A L L
D R E A M S
L A V E N D E R
- Dim Aldebaran -
"The mother left a year ago. Lives in Marseille with the ex-gardener."
The Lost Colony
One unfamiliar with the seasons of southern France might have called it summer.
One unfamiliar with the moods of Minerva might have called her serene.
The skies were a clear blue normally reserved for weddings, or holidays: that wonderful jewel-like shade that artists ached to imitate. Interspersed in the air were birds, slight, dark things that fluttered across the vista as snatches of song drifted in their wake. The rolling hillsides similarly found that particular jewel-like tone, one most famously found on the Emerald Isle itself, but in texture they were wrinkled, like emerald velvet crushed by a sapphire-silk glove against the mold of a glittering silver sea where the velvet hills smoothed.
Minerva slipped the silencer onto the gun.
Not that the weather mattered.
Minerva woke slowly, her mind passing through successive tiers of consciousness. She looked all her eleven years, at first: with a smooth, open brow, lips that curved into a crescent smile, and a particular flush to her cheeks as she enjoyed the final moments of a hazy dream.
One might almost imagine she was laughing.
But the lips set into a thin line, and the brow began to crease with lines of relentless thought and worry. Her head moved to the side, and then to the other, back and forth as if in the throes of nightmare when in fact in the throes of reality.
One might almost imagine she was crying.
By the time her eyes opened, no one could have made the mistake of thinking her a child in anything but form.
Minerva handled the gun with ease; her own design, of course.
Buttons were pushed, bullets inserted. "Watching?"
Her associate nodded, a Monsieur Popil. "Oui, oui…Je l'aime, vraiment…"
Minerva snapped the safety on, and passed it grip-first to Popil. "Don't even think about it. The self-destruct is set for twenty-four hours."
Popil took it, his hand moving over the smooth lines with "Mais moi? I am a man of honor, I would not even dream…"
Minerva's lips twisted. "Yes, yes, the veritable chevalier."
"But of course!" Popil's face was one of wounded honor; she might almost believe him, if she had not just hired him as an assassin.
Minerva made for her private bathroom. Beau had found his way into it, and in an attempted gesture of sweetness he had scrawled 'Joyeux Noël' over her mirror in alternating red and green Sharpie.
She made a face, and attended to her affairs of function regardless. Her body was something of importance, after all, it housed her mind, her mind, and in this body she would be trapped…
…she stared into a reflection broken by green and red slashes. She might not always be trapped in this Château, perhaps not even in this body…
The real question would whether she would always been trapped by her own mind.
Roland Popil was all light words, but he was a hard man. He took the Job seriously, as long as the Job didn't talk back. He tried his best to avoid these situations; and his best was the best, at least in France, since it led to uncomplicated procedures that never resulted in untidy situations, witnesses etc., for either him or the employer to handle with obscene sums of money, as was often the case.
His impeccable tidiness had gotten him noticed in the right circles: and in the right circles, he would be recommended to the wrong people.
Paradizo had picked him up when on his way into the bar—it was one of those nights where his conscience had come out its corner kicking and screaming, and the only way to send it back was with a few stiff drinks.
She had been… quite convincing, for a little girl, that this was the Job for him. Damn little girls. They can always read you not like a book but like a newspaper, picking out the blaring headlines and pressing their case quite convincingly until all you can do was submit and bear their tight little smirks and their bright little eyes with a self restraint the French are hardly known for possessing.
Paradizo knew of Monsieur Conscience. She also knew of Monsieur Greed. Now, the two really can get along quite famously, all Monsieur Popil needs to do is one last Job and he will never need to do another one again… oui, Monsieur, you may spend the rest of your days praying your immortal soul, after this…
After she had left him a phone number, he had continued right on into the bar, and sent Monsieur Conscience to Hell with a drunken laugh.
Minerva selected her clothes with all the effort of one in a dream: too-big, too-new black shoes, a pleated sable skirt, and a red turtleneck that looked more like Valentines than Christmas. To clarify, she selected a gauche Christmas tree pendant and strung it around her neck, and bound her hair back with a green scrunchie.
She stared into the mirror. She was a creature of the season today, all high, false colors, joyeux noël scrawled across her face not as a mere label, but as an accusation.
