A/N: (Cowers) Please don't kill me… Also, sorry I haven't posted on this before now. I've been out of the country for the last two years, and the rest of this story is back home. I move back home in a month though, so I might have time to start working on this again. I think there was only maybe 5 chapters left in any case.
A special note to Mominator124/Barb: I hope you remembered it! Thanks for your lovely review! Likewise goes to all my other reviews - they really do give motivation, even if it doesn't seem like it due to my long silence. I do re-read them periodically to get inspiration, so it does help.
Disclaimer: Don't own, not making any money! However, I do own Mignonette and her baby—please ask before borrowing.
Warnings: Character death
Main Characters: Erik, Nadir
Additional Notes: See? I told you she wasn't a Mary Sue. Please don't kill me for the last chapter! (Hides from pointy objects and tomatoes and pointy objects hidden in tomatoes) In other news, this chapter is from Nadir's POV, for reasons that will soon be obvious.
Be My Shelter
Chapter 7: Lullaby
I had never seen Erik so completely lost before. For the long twelve hour birth, he seemed frantic and quite disconnected. He seemed scattered. Seeing him that way shook me deeply, and some vague pillar of stability cracked from the pinnacle to the foundations. And yet, I soon realized that it was merely because he'd had no experience with labor or the birth of a child—he had no idea what to expect. I could see some unfamiliar emotion clouding his flame-like eyes and it was a long while before I could place it. It was fear. It was such a foreign emotion on him and it rattled me, as I have said.
In any case, the birth itself went rather normally—though the pain pervading the small room seemed to be greater than I remembered (but, of course, that was so long ago that I was most likely mistaken). The banchche1 was healthy—a girl-child born of an angel, as far as I was concerned. She was perfect. I could not keep the foolish grin from my face—it seemed right, somehow, that Baudin handed the child to Erik. Erik, for his part, was crying freely, the tears flowing from beneath the mask. It was a treat to see Erik cradle the banchche in his arms, hardly daring to breathe for fear he'd shatter the fragile creature. It was almost amusing to see the confident, murdering loner be so reverent and fearful of a single newborn.
"Mignonette—oh, she's beautiful!" I heard him say, and I smiled to myself.
The smile disappeared when it became apparent that something was horribly wrong. Erik had begun to call frantically for her to answer, the banchche now clutched tightly to his chest, as though he feared he would lose it. Baudin rushed to her side, a frown contorting his features, and put a hand to her neck. He cursed and I knew then. There had been too much blood. He tried—Allah, he tried—but it was too late to save her.
There were tears in his eyes. "Gone," he choked. "She's...she's gone. Goddamit!" I could see something die in him as he looked at Mignonette through the tears.
I felt numb. As I stared, I could hear nothing but his words echoing in the new silence. Erik had stopped yelling and was sitting quietly now, rocking the child carefully. His eyes were fixed on Mignonette's frozen expression of rest and a kind of weary peace. His eyes, however, were vacant and had I not been in shock myself, I might have realized that he was broken. If the banchche had not begun to wail, the three of us would've stared for hours, reveling in the numb blackness of shock, the absence of responsibility. The banchche's wail saved my mind from drowning in its own blackness—and the memories—and it gave me something to apply myself to. Erik's vacant eyes had lowered slowly to stare down at the banchche. I swallowed.
"Erik," I murmured, "Give her to me." His eyes snapped up to my face, anger and a fierce protectiveness flashing in the hollowness. It was clear with that one look that I would not be allowed to part the child from his arms; I swallowed again. "All right then—you will have to feed her. Can you do that?" It was obvious he had no clue. I gestured for him to follow me, impatient to escape the room, and he reluctantly did so. I led him to the kitchen and made him sit on the small stool I kept there as I prepared the milk from the ice box. I rarely buy milk, but I had bought it for Mignonette's health; I was thankful for it now. The banchche began to cry again once the milk was warming and Erik looked up at me helplessly. I knew little of banchche, but I knew enough to comfort them when they cried.
I closed my eyes for a moment. "Erik, rock her—she's only hungry." Wordlessly, awkwardly, he did as he was told. It did nothing to calm the hungry newborn, but, thankfully, the milk was soon warm enough to give to the banchche. Patiently, I showed Erik how to feed her using a clean rag and the bowl of warm milk. He learned quickly, as was his wont, but still he seemed distant, a prisoner of his own immense psyche. I watched them sadly for a time before I returned to Baudin. He was sitting in the chair Erik had vacated, his head in his hands and his shoulders shaking. He had covered Mignonette's body with a sheet.
"Baudin?" I murmured, keeping my eyes carefully averted from the bed.
He swallowed and attempted to compose himself; his eyes were red when he looked at me. He looked away quickly and I could see that he was gripping his knees. "I cleaned her," he said softly. "There's nothing else I can do here."
"The child?" I did not cross the threshold and stayed, instead, in the doorway. "Is the banchche—the baby healthy?"
He closed his eyes. "Yes, the child is fine. Very strong cry—a good sign, always." He swallowed, looking down at his hands. "A very good sign."
I took a deep breath. "Do you know where I might hire a reliable wet nurse?"
He looked up at me then, surprise clear in his pained hazel eyes. "You're keeping the child?" I nodded; he looked back at Mignonette's covered body. "I would have thought you'd give it to Monsieur Descoteaux."
