The Territory of Lies TITLE: The Territory of Lies

AUTHOR: Susan M. Garrett

AUTHOR'S EMAIL: susanmgarrett@earthlink.net

RATING/WARNINGS: G - It's very dark, though.

THANKS: Thank you for reading with the understanding that I take responsibility only for mistakes of misspelling and grammar. What the characters do and say is entirely up to them.

****

The soft tap on the door, following by a slight creak - the sounds were so entirely normal that Phileas Fogg thought nothing of them as he drew on his brown leather gloves. "I'll have supper at the club, Passepartout. I suspect that Sampson will endeavor to keep me at the tables tonight long enough to win back his previous stake. I shouldn't expect I'll be back much before midnight, if then--"

"Master--?"

The reply was not worded in the manner he expected, nor was the tone consistent with the confidence Passepartout has previously shown in his abilities at the gaming tables. Phileas turned to see his valet standing by the door, in his hand the silver salver upon which mail and messages were delivered. There was a sealed letter upon it.

He hadn't remembered even hearing the front door.

Passepartout took a step further into the room, but again there was something awkward about the movement, the efficient glide having gained a note of hesitancy. His eyes weren't averted in the casual manner of the serving class, but fixed upon the envelope.

It was a cream color, the fine quality of the paper evident. The border at the edge was lined by a black bevel, standard on certain official correspondence. Even as Passepartout carried the tray within his reach, Phileas could not quite make out the details of the seal, but had received messages of this type often enough to know that this was from the palace, sealed by her Majesty's secretary.

No - he retracted the thought, staring down at the hard red blob against the cream paper. The seal was off-kilter, raised on one side as if insufficient pressure had been applied, the detail of the imprint uneven. Her Majesty's secretary would have placed a gun to his own forehead before he would have allowed a letter bearing this unfortunate seal to pass from his notice. The hand that had fixed this seal was far more aware of the mechanics of the process than of the precision required.

It had come directly from the hand of the Queen.

"I was being told to deliver it immediately," said Passepartout, his voice almost apologetic.

Phileas took his eyes from the letter on the tray, forcing himself to look at Passepartout, forcing himself to keep his voice calm, his gaze steady. "Quite right."

There was no movement for a long moment, the silence measured in breaths that may or may not have happened as they stared at one another, expressions grim.

Rebecca had been gone for over a week. God only knew where - it was an unfortunate habit of secret service agents to keep their movements . . . well, secret when necessary. That was more often than not.

It must have been particularly dangerous this time because she'd left in the dead of night and without benefit either of a good-bye or the Aurora, something she did lately only when she felt he might know enough of the danger involved to make an attempt to stop her. His attempts at stopping her never succeeded, of course, but it would mean that she wouldn't be alone, that he and Passepartout, and often Verne would accompany Rebecca to the edge of the pit . . . and into its very depths if required. Whatever it took to bring her back.

She'd gone alone.

She'd not yet returned.

Passepartout was the first to breathe, to look away. Phileas raised his hand to take the letter, then realized he was wearing his gloves.

No, that was wrong. One shouldn't handle such a thing with anything but the honest warmth of skin.

He peeled the leather from his left hand, and then his right, hearing the cuff button on each snap and roll away. The gloves were dropped unceremoniously on the carpet. Only then did he take the letter, sealed by the queen's hands, into his own.

Turning his back to Passepartout, he moved to the window as much for the momentary privacy the position offered as for the fading light. His fingernail sliced through the wax effortlessly and yet the paper remained folded - a precision folder of letters, Her Majesty. A moment to flip back the crisp page, to read the words . . . .

"I've been summoned to the Queen's presence," he said aloud. "At my earliest possible convenience."

Refolding the letter, he held it to his lips for a moment, staring out the window onto the street outside, trying to force the tension back down, rewinding it.

"Nothing--nothing else, Master?"

Phileas tried to ignore the note of hope in Passepartout's voice, answering, "I should think that would be sufficient."

Two lines to bring him to the palace, where further news would await . . . .

"I shall need gloves, Passepartout," he announced, rubbing his fingers against the black beveled border at the edge of the paper. "And the walnut cane, I think."