Paradizo had offered her expertise on planning the Job, and he had accepted, more out of curiosity than laziness. Paradizo, she was not a child, but for all her cold words on angles, methods, procedures, he could not rid himself of the feeling that, somehow, he was making her even less of a child through allowing her to carry through… surely, surely this was but a child with a child's whim…
…but Monsieur Conscience was locked in its corner, and Monsieur Popil would not for his soul let it out until after.
'After' came after 'now'; and 'now' was now.
Roland cocked the gun, and slipped from the Citroën.
All about him was the scent of lavender, drowning him in another world.
Minerva made her way from her rooms; steady, but for the occasional thought like a bird, there and gone across her face. She could not trace its origin, fibromyalgia, but there was almost the scent of lavender in the house, lingering from an era long past.
In the quiet world of a Christmas dawn, she could not help but feel every pain and sorrow like a knife, gentle upon her skin but still so sharp, still so strange, that she could not understand…
Mother had left; why should any of her linger?
Minerva closed her eyes, leaning against a wall in a sudden weakness.
Mother had left them with more than the scent of mere lavender…
Father—Father had not been the same, Father—oh Father—she had left him with a silence, that—that siren, she had promised him happiness and had given him that, yes, given him that for so many years with her dreams of lavender but then suddenly Father hadn't been enough for her, no, Father didn't smile enough or Father spent too much time at work or Father was late to breakfast or Father didn't have time to walk in the gardens—
She blinked back the sudden sting, and continued on her way.
There were no gardens, now.
It was an easy entry. The back door was unlocked, and the shadows were good to him, bathing him in the peculiar silence of Christmas eve.
Even Monsieur Conscience was silent.
The place was a dream, all pale purple and gray, wide windows framed by formless curtains that drifted across the whitewashed walls with every breeze, furniture that stood as pale ghosts with their wood bleached with age and smoothed with much use and then, and then, the scent of lavender, suffusing it all…
Roland took a deep, shuddering breath. Paradizo had assured him that the security cameras had been dealt with, that she needed only a man to pull the trigger, do not worry Monsieur Popil, it is a simple task that I could entrust to a child…
Roland breathed in deeply, and continued on through the house of lavender dreams.
At the bottom of the stairs she was greeted by an indignant Beau, arms crossed, lips pressed into a petulant frown. "You're late."
"Maybe if I hadn't had to squint through graffiti—"
"Maybe if you didn't spend all your time looking into mirrors—"
"But then," Father interrupted, coming down the stairs behind Minerva, "she would have never seen your tribute to this grand morning."
Beau squeaked in delight and scampered up the stairs to meet Father in a hug. He was such a wonderful man, Father, always making the best of the worst for them, for her, she could see it that he suffered, in the bruising of his eyes, in the sagging of his smile, in the sallowing of his skin, but still, how he tried…
Minerva lifted her eyes to his and smiled at Father: smiling not for the morning but for the dawn.
He came to the master suite: the bed was framed by those large windows and their formless curtains that moved and changed with the wind drifting in and drowning him with the scent of lavender. And there, there on bed, there it was, the Job…
He walked, crookedly, brokenly, from the doorway to the bedside. The Job. It. It plural… breathing, moving slow and soft beneath pale sheets, breathing, each smiling in a dream that would never end, it would never end for them, it would never end, they would never even know—
They lay there, breathing, and he could only—
—he could only—
The gun cocked, and he fired, two shots into the ceiling, plaster falling about him and onto the bed. The silencer stifled the sound of the shot, but not the crackle of breaking plaster. He watched as if from a distance as the couple stirred, eyes opening then widening with shock as they saw the man looming over their bed with a gun in his hand.
They did not scream, they did not stir: they only stared in silence, and beneath the sheets Roland could see hands twine and clutch.
"Get up," he said heavily, and when they did not, he repeated, louder, "LEVEZ-VOUS."
The female sat up, clutching at the sheets; the male followed suit. Their faces were not hard but steady, they were not afraid…
He moved to the window and ripped the curtains off with two intruding tearing sounds, speaking quickly. "You need to leave. Now. Leave, go to—Aix-en-Provence, or—Marseilles, just get away from here. You won't find mercy from the next, you need to leave—"
They sat up mutely. The room stank of lavender. They dressed hurriedly, drenched in the pale shadows of the room. They did not ask questions; they already knew who, what, why, they knew, and though this knowledge did not give them comfort they knew questioning it would not give them comfort, either…
Roland took the torn curtains and set them in a heap on the bed. The couple stared: Roland took notice of their appearance as if for the first time. The woman was middle-aged, but had the air of a far younger woman, her hair a pale gold and her skin like new porcelain… and her carriage was not of a queen but of an infanta, with grace and poise yet a freedom that could never be afforded to queens… And the man? Young, agelessly so, with pale hair and paler eyes, his countenance similarly free, and surely, his conscience as well…
Queens did not belong in a château but on a lavender farm, to pursue dreams that simply could not be afforded by true royalty.
