."
"I am glad to hear it." Galen folded his hands behind his back. "I have no doubt you were a great aid to my brother. He always had such large dreams, but never the fortitude or opportunity to see them through, until now."
There was something in the sad tones of his voice, be it memory or contemplation, Erik did not know. The room became silent apart from the occasional crackle of the fireplace.
Sighing, Galen turned to face the young man, the signs of weariness growing more apparent by the moment.
"You should rest," he offered. "I shouldn't want you to become ill as well."
Erik did not move, his gaze shifting back to Aubert. "I must respectfully decline, Monsieur."
Sensing his resolve, Galen nodded. "Very well. For now, at least."
He was about to offer Erik the chair, but the young man took a place on the floor against the wall, the mask hidden from his sight.
Hours passed, and Galen was sure that Erik had not stirred once. The apprentice maintained a steady vigil, his gaze switching between the fireplace and Aubert's sleeping form. As for himself, Galen had remained at his brother's side, relieved to find Aubert's pulse and breathing strengthening.
Aubert had long since been changed into clean, dry clothing. The damp suit lay in a heap beside the bed, and Galen cast a wary eye at it. While his brother's line of work was hardly sympathetic to the prestige cleanliness required by aristocrats, no amount of grit or rain could ruin a suit as he had just done. Even now, Galen could smell the pungent mustiness saturating it. It was the same in the opera house caverns, though reason continued to battle with him. His brother would have no need to be there. It was a place unintended for the living.
The warmth from the hearth had dried Erik's clothing so no more than patches of dirt remained on the fabric's surface. Galen watched him unconsciously, visions of the small boy revived in his mind. He was hunched over in the corner, the shadows of the fire playing across his figure. Dark strands of hair hung limply across his forehead and cheek, sheltering what the mask did not. But those things were the limit of the past and present similarities, Galen concluded. The childish roundness of Erik's cheek was lost, replaced by the chiseled structure of a man. The doctor could only look at him with an artist's appreciation. Each curve of bone and skin was smooth, and equally mimicked by a black counterpart. The revealed flesh was as pale and untainted as it ever was, a cruel mockery to what must still exist on the other side. Galen could only wonder.
"Would you prefer a longer look?"
No one had spoken in hours, and the sound of Erik's voice jolted him. Galen said nothing, caught in-between shame and wonder at the young man's acuity.
Erik rose from his place on the floor, his tall, thin body hardly resembling of the child in Galen's memory. He did not move like others his age. Erik's graceful bearing was almost regal in manner, and the physician could not help but be enthralled by it. The faultless posture, his smooth, soundless footsteps, the impassive, challenging glare; it was as if Galen suddenly stepped into the presence of some dark prince.
Erik stopped a few feet from him. The physician could not discern what emotion was present in the boy's eyes, or if it was merely a void. Erik never let his eyes wander from Galen, and with measured hesitation, gripped the edges of the mask. Galen held his breath unconsciously.
"Erik, I do not need—"
His words fell away as he laid eyes upon the mass of unnatural swells and craters lining the young man visage. The sight had been incomparable years before, and it was no improvement now. As if reading his thoughts, Erik gave a wry grin—or what should have been a grin. While perfectly visible on one-half of his face, it was easy to see how the deformed side struggled to move. The facial muscles had only further atrophied over time, stretched as they were over bone laced with only a few pulsing veins.
"Was it the same in your memory?" Erik asked, his voice soft. All the poise of the moment before vanished, and he could no longer hold the gaze of the physician.
Galen truthfully shook his head. "I am…I am sorry, Erik." It was a terrible thing to say, but what else was there to offer? He looked down at the mask in the young man's hands. It was not the original mask that Erik had been given as a boy, but nonetheless, he could see the edges chipped away in places, the shiny black faded in others.
To Galen's surprise, Erik placed the mask in his hand. Turning his deformed half away from sight, Erik moved toward the door. He paused just before opening it.
"I never had the opportunity to…thank you, Monsieur."
Without another word, he rested a hand where the mask had been, leaving Galen alone with his patient.
A corner of his mouth rising, Galen placed the odd gift inside his pocket, the entire scenario playing over in his mind. Just then, the blankets stirred next to him. The physician looked over at his brother. Aubert was waking.
The house was silent, save for the steady rhythm of muffled footsteps on the carpeted floor. The maid burst into the room with hardly a knock, breathless.
