All of a sudden, Squall could not remember what he'd been doing. It was all blank, the thoughts from a second before gone and forgotten. He felt as if he'd been doing something important, dreadfully important, but everything up to that point was lost, like he'd just awoke from a long deep sleep. He shook his head, trying to clear away the cobwebs and fuzziness.
"Hello? Earth to Squall!"
"Ya there, buddy?"
Squall looked up from his clenched hands to see two pairs of concerned eyes fixed upon him from across the round café table. One pair--blue--belonged to an attractive young woman with long honey-colored loosely pinned back, her long bangs loose around her face. The other were shielded by the brim of a black cowboy hat, the man's lean face shaded from the cheerful sun which beat down on the uncovered patio of the tiny restaurant. Squall shook his head again, absently running his fingers through his light brown hair. "You in there?" the young woman asked again, her concern apparent.
Squall waved his hand dismissively. "Yeah, yeah. Sorry about that, Christy. What were you saying?"
Christina Trepe arched a pale brow in response. "Well, I was discussing the finer points of art classification and restoration," she said wryly, taking a sip of her tea, "but obviously I'm boring you."
"Don't be so hard on the guy, Christy," chided Irvine Kinneas, flashing his fiancee a devilish smile. "He did fly across the Atlantic just to see you; that should at least spare him the monotony of one of your lectures."
"No! I'm sorry," Squall hastened to apologize to his long-time friend. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I just...drifted off."
"Perhaps, it's the scenery," Irvine suggested, making a sweeping gesture toward the cloudless blue sky and gently rolling hills of vineyards which were interrupted ever so often by the vivid colors of a flower field.
Christina smiled at her friend, all minor irritation gone. "It is gorgeous, isn't it? We've been so lucky to spend the last month in this lovely countryside--even though I've spent most of it buried inside the Manor."
"The Manor?" Squall was still fuzzy. What was she talking about?
Both pairs of eyes were once again concerned. "The Manor," Christina repeated slowly. "The old castle which I was hired to help catalogue for a local historical society? The reason I'm here, in France, in this tiny little town of Coeurtille..."
"Oh yeah." He remembered now--vaguely. His childhood friend, Christina Trepe, a professor in art history, had come to France to help restore some really old paintings. After a call to his older sister, Elinor, she'd tracked him down and invited him to spend a week with her and her newly acquired fiancé, the cowboy, Irvine Kinneas. It was all coming back...somewhat. Yet, he still couldn't shake the feeling he was supposed to be doing something else, something drastically important.
"Damn, buddy," Irvine shook his head, causing his long chestnut ponytail to slither down the front of his faded T-shirt. "You really are out of it."
"Sorry," Squall mumbled, slightly abashed.
Christina's quiet smile took on a teasing quality. "Let's recap: I'm Christina; this is Irvine. Your name is Squall...you with me so far?"
Squall rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
She couldn't help but laugh. "Same old Squall, all right."
"Thank you Professor Trepe," he retorted. "I'm sorry, okay?"
Irvine unceremoniously threw his linen napkin at his immaculately dressed fiancee. "Lay off, darlin'. No wonder y'all lost touch. He was probably glad to get away from your nagging."
She shot him a look, then returned the favor before turning her attention back to Squall. "It's probably just jet-lag," she told him knowledgeably. "Are you sure you want to come to work with us today? You could always go back to the house and rest."
Squall shook his head. "No, I'm fine. I want to go. This old place sounds...fascinating."
"Alright then," Irvine announced, lowering his heavy cowboy boots from the chair they'd been occupying to the ground, and brushing off his faded jeans as he stood. "Let's head out."
Squall followed suit as Christina excused herself to go pay the bill. "Is it far?" he asked Irvine.
He shrugged. "About three miles outside the village. Don't worry." He held up his car keys. "We gotta car."
"So...uh...what do you do when you're not in France with Christy?" Squall inquired, trying to get to know this guy better, for Christy's sake. He seemed like a nice guy.
"Cattle," Irvine admitted. "My family runs a cattle ranch."
"Hence the outfit," Squall surmised.
Irvine chuckled, giving himself a look-over, from the top of his Stetson over his long hair, to the heels of his boots, the old T-shirt and worn jeans in between. "I told Christy that I'd give up my ranch, my country and even my language for her, but, by God, I ain't givin' up the hat."
