She who called herself Morrigan Aensland could smell, she believed, the souls of the long-dead upon the breeze, the window of her rented Renault rolled down to let in the night air, her arm slung over the edge of the driver's side door while she steered one-handed. The bright lights of her dashboard provided a colorful contrast to the darkness outside, broken only by the regular flash of a distant lighthouse, lost and muffled in mist. The moon had set, and the sun was due to rise soon. In the meantime, she recreated in her mind the fleeting images that whipped past her senses like the painted lines of the pavement beneath her wheels. Armies had encamped here, marching to and fro. Ships had ventured up and down this coast since history began. The memory of each one was marred by death, the often violent, senseless death that in the past was always close at hand. A musical group called "Autour de Lucie" played softly on the radio, the volume turned down low, an oddly incongruous soundtrack to her mood, feeling the vast gulf of history washing against her just as the breakers washed against the shore below the cliff across which the highway ribboned in gently unfolding arcs. It was a history, however, that was highly impersonal. A thing she approached calmly and appraisingly, as she had approached her clients that evening at the small restaurant at the outskirts of Nantes.
"The salvation of souls," she had said, her voice as clipped and professional as the business suit she wore and the bun atop her head, "will, in the new century, be the property of those with the greatest access." Her presentation was met by the skeptical gaze of her latest prospective customers, the archbishop of Chambery and the various prelates of his staff. She had, of course, the advantage that, to a man, despite the vows of chastity endemic to their faith, they found their gazes drifting to the curve of her neck, the swell of her chest, her arresting cerulean eyes... To each, she rejoined with a cursory, if sympathetic glance, having the good grace not to obviously exploit their only too-human weakness. In such a way she could usually earn their gratitude, as well as their admiration. "Imagine the millions of people, a number that grows larger every moment, as more and more sign up for internet access." Her hands had clasped together as she leaned forward, recrossing her legs; from his vantage point, a lucky abbe had the chance to briefly glimpse a hose-clad thigh. "Let's face it," she'd said, waving a hand. "Couch potatoes. All of them. And why?" Her head tilted, eyes searching the faces before her, who remained happily mute. "Lack of motivation. Or rather, lack of inspiration." A smile. "None feel that passion for Our Lord and Savior that is the guiding light of your lives, and the faithful of your congregation. They simply haven't been exposed to it. So how does one get them exposed? In days gone by, this job was done by missionaries." She'd shrugged her shoulders. "I had some contract work last week for a Mormon pastor, in the USA? His nose," she went on, holding a fist over her face, "was a great big plum, broken from so many doors slamming against it." Scattered laughter. How enchanting they found her. "No, gentlemen, your eminence. The new missionaries will be online. Coding web-based content to dazzle the souls crying out for guidance. Content produced with love, with a light shining in the heart of their programmers, inspired by the Holy Spirit." Another dazzling smile as she pulled off her glasses, handing out prospecti to each curate seated at her table. "I have here some demographics from other diocese in the United States and England, charting the success of the websites we designed with their needs firmly in mind." The archbishop's eyebrows had raised sharply, flipping through the pages. Morrigan knew, at that moment, that it was all over. Some professional aspect of her character, however, couldn't resist driving it home. "Considering that these are primarily Protestant countries, I think the success rate speaks for itself." The archbishop nearly jumped out of his chair when Morrigan impulsively leaned over, placing a delicate, long-fingered hand upon his wrist. "Imagine the great things you could accomplish in France, your Eminence," she'd said, staring into his eyes. "Your people, these good French men and women, want to be good Catholics. They've simply forgotten how. You need to get to them where they live, hidden in their dark rooms, treading water in the sea of information. You need to be their lighthouse."
The speech was spontaneous, as they all are. If the clients believed her presentation was rehearsed and forced, she wouldn't be nearly so effective. Bit by bit she won them to her side; and with each conquest, she came that much closer to consolidation. All of the world's religions, slowly but surely allowing their technological needs to be handled by a single source, surreptitiously gathering their own power to itself, slowly but surely influencing their policy and even their doctrine. It was a slow, subtle means of conquest. People like Morrigan plan for the long-term.
As she drives past one such lighthouse, a real one as opposed to a metaphor, seeing the vast cones of light spill into nothingness beyond the rocks of their lonely promontories, she wonders if perhaps some psychic emanation of this evening's ride had made a ripple in her mind, causing her to think of such imagery. This and other leaps of logic occurred to her as she drove, her mind occupying itself as the hours unwound like the ribbon of highway in front of her, as featureless and indistinct as the rest of the countryside save for the white stripe in the center of the road she followed.
As the car climbed a hill, the road moving inland as the cliffs smoothed out into a rolling series of plateaux, without thinking she let her heel-clad foot ease off the accelerator, the car slowing. She turned the wheel, letting the car roll onto the shoulder, before putting the Renault in park and setting the brake. For a moment she sat there, staring through the windshield, her hands in her lap, before opening the door; the interior beeped as she slipped out of her heels, tossing them back in the car before shutting the door. Crossing to the seaward side of the road, toes slithering through the moist grass, she made her way down the hillside toward the shore, pondering that usually one finds the scenery familiar before one remembers where one has seen it. In this case, the two events happened simultaneously.
Once upon a time, in the Year of Our Lord 1801, on the western coast of France overlooking the Bay of Biscay, was the seaside town of Beauvines, neither large nor small, lovely nor ugly. It was all the town the inhabitants' needed. Even as they complained about the weather, the price of grain, the politics of far-off Paris, or the sheer lack of excitement in their part of the country, they never once had cause to complain of the town itself. The town proper climbed the gently sloping hill to the plains beyond, where farmers grew the wheat, barley and other grains they would sell in the markets of Brest; or, one could also say it descended to the docks, home of the various fishing boats that plied their trade in the coastal waters. It was all in where one was standing.
