Phileas Fogg's polished shoes sank soundlessly into the rich brocade rugs that lined the corridors of Buckingham Palace. Only a summons from Her Majesty herself would have brought him out of his cozy Saville Row rooms on this bitter December evening. Now he had shed his greatcoat, hat and gloves and was following a footman to one of the smaller, less formal of the Queen's audience chambers. He had made this journey any number of times, but seldom with less idea of the reason behind the royal summons.
Suddenly his pulse quickened, and a moment later his cousin Rebecca came into view. She glided towards him down the opposite end of the corridor, as lithe and graceful as a cat. She was a vision in purple silk, her red hair fiery even in the dim light.
They met at the door to the Queen's receiving chamber. As the footman opened the heavy doors and began to announce them, Phileas cocked his head at his cousin and raised an eyebrow. Rebecca frowned and shook her head slightly. So, she had no more idea of the reason behind their summons than he had himself. Phileas shot her a swift look as she moved past him into the room, then stepped to her side to make his bows before the Queen.
A fire cracked along one wall, banishing the chill, and two attendants flanked it unobtrusively. The room was filled with precious curios from the world over, but Phileas found himself unable to take his eyes from Rebecca. It was practically the first time he had seen her since they had returned from their most recent mission, an extraordinarily harrowing experience that had nearly forced them apart forever. He was infinitely relieved to see her looking as cool and collected as ever he remembered.
The Queen, seated upon a low couch, was speaking. "Phileas, Miss Fogg, we thank you both for your attendance upon us here tonight."
"Your Majesty," Phileas responded, bowing automatically.
"Miss Fogg, I trust you are well? Fully recovered from your recent travail?" the Queen inquired delicately, having been made aware by Ambassador del Fuego of the Foggs' ordeal on the haunted ship.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Rebecca replied, touched by the royal interest in her person.
"We are most pleased. When we heard from Ambassador del Fuego what you had been forced to endure, well - this is, in fact, why we have summoned you here this evening. In view of these terrible recent events and of your exemplary service to the throne and the realm, we have in mind to release you from your duties to us. To permit you to marry and take up a more…normal position in society."
At the word 'marry' Phileas glanced sharply at his cousin. Her lips were pale and tightly compressed, and her normally fair complexion had turned ashen, as though she had seen a ghost. No, not a ghost, but something far more horrifying.
The Queen continued, "We have heard on your behalf the suit of Mr. Jeremy Owen, the younger son of Lord Beaufort. We believe you are acquainted with his family. They find the match most desirable and wish to propose a summer wedding."
Rebecca swallowed hard, momentarily incapable of speech. If she had been forced to…kill… Phileas on that awful night a week ago, she had no idea what would have become of her. A swift death at the end of an opponent's sword or knife would have been a devoutly desirable outcome at the time. But he had been spared - and had forgiven her - and their lives had continued on as before. Until now.
"Your Majesty honors me," she murmured faintly, casting her eyes to the rich brocade carpet at her feet, "far more richly than I deserve. But - I beg you to allow me to continue to carry out my duty to Your Majesty for as long as I can be of service."
There was silence for a long moment while this astonishing request was considered.
"What say you, Phileas?" the Queen demanded finally.
Phileas, though a distant cousin, was her closest male kin. Rebecca knew all too well that in society's eyes, he was solely and exclusively responsible for her. A word from him to Her Majesty would override even Rebecca's deepest held wishes.
Rebecca's heart pounded loudly in her throat, as she waited as if on the edge of a precipice for her cousin's reply. She clenched her hands tightly in her skirt in an attempt to calm herself. She trusted Phileas with her honor, with her life. She knew beyond doubt he would happily die for her. In a remote corner of her mind she even held the suspicion that from time to time she might be all that kept him alive. But if at one stroke he could forever remove her from the path of harm, would he do so even at the ruin of all she was? She knew him so well, how much he needed her, she feared he might. She trusted him in everything, apparently, save that.
Phileas cleared his throat hoarsely. "Your Majesty," he began, "I am deeply honored by your interest in my cousin's affairs. I am grateful indeed that your concern for her well-being, and her future, matches my own."
He paused, choosing his next words as carefully as he would his path through a minefield. "Yet it is the future of the British Empire of which I must speak. As the recent events you alluded to just now remind us, the threats to Your Majesty and this great realm are fiendish and omnipresent. You are aware of course of Rebecca's record in Your Majesty's Service, and of the - singular - skills she brings to her work. Both, in my experience, are unparalleled. If you will permit me to say, it would be a great disservice to Your Majesty to be deprived of my cousin's unique talents and her tremendous devotion to duty. A duty, I must add, that she carries out on behalf of my entire family. I beseech Your Majesty to permit us to continue as we are."