"No matter how ugly the damned thing is," Christina smirked as she reappeared. "Come on, you. Let's go."
Squall watched the green fields fly by as the three of them drove across the narrow country roads in the tiny domestically-manufactured car which his guests had rented for their stay in France. The view was breathtakingly, the emerald background dappled with the reds and yellows of wild flowers. Flower fields... The haze was finally clearing in his brain, but still doubts nagged him. He ran everything through his mind as they traveled. His sister, Elle, had called and given him Christy's number; he recalled making the arrangements dimly. And Christy? Of course, he remembered her from when he was a kid. Short, tomboyish and bossy, she had been the terror of the boys in school--until she reached high school when she changed into the extremely beautiful and elegant woman she was now. Meeting Irvine? Yeah, he recollected that little episode, too. He'd been lounging out in he and Christy's front yard when he'd arrived from the airport, his hat drawn over his eyes as golden butterflies danced around on the breeze.
When the car came to a screeching halt, Squall was yanked from his reverie. "What the hell?" he muttered, glancing through the front windshield, then glaring at the driver with his slate-colored eyes.
"Sorry about that," Irvine apologized breezily. "But this is a sheep crossin,' ya see." Squall did see as he watched an old herder expertly steered his flock over the tiny road, raising his hat to Irvine in appreciation for his patience. Finally, he was finished and paused to whistle for his dog to follow. A medium-sized dog with thick dark fur happily trotted after its master, but Squall no longer saw the dog headed toward the old man, but a young dark-haired woman. He blinked and she was gone, once again an old man with pipe clamped tightly in his mouth. He waved another sign of gratitude with his cane before disappearing with his flock over the green hill.
"Squall? I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but are you all right?" Christina was waving her hand in front of his glazed blue-gray eyes. "You like you saw a ghost or something." The motion caused them to focus on the glittering stone of the ring which was worn on the perfectly manicured hand. "Trying to show off your ring?" he asked dryly, trying to draw attention away from his latest lapse with reality.
"Wouldn't be impossible to see a ghost," muttered Irvine. "That manor is one damned spooky place."
"Really, Irvine, not this again," Christina rolled her eyes at both of her companions.
Squall furrowed his brow. "Did I miss something again?"
Christina made a very unladylike sound. "Irvine here is convinced that the castle is haunted. Really, all this talk about ghosts and such is terribly boring."
"Don't you start, Christy," Irvine warned. "You said so, yourself. It was built by an evil witch who sold her soul to the Devil, and she offered human sacrifices to him for Black Mass. Can't get much more evil."
Something about the word 'witch' intrigued Squall. "Is that the truth?" he wanted to know.
"According to local legend," Christina clarified. "An evil sorceress from a great distant land--some even say the future--went in league with the Devil and sold her soul for the chance to reign supreme in the world. She was said to start her reign of terror here, just outside of Coeurtille."
"See?" Irvine interjected, catching Squall's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Evil spirits."
"In actuality," Christina continued, shooting Irvine a dark look. "The palace was first inhabited by very horrible woman, a Comtesse de Ultimont. She was very cruel to the peasants and the countryside lived in fear of her. But I doubt she'd sold her soul, Irvine. She was simply money-hungry, and uncaring."
"Believe what you will, Christy," Irvine shrugged. "But none of the locals will come near this place, which is why you and Steffie got the job."
"Who's Steffie?" Squall wondered aloud.
"She's my assistant, a grad student from the college. Hold on to your seat, Squall," Christina went on to say. "This bridge is an...adventure."
Squall understood exactly what Christina meant by 'adventure' as Irvine barreled the car over a rickety wooden bridge which didn't look strong enough to support them on foot, let alone them in car. He couldn't suppress a sigh of relief when they were safely on the other side.
"Did that bridge scare you, Squall?" Christina joked. "Or was it Irvine's ghosts?"
"Whatever." Both Squall and Christina said at the same time, which caused the woman to burst into laughter as her friend glared at her. "Oh, stop looking so mean," she chided him laughingly. "We're here."