The town had a small church, presided over by a modest town priest who grew petunias (he tried his best, anyway) in the accompanying small garden. The town had a town hall, presided over by the mayor, a plump middle-aged man who had sworn undying allegiance to His Most Catholic Majesty King Louis XVI of France upon taking office. Of course when officials of the Directory had visited the town for a tax assessment, he'd then sworn undying loyalty to the Republic. Most of his citizenry were inclined to believe that such quick thinking had saved Beauvines from much trouble, and were quite satisfied with his job performance. In fact, ever since the Directory had been dissolved by the Consulate, the mayor had been anxiously awaiting a visit from representatives to whom he could swear undying loyalty yet again. Just to get everything on record, of course. No one ever questioned his loyalty. It was solid and dependable to anyone who cared enough to ask for it. His steady and able leadership had ensured that no one ever took an interest in Beauvines. "With any luck," the mayor had told his anxious people whenever disturbing news reached them from the rest of the country during the Revolution, "history will pass our little town by. After all, what would anyone want with a little village like Beauvines?" Such humble sentiments, rather than met with outraged civic pride, were received with due appreciation for their practicality.
The town had a blacksmithy, a post office, a tannery, a few shops, a few taverns, an inn (run by the aforesaid mayor, his generous wife, and five fair daughters, to whom he was utterly devoted, and just as utterly devoted to finding husbands for them to get them out of the house), a small school for children of the local gentry and the bourgeois, an apothecary, a tailor's, a lampwright's, a confectioner's, and a shipwright's shop, and a modestly numerous number of houses, along with other amenities of a picturesque but otherwise unremarkable and really quite boring French coastal town.
The town of Beauvines had one distinct advantage, however: it had a music teacher. Of piano and violin, specifically, charging modestly for her lessons and even less to those who wished their children to have knowledge of music but had little money to pay for it. A comparatively recent arrival, she'd moved into the small cottage formerly occupied by one M. de Coursin, who'd built the cozy little house with his own money. He had styled himself a writer searching for the peace and quiet to write his great works of literature, but had left for Paris to join the Army and seek adventure after two weeks of sitting at his desk and staring out the window. As luck would have it, he found a buyer in the sudden arrival by midnight carriage of one Madameoiselle Marguerite Morgaine d'Ains-la-terre, as she'd styled herself, appearing in the inn one evening in the autumn of 1798, soaked to the skin in a black cloak, her only baggage a valise containing a few expensive dresses, a purse sizable enough to purchase the cottage and surrounding land, and a genuine Stradivarius violin. Rumors, largely groundless, had appeared shortly after the madameoiselle's arrival: she was the mistress of a Director, who had been deposed by the Consulate and eliminated. She was an aristocrat, perhaps even a member of royalty such as the Duchess of Angouleme herself, the only surviving daughter of Marie-Antoinette, who simply wanted to live anonymously, away from painful memories of friends and family claimed by Mme. La Guillotine. She was a famous actress, dancer, or courtesan, retiring on the vast wealth she'd earned on the merits of her beauty. Some said she herself was an agent of the Consulate, reporting on subversive activity in the town's Department.
It is only human nature, in fact, that rumors would grow to surround the lovely madameoiselle, for she was a rare creature indeed. Citizens of the town would engage her in conversation, finding themselves enraptured by her long blond curls, her sapphire blue eyes, fair skin, and the gentle harmonies of her mellifluous voice, and find themselves unable to bring themselves to confront her about her origins, so charming was her speech, pleasant her company, affable her manner, and of course, stunning her beauty. In fact, ultimately it was she herself who occasionally gave details of her past. "Of late I had led a somewhat rootless existence, traveling in the South and East," she once said, her eyes growing distant for a moment, before returning to animation. "Here in Beauvines I wish to put down roots and end my wanderings, now that peace has returned." From this, the town gossips deduced that she'd had some connection with the Army, perhaps as an intrepid nurse, or, as the more cynical would claim with raised eyebrows, a 'lady of the garrison'.
"You're both wrong," said the more thoughtful. "Consider her knowledge of music! Quite obviously she was a performer, entertaining our troops in the salons of commandeered houses, cheering their melancholy and providing them a tender glimpse of the comforts of home. Hers is a beauty untouched by baseness."
It was understood by the townspeople that the Madameoiselle d'Ains-la-terre had a certain amount of wealth, but was obliged to find a steady source of income so that she might live in comfort. Discreet inquiries among the townspeople had yielded profitable results: soon a trickle of the sons and daughters of the town's gentry were her first students in the arts of music. The enthusiasm of the children impressed their peers, and their elders, and soon that trickle was a steady stream, which was about all the town could produce. As time went on, she became an organic part of the town of Beauvines, a fixture of its rhythms and cadences, as a precious objet d'art is the centerpiece of a museum exhibit, or a magnificent jewel is the showpiece, if not the center, of a crown. Far from being jealous, the ladies of the town were charmed by her respectful mien, ladylike ways, impeccable character and virtue, and eagerness to participate in their activities, as well as the admiration of their children. The gentlemen doffed their hats and sighed to themselves at her beauty, but found themselves completely at ease in her conversation. The mayor's famous five daughters adored her, and sought her advice, and soon His Honor found himself indebted to the madameoiselle for not only playing matchmaker for two of his daughters to their young beaux, but arranging favorable terms for their dowries. "Truly an angel," the town priest was heard to say on occasion, for the madameoiselle dutifully attended every Mass, and by her piety encouraged others to follow her example. Her very presence seemed to bring light to everything in her vicinity; even his petunias had started growing.