I gestured absently. "She…was…rather clear in her desire that Erik care for the child, should anything…"
My tongue was thick and heavy in my mouth and I looked away. I heard Baudin shift and get to his feet. For a while there was silence, and then he spoke again. "That's good," he said. "I could see she was quite fond of you both." He paused. "I know a woman… quite gentle and able to keep her secrets..." His eyes were infinitely sad now. "I shall…call on the undertaker on the way back as well…"
"Thank you," I said quietly. They were hollow words—we both knew it. There was little to be thankful for, besides the banchche.
For a moment he looked uncomfortable. "Of course," he said and passed me, following Darius to the door; he stopped at the threshold. "I will be back soon," he told me, once more playing the part of dutiful doctor. I merely nodded, my eyes to the floor and the Persian rug that had been smuggled from my old home in Ashraf. I was only vaguely aware that he left a moment later.
"Master?" Darius laid a hesitant hand on my arm and I turned to see his eyes fixed worriedly on me.
I sighed. "Leave me," I murmured, waving away his hand. He bowed and I waited until I heard the door to his quarters close before I finally entered Mignonette's room and shut myself in. Once alone, all of the numbness encasing me broke and I nearly drowned in the resulting flood. My knees weakened suddenly and it was all I could do to stumble to the little chair, sitting with my eyes to the sheets. My vision began to blur and I let it, dropping my head to rest on the bedside. I let the tears come, but quietly. Inside I could feel a black emptiness so cold as to freeze the very Mazenderan sun. I remembered this well—this feeling of pure emptiness. It was the same as it was then, at my parents' deaths, Rookheeya's, and lastly Reza's.
And now, Mignonette's.
My body shook with my sobs, my back tensing and arching. Allah, it hurt. Allah… Where was my God now? For years I had prayed to Him. For years I had been faithful. When my parents had died I had asked where He was—and they told me that He had a plan. When Rookheeya had been committed, I had asked again—with the same answer. With Reza's death I had paraded it again, angry and bitter—but this time there was someone to blame. This time there was Erik. For a long time I believed I blamed Erik—because I could not blame myself, and I could not blame Allah. Erik was the easiest target. Of course, I soon realized my mistake—he had loved Reza as much as I had. There was no one left to blame after that, and I convinced myself that I had made my peace with it. A lie, of course; but it was the only thing I had.
And now, Mignonette. Allah, she was so cold when I touched her hand…
And so I asked the question again: Where is my God now?
There was no answer and I wept. I wept for the child Mignonette had been. I wept for the child I had lost long ago and the child I had lost again in her.
It wasn't until the undertaker arrived that I was able to rouse myself. He was a tall man—not as tall as Erik, but tall with a kind of teenage lankiness—and he filled the room with his sombre presence. He had the look of a man who was eternally resigned to the singular role of Charon2. His name was Jacques Dupont. He bowed courteously with a forlorn sigh. "Where is she?" he asked bluntly and without civilized preamble; I felt as though I had been slapped.
It was a moment before I could answer. "This way." I lead him to her room, my eyes half-closed—I was quite in a daze.
Immediately, dispassionately, he went to work with a small tape measurer that had appeared in his hand. As he worked, I found myself studying him to keep from seeing him for what he was. He was clad in a formal evening suit and I briefly wondered if he had come from the opera, and if so, the Comédie-Française, or the Théâtre Daunou? The Comédie-Française was certainly closer, but then, he did not seem as though he would enjoy comedy. So the Théâtre Daunou, then. I shook my head—it didn't matter! The only thing that currently mattered was in the kitchen with Erik, being fed warm milk. M. Dupont had soon moved to stand in front of me in the doorway, the top of his opera hat nearly brushing the doorframe.
"Monsieur," he said lightly, "There is a coffin at the workshop that will suit her fine, with some minor alterations. I can retrieve her tomorrow evening—the work will be completed by then, surely."
All the while he had been talking, I had begun to feel slightly lightheaded. I closed my eyes a moment, leaning against the wall, relishing the small relief of the cool plaster against my too-warm skin. "Of course," I mumbled absently, strained.
M. Dupont frowned. "Monsieur? Are you quite all right?" A thin groan escaped my lips and I distantly heard Darius return. "God, man, you're pale! You, there! Go get a bowl—I believe he's going to be ill."
He was right of course. Luckily, Darius managed to get one of the less used metal cooking bowls in time. Soon enough, I was lying on the couch, heaving over the side into the cold silver bowl. When there was at last nothing left in my stomach, I laid down, shaking somewhat with the acidic taste of bile and vomit clinging to my mouth. I was panting. "Forgive me…"
"Quite all right," he murmured. "It happens surprisingly often in my line of work." I sighed, closing my eyes; I would let Darius tend to the undertaker's demands. I turned my face to the back of the divan. Darius seemed to understand immediately and he led M. Dupont away.
When I finally woke, it was dawn and I was allowed nearly an hour to delude myself that the events of the night before had never occurred—that Mignonette was not dead. My uneasy peace was disrupted, however, by the banchche's squall. With that single sound it all returned—the emptiness and the ice—and I remembered. For a time I could do nothing but cry weakly myself, listening to the sound of someone attempting to quietly hush the child. One thought eventually gained purchase in my tear-soaked mind: Erik doesn't know what to do… With no little effort, I pulled myself to my feet and followed the child's squalls. It soon became apparent that the sound was issuing from Mignonette's room and I swallowed, my stomach twisting painfully.