Squall gratefully scrambled out of the tiny back-seat of the small French car, thankful for a chance to stretch his limber frame too long cramped in riding. A light breeze tugged at his hair and leather jacket, causing him to irritatingly brush back his long bangs. When he turned away from the cheery landscape to see the 'Manor,' he gasped in surprise at what he saw. Even with Irvine's spooky stories about ghosts and witches, Squall had expected the usual French-model chateau of the early Renaissance, or the somber square of a medieval fortress. What he hadn't expected was a mammoth of dark gray stone, a huge complex of wings and towers, turrets spiraling up into the clear blue sky. Huge, horrible rock gargoyles were perched all around its exterior, and a gilded clock face was carved into one of the high rocks. A flash of bright color caught his eye: did he really see a long line of pale on the uppermost walkway?
"Spooky, ain't it?" Irvine smirked.
"It is foreboding," Squall slowly agreed, eyeing the castle with apprehension. It truly resembled something out of an old horror film.
"Men are such babies," Christina complained, bravely marching up the stone steps to the oversized iron-studded door. She looked over her shoulder, eyeing the reluctant males. "Well, come on, then."
Squall obediently followed his friend into the castle, silently relieved when they weren't immediately attacked by some foul ghoul upon entrance. The entrance hall was also intimidating, pillars holding up the towering ceiling, closed doors leading off to other rooms. "Ya know," Irvine whispered conspiratorially to Squall. "The locals call this place 'La palais d'Enfer.' Fitting, huh?"
"What does that mean?"
"The palace of Hell," Irvine answered.
"Nice," Squall shook his head. He glanced around uneasily, experiencing a terrible sense of deja vu, followed by the nagging doubt that he was supposed to be doing something else. He tried to ignore it, but it gnawed at him. Flowers...
"But Zell!" The high-pitched feminine squeal caused both men to jump, startling them.
"What was that?" demanded Squall.
Christina, who had been calmly sorting through a pile of mail left on one of the side-boards, shrugged. "That was Steffie. Come on. I'll show you our offices."
They were led to a room that was slightly less frightening, it's ceiling-high windows bare and opened to the sunny fields, the golden light tempering the gloom, but making it even more surreal. One hip perched on the burnished mahogany desk was a petite young woman, her brown hair in a tousled bob. She was busy filing her nails, while she held a phone receiver between her shoulder and ear. "But, honey," she was whining into phone. "I'm sure you'll do better next time. C'mon, don't give up like that."
"I take it that's a personal call," quipped Christina to Steffie as she passed her to sit behind the desk. Steffie stuck her tongue out at Christy before saying, "Honey? I gotta go. Professor Trepe is here. Yeah, I'll tell her. Bye, honey."
"So, how is Zell?" Irvine teased, dropping into one of the over-stuffed chairs, motioning for Squall to do the same.
"He's fine," Steffie answered, rolling her eyes as she hopped off the desk. "He didn't do well at the competition this week, and he's thinking about quitting all together and joinin' the Marines."
"Again," Irvine added with a smile.
"Shut your damn mouth, Kinneas," Steffie ordered.
Christina chose this as the proper time to interrupt. "Squall, this is Steffie Tilmitt, my assistant." Squall stood and murmured hello. "Steffie, this is my long-time friend, Squall Loire."
"Nice to meet you," she said brightly.
Squall Loire? For some reason, even though he knew that that was indeed his name, it didn't set right on his tongue, landing uneasily upon his ears.
"Steffie, I have to go over these accounts, so would you mind showing Squall around for me?" Christina asked smoothly, glancing over the rim of her reading glasses. "Please?"
"No problem, Christy," she fairly bounced with excess energy. Tugging on her bright-yellow miniskirt, she beckoned to Squall. "C'mon. I'll give you the grand tour."
"Watch out for the Lady in Blue," Squall heard Irvine call out as they left.
"You're not going to show me everything, are you?" Squall wanted to know as he followed the petite woman as she wove in and out of corridors and rooms.
"Nooooo," she laughed. "This place is way too huge for that. It's got like, five or six accessible stories, half-dozen wings, a dozen towers, a central courtyard, dungeons...this thing even has a chapel in it! I'm just going to show you the rooms where we've been working."
"So, this Zell is your boyfriend, right?"
A satisfied smile crept over Steffie's delicate features. "He sure is."
"Why didn't he come with you like Irvine did Christy?"
"He couldn't take time away from his career," she explained breezily. "You see, he's a professional skater."
"Skater?" Squall arched a brow.
"Uh huh," Steffie paused and whipped out a picture from her tiny purse. "This is us in LA, right before I flew out."