In fact it was as if, in subtle ways, the entire character of the town had changed, for the better. No longer did they feel like a lonely windswept hamlet between a vast ocean on one side and a dangerous continent full of war and terror on the other, but more like a cozy, content little corner of the world. Farmers started losing less of their livestock to predators and theft. No longer did the occasional fishing boat never come home. Bandits and robbers, so dangerous even in the enlightened era of the Republic, began to inexplicably steer clear of Beauvines and its environs. One night the daughter of a farmer had reported being accosted by a dirty, unkempt drifter dressed in rags, but that before anything dire could happen, the man turned bone-white, as if he'd seen a ghost, and ran off into the darkness screaming at the top of his lungs. A similar situation had occurred a month later when a detachment of soldiers had swaggered into Beauvines, bivouacked just outside town and demanded food, drink, provisions and various seedy entertainments. The town had done the best it could to provide whatever it was able, within reason - the townspeople's daughters had been instructed to lock themselves in their bedrooms for their own safety. However, that very evening, for no apparent reason, the soldiers were seen to wake abruptly in the middle of the night, pack their gear, and take off at a rapid pace to the North. No one could find an explanation for this behavior, but then again, its very desirability made questioning their good fortune seem like looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. The local boys claimed it was because the troop had caught wind of their plan to teach the soldiers a lesson in manners, and the sissified Paris pansies had no wish to match fists with the sons of the hearty West.
In any event, Beauvines had become a marvelous place to live. A town with music, and poetry, and literature, and a love of living, where there was always something to do. Lovers met, and discovered passions they'd never known they had hid within them. Orators harangued the crowds at town hall meetings about nothing in particular, national politics and the like, but did it so well that crowds erupted in applause, cries of approval, and copious vivats. The faithful wept at Mass out of love for the Lord. Local festivals such as the harvest were enjoyed more intensely than ever before, townspeople of all ages dancing around the towering bonfires, feeling closer to their fellows than ever before, never imagining that a fire could be so bright, or they could be so happy. Never was the sea or sky so blue, the grass so green, the sun so warm and friendly.
It was such a day in high summer when Madameoiselle Marguerite had no students that morning. She'd resolved instead to venture the short walk into town to visit the grocer's, that she might pick up supplies for her recently neglected larder; as of late, she and the other townspeople had spent evenings on the beach, roasting pigs upon spits over the sand and under the stars while the children splashed and cavorted in the water well into the night. The walk was pleasant, the cricket's chip measuring the pace of her easy-going stroll, smiles and nods to townspeople she knew - and she knew everyone - freely given as her journey progressed. There was of course no charge for her victuals - the son of the grocer was rapidly approaching the status of virtuoso upon his harpsichord, a feat that brought in customers to the store simply to listen to the music, as the boy constantly practiced. Like all the children of the town, he lived to impress his lovely music teacher, and like all the boys he was shyly in love with her, his heart turning to warm porridge when she touched his cheek or mussed his hair with maternal affection.
Emerging from the grocer's to the light of day, carrying a burlap sack full of oranges, flour, and cheese, she was immediately set upon by Marcel d'Andreas, the 20-year-old son of the town banker, who, pretending to be just passing by, tipped his tricornered hat to her with a bow. "Ah, ah, m-madameoiselle," he stammered, cheeks flushed crimson. "How pleasant to encounter you, ah, in such, such pleasant circumstances." There was an audible gulp.
The poor boy, Marguerite thought to herself, hefting the bag with two arms and favoring Marcel with a dazzling smile. "Hello, Marcel," she said, even a little charmed by his hapless demeanor.
At the sight of her smile, his eyes widened, mouth opening and closing and making funny shapes for just a moment, before he quickly remembered his manners. "Please, please, I insist, you must let me carry your parcel," he informed her. "I wuh, would not dream of a fine lady such as yourself forced to, um, carry this, uh, parcel the whole way back to your home. Your house. Home."
Marguerite's smile grew wider, and quite agreeably handed him her sack. "Why thank you Marcel, that's very gallant," she told him, inclining her head graciously. "In fact you favor me doubly, both by relieving me of this burden, and by exchanging it with the pleasantness of gentle company. How can I repay such kindness?" Quite casually, her arm linked with his, her hands clasping as she fell into step with Marcel, gently nudging him forward, as at this point he had something of a breakdown of motor skills.
"Y, yuh," he tried, before clearing his throat to try again. "You h-have done so... I mean, repaid me even more doubly... that is..." Marguerite noticed him steal a glance backwards, to the awestruck gazes of his friends nearby, who were pretending not to notice. Perhaps buoyed by the thought of their newfound respect, he turned back. "Your smile would be payment enough, madameoiselle, ah, if such were necessary. For it is my dearest pleasure." There's another audible gulp; perhaps giving him enough time in his own mind to formulate a quick prayer to God Himself for favoring him this day.
Master Marcel, Marguerite knew, was in fact the only son of his father, Alain d'Andreas. Quite the contrary to the myth of the greedy, grasping banker, the elder d'Andreas had the firmly rooted, absolute conviction of the necessity of his town's survival, for which he would do absolutely anything in his power to accomplish. You could see it in his eyes. He had a passion for his home, and had made it his life's mission to preserve it. He was unafraid of making hard decisions, such as foreclosing on a farm or upon the unpaid debts of one of the town's citizens, but only as an absolute last resort. First and foremost in his mind were thoughts of ways to assist those in need, particularly in ways to help them help themselves. He laughed in the face of pressure from bank managers in Brest or Paris, because his way worked, and it was profitable. The town, particularly now, was thriving. Marguerite could see some of that fire in the eyes of his son, Marcel, even if he was still young and it was mostly misdirected. She even found it attractive. And after all, the boy was very handsome. Marguerite even found herself contemplating thoughts of romance, an idea which had seemed alien to her for a long, long time. A fling wouldn't hurt by any means, provided it was discreet, but of course that's as far as it could go. It is rather ironic, Marguerite had often thought to herself, how being immortal means you have no future.