He was seated in the little chair by the bedside again, rocking the banchche with some strange look of nonchalance, humming softly. There was something in the scene that seemed so unbefitting, so wrong that it made my stomach lurch horribly in a threatening manner. Upon closer study I found the element which had given me such pause: there was a thin, but undeniable smile curling Erik's misshapened lips. My first reaction was anger, but an acute sense of dread soon replaced it. I swallowed hesitantly going to his side.
He did not look away from the squalling child's face, but his humming ceased. "Quiet, daroga," he hissed. "You'll wake her." I frowned at this but his next statement, delivered with such tenderness, such fondness, produced a cold, terrifying realization. "Mignonette is tired and needs her rest." I watched, silently horrified, as he reached out a skeletal hand to pat the body's stiff, deathly cold arm. "Isn't that so, ma petit mère3? Of course it is…"
He…doesn't realize…? "Erik," I said, my voice strained and weak. Allah, let him hear me! "Erik—she's dead."
Erik was stock-still, his back ramrod straight and his shoulders tense. "Don't be a fool daroga!" he snapped, but I could sense rather than hear the undertone of raw and painful fear in his ethereal voice. "She is resting."
I could do little more than release a strangled groan. "She is dead! She has bled to death, Erik—can't you see that?"
"Do not lie, Nadir; it is unbecoming," he muttered, but the scent of denial and fear was nearly tangible now; the child continued to wail.
"Stop it!" I could contain myself no longer. Soon enough I was crying again, angry and shaking. "Stop it, Erik! She is gone and will never return—no matter how you pretend—she is dead!"
Erik's thin frame was shuddering harshly now. At length, I noticed the mutterings, such small sounds that I should have missed them. "No…he's lying—isn't he, ma petit mère? Yes, he is lying. Why do you not answer? Please, mademoiselle, come and see your child—such a beautiful child… Mademoiselle? Please… Tell me he's lying—tell me you haven't…tell me you haven't left me…"
The fingers of his free hand were tangled, laced with the body's and he was clutching them desperately; he looked absolutely terrified.
"Erik," I said softly. "She is dead." He flinched as though he had been struck, his shoulders hunched and trembling; I could not help but take pity on him, all my previous anger melting. "But she has not left you alone—she has left you the banchche."
He swallowed, and slowly his shaking lessened. Time passed in silence and watched him slowly piece together something new, stitch the broken threads into something only slightly stronger. He was panting quietly with the effort, but he seemed to have recovered himself somewhat—though I knew it would be a long while before he would recover enough to act as the Erik I had once known. He sighed heavily, the sound wet and telling of the sobs he was stubbornly holding at bay. "Yes," he murmured at last. "She has left me a dear treasure…"
He laughed weakly and I could see how close he was to collapse. He rose, the banchche still to his chest, and with a horribly tragic smile kissed Mignonette's cold forehead with such loving tenderness that my thoughts immediately brought an image I had long buried to my mind. Rookheeya, my beloved wife. She had always been beautiful and death did little to tarnish her—she was still a jewel to my eyes, even in Death's black grip. I had kissed her, as well, even as Erik now kissed his Mignonette. It tore at my heart.
A moment later and Erik had straightened, adjusting the child in his arms. His eyes were still inaccessible. "The child needs to be fed," he stated, looking down at the small face.
I nodded. "Yes—the milk—"
"I know." He said nothing else as he passed by me and disappeared down the hall with the squalling infant. I sighed. Allah help him, if You exist at all…
Returning to my own quarters, I found that I was restless; I simply could not sit still. Memories of Rookheeya and my dear Reza filled my mind, dusty and somewhat faded with memories of Mignonette overlaying them all. I could feel Rookheeya's gentle kisses—I could hear Reza's innocent laughter—could see Mignonette's cold face. I shook my head sharply, shuddering and sickly cold. A sudden, harsh cough burned my throat, already sore and raw from retching; I winced. At length, I laid down with a terrible feeling of fatigue. I hoped against hope that I would not dream.
It seemed that I had barely closed my eyes when Darius woke me, though in reality it had been quite a few hours (but hardly past noon). I groaned, rolling over to glare half-heartedly—the interruption was not welcome. "Darius?"
He bit his lip, bowing. "Forgive me, Master," he said with genuine sincerity. "But there is a lady here to see you."
A frown stole my features—until I remembered Baudin. The wet nurse… I nodded tiredly, getting to my feet; I did not even bother to make myself presentable for I cared little for appearances at present. The woman was waiting in the sitting room, perched daintily on a chair with her thin ankles tucked beneath it, and her hands folded primly in her lap. Her face was altogether pleasant, though somewhat horsy—she was English, I supposed—and her mousy brown hair fell to her shoulders, framing her clear blue eyes. She rose the moment she noticed my presence.
"Monsieur," she murmured, curtsying slightly. "My name is Theresa Darrow—I was informed by Doctor Baudin that you require the services of a wet nurse."
"Yes—the mother…the mother passed shortly after the birth." An odd light of pity flickered in the thirty-something's face. My thoughts began to become hazy and I frowned. "We will require your services until the child can be weaned."
"Of course," said Mme. Darrow.
She seemed eager to begin her duties at once and her eagerness only made me all the more weary. I held up a hand. "You will live here, of course," I continued; she nodded, something of impatience entering her features. "But, I must warn you that your presence may be unwelcome here."