"I was polishing it yesterday."

"Excellent."

There was nothing behind the words - praise by rote, movement by lack of anything better. He walked to the fireplace and leaned against it, staring at the remnants of flames that still licked at the remains of the log inside.

At his earliest possible convenience.

Oddly phrased - there was hope to be had there. Perhaps she was only wounded. Or missing - if missing, she could be found. He'd done that before and would do so again, if he didn't throttle her first for taking such damned fool chances. Or perhaps she was fine, but realized that she was in over her head and had gotten word to Chatsworth that she needed help . . . .

Was he to draw every straw from the batch until only the short one remained in his hand?

The door opened and he started, glancing up at Passepartout - he hadn't realized the man had even left the room. He was wearing his hat and his jacket.

"The carriage is waiting, Master."

"Thank you." He forced himself to smile - it was faint, but it was there. "I'm going alone, Passepartout."

"But, if you are to be needing something--"

"This," Phileas tapped the letter against his other hand, "is a royal summons, not an invitation to a hunting party. I very much doubt Her Majesty intends to have me wait upon her accompanied by an entourage and baggage."

That stubborn look appeared in his valet's eye. "No one will be taking notice of only me."

It took no effort for Phileas to manage a second wan smile. "You underestimate yourself, even more often than I do." Then he sobered and looked back to the envelope in his hand. "Tell the driver I'll be out directly."

Phileas sensed his hesitation, but kept his eyes focused on the flames until he heard the door close again. There was a good possibility that Passepartout would follow him to the palace in a second coach - was he to forbid the man that? Passepartout knew when to observe the spirit of the command and when to precisely execute only the letter of the wording, to the final vowel. It was a rare gift to find in a valet and even rarer in a friend; to punish him for such prescience would be sheer stupidity.

Passepartout could be relied upon to do what needed to be done. It would be no small comfort to expect his valet would be waiting beyond the palace gates, hat held respectfully against his chest, expressions of sympathy kept to a minimum, and knowing to the very second how soon the Aurora could be ready for the necessary trip to Paris.

There were others to be told, Verne foremost among them.

There was the letter - he tapped it against his hand. Was this how it had happened with his father when Erasmus had died, the official audience with Her Majesty? Had two sentences, sufficient unto themselves, preceded his return to London?

The door opened again. "Master?"

Passepartout was standing at the door with his cane and gloves. "The carriage, master."

"Yes, Passepartout." He turned toward the fireplace to hide a faint smile. Softly, Passepartout, softly . . . foolish enough to agree to stay behind and yet not worldly enough remove the apparel that signaled a call to the next coach.

The letter was still in his hand. Phileas placed it on the mantle, turned toward the door, then stopped himself.

It had served its purpose. When he returned to the room it would be there, black border mocking, reminding.

He would have to remove so many reminders . . . .

Two steps back to the fireplace and he lifted the letter from the mantle with a thumb and forefinger, flinging it into the flames. The paper caught, burned, the crackle almost drowning out Passepartout's wordless exclamation of surprise. It would not take long to burn, did not take long to burn, and only after Phileas was certain that it had turned completely to ash did he moved toward the door.

Passepartout silently handed him the gloves, the cane, and his hat. His valet's eyes, which often spoke volumes, were lowered. Phileas turned his hand for the button on the second glove to be fixed and that, too, was done automatically. Black gloves, black cane, and black hat - he wondered that there wasn't already a crepe band around it. Passepartout worked miracles, did he not? Rebecca always said . . . .

So many reminders.

The door opened and he walked outside. Passepartout sidestepped him, hurried ahead to open the coach door, and stood to one side as Phileas entered and seated himself.

"I shall return directly."

****

The driver was paid and his name was given at the gates; the barest of unemotional pleasantries were observed as he was led down endless corridors. A room was found in which he should wait . . . and he waited.

Time had ceased to function. Phileas accepted that.

Sunlight had escaped him; it would not return. He accepted that, as well. Mourned it, but accepted it.

The door opened and he was escorted down another series of halls. His cane and hat had been taken at some point - he barely missed them - but he kept his gloves.