However, that didn't mean she was going to make it easy. He was going to have to work for it. "Madameoiselle d'Ains-la-terre," he said at one point in their walk, after a brief period of small talk, and it was clear that this was preamble to some solemn pronouncement, compliment, or request. A point for courage, Marguerite thought to herself. "There is going to be a party at the town hall," he managed to continue without stammering, "in honor of the engagement of the mayor's daughter. As maid of honor, of course you are obliged to attend, but I was wondering if perhaps you had found yourself, ah, an escort." The remaining words had tumbled out in a flood, Marcel's face returning to a decidedly more reddish hue.
Marguerite could only smile, turning to fix her gaze upon the boy, his eyes downcast as if making sure of where he put his feet. "As chance would have it, Marcel, I haven't," she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "I've been so busy with my students as of late, I have been unable to entertain offers." Come on, she thought to herself. I know you have it in you. Stout heart, lad.
"Then," Marcel replied, raising his eyebrows and blinking as if trying to convince her of a casual manner he didn't have, "p-perhaps you would do me the honor of, of allowing me the honor... that is, of being your escort at this occasion. I assure you, my intentions are impeccable."
"Why Marcel," said Marguerite, as if the thought had never occurred to her. "That would save me no end of trouble and perhaps even the embarrassment of attending alone. I gratefully accept, sir, and the honor is mine." Please don't faint, she thought to herself. I'm not carrying you home.
To his credit Marcel stayed upright, but only just; as soon as the fact that his suit had been accepted his face grew into an uncontrollable smile, which oddly warmed Marguerite's heart. "I shan't trouble you further, sir," she said, unclasping his arm and hefting her sack, giving him a curtsy and a grin as they reached the outskirts of Beauvines. "We've almost returned to my cottage, and I would scarcely wish to violate the propriety of a gentleman such as yourself by suggesting he enter the house of an unmarried lady. Particularly since we shall be seeing each other at a social occasion."
Marcel bowed, doffing his hat. "Of course, madameoiselle," he said, before straightening, smile still on his face. "And I thank you for allowing me the pleasure of your company, both this day and in the future. Until then, farewell."
Marguerite smiled, giving a little wave. "Goodbye, Marcel," she told him, and watched him stroll away, his feet nearly an inch off the ground, at least in a figurative sense. She took a little breath and turned, walking back to the house, looking up at the sky in the gentle summer sunlight, taking a deep breath of the air, smelling the perfume of nature. The day was beautiful. She felt beautiful. She felt that at last she'd found somewhere she could belong, where she could feel safe, where people wouldn't be afraid of her. At least for a time. Not forever. But a little while isn't too much to ask, is it?
As she approached her cottage through the surrounding copses of trees, she immediately sensed something was wrong. There was a sudden stillness surrounding it, and as the front side came into view, the forms of two mounted horsemen standing guard became immediately apparent. These were not ordinary horsemen either, rather, the horses, one white, one black, were of the finest Arabian stock, while the men atop them wore the insignia and uniforms, freshly pressed and immaculate, of the 7th Hussars. Tall fur hats, bedecked with short ceremonial tassels, sat upon their heads. Below, their eyes regarded her expressionlessly as she approached, making no move towards her whatsoever. "Good afternoon," she called out, with as much cheer as she could muster. She stole a glance over the rise next to her cottage to the plain that lay adjacent to the sands of the nearby beach. Prone amid the dandelions and summer grass sat regular rows of cavalry, at least two columns' worth, tending to their horses or resting quietly. These were not like the soldiers of the previous year. These were the elite troops of the Republic.
They tipped their caps to her. One spoke. "Good morning, madameoiselle. If you would please step inside," he said, extending a hand toward her own front door.
"I shall indeed step inside," she replied, lifting her chin. "For it is my own house, and I'll thank you to leave no horse refuse upon my front stoop." With that, she stormed in, determined not to be intimidated, which was their obvious goal. No fancy dress soldiers were going to push her around in her house, in her town.
Pushing aside the front door and stomping into the kitchen revealed another infuriating sight. Frying eggs upon her stove was another man in uniform, while a number of men in especially ornate costume and tall peaked hats with feathers on them milled around in her dining room. They surrounded, sitting at her dining table, eating from her plates, a man in a grey overcoat with his back turned to her. "I must beg the pardon of you gentlemen," she declared, setting down her bag and crossing her arms in front of her, a steel glare upon her countenance that sent the nearest uniformed personnel backing a step away, "for not stocking a better larder that you might have taken more pleasure in looting."
The man in the grey overcoat turned, from his seated position. His overcoat was open, revealing a green uniform of the Chasseurs beneath, festooned with medals. Only now did Marguerite notice the wide, crescent-shaped curved hat sitting beside his left hand on the table's edge, with the trademark tricolor cockade decorating the right side. "Ah, there you are," he said, in a businesslike manner, with a lilting, energetic accent. Italian. "It is I who must beg your pardon for using your plates. I was quite hungry."
His face was familiar to all Frenchmen and women, if not from seeing him in person then from his portraits, his descriptions in all the newspapers in France, his trademark grey overcoat, and his famous green uniform. His Corsican accent, almost comically mispronouncing many French words, was unmistakable. "I apologize, Citizen First Consul," Marguerite murmured after a moment, dipping low and bending her knee in a deep curtsy. "Forgive me, I meant no rudeness. I am a loyal citizen of the Republic and of course all that I have is-"
"Yes, yes, yes," he shushed her, making an annoyed face and waving a hand. "Yes, fine, I know all that. Will you please sit down? My valet has made us some eggs on your stove, and they're almost edible." At a gesture one of his lieutenants pulled out a chair at the opposite end of the table, where a place had been set. A plate of fried eggs with a side of still-sizzling bacon landed next to it, carried from the cook who hovered over Marguerite's stove by a man in oriental dress with a turban covering his head, clasped with a jewel from which protruded a tall feather. Roustam, Marguerite mentally identified him. The First Consul's Armenian servant, who swore himself to his master's service during the Egypt expedition.