She frowned. "Monsieur?"
I offered her a faintly apologetic twist of my lips. "I live here with two others, at the moment—my servant, Darius, and my friend, a man named Erik." To stall for more time so that I could think of a way to broach the subject of Erik, I wandered to the window and looked out at the Rue de Rivoli. "Erik…is curious and solitary in his habits—he prefers to be left to himself at all costs. As well, he…he wears a mask at all times, and I beg of you, Madame Darrow, to pay it no mind. Am I clear?" She seemed too stunned to speak, but I had to know. "He has a terrible, violent temper," I warned her gravely. "But no harm shall come to you if you leave him to himself and think nothing of the mask—do you understand?"
It seemed that the warning shook her to her senses and she nodded, a vague air of fear to the motion. "Yes, Monsieur."
"Good." I sighed, pressing my fingers to my temples tiredly. "Your room should be ready by tonight."
Silence filled the sitting room then, broken only by the chime of the old clock on the mantel. Between chimes, I could hear the tick of the second hand slowly marching on, unabashedly marking every second since Mignonette's death. The sound seemed akin to that of some horrible insect beating its stiff wings uselessly against the walls of the glass jar that had imprisoned it—beating against the unforgiving translucence until it finally killed itself. The sound slipped beneath my skin, twisting and writhing beneath my flesh—it was slowly driving me insane—as I was certain it had Erik.
"May I see the child?" The sound of Mme. Darrow's voice startled me and I jumped somewhat, glancing quickly at her before fixing my gaze elsewhere.
I bit my lip; I knew where I would find the child. "Madame, the child is currently in Erik's care…"
Unease crept into her posture, but she held her ground. "Please, Monsieur—I will keep my peace. I promise."
It seemed that she would not be denied, and—while my first instinct was to keep her away from Erik for as long as possible—I realized that it was futile. They would meet eventually, so better now than later. At least she had not yet become attached to the banchche. I sighed, making a helpless gesture. "Very well then," I muttered, turning to lead her to Erik's room. "But I must warn you—he has not been himself since…since the child's mother passed." I did not look at her until we reached the door; only when my hand was resting on the brass doorknob did I face her. She was pale now, but there was a gleam of stark determination in her blue eyes. I knocked.
"Come in, daroga."
I gauged her reaction carefully from then on out. At the sound of Erik's voice, she sucked in a startled breath, her eyes widening in absolute surprise and wonder. It is always the same, I noted. First the awe—then the screaming. I opened the door and announced myself and Mme. Darrow. Erik was standing at the window, his back to us, as he rocked the banchche—he seemed lost in thought.
"What do you want, daroga?" he snapped gently.
I answered before Mme. Darrow could, though she was surely about to. "Madame Darrow would like to see the baby."
For a long moment he considered the matter and it was almost as though I could see the well-kept cogs of his vast mind at work, turning the opportunities and outcomes and benefits over and over in his head. He turned then and made his own analysis of Mme. Darrow with a nearly caustic eye. He frowned deeply, his faintly luminous eyes fixed on the woman—who, for her part, did exactly as I had instructed, merely glancing at the mask; her full attention was on the banchche.
"You are the wet nurse then, Madame?" he asked curtly, his eyes narrowing.
Mme. Darrow nodded. "May I see the child?"
Erik ignored the woman's question; he cocked his head to the side in a semi-interested fashion. "How does one become a wet nurse?" he asked absently, though his eyes burned. With a jolt, I realized he was testing the woman. He was trying to drive her away.
The question, however, had the opposite effect on Mme. Darrow; she held her head a little higher, her own eyes flashing in determination. "My own child was still-born," she said quietly, the note of steel in her voice challenging. "I decided I might as well be useful instead crying over what cannot be changed."
Hesitation seemed to cross Erik's mind before he nodded and reluctantly held out the child. "Be careful," he muttered, but it seemed that the warning went further than the banchche.
With sudden tenderness, Mme. Darrow received the child and began to coo nonsense—and the child cooed as well, for the first time to my knowledge. Mme. Darrow sighed softly. "What is her name?"
It was a shock to my system, the realization that the banchche had yet to be granted a name. I bit my lip and turned to Erik. He was impassive. For a moment, though, it seemed a sad affection was reflected in his eyes. "Avìn," he whispered. "Her name shall be Avìn."
I frowned—the name, though beautiful, was entirely foreign to my ears. "Erik?"
He closed his eyes, turning back to his window. "It means 'Dawn' in the language of the Roma4." He had spoken the name with such reverence that I knew there was some great significance attached to it in his mind. He did not clarify and seemed to forget we were present.
Even Mme. Darrow seemed to realize Erik's need for solitude. "It is a beautiful name," she said quietly. "Monsieur, if I may, I would begin my duties…" Erik nodded, dismissing us with a short, strained gesture. The message was clear.
As promised, the undertaker returned that evening, an hour before sunset, to collect Mignonette's body—Baudin had come as well. It was then that I was informed that M. Descoteaux now knew of his wife's death. Thus far, Baudin had kept him from discussing the issue of the child, but it was only a matter of time, I knew. In the meantime, Descoteaux had placed Baudin in charge of the funeral arrangements. The funeral, it was decided, would be held in two days.