Another door. The usher bade him wait with a slight motion of the hand, entered the room and announced, "Mr. Phileas Fogg."

If there had been a comment from within the room, he didn't hear it. There was a bow from the usher and then he entered the royal presence.

It was a small reception room, informal - even the cheery gaslight was hard-pressed to liven the black curtains, the deep green and gold of the velveteen wallpaper, and the heavy wood furniture. There were no other attendants or ladies in waiting. Her Majesty was seated on a couch, Chatsworth standing to her right, looking officious.

He could cheerfully have killed the man . . . but that would have been an affront to Her Majesty.

Phileas presented himself, bowing and hesitating just inside the door until he was motioned closer.

"We thank you, Phileas, for your prompt answer to our summons."

Informal . . . yes. He took two steps closer and nodded politely. "I hope to find you well, your Majesty."

"Thank you, yes. And how does your cousin, Miss Fogg?"

The words stopped him cold - Phileas didn't dare to lift his eyes from the carpet. "Ma'am?"

If she was asking after Rebecca's health . . . .

His heart began to beat again.

Phileas raised his eyes and fought to keep his composure, feeling more than a little weak at the knees.

"Miss Fogg?" pressed the queen, with a raised eyebrow and a tone that indicated that his hearing was not what it should be.

"I - I haven't seen her in over a week, your Majesty. When last we met, she was well."

"Good." The queen had a black lace handkerchief in her hands; she twisted it as she spoke, but her gaze remained on him. "We have been informed that you have lately returned from abroad, the Americas?"

"Yes, your Majesty." The answer was by rote - all common courtesy, no thought required.

Rebecca was alive.

"You are still our loyal subject, are you not?"

Had the question come from anyone but Her Majesty, Phileas would have been hard pressed not to demand satisfaction. He glanced at Chatsworth, but the rat-faced ninny was eyeing him with a superior air. And so he should, for Phileas had no idea to what the queen might be referring.

"Yes, your Majesty," he answered, and then added, "If I may be so bold, ma'am--?"

"It has come to our attention that you may have contemplated actions contrary to our wishes."

Contemplated.

Phileas let that word roll around in his head for a moment. He still had no idea to what she might be referring.

Rebecca was .

"Ma'am?"

"We have been informed--" the queen looked at Chatsworth, "that you have contemplated further intervention in the war that rages across the Atlantic. I need not remind you that although our commercial sympathies may lie with our Southern cousins, our chosen course is that of neutrality. That is understood?"

Ah. The League trying to throw the balance of the war to the south behalf. Their destruction of Al's faux-Phoenix.

It was starting to make sense.

Of course, everything they had done preserved England's neutrality, but one did not say such things when one's monarch was reprimanding one.

"Absolutely, ma'am," agreed Phileas, in what he hoped was a sufficiently humble and contrite tone.

"Although we personally deplore the subjugation and enslavement of other peoples, we cannot countenance our subjects interfering with the due legal process of our sister nations." The queen closed her eyes for a moment, shook her head sadly, and then fixed him with a steady gaze. "Phileas, we hold great pride in and commend your humanitarian instincts, but we cannot allow your airship to be used to transport slaves fleeing from the South to the North."

Phileas opened his mouth, prepared to protest that he had never contemplated such a thing . . . and stopped himself, just in time.

Verne.

They'd had a discussion after . . . Saratoga Browne's burial. Rebecca has been elsewhere, arranging passage on the train, no doubt. Passepartout was at hand, silently doing what needed to be done. And Verne - the altruist among them - had spoken at length about what a difference they could make if they used the Aurora to transport fleeing slaves to the North, where they might find safety.

He'd been numb, barely listening. Even now, he could hardly believe that Verne had been serious, for Verne was earnest about everything and one could only take so much earnestness when one's world had just fallen about one's ears . . . .

Ironic, that he was being both commended and reprimanded for Verne's idealism. And though the reprimand from his sovereign stung, as such were wont to do, he was more disturbed by the thought of being credited for a genuine nobility of moral will that he didn't possess.

"Your Majesty, I--"

"There is nothing more to be said on this matter, Phileas."

"Yes, ma'am."

