Title: Where Love Is
Day/Theme: 24th September/"Almost gothic"
Series: Count Cain
Character/Pairing: Cain, Merry, Riff, implied Riff/Cain (i.e. as much as there ever is)
Notes: Set pre-Godchild, but after Mark of the Red Ram.
The room was dimly lit by flickering candles fixed in heavily wrought cast-iron holders and it did nothing to relieve Graves's sense of unease. The young Count Hargreaves was eyeing him thoughtfully and his steady gaze made Graves want to throw himself out of the large window that – now he saw it – was covered by thick, dark drapes.
"You see," the Count said, his voice silky and as poisoned as the cup of wine Graves had given his wife on her sickbed, "I asked you here today for a very…special reason."
Graves licked his suddenly dry lips and fingered his collar slightly, trying to close it tighter. A pox on the fashion! It was rather chilly in the room, surely the man had heaters? "Yes, my lord?" he enquired, attempting normality. He took a gulp of the wine that the Count had offered him.
"Indeed. As you may have been aware, your wife was a particular friend of mine." The Count smiled in reminiscence. Blast the man! He knew damned well that Graves had known about…that. The look on his wife's face whenever the man – not even that, a bedevilled boy, nothing more – had walked into the room.
"I knew that, yes," he said stiffly. If Hargreaves – and Graves didn't know that he was one, there'd been rumours – oh, yes, there'd been rumours! Looking at the boy, Graves was hard pressed not to believe them. With eyes like that –
"It may interest you to know," and the smile vanished from the Count's face to be replaced by a hard, icy stare, "that I was never her lover."
"Is that so," Graves replied, and felt an icy hand clench around his heart. He sipped his wine again, trying to regain his inner composure.
"It is so." The Count leant back, his right hand coming up to touch his lips. "Therefore, as you see, there was no reason – "
The Count jerked to attention, sitting bolt-upright and his fingers gripped the arm of the sofa he had formerly been reclining on. "Merry?" Graves was treated to the rare sight of Count Hargreaves looking substantially alarmed and relished it.
"Brother, you promised you'd play with me!" A little girl, no more than nine or ten, bounded into the room, her ringlets bouncing with her. She held a ratty teddy bear by the arm in one hand and her mouth was bent in a sulky pout. The Count relaxed almost immediately.
"I will, I swear," he said pleadingly, holding out his hand to seal the vow. "Just as soon as I conclude this business. It's only a small matter, it shouldn't take long."
"You said that last time," argued the girl, the pout receding a little, but only so that the Count could read the unhappiness in her face.
"I know," the Count said apologetically. "But I mean it this time."
"You said that last time, too." The girl glared at him. "I'll slap you if you don't come soon! I spent ages organising this and it's no fun if the guest of honour doesn't come!"
"I'm the guest of honour?" The Count seemed more apprehensive than flattered, but Graves hardly expected anything else, considering what was said about his background. "I – thank you, Merry."
"Hmph! Well." The girl tossed her head. "If you don't come soon, I'm taking you off the guest list completely."
The Count seemed for a moment to contemplate this novel idea with relief. "Please don't," he offered after a barely imperceptible pause. "I would be devastated."
Graves was not expecting the wail that exploded from the girl at the Count's reply. "Brother! How could you say that?"
"What? I didn't mean – Merry, you know I didn't mean that – " The Count appeared to be extremely consternated.
"Yes, you did!" shrieked the girl, stamping her foot. Her face crumpled and flushed scarlet with fury. To Graves's – and apparently, the Count's – horror, her eyes welled up with tears and when she spoke again, there was a sob in her voice. "You hate playing with me, even when you don't have business, you pretend you do so that you don't have to!"
"Merry – " The Count half-rose from the sofa and took a step towards her, then faltered. "Riff, help!" he implored the ceiling.
"Yes, Master Cain." Graves started violently, the voice had come from behind him and he gaped at the butler as he melted away from the shadows and made his way over to the miserable girl. "Mistress Merry, come here." Riff knelt by the girl's side and took her in his arms.
Seemingly emboldened by his servant's attitude, the Count stood properly and went over to his sister and followed Riff's example by kneeling. "I am sorry, Merry," he said quietly. "I don't want to upset you."
"No, you don't," the girl sniffled. "I know where you keep your stuff."
The Count hesitated for a second, then broke into laughter. The girl glared at him, but reluctantly followed suit a few moments later, and they hugged each other. Graves saw the butler conceal a smile.
"There, it's all right," the Count said, tweaking his sister's nose. "I love you, Merry." He leant forward and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. "Riff, can you take her back upstairs?"