What I had not expected, however, was Mme. Theresa Darrow's somewhat comforting presence in the flat. Her husband, she told me, was in England, serving under the Queen, and so there was little to distract her from concentrating all her attentions on Avìn and the other household chores she had adopted. The woman was a gift from Allah, I thought—though each time, I remembered Mignonette and thought better. She was a kind woman and nothing more. At the very least, Erik seemed to tolerate her presence, though he rarely left his room in the two days before the funeral. He was quieter than he had ever been—for even in the rosy hours of Mazenderan there had been quiet music drifting between the white halls and bleak minutes. I began to fear for what sanity he had somehow managed to retain as he seemed to draw the veil of silence around him like a shroud. The only thing he seemed to care for now was the banchche—for certainly no longer cared for himself. He was not eating, of that I was fairly confident for he seemed to be withering away before my very eyes and it hurt somehow because I had seen, and I remembered, what he had once been. In regards to the funeral, Erik and I decided wordlessly that we would not go to the mass for Mignonette, but I could hear, in the silence of the night, the solemn strains of the Dies Irae5 from the hollow violin.
The morning of the funeral dawned bright and impertinently cheerful—the world was turning as it always had and the knowledge caused me indescribable anger. We were waiting at the cemetery when the procession came. Abel Baudin was among the mourners, accompanied by a plain, simple woman, whom I could only assume was his sister Lydie. Much to my vexation, Tristan Descoteaux had decided to attend as well, though the sight of his genuine grief gave me some vague sense of mercy. It was a good while before he noticed Erik and I, but his eyes—red from long hours of crying—hardened and he tensed the moment he did. Beside me in the shadows provided by a lone willow tree, Erik stiffened, his jaw and fists clenching in sudden wariness. Their eyes met above the noise and a silent understanding and temporary treaty was reached—there would be no hostility on this hallowed ground. They would not defile Mignonette's memory with hatred.
The priest spoke slowly, his old and dying voice curling about the polished stones and decaying flowers. I did not listen. All my agonized mind could see was Rookheeya and Reza as they had looked in the moments before they were returned to the earth. Again, I could hear Erik's whispers and the funereal quavering voice of the violin, the old Latin requiem somehow known and understood in my ears:
"Dies iræ! dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla6!
Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit7.
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus8?
Juste judex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.9"
I closed my eyes from the sight of the priest and the men with their shovels and the black gowns of the faceless women—Allah, the world seemed to have turned the bleakest shade of black!—and let the words fill me. Day of wrath and terror looming! Heaven and earth to ash consuming, David's word and Sibyl's truth foredooming! So when the Judge shall sit, whatever is hidden shall be seen, nothing shall remain unpunished. What am I, a wretched one, to say, what protector implore, when even a just person will scarcely be confident? Just judge of vengeance, grant the gift of forgiveness, before the day of reckoning'…
Soon the thing was done and the mourners began to drift back to the land of the living, locking the memories behind the iron gates of the golgotha. Erik and I were soon alone with naught but the weepers for company. Or so we thought. We had kept some distance away and our view had been obstructed by various monuments and mottled effigies of stone and marble; we did not see the woman until we had nearly reached the black and silver headstone. Her red hair was tangled and free of any ties in her grief, as it fell to her waist. She was on her knees, her beautiful black dress was surely ruined but she continued to sob and clutch at the cold marble stone, running her fingers over the inscription on the cold marble like a blind woman; there was a desperation in this act which pained me beyond words.
I swallowed. "Madame—"
"Mademoiselle," she corrected quietly, still now as I stood beside her; she shuddered harshly and one hand stretched to cover her white face. "I shall never be Madame in this world." There was such a brokenness in her words that I flinched.
"Forgive me." The woman did not turn to face me. "Mademoiselle," I continued, though why was a mystery. "You…you knew Madame Descoteaux?"
A dry sob forced itself from her throat. "Yes—well," she replied through her slowing tears. "God, she's gone! She's gone!"
Some vestige of etiquette was urging me to leave the woman to her grief but it wasn't to be. Erik, who for his part had been despondent and silent, spoke suddenly, his eyes flashing. "How?" he demanded. "How did you know her? What was she to you?"
The audacities of the questions brought an immediate protest to my lips, but at the woman's choked reply the rebuke fell to the dirt, unsaid. She had finally turned to look at us and her eyes were a strange shade of grey—she returned her distant gaze to the gravestone at Erik's harsh question and a bitter, humorless laugh bubbled like acid from her throat. "It doesn't matter anymore," she said. "Now that she's dead—nothing seems to matter anymore—, I can say it." She clutched at her chest now, rocking slightly. "Oh God, I've never said it—not once! She was my friend, she was my confidante, my lover—my Everything."
It was a slap to the face, the revelation. "L-Lover?" I stuttered, and she nodded sadly.
Beside me, Erik couldn't contain a small gasp and recognition flickered across his eyes. "You're Camille—aren't you?"
Her grey eyes tore themselves from the stone to study Erik with open, yet muted, surprise. "Yes," she murmured slowly, carefully. "Camille de Sauveterre."
"Then you must know what happened," breathed Erik, his entire demeanor suddenly melting to that of a frightened and desperate child. "To Mignonette—you must!"
"Erik!" My cry went nearly entirely unheeded.
The woman, Camille, held up a hand, motionless and considering. "I do," she said quietly, steadily, before a harsh shudder tore through her thin frame. She turned her face to the ground. "Tristan found us out. We…we were together without his knowledge for a year—but that day—" She moaned. "—that day he returned early. He walked in on us. We were betrayed by a single kiss."