Squall examined the picture to see a stocky, muscular young man with spiky-blond hair and a trailing tattoo covering half his face. "Isn't he cute?" she purred, then giggled. "You don't have to answer that."
"I'm grateful for that." Squall remembered what Irvine had said as he'd exited. "Steffie? Who exactly is the lady in Blue?"
"Oh." Steffie pulled hard in a double door to make it open, revealing a large two-level study-type room. She ushered Squall inside. "She's one of the resident ghosts of the place. In fact, she's the most famous."
"So you believe in Irvine's ghosts." It wasn't a question.
Steffie shrugged, her green eyes trained on Squall. "Oh, course I do. I could feel the negative vibes of this place as soon as we got here. I'd find it harder to believe that it wasn't haunted."
Steffie, now standing in the middle of the room, made a wide, spinning gesture. "Welcome to the art room," she announced. "Or, at least, that's what we call it. There's roughly twenty paintings in here, not counting that." She pointed to her feet where large gilded Roman numerals were painted. "It's a clock, on the floor."
Throughout the room were hung gilded frame paintings, all with tiny plaques inscribed with there name underneath it. Yet, one unnamed painting commanded a whole wall, it's soothing colors overshadowing the rest. Squall looked around, the deja vu hitting him again. "There's Venus," Steffie pointed, jumping and spinning accordingly. "And Ignus, and my personal favorite, Xerampelinae. That means "Red Clothes" in Latin."
"Yes, I know. I took Latin in college." Squall found himself staring at the dark-haired woman dressed in the regal red clothing. She looked...familiar, as if he'd seen her before. Maybe the painting had been in a book or something.
"All these paintings' names are in Latin," Steffie went on. "But my very very favorite is the portrait of the Lady in Blue." Steffie stood at the base of the stairs, calling up to Squall. "You wanna hear about her still?"
Squall, still staring intently at each of the paintings, nodded absently. "Why not."
"According to the legend of the evil Comtesse d'Ultimont, there was a beautiful young princess whose family ruled her before her." Steffie's voice took on the tone of someone telling a fairy-tale. She draped herself across a purple-velvet chaise lounge which she had dragged there from another chamber. "Don't all of these stories have a beautiful princess in them? They never say, "an okay-looking princess" or "a butt-ugly daughter of the king," now do they?"
"Yeah, sorry. I tend to ramble. Anyways, this princess's name was Rione de Coeurtille and the Comtesse hated her. Wanted her dead. The story never says why. Maybe because she was young and beautiful and loved, and the Comtesse was twisted by evil into something haggard and terrifying. Ya know, the religious fanatics have some crazy thing about Rione being an agent of God, sent to destroy the Comtesse for being evil. I dunno. Anyways, Rione decided to face the Comtesse and try to save her people and her land. But she wasn't alone 'cause there was this knight, who loved her, who was supposed to help her. But the Comtesse struck first and kidnapped the princess."
Steffie sniffed. "It gets sad here 'cause the princess was in despair, but her knight promised to come after her, and save her from the evil sorceress. And she promised to wait for him. Unfortunately, Rione de Coeurtille died in the dungeon before her knight arrived." Steffie's voice dropped low and husky, as if she were discussing a personal tragedy instead of a medieval legend. "He came eventually and defeated the sorceress, but Rione's soul could not rest and the villagers say that her spirit still haunts this castle, waiting for her knight to come. She became known as the Lady in Blue because she's always seen wearing a long blue gown and cloak."
"How utterly depressing," Squall remarked as he climbed down the stairs.
"I don't know," Steffie said dreamily. "I think it's kinda romantic. Very Romeo and Juliet, ya know."
"So the unnamed knight defeated the evil sorceress and nobody lived happily ever after," Squall mused, his slate-colored eyes transfixed by the commanding unnamed painting. "No wonder it's not up there with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White."
"Oops!" Steffie, who'd still been lounging, rolled over with a start. "I knew I forget something. The guy's name."
"So he wasn't nameless," Squall laughed sardonically. "Lucky him."
"What was it?" Steffie tried to remember. "It was something...French. And long. It was--"
"It wasn't his name," Christina contradicted as she entered. "It was his title. He was 'La Coeur d'un lion.' The Lion-hearted."
"You mean like, the English king?" Steffie thought to ask.
"Yes, like the English king, but not the English king," Christina said, laughing. "So, Squall, did you enjoy the tour?"