Minerva followed Father and Beau to the parlor. The decorations were professional: gauche and rococo, befitting Paradizo wealth.
Before, Mother, Mother—she would string fresh flowers across every doorway, and the tree, she'd go out in the grounds with Father and Beau and her and they would find one growing wild in the forest, and they'd hold hands in a circle and they would ask the tree's forgiveness and then they would cut it down, taking turns with the handsaw, and then drag it back to the château all laughter and smiles, and Beau, he would try and drag it by himself and they would all laugh since they all knew one day he would bear a different burden, though Mother never laughed as loud—
The Christmas world blurred around her, and she closed her eyes.
Father hadn't married Mother for the money, Mother had been aristocracy, but she had been such a fine young woman, and Father, he had been such a fine young man, they had met at a Univérsité function, she the enchanting damsel, he the dashing medical student. They had courted in the matter of high courtly love, and when he asked her hand, she too willingly gave him both the title he never cared for and the life he had never asked for, binding him to it as she refused to be bound.
Mother, always asking Father to go to the gardens with her, s'il te plaît and then s'il vous plaît, and then not asking at all. At first, they all thought she was alone out there in the gardens, wandering from display to glorious display, and maybe she was in the beginning, but then she found the gardener, or the gardener found her, but either way Minerva would see them as they first stumbled into each other, pretending it was an accident, and then meeting, and then—then—
Father. Did Father ever notice? No—he had to leave so often for his work, and even at home there were always papers. Papers. Always, always papers. But it was all for their good, would could Mother not understand, why did she have to leave with the gardener and go—
A touch to her shoulder. "Minnie?"
Minerva blinked, rapidly. She was losing herself; this was not the time for such things.
She squeezed Father's hand at her shoulder, and smiled at him. "Désolée… I was… thinking." She smiled again, and walked into the parlor. The Christmas Tree dominated the place with its last wild rush of verdancy in death.
Roland withdrew matches from a pocket. "It will need to be hot. Otherwise—"
"—they would look for bones," the woman replied. She had finished dressing into loose, nondescript jeans and a sweater, and her hair, a tumbled halo around her head, had been pinned up.
Roland nodded. She knew the game, perhaps too well, and the game had not been expected in her dream anymore—"It will not all burn. Parts. Enough for—your family here. They will continue on."
The man's hands, hardened by labor, clenched at his clothes. "Mais Colette, ma famille—"
The woman turned to the man, and held him softly, firmly, lovingly. Roland watched, distanced from the scene, numbed from their emotions. "We will continue, we will continue," the woman said fiercely, "we will grow a new garden, we will grow a new family…"
"And Paradizo?" the man asked, suddenly despairing. "He would follow us to the ends of the world, he would—"
"She," the woman corrected softly, releasing him and stepping away. Her eyes were drawn with grief and understanding.
He dropped the matches. The silence burned.
Minerva curled in her chair and settled to watch, her eyes half-lidded but still wary. Beau was all squeals and giggles as he opened his largest present: a miniature car. He hadn't even looked at the card except to give it a perfunctory sweep for euros, instead digging frenziedly for the keys through the crumpled sea of wrapping paper.
She smiled, more out of habit than anything. Beau would hardly be able to part from such a thing—until he broke it, that is, like all his other toys—and so it was the perfect place to plant a GPS locator in it. Asides from tracking the vehicle to exotic places, it was high-precision enough that she would be able to track him throughout the house. Perhaps she could not stop him from interrupting her, but at least she could get forewarning.
Since Father would not let her plant locators into their clothing—or better yet, into themselves—this was the best she could get without directly violating his edict. A pity; but for all his irrationality, she could not help but answer in turn with irrational adoration…
She could not bring herself to irritation; he was Father, he was God, and she loved him so.
The fire was immediate, racing through the torn curtains on the bed to the sheets, and then to the wood, so quickly that even Roland found himself by the hunger of the flames.