Erik's eyes closed behind the mask and I was certain that Camille's words had been as a poisoned knife to his heart. He drew in a shaky breath. "I am sorry, mademoiselle."
Camille's eyes never left her lover's grave. "So am I," she whispered. Wordlessly, Erik turned on heel and began back down the path to the gates of Golgotha, but somehow I knew that his heart would remain within its cold stone walls.
After our return to the flat, Erik retreated to his room for a full three days before emerging. He was as a ghost in the weak lamplight. His skin was white and bleached and his hands shook lightly. He had lost nearly all of the old grace that had once dictated his movements. I could easily see the loss of weight as I watched him lower himself into the adjacent armchair. I swallowed as I watched him close his eyes and wrap himself in an impenetrable silence; and I knew—this could not continue.
"Erik?" He did not even acknowledge me. "Erik," I said again, sharper. "You haven't been eating, have you?"
He sighed. "Leave me be, daroga."
"I will not," I snapped, leveling a glare at him. "You need to take better care of yourself—after all, Avìn is your responsibility now." His white hands clenched on the armrest and he opened his eyes to meet mine. "Stop being so selfish—"
"Close your mouth, daroga, before I close it for you." His voice was quiet but as hard as a steal blade, metallic and just as threatening. "I will not have you speaking of things which you know nothing of."
The comment stung but I ignored it. "Please Erik," I murmured, leaning forward and hesitantly reaching a hand towards his arm; he hastily moved away and I swallowed. "Can't you see you're killing yourself?" I asked, my voice a whisper. I got to my feet with a sigh at his silence. "What would Mignonette think?" I did not wait for his reaction as I returned to my room. The next morning I found a small collection of dirty dishes in the kitchen and Darius hadn't a clue where they came from. I sighed in relief.
Over the next week Erik's physical health made a slow return, though it all seemed by rote. Mme. Darrow had settled with us well, turning a blind eye to our small acts of grief. The banchche—Avìn—was the only light, however. She was the only precious thing I had left. Mme. Darrow, thankfully, was a gentle and caring woman, though occasionally strict in her ways. She kept to herself mostly. I was unable to find a true fault in the woman, but it was Avìn that had captured all our hearts.
So it came as a shock when Baudin came to call on the sixth day after the funeral.
He was solemn and was obviously still in mourning. Darius showed him in and somehow I knew by his gaze that he carried no good word that day. Erik must have also realized this—perhaps he even suspected the cause—for he stood in the doorway, his arms across his chest and his eyes hard, frigid. Baudin himself seemed troubled and did not sit, but moved instead to the mantel, as was his habit.
"Monsieur Baudin?" The atmosphere was suffocating me, and I could take the silence no longer. "What is it?"
He swallowed. "Monsieur Descoteaux has demanded that the child be returned to him," he muttered uneasily, "Before three days have passed."
"What?" growled Erik, his eyes flashing with sudden anger. "Absolutely not!"
Baudin sighed tiredly. "Monsieur—"
"I am the child's father now," snapped Erik, his anger building quickly now. "Mignonette entrusted her to me!"
With a helpless look, Baudin turned to me. I shook my head. "It's true."
"Monsieur Khan!" Baudin was pleading now, entirely exasperated. "I know she did, but Monsieur Descoteaux will have none of it! He insists!"
"Then let him," hissed Erik. "The child stays."
I sighed as Erik disappeared once more into the dark solitude of his room, shutting the door firmly behind him and causing Baudin to flinch as though he'd been struck. "Forgive Erik," I muttered. "This has not been easy on him." Baudin nodded, mopping his forehead with his kerchief. I bit my lip and wondered—did he know of Camille? The truth of Mignonette's flight? Surely… "Do you know a woman named…Camille de Sauveterre?"
"So you've met her," he said evenly, a tired light in his hazel eyes. "I know what you're asking—and yes, I knew of Mignonette's affair with her." He spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "She told me of her feelings for women long ago—she had thought herself ill or mad."
My heart ached at the thought of Mignonette's despairing confusion. It had not been unknown in Persia, this love between men and love between women—but it was forbidden by Allah, of course. Flames, I had always been taught, were all that awaited those that fell to its temptation. But this time—surely He will make an exception for her…
When Baudin had departed, I felt a great foreboding need to see the banchche. Avìn still slept in Mme. Darrow's room and so I knew where to find her—Mme. Darrow was out gathering groceries. My heart was pounding and a warning was beating at the back of my skull. The hall was empty and something was wrong—the air felt heavy and thick and I felt as though I was walking through mud. At one end of the hall, Erik's door stood open—it seemed the darkness spilled from its confines causing me to shudder; two doors down from Erik's sanctuary was the room that had been Mignonette's and now belonged to Mme. Darrow and Avìn. Its door, too, was ajar. I was hesitant to enter, and under normal circumstances I would have left Erik to himself with the child and his memories of Mignonette, but, as it was, the darkness ushered me forward and through the door.
What I found left me cold. Erik, nothing more than a solidified shadow in the vague shape of a man, was standing at the edge of the bassinet, his eyes fixed on Avìn's slumbering form. In itself, this was not odd—no, it was the manner in which Erik was staring. He had murder glinting wickedly in his flame-eyes. I could hardly breathe—I had seen that look before in Persia and I knew well its aftermath.