He held his breath as the Queen's expression changed from benign expectation to puzzlement, and thence to a slight frown. Her Majesty was wholly unaccustomed to having her largesse refused, no matter how politely. For an endless moment she said nothing, while in the deepening silence the fire crackled and popped like the roar of cannon in their ears.
Beside him, Rebecca stood still as a stone. Her knuckles where she clutched her skirt were white, but Phileas didn't dare reach out to her.
"Very well," Her Majesty said at last, and both Foggs began to breathe again. "We will consider the matter closed."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Rebecca replied fervently.
Phileas opened the drawing room door, welcoming the warmth of the fire Passpartout had laid. The silent carriage ride back to Saville Row had been endless, with Rebecca sitting beside him motionless and withdrawn. Her face in the frosty winter's night was haunted, and he didn't know which of the two chilled him more.
He took off his hat and gloves, acutely aware of his cousin's presence just behind him.
After a long moment she stirred, closing the door behind her and crossing the room to where he stood before the fireplace. She laid her hand on his arm. "Thank you, Phileas."
Phileas stood silently, watching his cousin with a concern he could barely conceal. Her hand, where it lay on his, trembled slightly. He had never seen Rebecca so rattled.
"If Her Majesty had insisted," Rebecca went on quietly, staring at the hearth, "I don't know what I would have done."
She raised her eyes to his. "You do understand, don't you, Phil?" she asked. Her great grey eyes, normally so lucid and full of life, were clouded and remote, envisioning a horror that chilled her to the core. "I couldn't bear to be shut away in…in the country somewhere, sewing pillows and wiping noses. I would go mad."
"I do understand, Rebecca," he said very softly. For the first time in all the years he had known her, she looked fragile. He could not bear it. He would give his life's blood to spare her pain, real or implied, now and for as long as he drew breath. "You are – nonpareil. I would never stand by while you were forced into a marriage that would make you any less than you are. I would never ask that."
Rebecca, her defenses down, her senses heightened as she searched her cousin's face for re-assurance, caught the faint hint of bitterness that tinged his words. Ah, it wasn't marriage in general that he meant, but something far more personal.
'I would never ask –' No, he would never ask, never force her to choose between refusing him or giving up the life she loved.
The realization brought Rebecca back to herself. Phileas was always there for her, supporting, guiding, and at those rare times when the occasion demanded, comforting. And he never asked anything of her in return, save that she have a care for her life because he valued it. Normally she chaffed at his concerns and sensibilities, resented being bullied into taking extra precautions. But tonight, tonight he had the opportunity to be the perfect gentleman and deliver her to safety, and he had deliberately stood aside. Deliberately backed her up, against the wishes of the Queen herself.
If he was willing to go so far to protect her independence – if it was so, could there, perhaps, be some way forward for them both? She had never even dared to hope.
"It isn't the idea of marriage I object to, Phileas," she said tentatively, taking her courage in both hands and reaching out to him from beyond the security of the walls she had painstakingly built between them, "only the control it gives the man over the woman's life."
"You mean you see marriage as a partnership?" Phileas asked lightly, praying that his careless tone masked the desperation with which he sought her answer.
"If it could be an equal partnership – if it could be that…" Rebecca breathed, stepping closer to his side. Her eyes locked with his, and she placed both hands gently on his lapels. The very air ached between them.
A door closed at the back of the house and footsteps sounded in the hall.
"Master?" Passpartout's voice shattered the moment.
Phileas stepped away from Rebecca with a quick frown. "In here, Passpartout."
He glanced down, noting he still held his gloves and hat, and tossed them onto the nearest chair. With a determined movement he strode over to the whisky decanter on the sideboard, but instead of lifting it paused, then rubbed his long sensitive fingers thoughtfully over the heavy crystal.
Rebecca slowly lowered her hands to her sides. It took her a moment to find her voice again. "It's been a long evening," she noted finally, and was relieved to hear herself sound relatively normal. "I need to get an early start tomorrow, so I'll bid you and Passpartout good night, Phileas."
"Good night, Rebecca," Phileas replied softly. Turning to face her then he smiled, one of his rare, genuine smiles, untouched by the shadows of the past. Her heart lifted, and all at once she found herself able to smile a little in return.
As she reached the door Passpartout opened it from the other side, as though he had been waiting for her. "Miss Rebecca," he greeted her, with a click of the heels and a slight bow.
"Passpartout," Rebecca acknowledged, slipping lightly past him toward the staircase.
Across the room, Phileas barely heard his valet tidy away his hat and gloves and bank up the fire. He stood motionless over the decanter, lost in thought, replaying over and over again in his mind the conversation that had just taken place. In it there had been, for just a brief instant, a glimpse of a future that held promise instead of emptiness. Phileas Fogg would watch the sun rise tomorrow with just a hint of…hope.