Jaclyn was still, facing the fireplace. "Madame," the maid tried again, taking a step forward. "Monsieur Erik has returned with your husband." She paused, her hands folded anxiously. "He is very ill, Madame. There is a doctor with him."
She watched the wry smirk pass briefly over the lady's ashen face. Even so, her mistress made no move, her eyes rapt upon the dying flames in the hearth.
"Very well," she said at last. The maid looked at her strangely, but gave an obedient curtsey and left the room.
Aubert opened his eyes. Blinking, he tried to focus on the form hovering over him. "Erik?"
"No. He had been here all night, however." Galen gave an unconscious pat to the mask in his pocket.
Aubert struggled to sit up, gazing around the room. "Where is he?" Galen put a gentle hand on his shoulder to stop his struggling.
"Elsewhere, at the moment," the physician answered. "Here. I want you to drink this." His brother took the teacup with noticeable hesitation, sniffing its contents. "Good God," he spat after trying a sip, "this will surely only hasten my trip to the grave."
He brother chuckled softly. "I assure you, it will not. It is an herbal recipe of the gypsies. It works wonders in clearing up the lungs."
Aubert made a face. "Since when have you trusted their tastes?"
Galen motioned for him to take another sip. "The queen asked me the same question, but she did not whine nearly as much as you."
A smile almost broke across Aubert's stony complexion. Shaking his head, he finished the last of the liquid and set the cup aside.
"It is good to see you again, Galen." His brother nodded, rising to give the fire another stroke. Aubert leaned back against the pillows. "When did you arrive?"
The physician straightened, coming back to the chair next to the bedside. "I arrived to see you carried in half dead by your protégé." He paused a moment. "A strange turn of events, wouldn't you say, Aubert?"
The architect shifted uncomfortably at his brother's grim tone. "He should not have come for me, if that is what vexes you."
Galen frowned. "The young man's valor is undeniable," he said, "but he saved a coward."
"Galen, I have no desire to hear a lecture from you, not after all these years…"
"What were you doing there?" the physician asked, his voice rising. Aubert sighed. "Erik told you?"
"He has told me nothing. The condition of both him and yourself was evidence enough. I still remember that place, Aubert. Even after all this time." He looked down at his folded hands.
"Some dark desire has to drive a man down there, Aubert."
"Galen, enough. I have no need for your waxing poetics."
"Then tell me. Why, Aubert, why?" He looked back up at his brother, concern etched over the lines of his face. "I thought the caverns were closed off."
Aubert closed his eyes. "They are." The physician lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing. "I made sure there were other ways to enter…only I had hoped that I alone knew them."
To his surprise, Galen smiled. "Erik does seem quite clever. I am pleased he has found a place here."
His brother did not return the sentiment. "Perhaps we are more alike than one would initially choose to believe. I too, wear a mask."
"It was a place of escape, Galen. I wished to shut myself up from the world, even from God."
Aubert let out a bitter laugh. "If you had any recollection what has transpired these last few weeks, you would question the Almighty's sense of benevolence as well."
"How could I know?" the physician started, his voice calm. "You failed to reply to my letters."
"Do you presume to judge me, then?"
Galen shook his head. "I am only concern about my brother, Aubert. Nothing more."
With a sigh, he stood up. "Now with that said, I should let you rest." Aubert reclined back in his pillows, the dose of the laudanum-laced drink taking effect.
Running a hand through his hair, Galen stepped outside, careful to close the door softly behind him.
The physician spun around, coming face to face with his nephew. He moved away from the door, resting a hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Just look at you, Benoît!" he said. His nephew gave a sideways smile, but the boyish gleam Galen remembered was all but gone.
He looked past his uncle to the closed door. "Father is unwell?"
Galen nodded, disturbed by the boy's apathetic tone. Clearing his throat, he attempted a grin. "So," he said, moving down the hall, "what has occupied your attention lately?"
His nephew shrugged. "I stay in my room most days. Most boys are off at the academy. Instead, I was kept here."
"Hasn't Erik kept you company?" Galen asked, regretting his comment instantly as Benoît scowled.
"No. He is always with father. Anyway, we were never much alike. I wanted to pursue music. He only took interest in the things father enjoyed."
"Benoît, that cannot be true. Your father is proud of your accomplishments." Yet even as he spoke it, Galen doubted his statement.