Why is this Man in my kitchen, Marguerite thought to herself as she glided forward, keeping her manner as respectful as possible while she curtsied to each of his officers as she passed, who gallantly doffed their tall hats and bowed, with murmurings of "my lady" and "madameoiselle". She took her seat across from the First Consul, allowing herself to stare at him. Really quite unassuming, she thought, save for the implacable air of command, the presence he exerts over everyone else in the room, and that unquestioned expectation of superiority. It had been some time since Marguerite had been awed by the presence of famous personages, however, and she was hardly one to be swept away in starry-eyed wonder. Rather, pensiveness was all she felt. The presence of greatness was, in her life, almost always a harbinger for disaster. She sat, hands in her lap, appraising him for a moment.
"If you don't eat," he said in response to her look, waving his fork at her plate, "I feed it to the dog." Marguerite, despite herself, smiled at his directness, at which she lifted her fork and began cutting sections off the egg white, lifting them to their mouth; despite also the First Consul's disparaging remarks about the eggs, she found them delicious. To her surprise, she noted an answering smile on his face in response to her own, an infectious, almost boyish grin. "The dog will never realize what a fate he's been spared."
"You're a little harsh, Citizen First Consul," she replied. "They're excellent."
"You may call me Napoleon," he replied, matter-of-factly. "If I may call you Lady Stuart."
There was an audible silence in the room at that point. Neither side of the conversation betrayed any trace of unease, they merely kept eating as they had before, but to all in the room it was as if there was a sudden chill.
"You may call me anything you like, Napoleon," Marguerite said easily, in between mouthfuls. "Is that to be some sort of nickname or code-name? Why Steward in particular?"
"Stuart," Napoleon corrected, holding out a hand, at which point his aide-de-camp opened a leatherbound portfolio in front of him and began to read.
"Lady Margaret Morgana MacAensland Stuart," recited the aide, a young man in his '20s, "born at the stroke of midnight between the 30th and 31st of October 1678, at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh, Scotland. The child of a Scottish noblewoman from the Highlands and King Charles II of England, conceived as the result of a dark ritual performed in accordance with some ancient rite or other to summon demonic power from the netherworld. Her father and mother had been married prior to her birth in a proper Catholic ceremony, which however still made her a bastard in the eyes of the Churches of England and Scotland."
"How ghastly," said Marguerite, casually chewing her eggs, her eyes wide. "Is this entirely appropriate conversation for breakfast, Napoleon?"
"Raised in Holyrood Abbey until the age of ten," the aide continued, "at which point she was obliged to flee the country to Amsterdam in the face of a Protestant uprising during the invasion of Scotland by the Prince of Orange. The Jesuits, the Inquisition, and the government of Louis XIV planned to groom her to assume the throne of England in the event of a Catholic revolt, but the plan came to nothing when Pope Alexander VIII betrayed King Louis and sided with the Protestant Princes of the League of Augsburg."
Marguerite said nothing, simply continued to stare with casual interest, her mouth full of fried egg, and the aide continued once more.
"Lady Stuart was abandoned in Holland, as were her two governesses, both ostensibly former nuns from Holyrood, but in reality one was a member of a secret druidic cult that apparently believed the young Lady Stuart was the reincarnation of some obscure Celtic deity. While living in Amsterdam she met and became engaged in a passionate romance with a young shipbuilder's apprentice, who later revealed himself to be Peter Romanov of Russia, the Tsar and future Emperor Peter the Great, who was traveling incognito in order to educate himself and his country in the ways of the west. He brought her back to St. Petersburg where they intended to marry, but an unforeseen complication arose when the Tsar began to lose his mind, becoming violent and unstable. Even for a Russian Tsar. An attempted palace coup by the Princess Sophia forced Lady Stuart to flee once more."
Morrigan's eyes by this point were fixed firmly upon her eggs, downcast and unmoving. The aide continued.
"At this point her movements become less certain as she fled eastward. We know she reached as far as China and the court of the Manchoos, and the mountain country of Tibet, and later booked passage even further east to the New World. What we do know is that she surfaced again, in 1743 in the court of Louis XV, disguising herself as a Scottish Jacobin expatriate in the baggage train of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the pretender to the English and Scottish thrones - in fact her first cousin, once removed. In 1744, with a partner who claimed to be a Polish noblewoman named Countess Anna Maria Olga Makarova Sobieski di Navarisi, she executed the most audacious theft in French history, robbing the royal treasury of Versailles by convincing the King that France was undergoing an invasion by the British, later laundering the money through the office of the Doge of Venice, who received a one percent commission upon which his descendants have been living comfortably for the past fifty-seven years. This precipitated an economic crisis in mid-century that many suggest laid the groundwork, for, ahh," there was a pause as the aide glanced up briefly, "the Revolution."
"I know," said Marguerite, gracefully raising an index finger. "This is all the plot of a play, or some drama, isn't it? How delicious! And you'd like to cast me in the title role? I have no experience in the art of the thespian, sir, I'd be utterly unprepared." Napoleon, his eggs finished, merely regarded Marguerite impassively with his arms crossed.
"Her partner, the Contessa di Navarisi, disappeared. It is presumed that Lady Stuart eliminated her in order to help herself to her partner's share of the stolen fortune."
At this, suddenly unable to control herself, Marguerite stiffened, hand gripping her fork in a white-knuckled fist. Her eyes closed, but she could still feel the watchful gaze of Napoleon dropping to her hand, then lifting to her eyes; with care, she placed the fork to the side of her plate, leaning back in her chair. "Perhaps these eggs aren't so well-prepared," she said after a moment. "I felt a sudden twinge in my stomach, as if something didn't agree with me."