I swallowed thickly, my throat horribly raw and dry. "Erik…"
The shadow did not move, nor look away from the child's peacefully sleeping face. I was shaking and fearful until I heard him sigh. It was a sound full of the deepest sorrows of the world and all the blackness and bleakness, a sound of loss and resigned weariness. "I know," he whispered. "The child is not to blame."
He left then, brushing past me and heading toward his room. He stopped, however, on the threshold and I could see the profile of his mask and bare chin, his hand on the doorframe. "You should sleep well tonight, daroga. The morning will bring a new day." And he was gone before I could question him.
Contrary to Erik's suggestion, I did not have a restful night. Nightmares plagued me, crimson and black dreams that woke me sometime in the dead of night. I was shaking, covered in a cold sweat; I coughed harshly, gasping. Again, I had the intense feeling that something was wrong—worse this time. My pulse was flittering thinly as I looked in on Avìn, ignoring the inquiry of Mme. Darrow, but it nearly stopped when I came to Erik's door. It stood open and across the murky blackness, I could see the drapes billowing across the open window. My blood ran cold.
Erik was gone.
With a sudden sick certainty, I knew where had vanished to—and I was in no doubt it was not the opera house. I did not bother with the door. I climbed out the window as Erik must have and once on the Rivoli I hailed a cab, panting, my mind racing in dread.
"The Rue Goethe—and do not stop for man nor beast!"
I had been stupid. I cursed myself a hundred times over as the cab hurtled through the mostly deserted streets of Paris. How could I have been so blind? How could I not have known? Why hadn't I realized? I was such a fool! Such a stupid, old fool not to realize it immediately—the moment I had seen his eyes, so filled with hate and murderous intent, fixed on the cause of Mignonette's death—or rather, the by-product. His thought progression on the matter was easy enough to follow, now that I had realized. At first he had blamed the banchche for Mignonette's death—as I had blamed him for Reza's—that couldn't have lasted long however, and he must have realized that the child was innocent of all crime, for she had not intentionally done anything. The next logical choice would have to be the child's father—the perfect whipping boy: M. Descoteaux. I only prayed that I arrived in time to avert the slaughter.
The street was dark with only the pale moonlight and the weakly flickering lamplight casting deep shadows on every hedge and shrub and tree. The walks and gardens were deserted and still; my eyes strained to see any movement as I ordered my driver to wait while I dropped lightly to the street. At length, I caught the barest flicker of motion in the shadows of the third villa down from my carriage; I followed silently, well aware that the slightest sound would alert the monster to my presence—and, with Erik's current state, bring about my death. There was a light burning in the second floor window above the quaint garden and Erik paused beneath it, no doubt contemplating the best way to scale the side. I moved swiftly, knocking him into the hard wall and holding him there, despite his struggles and protests. Under normal conditions, I would have been no match for Erik, but as it were he was still too malnourished from his bereavement to harm me seriously—though he managed to throw me off him and I stumbled back, panting.
"Nadir!" His eyes glowed in the black night, flashing in fury as he advanced on me. "Why have you followed me? You insufferable ass! Must Erik kill you as well?"
My eyes widened and I held up my hands, pleading. "Erik, please—"
"Stay out of this," he ground out, making to push past me; simple but pure fear of his bloodlust drove me to seize his arm. He turned on me, cuffing my right ear sharply. "Stupid fool," he spat, his voice harsh and metallic. "Let me go! I'll kill him—that—it should have been him!"
My head was reeling from the blow, but I would not release him to his grim task—I could sense his resolve and ire weakening, melting to desperate rage and despair. I swallowed, glaring. "Erik, I understand how you feel, but you can't—"
"Understand?" he roared suddenly, wrenching free to face me, towering in his vehemence. "How could you possibly understand? You've never—"
He stopped abruptly, his eyes wide as he paled beneath the mask. I was instantly numb with shock and my own anger began to slowly flood my senses. "I've never what?" I asked coldly, voice clipped, my words measured and quiet in the sudden stillness. He did not answer as he looked away with an air of shame. I wanted to kill him in that instant. "Well?" I demanded harshly; he flinched and I found I could not care. "Go ahead and say it!"
Erik was cowering now before my awesome wrath; he had shrunk back and his hands were wringing themselves in the folds of his cloak. "Nadir…"
"Say it!" I snarled, angry tears burning my eyes. "Tell me I've never lost anyone!"
He shuddered and I heard him draw in a thin breath. "Nadir," he said quietly, "I… I didn't mean it—I—"
"Say it," I insisted madly. "Look me in the face—like a man would—and tell me I did not lose my wife, or my son—or Mignonette. Tell me!"
He moaned softly, clutching what little hair he had. "Please—Nadir… Don't do this…"
My lips curled in distaste and I struggled for breath, my tears salty on my tongue as I inhaled deeply, desperate for the control and the end of the numbness. It came slowly and Erik waited, his eyes averted from the darker side of myself that he had rarely seen, and never that fully before. After a time, though I was still shaking, my outrage had dissipated and I sighed heavily. "We'd best leave," I said shortly, forcing the words through my clenched teeth. Erik made no reply but followed me meekly to my waiting carriage. Once safe within its confines, he began to fidget, chewing his lip. "What is it?" I snapped, my temper still short.