"And what have I accomplished? Nothing!" Benoît retorted, his voice biting. "At least Erik can boast having created much of the opera house."
Galen raised an eyebrow. "Created?"
"Of course. He is better at drawing up blueprints than father."
"But he is so…"
"Young?" Benoît offered. "It doesn't matter. It never has."
His uncle was at loss for words. Erik had implied his presence during the opera house construction, but there was obviously much more truth beneath his ambiguity. To have literally built such a thing…it was an unparalleled accomplishment.
"Tea, Monsieurs?" They both started at the maid's sudden appearance. She took a step back, her gaze directed at her feet.
Galen smiled weakly. "Yes, tea would be welcomed. Thank you." She curtsied and hurried away. "Perhaps there is a more private place?" he asked, motioning at the open hall. Benoît pushed open the door next to him. Galen blinked as they entered the dark room. He hardly recognized it from years before. The curtains were pulled closed, the plants withered in their vases. Dust covered the books and rich furniture, only lending to the derelict aura. At the edge of the room stood the piano, the once shiny black now a duller shade. Galen could not help but feel a sting of gloom that pervaded the place, not unlike its occupants.
"Do you no longer play?" he asked, nodding toward the piano. Benoît sighed. "There was always someone complaining of a headache, or father would come down and yell at me while I practiced. But worst of all, at times, he would watch…like he knew every note and I was no more than an ignorant fool pounding on the keys."
Galen's eyebrow lifted. "He, Benoît?"
His nephew did not answer. Benoît walked up to the piano, running his hand through the dust. "I was good at it, Tonton Galen. Perhaps I could have been one of the greats."
"Do not lose heart. You still could be, Benoît."
The young man sat down at the piano bench, pressing down on one of the keys. "No," he replied thoughtfully, "I cannot. Not when I am only another's shadow." He pressed down another key, looking out the door. Galen followed his nephew's gaze, but saw nothing except the empty hall.
Benoit fixed his attention back on the piano, striking another note. The sharp tone echoed through the room. Can you hear it, Erik? Can you?
Galen swallowed uncomfortably at his nephew's strange behavior. "Benoît, perhaps something a little more tuneful—"
Another note interrupted him. Benoît smiled darkly. "See, it does not matter! I could never impress them!"
Galen strode up to his nephew, slamming the lid closed. Benoît stared at him, eyes wide. His uncle shook his head, his breathing rushed. "Not like this, Benoît," he said quietly, moving away.
The young man shoved past him. "You would not understand."
He left Galen standing alone in the room. The maid entered a moment later bearing a tray. Hearing Benoît stomp upstairs, she looked at the physician meekly.
"I apologize for your trouble, but if you would just kindly bring me my coat and hat." The young woman eagerly set down the tray and hurried out.
What had transpired these last years? It was certainly nothing that a mere gift and a few scattered promises could resolve. His was a life devoted to aiding the weak, and now for the first time, Galen felt truly powerless.
Thanking the maid, he slipped on his coat, making for the door. Just as he was opening it, Galen paused, having the distinct feeling of being watched. Smiling, he looked over his shoulder, seeing Erik's tall form at the top of the stairs. There was another black mask hiding his face, akin to the one in Galen's possession. Without comment, the young man approached.
Galen gave him a weak smile. "I can do nothing more here today."
Erik nodded. With that blessing, Galen put on his hat, stepping outside. "Take care of him, Erik," he said, looking back. "There is no one else who will."
The apprentice lowered his head and closed the door. Galen held onto his hat as he moved down the walkway, cursing the strong wind. It was unusual for the time of year. Or perhaps you have only forgotten, he sadly mused.
A moment later, he was knocked to the ground. Sprawled ungracefully on the street, Galen sat up, befuddled.
"Monsieur, my deepest apologies!"
Blinking, the physician looked up at the foreign man hovering over him. His dark hand anxiously brushed away the grime on the fallen top hat.
His foul mood worsening, Galen nodded curtly, rising on his own despite the extended hand of the man. He gripped his proffered hat tightly, cheeks warming as he noticed the others watching him.
Forcing his mouth into a smile, Galen stepped around the man and started on his way back to the hotel.
The foreigner watched him go, and then turned back in his original direction. He had only moved a few steps before he stopped, quickly looking around him before he kneeled down. He lifted up the black mask with reverence, carefully placing it inside his silk coat before moving along.
His master would be pleased.