"There are, no doubt," Napoleon said, speaking for the first time since his aide began the recitation, "alternative explanations for the Contessa's disappearance. Far less sinister."
"Or far more tragic," Marguerite offered lightly, waving a hand. "In any event, it makes little difference to me. You may write your play as you see fit, this sort of thing is best left to a critic of the theatre."
The aide's flicked back and forth from the lady to the general, before continuing at a nod from his master. "Following the theft, the Lady Stuart assumed a variety of identities as she traveled Europe, settling in one place for a few years before moving on. It is believed that this was done in order to disguise the fact that she exhibited none of the outward physiological changes of aging, whatsoever. Her most notable appearance during this period was a stint as an opera singer during the late '70s and early '80s in Vienna, where she became an intimate of the late Empress, Maria Theresa. In 1798 she arrived in the village of Beauvines, and has been settled here ever since, teaching music to the children of the townspeople."
Marguerite tilted her head. "I see," she said, after a moment, before her face took on a broad smile. "You're basing this play on a highly stylized account of my own life-story. How marvelous! But of course, I am at your service for the title role."
The aide flipped a number of pages, before clearing his throat, and continuing. "Further investigation with the Consulate's sources within, ah, occult agencies, has revealed that in fact the Lady Stuart is an exile from a, shall we say, an alternate plane of reality, as it were, known to those with knowledge of such things as the 'Dark Realm'." Marguerite's eyes, despite themselves, grew wide; a tic caused her right one to twitch. "Their King, a roughly analogous and quite inexact term, is a, ah, creature known as Belial, who sent her into this plane of existence as punishment for her role in some sort of infernal uprising over a century ago. At least by our standards of reckoning time. However, the," the aide interrupted himself, flipping over several sheafs of papers, "ah, administration of this realm has apparently been making overtures for the Lady Stuart's return, due to the ongoing illness, if such is the proper word, of their Dark Lord, and an apparent threat from without; a, um, creature known as a, umm, 'wampyr', who seeks to conquer that world, possibly using this one as a base." Marguerite's head, by this point, had turned, and was looking out the window toward the distant ocean, hands clasped in her lap against the blue material of her dress. The aide continued, flipping more papers. "This would-be conqueror goes by the name of, ah, let me see... Maximoff."
"Maximov," Marguerite murmured in correction, her voice lucid but distant. "Dimitri Maximov. Sophia's choice for Metropolitan of Moscow." Her eyes, though fixed upon the ocean, seemed to Napoleon as he looked upon her to be much further distant indeed. "In another life of course." The aide, sensing a cue of sorts, closed his portfolio and withdrew to a respectful distance.
The room was silent, Napoleon's arms folded atop one another as he leaned forward in his chair, allowing the lady time to collect her thoughts. This she did, her gaze lowering to the wooden floor of her kitchen. "What do you want?" she asked, in a quiet voice, but firm. Her head lifted, fixing Napoleon with a look quite different from the ones she had given him previously. This one was inscrutable. Even alien. "What does the great Napoleon Bonaparte want with me? A creature of the darkness, skulking from one hiding place to another?"
Napoleon leaned back in his chair. There was no satisfaction in his eyes, no sense of triumph or accomplishment. There was only a vague sympathy, tempered by necessity. "Lady Stuart, I need your money," was the simple and candid reply. "To begin with. The Republic is chronically short of funds and the current peace with England is temporary at best."
Golden eyebrows raised quizzically. "'To begin with', Citizen First Consul?" she mimicked. "Why does the sound of that fill me with dread?"
Napoleon lifted a leg over his knee, slipping a hand into his green uniform jacket. "As the rightful heir to the throne of England, you would be in a unique position to assist the Republic following an invasion of the British Isles," he continued, discussing plans for war as casually as another might discuss a shopping list. Poor Marcel had a more difficult time asking if he could come to pay a call, Marguerite thought to herself, noting inwardly how that conversation already seemed like a year ago, in another world. "Naturally we would present you as a direct Catholic descendant of Charles II and your mother, the, ah..." At a gesture the aide moved forward again, opening his folder, Napoleon consulting it momentarily with a finger on the page. "The Duchess of Aensland," he continued, "thus giving you a greater claim than those idiot relatives of your uncle's. You would take the throne and ensure eternal amity and fellowship between the United Kingdom and the Republic."
Marguerite remained unmoving in her chair. "And for what possible reason might I do all this?" she asked.
Napoleon nodded, as if in approval, before snapping his fingers. At that point an individual in civilian dress, a frock coat and beige vest and trousers, unfolded rolls of papers before his master at the center of the table. At the top was a map of Europe. Napoleon stood, hands clasping behind his back. "It has been decided that the only sure means to preserve the values, doctrines, and benefits of the Revolution is the eventual conquest of all Europe," he replied, once again in his trademark matter-of-fact tone. "An Empire. It is a historical inevitability."
"With you as the Emperor, I suppose," Marguerite replied, sighing as she clasped her fingers, leaned her elbows on the table and rested her chin upon her knuckles. "Really, sir. Do you imagine I have such personal esteem for you that I would be gratified by your further rise in station?"
Napoleon smiled, palms on the table, bending over his maps. "Much as I'd like to, madameoiselle, I cannot live forever," he replied. "Someone will have to see to the Empire's future when I am gone. It would seem to me," he went on, leaning forward, "that one who is immortal would be in the best possible position to maintain the Empire's cohesion. Such as yourself."
At this, Marguerite was quite taken aback, lowering her arms. "Me?" Her arch demeanor vanished.