He looked away and seemed subdued. "I…I would like to visit…her…"
A lump lodged in my throat but I could not refuse; I nodded. "Of course." I directed the driver to the cemetery and we continued through the torpid night. Entering the empty golgotha was a simple matter of Erik picking the lock with his proficient hands and passing once more into the hallows saturated with the scent of damp stone, roses, and forgotten memories. Erik seemed no more substantial in the fading starlight than a pillar of ashes. I followed him at a distance, keeping ten or so feet behind him for fear of disrupting his reverence. His head was bowed and he moved soundlessly between the sepulchers and weepers, his cloak swaying imperceptibly in the faint breeze of his stride; he moved with a singular grace and purpose.
Mignonette's grave was located at the far side of the cemetery and already the sky had become lighter when we had reached it. Three wilting bouquets rested against the polished surface—testament to at least three grieving hearts beside my own and Erik's. Are five enough to save her soul, Allah? It is not ten, but will You save her still? Or shall she perish in the flames with those in Sodom10? I shook my head sadly. Erik stopped at the foot of the grave and to my incredulity, knelt there on his knees in the fresh dirt and carefully, hesitantly removed his mask. From where I was I could dimly hear his words.
"Mignonette," he whispered, "I…I'm sorry I have not done as I promised." He chuckled brokenly at that. "I promised you a lullaby—and I can finally sing it for you…"
He grew quiet for a time. I almost believed that he had finished; I hoped he had finished, for it was a cold night and my chest was beginning to burn. Presently, however, I became aware of his soft humming, the words soon followed.
"Good night my angel, time to close your eyes—and save these questions for another day." The melody was simple and soft, utterly soothing, and I found myself drawn to it. Erik's face was still bowed."I think I know what you've been asking me; I think you know what I've been trying to say. I promised I would never leave you, and you should always know where ever you may go; no matter where you are I never will be far away…"
He hummed again then, following an instrumental only he and Mignonette could hear; he had begun to tremble gently. "Good night my angel, now it's time to sleep—"His voice wavered and he dragged in a shaking breath. "—and still so many things I want to say. Remember all the songs you sang for me when we went sailing on an emerald bay; and like a boat out on the ocean, I'm rocking you to sleep. The water's dark and deep inside this ancient heart; you'll always be a part of me."
Somehow, I did not doubt his oath. I swallowed and wrapped my arms about myself—I been foolish not to at least have grabbed a cloak… Erik was shuddering as well now and it was obviously becoming difficult for him to continue. "Goodnight my angel, now it's time…to dream…and dream…how wonderful your…your life will be…"He whimpered and I bit my lip, aching for him in spite of my previous anger."Someday your child may cry and if you sing this lullaby, then in your heart…there will always be a part—"A ragged sob broke through, but still he continued."—of me…"
I was shivering now, and the sun was beginning to paint the horizon red, gold, and all the colors of flame. Erik's voice was infinitely quiet and sad now and he reached out a gloved hand to touch the headstone longingly as he completed his promise."Someday we'll all be gone but lullabies go on and on…"I could hear a weak smile in his voice though he was beginning to sound so distant, as though lost in a fog, far away… "They never die, that's how you…and I…will be…"
And I heard no more as my vision faded to black.
A/N: Well, that's the end of Nadir's chapter. To save myself the trouble and threats—no, I didn't kill him. Calm down people. On another note, the song that Erik sings is "Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)", by Billy Joel—ridiculously huge time-gap, but I could not resist. Anyway, please, tell me what you thought; review!
The superscripted info:
Banchche—Persian (Farsi) word for "baby."
Charon—in Greek mythology, the boatman who ferries the souls of the dead across the River Styx, to the underworld.
"…ma petit mère…"—French; it means "my little mother."
Roma—another name for gypsies.
Dies Irae—a Medieval Latin Requiem detailing the Day of Judgment. Latin for "Days of Wrath."
"Dies iræ! dies illa / Solvet sæclum in favilla / Teste David cum Sibylla!"—"Day of wrath and terror looming! Heaven and earth to ash consuming, David's word and Sibyl's truth foredooming!" The first stanza of the Dies Irae.
"Judex ergo cum sedebit, / Quidquid latet apparebit: / Nil inultum remanebit."—"So when the Judge shall sit, whatever is hidden shall be seen, nothing shall remain unpunished." The sixth stanza of the Dies Irae.
"Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? / Quem patronum rogaturus, / Cum vix justus sit securus?" —"What am I, a wretched one, to say, what protector implore, when even a just person will scarcely be confident?" The seventh stanza of the Dies Irae.
"Juste judex ultionis, / Donum fac remissionis / Ante diem rationis." —"Just judge of vengeance, grant the gift of forgiveness, before the day of reckoning'…" The eleventh stanza of the Dies Irae.
"Are five enough to save her soul, Allah? It is not ten, but will You save her still? Or shall she perish in the flames with those in Sodom?"—a reference to the Bible: In Genesis 18, God informs Abraham that he plans to destroy the city of Sodom because of its gross immorality. Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom, and God agrees that he would stay his hand if there were 50 righteous people in the city, then 45, then 30, then 20, or even ten righteous people. The Lord's two angels only found one righteous person living in Sodom—Abraham's nephew Lot. Consequently, God destroyed the city. A similar story is in the Koran, but it is possible that Nadir has read the Bible, as he seemed somewhat curious about the religion; perhaps he was even told the story by Erik. As it was, I decided to stick with the Biblical version—artistic license.