"It was great."
Steffie, turning over again, studied Squall for a moment. "You're not very talkative, are you? 'A man of few words.'"
"That's Squall," Christina agreed, as she studied the over-large painting. "I can tell you from years of experience that we're lucky he says as much as he does." She checked her watch. "Listen, we're going to head out early, Steffie, so we can treat Squall to the nonexistent night-life of Coeurtille. You can leave now if you want."
"Thank goodness!" Steffie hopped to her feet, still tugging on the hem of her miniskirt. "Last time you guys left me here early, I saw her on that walkway up there."
Christina sighed. "Really, Steffie."
"Yes, really!" The exuberant woman was now hopping from one feet to the other. "I saw Rione on that walkway at the very top of the castle, the one nobody has figured out how to get to. She was in a long pale-blue dress and she was just...walking back and forth. I. Swear. To. God. Christy!"
Squall and Christina exchanged doubtful looks over Steffie's head. "Whatever you say, dear. Whatever you say."
The next morning, Squall awoke from a troubling dream, almost a nightmare. In his dream, he was stumbling through a darkened castle filled with dark dangerous things which clung to shadows. In one gloved hand, he'd grasped a weapon, its translucent-blue blade eerie in the failing light. He never seemed to reach to his destination, but he continued on, being pulled by a mysterious voice whose words he didn't actually understand but he knew cried out for his help . . .
"Hey, what you doing up so early?" Christina's sleep-swollen eyes blinked as she entered the small kitchen in her pension to find Squall, fully dressed and awake, sipping a cup of coffee as he thought. She ran a hand though her sleep-tousled curls to tame them.
"Something just . . . called to me this morning," Squall told her, smiling at his private joke.
Christina pulled her robe belt tighter as she leaned forward to look out the window. "This place is really beautiful. Almost, well, magical. I bet it's double that for you, this being your ancestral home and all."
Squall gave her a questioning look.
"Well, 'loire' is French," she told him. "This is probably your dad's
Squall shrugged. "I really don't feel some kind of family tie to the land, if that's what you mean, but," he looked out of the window as the sun rose against the outline of the flower-capped fields. "It does have its appeal."
"Well, why don't you go relax in the living room while I cook us up some breakfast? Irvine should be rising from the dead any minute now. You can cut through my work room."
"Okay." Squall refilled his coffee cup and headed toward Christina and Irvine's living room. As he passed through the sunny work room where Christy did most of her delicate restoration, he noticed the painting which sat on the easel, half-covered by a tarp. He felt drawn to the painting and hesitantly pushed away the cover to see it. It was a portrait of a young woman, barely out of her teenage years, with long black hair that fell around her in a cloud as she sat stiffly in a high-backed chair. Her dark-fringed eyes the color of a star-less night sky to explode from the canvas, even through the layers of dirt. It was the only detail which was clear, the rest viewed through a gray mist of age and ruin. Suddenly, the face was familiar as if portrait had lifted a veil in his mind, Squall could see the girl in his mind's eyes, the one whose voice called to him in dreams.
"Hey, Squall, you're . . ." Irvine trailed off as he saw the intense gaze his friend had on the painting. "Everything okay?"
"Oh, yeah," Squall shook himself and turned away from the painting. "It's just that . . . well, this picture must've made an impression on me because this girl was in my dream last night. Strange, huh?"
Irvine furrowed his brow. "Yeah, especially since you didn't even come in here last night."
Squall thought for a moment, remembering that his host was correct. "Well, maybe I saw it somewhere else in the house, because I did dream about her last night. Who is she, anyway?"
Irvine saw the confused look on his friend's face and decided not to mention that the painting was the only one of its kind--anywhere. "That's the legendary Rione de Coeurtille."
Squall looked at the portrait again, and something tugged deep at him, but was gone too quick for him to grasp it. "The Lady in Blue."
" 'She was like an angel, fair and pure of heart; she tried to save the world, but only lost her life.' " Christina's spontaneous recitation startled both men. When they looked at her with blank stares, she added, "That's the description of Rione I found in my research."
Squall turned back to the picture. "Who painted it?"
Christina shrugged. "That's the problem with half of these paintings. No artist, no clue to who might have painted them. But they are gorgeous. I can't wait to get this one cleaned up. I can just sense how great it is."
Squall continued to stare at the heavenly face of the portrait. "Yeah,