Napoleon nodded. "You. A God-Empress, if you will," he stated. "Eternally ruling over the people of the world, forever beautiful, always there for her citizens to look to as a symbol of stability and the continuity of just and stable rule." He leaned back, tossing a hand. "There are many ways this could be done. Staged inter-marriage with my line, a succession of regnal titles, before long, perhaps in a century or two, we wouldn't even need to keep up the pretense that each successive Queen was a different person." He looked back at her. "You know how it is with children. You can't trust them to accomplish your will. They will always feel the need to think independently, differently, even when it means failing to see reason. You, on the other hand, will guide the Empire with a single, clear vision."
"Yours," she offered, dropping her head, her tone expressionless. But at this, Napoleon only shrugged.
"If you like," he replied affably. "The point is not whose vision unites our world. The point is that it is united." At a glance, the man in civilian clothes removed the map of Europe, revealing a charcoal sketch beneath it. Despite the clarity of the rendering, the features of the creature depicted were vague and indistinct. Large black eyes, round, oversized cranium, simple holes for a nose and weak chin, clearly not human. Marguerite's eyes flicked down towards it, then back up again, waiting for her would-be Emperor and partner in a conspiracy to explain its significance. "You see, our world, 'La Terre', is quite valuable. We are covered in water. In fact it is the majority of our world's surface area, according to my cartographers. It has recently come to our attention that few other worlds in the aether beyond our planet share the same wealth, and their resources are soon exhausted by over-population."
Marguerite, in fact, could barely understand what he was saying. "What?" Or, at least, did not believe she understood him correctly.
"Recently," said Napoleon, reaching forward and pulling another sketch out from under the first, laying them side by side, "we have made contact with extra-terrestrial entities seeking asylum." The second sketch depicted a field, with men in Cuirassier uniforms of the Army meeting a group of tall, willowy beings with heads like the one depicted in the first sketch, emerging from a gangway extending beneath a large, flatly ovular disk. "They inform us that the reason our world has not been discovered already is because the rest of the surrounding universe is apparently engaged in some sort of large-scale conflict. Many races battle against some being, or beings, allegedly composed of pure energy. However, it appears now that they are decidedly losing, and peace, the peace of ruthless and implacable conquest, may be at hand; given the size of our water reserves, our newfound friends made it clear to us that someday someone will desire our water supply enough to obtain it, AT ANY COST." His vehemence implied a dire cost indeed.
Blinking her eyes, her mouth parting, Marguerite hurriedly stood up from her chair and leaned over the table, picking up the second sketch and gaping openly. "A life-form," Napoleon continued, leaning back, "entirely alien to our own. An entirely different model of Creation."
"I don't believe it," Marguerite whispered, in shock, a sketch in each hand as she looked from one and then to the other. "It's not possible..."
Napoleon Bonaparte's smile returned. "A living, breathing demon of the netherworld, standing there and telling me that life beyond our Earth is impossible? I must remember this moment. At last I fully understand 'irony'." He turned to his officers for confirmation of his bon mot, for which they chuckled dutifully.
Marguerite lowered the papers to her sides, staring wide-eyed at the First Consul. "And why, pray tell me sir, do you expect that I will believe this insanity? You have proof, I trust?"
Napoleon's eyes flicked sideways to the man in civilian clothes who had provided the sketches, and gave a quick nod. When Marguerite turned to look, however, the man was no longer there. Instead, standing in his place with the same grey frock-coat and beige vest and trousers, was a creature much like the one in the sketch. His disproportionate head was quite large in the cranium and small in the jaw; his skull was completely bald, skin like white leather, with small veins and furrows; his immense eyes, like the darkest obsidian. Marguerite gasped and took a few stumbling steps backward, dropping the sketches she held, which lazily arced to the floor; her hand flew to her mouth. The creature turned to her and inclined its head, in a gesture precisely like that of a human.
"Citizen Berrault is one of our recent immigrants," Napoleon informed her. "He has sworn his oath of loyalty to the Republic, and is a firm adherent to our cause. He and his people wish to make their home here, with us, and assist us in our plans in any way they are capable."
Overcoming her shock, Marguerite summoned the necessary manners to return the nod, before turning to stare at Napoleon with an aghast expression. "Plan...? You don't mean to imply by your most fashionably indifferent attitude that you actually have a PLAN?"
Napoleon stared at her, his eyebrows raising, as if such a thing were the most natural in the world. "Of course I have a plan," he replied, his tone in measured evenness. "As the ruler of the world, you direct the development of technologies necessary to repel invasion, or the subjugation of our species. You negotiate with this 'Dark Realm' from whence you came for their alliance, or perhaps even assist this 'Maximoff' fellow with his plans for a takeover should they prove unwilling to listen to reason. Meanwhile, you make every effort to make our civilization as attractive as possible to alien outsiders."
Marguerite's arms crossed. "I trust the word 'attractive' as opposed to 'un-attractive' was intentional and not a slip."
Napoleon smiled. "Quite right. You see, we wish to encourage the tourism of extra-terrestrial civilizations. Get them to spend money. Grow accustomed to taking their holidays here." He began to pace back and forth, his tone growing in weight and solemnity, as his chin lifted to stare thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Taking the waters at a spa, attending the opera, plays, games of chance, dress balls, all the amenities our civilization might have to offer. Extend them generous lines of credit. At which point, they become obliged to protect us. Even, as time goes on, indebted to us. Over generations, with some judicious cultural influence, even dominated by us. The Empire, begun here in your modest kitchen with its half-empty larder, soon grows to encompass the universe. Rather than victim to those who would conquer us, we become their masters.
"Or rather," he added, ceasing his pace and turning to regard Marguerite, "you become their mistress. Humankind - and demonkind, the other half of your heritage - will prosper."