"Yes, sir." Riff rose gracefully and helped his mistress up afterwards. "Should I write to the sausage factory to see if they need any donations?"
Astounded, Graves searched the butler's face for signs that he was joking and found none. He glanced at the Count, who also appeared to be deadly serious. "Not today, but you could try and see if the gipsies will take her."
"What?" Merry looked as shocked as Graves felt. "Brother – " Then she caught on. "Brother!" She stuck her tongue out at both of them. "You should both be lucky I don't sell you to – to pirates!"
"Arrr," the Count growled and Merry squeaked and hopped out of the room, giggling helplessly.
"Will that be all, sir?" Riff was smiling, most unprofessional for a butler, but Graves had heard about the Count's household.
"Yes, Riff." The Count was smiling back – and what Graves had heard about the Count's household was a mere nothing compared with what he had heard about the Count himself. They nodded once to each other and Riff departed. "I apologise for the interruption," the Count added to Graves, returning to his seat. "My sister can be a little highly-strung and it's usually best to deal with her immediately."
"I understand," Graves replied coolly, although he didn't.
"Of course." Then, bluntly, as if the Count was tired of playing games, he asked, "Why did you kill Eloise?"
Graves sat up straight. "I did not!"
"Please, Mr Graves." The Count was irritated and it showed on his face. "Not only did you take the poison from my private stores, but it was one of those in which the effects of it are particularly blatant to an expert. The doctor may not have noticed – in fact, I suspect he was very careful not to – but to me? I had barely to glance at her poor corpse to know by what manner – and indeed, the precise method used – Eloise reached her death. It was diabolical, Mr Graves."
"Diabolical!" Graves couldn't help laughing at the stern cast to the Count's features. "My beautiful Eloise caught in your swirling spiral down to hell was diabolical! I only did what I had to, to save her!"
"No," the Count said softly. "You only ensured your own downfall. Eloise was a wonderful woman and far better than you could ever hope to be."
"You would say that." Graves shook his head slowly. "That whore was no better than she ought to be."
"None of us are ever better than that, Mr Graves. Most of us are far worse – and as I said before, Eloise was not my mistress." The Count rose again and went to the drinks cabinet, bringing back a fresh bottle of wine. "Here." He refilled Graves's glass.
"If you think I'm drinking that – " Graves snarled at him. He could already feel his legs numbing.
"Drink from my glass, if it disturbs you so." The Count held out his half-empty glass. Graves snatched it and tossed it down. The Count sighed. "Insult myself if you must. But know that I will not suffer filth spoken against that which belongs to me." He picked up Graves's original glass and sipped from it before handing it over. "I intend to have satisfaction for it soon."
"You'll not get it from me," Graves told him fiercely, gulping the new wine. His hands felt clammy, but he paid it no mind.
"I think I will," said the Count dreamily. "Very soon, in fact."
"Why do you think that?" He blinked, the room seemed to move in the opposite direction from his head.
"Well, for one, I poisoned your wine." Graves thought the Count was smiling, but it was hard to be sure. "Quite liberally, actually."
"But – " His vision blurred and there was suddenly rough carpet beneath his cheek. "But – "
"Ah, yes. I did it beforehand, you understand – in the bottle. All the wine we drank tonight was tainted with taresis. A poison to which I am immune, of course." A warm hand rolled Graves onto his back and pressed against his forehead. "It's fascinating, you know – you're a textbook example. I would write it up for a journal, but – you see the problem."
The last thing Graves ever heard was a low, silky chuckle.
"Riff?" Cain straightened up and brushed off his knees. Riff materialised across from him and immediately began to manoeuvre Graves's corpse into a more manageable position. "We'll want to get rid of it before rigor mortis sets in, I suppose."
"Yes, Master Cain." Riff stopped what he was doing and waited for Cain to speak again. He didn't have to wait long.
"Why does everyone die, Riff? Everyone who loves me, I mean. Eloise was one of the kindest people I have ever met – but she was just the latest in a long procession of the dead." Cain stared at Graves's body. "I think you and Merry are wrong – I must be cursed."
"No, Master Cain." Riff touched Cain's shoulder. "We are not."
There was a long pause, in which Cain gazed at Riff, then finally he gripped Riff's arms. "You love me."
"Yes, Master Cain." Riff rubbed Cain's back through the velvet waistcoat he was wearing. Cain's shoulder-blades were too sharp, Riff thought, he would have to see to that.
"You won't ever leave me." Cain's unnatural eyes bored into Riff, who simply looked back.
"No, Master Cain."
"Riff," Cain whispered, "I'll kill you if you do."
"I know." Riff smiled gently, reassuringly. Then he stepped away and lifted Graves's body carefully and began to carry it away.