He took the woman by the arm and led her towards the door, quickly. He heard something like a sob behind him as he took them through the corridors quickly, smoke billowing behind them. Somewhere, a fire alarm began its alien wail, and voices, too: "Colette, Colette! Où te trouves?" "Mon Dieu, aidons-nous!" "Jacques, Jacques, parle lui !
Roland blotted them out with the thunder of their steps, racing through the corridors as the voices rose in terrible chorus with the dull roar of the inferno behind them.
Yet it was not the sound of the voices but the scent of burning lavender that would haunt him, years later.
Eventually, Beau was forced to examine the card more carefully. After, he turned to her accusingly. "Où est le clé?"
She withdrew the key from her pocket. When he made a lunge for it, she pulled it behind her, out of his reach. "Ask Father."
Beau directed his finest set of les yeux chien towards Father, whose face melted into a warm smile. "Minnie, let him have the keys."
Minerva met his eyes. There was nothing there but warmth, warmth that flooded her with a sudden shame—
She passed Beau the keys; and he was a flurry of squeals and giggles as the engine started with a dull roar.
She forced a smile at her own genius.
Roland ushered them to the Citroën. They took the back without complaint. As they rolled down the long road, they did not look back; they were tucked down in their seats to avoid the awry camera.
He took pains to avoid the firefighters, already roaring up the rural backroads; at their approach, he ducked into the nearest driveway and shut the lights, waiting until they were long past and the only sound was the distant roar of an inferno and the scream of the sirens.
The journey was silent but for the sound of muffled whispers: Roland, for all his professional ear, could not make out what anxiously optimistic words passed between them. That he was not included struck a foreign part of his heart: and so when he finally stopped at a bus stop, he wordlessly passed them a wad of euros from his wallet.
"Merde," murmured the man, with all the resignation of a beggar, refusing.
"Merci," murmured the woman, with all the grace of a queen, accepting.
They would make their way to Marseille, he was sure: as he drove from the stop, watching their silhouettes merge into one with distance, he could not help but remember the scent of burning lavender, though he was not there; and he could not help but remember the scent of a home, though he would never see it.
With the moon, his face shone, and he drove on to a pale dawn.
"The blue one," Father prompted, "with the ribbon."
Minerva, though reluctant to leave her perch, moved and selected hers. Amongst the voluminous tissue paper, she found a music box, silver with an amethyst inlay the glinted and glittered as she turned it over in her hands.
She opened, and the sound of a Chopin found her with an ache in her heart. A ballerina tentatively turned in the center in slow pirouettes, and with it, Minerva's face changed, and a sting and a burn came to her eyes like a wilting flame.
Mother's music box.
…and through Nocturne came the scent of lavenders, and she was all but lost.
Roland made the call from some nameless roadside on the way to Paris.
Paradizo listened in silence.
"Ils sont morts," Roland repeated, "They are dead."
His voice shook with lies.
"Merci," Paradizo murmured eventually.
Her voice shook with tears.
There was the snap of the line: closure on the matter. There was nothing more to discuss.
Roland's hand shook: was it fear, and what for? For him, for the couple, or for the child trapped within Paradizo?
Roland closed his eyes.
The money would be in his account, if not already then soon.
The man and the woman would be on their bus to Marseille.
Paradizo would be settling to breakfast.
And this small pawn, Roland Popil?
—he started the car, wondering if the bars would be open on Christmas morning.
Minerva had no words for lavender.
She had never had words for Mother, nothing but those—things, those accusations, wild, treacherous things that bit and screamed at the lavender lady, strange, willful things that made rage from a garden and wrath from a flower, those—those—
She opened her eyes, the Nocturne trickling to an end. Father stared at her with concern. "Minnie…? Je crois—"
"—que je le voudrais," Minerva finished, and smiled. "C'est très beau... Je l'adore."
Father could never tell when a female lied; his voice broke into a relieved smile. "That is good."
Minerva balanced the music box on the arm of chair, and examined her Father carefully. He did not look like a man who had mourned for his wife; but she knew, she knew, even if he didn't... she knew how Mother would have haunted him otherwise, she knew, she knew…
She knew she had done right.
She raised herself from her chair, and smiled. "Merry Christmas, Father."
A phone rang.
For the Christmas challenge at Criminality. Evidement, un peu retard, non?
Hope you enjoyed. Goodness knows I procrastinated about posting this long enough. My attempt at a 3D Minerva... and a smattering of OCs that wouldn't go away. And gratuitous motifs and an awkward knowledge of French and French culture.