"Why should I commit myself to this enterprise?" she said, after a moment, her voice thoughtful rather than rancorous. "You ask me to dedicate my existence to it, possibly for centuries, on the vague threat that sometime in an unseen future our world may be in danger. You assume my attachment to humanity is greater than it has a right to be. Your kind has caused me nothing but pain. For what reason should I be in such a hurry to save it?"
Napoleon took a breath through his nose. "Unfortunately, the needs of warfare will, in the very near future, require universal male conscription," was his answer. "Including this village."
"Is that a threat?" she hissed, lowering her head and narrowing her eyes.
His gaze met hers evenly. "Not at all," he replied. "It is a deal. Cast your lot with us, and this town and all its citizens will be forgotten. It will vanish from the tax rolls, and will be free of Consular Inspectors, impressment gangs, or censors. In short, this town will be forgotten by history, free to live its tranquil existence unmolested." His eyebrows raised. "Now do I have your interest?"
Marguerite stood there, rubbing a hand up and down her opposite arm, staring at him.
"Wouldn't it be nice," carefully added Napoleon Bonaparte, after a long moment, "to have a purpose in life? A future?"
As it turned out, the grocer had mistakenly given Marguerite the incorrect amount of change. He'd sent his apprentice to her cottage to refund the difference, who had discovered the mounted Hussars before her doorstep and their fellows on the nearby plain. Spinning around and running at top speed, he had alerted his master, who had roused the townspeople with the news. Every available body, the mayor marching at their head, had descended upon the Cottage D'Ains-la-terre just as Napoleon's marshals were emerging, followed by the re-disguised Citizen Berrault, then Marguerite, her arms crossed and looking pensive, and lastly, the illustrious First Consul himself, cocked hat perched once more upon his head. At his appearance, the shocked townspeople took off their hats, bowed or curtsied, as the mayor presented his knee. "Citizen First Consul!" he declared, as Napoleon bade him rise with an irritated half-frown and an upwardly waving hand. "This is an entirely unexpected honor. Might I take this opportunity to declare my unwavering loyalty to the Consulate, in whom the future of France is properly entrusted-"
"Yes, yes, yes, of course," Napoleon interrupted him, shushing him with a wave of his hand. "Unfortunately for you I shall be testing that loyalty immediately, as I'm afraid I must take your charming music teacher back with me."
Those in the front of the press of people who heard this piece of information quickly passed it on to those standing closer to the rear, and quiet confusion quickly reigned amid their ranks. Marguerite quickly stepped forward to Marcel, with a stunned look on his face, standing a few feet from the mayor. "I'm sorry Marcel," she told him, taking his hands. "I won't be able to go to that dance with you after all. There is a stray cat who visits my house on occasion, her name is Felicia, will you please be sure to feed her?" Through the front door, Napoleon's valets were carrying a few suitcases, Marguerite's dresses and a few necessary items she'd gathered in a hurry, including her beloved Stradivarius violin.
While Marcel was stuttering in the affirmative, the mayor turned to Napoleon with a bewildered expression. "M-my lord Consul," he stammered. "What did she do?"
Napoleon frowned at him, before holding up his arms. "Listen to me, all of you!" he called out to the crowd, stepping into their midst. "The Lady Marguerite is no criminal or fugitive, and she does not leave you all lightly. On behalf of the Republic I have humbly requested her to do a great service for us, and like a true patriot she has agreed. One day, history will look back on the city of Beauvaix and say, 'here is where it began'. You may tell your grandchildren and they may tell theirs, that you were there, that you were all witnesses."
"Beauvines, Citizen First Consul," the aforesaid Lady Marguerite calmly informed him, her eyes swiveling sideways.
"As I said," Napoleon replied, without skipping a beat.
"Is that a fact," said the Mayor, wide-eyed in his newfound admiration, all the confusion having vanished from his face. "Do you hear, mes amis?" He turned to his constituents. "Our beloved music teacher goes to help the Republic!" His hat raised in the air as he waved it. "Vive la mademoiselle Marguerite! Remember us, for we are always your friends! Vive Napoleon!" The crowd cheered its assent, at which Marguerite forced a smile, dropping her eyes graciously to accept their praise.
"Now then," said Napoleon, when the vivats had died down slightly, offering Marguerite his arm. "We go!" She clasped it, her eyes still downcast as she did her best to hide her reluctance, and together they strode to Napoleon's waiting carriage just over the rise, her townspeople waving still waving their hats and cheering behind her. "Remember Beauvines!" they cried happily. "You will always have a home here with us!" The town was ecstatic. Their town was to be immortalized forever in the pages of history.
"Citizen First Consul," said Marguerite, as Napoleon helped her mount the step into the waiting carriage; he himself was to ride on horseback. "I'm afraid I feel a little ill, sir."
"Poo-poo," was the reply. "The waters of the Seine will cure all that." And the door slammed behind her.
As the sun broke behind her over the rolling plains beyond the highway, Morrigan finally reached the beach, letting her toes mix with the wet sand as the waves washed over her bare feet. Before her, casting shadows over the grass and brambles, weatherbeaten stones arranged in roughly square formations demarcated the former outlines of foundations, or what might have been them at one time. Hills rose into the distance, forming more cliffs, that might have once served as a town's northern boundary line. Across the waters beyond the beach, sailboats plied the windy waters, while at the horizon an oil supertanker slowly chugged its way south. There was little to set this patch of land apart from any other in the vicinity, save for a few lonely stone posts that stood out in the water, which might have once been the supports for a dock but now only provided a resting place for gulls in between their wheelings across the sky.
Morrigan trudged up the slowly rising grassy hill to the point where it leveled out, into a plain that stretched back to the highway. Finding a plot of ground that seemed no different from any other plot of ground, she sat down cross-legged, leaning back on her arms, and stared for a little while across the blue waters of the bay. When the sun was much higher in the sky, she stood up again, and walked back to where her car was parked, then continued her journey on the road to Brest.