Their audience was at an end - there was no further need of words, particularly when he'd been summoned for a reprimand, and not a condolence call. Rebecca was alive; how could he take any of this seriously?

And yet he did, for it was no small matter to be personally reprimanded by Queen Victoria. Phileas bowed, observed the minutest of formalities, and left, utterly conscious that Chatsworth was on his heels from the moment he left the room. He didn't want to speak with Chatsworth.

"Fogg?"

It seemed he would have no choice. They had traversed the length of the corridor before Chatsworth was able to catch up to the long-legged pace Phileas had set for the usher. The man even had the audacity to catch hold of his arm. "Fogg!"

The usher continued on his path at a look from Chatsworth. To turn and shake Chatsworth's hold from him in a single motion was no major task, but to do it with such grace that the man would falter took some small effort. Phileas did so and found himself gratified by the momentary flutter of annoyance in Chatsworth's manner, as well as the distinct pursing of his lips.

"That was clear, I trust?" said Chatsworth sharply. "There's to be no more intervention in the war between the American states without Her Majesty's implicit direction?"

Phileas didn't deign to answer at first, simply taking a breath and looking away, finally announcing, "You may assure Her Majesty that I would never consider taking any action contrary to her wishes."

"That's no answer, Fogg."

"Find an answer in it, then, because it's all you're going to get." Phileas stared down at the man, using his height to full advantage and fighting the urge to place his hands around Chatsworth's pudgy little neck and strangle the man. He had no doubt this audience was born of Chatsworth's malign plotting. How dare the man all but frighten the wits from him!

"Miss Fogg . . . ."

The words stilled Phileas' heart in his chest. However unpleasant it was to see Chatsworth's immediately smug gratification at the effect those words had in stopping him cold, he could endure it. It was all too close, at the moment, to pretend anything otherwise.

"Miss Fogg," continued Chatsworth, "shall return to London tomorrow."

She was alive. She was well. She was coming home.

All that had been said, and yet not said. Phileas could not prevent the slight smile, did not wish to, not at this time. "Thank you," he said, with the barest pretense of formality - anything else would have been churlish.

Chatsworth started like a whipped dog, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Yes. Well. You will keep in mind--"

"Of course." Phileas accepted his hat and cane from the usher, then held his hat in his hand, waiting with what he hoped would appear as infinite patience as he eyed Chatsworth. "Anything else?"

The spy-master sputtered incoherently for three to four seconds.

"I thought not." Bowing to the man, Phileas placed his hat on his head and said, "I do hope you have a pleasant evening," and followed the usher to the door, leaving the tiny man, with his tiny plots and tiny plans behind him.

As he suspected, Passepartout stood just at the carriage beyond the outer gates, hat clutched to his chest expression worried beyond measure. Phileas smiled and lifted his cane in salute as he approached, pleased to see his valet's entire demeanor momentarily unsettled. No words were exchanged, not with the palace gates - such things could wait for a private moment. The carriage door was opened, Phileas entered, and Passepartout as well, sitting directly across from him.

In other circumstances he might have attempted to restore his composure in front of his valet, but at the moment that seemed highly unnecessary. Phileas allowed himself a wide grin, although he did center his attention on the streets outside the carriage window. "Chatsworth informs me that Rebecca is to return to London tomorrow."

"Is being very best of news, master."

"Very best of news," echoed Phileas softly, still watching the streets outside the window. The darkness that had fallen was not so black as he'd feared it might be. Perhaps because he now knew the sun would rise again?

"I shall be making preparations," said Passepartout.

"Not too much of a fuss," warned Phileas. He turned his attention back to the valet and grinned again, seeing relief and delight mingled in Passepartout's expression - relief that nothing was wrong and delight in that he should have a chance to make 'arrangements.' "She's apt to be tired and she'll have to speak to Chatsworth before seeing us - you know the mood in which that's likely to place her."

Passepartout grunted his understanding and frowned. "I am not thinking much of Mister-Sir Jonathan now, master. That was a bad letter to be sending to you. A very bad letter."

"The summons was from Her Majesty."

His tone was modulated to imply that nothing more needed to be said on that matter and Passepartout, wisely, took the hint. Then his valet smiled. "Would be right to be fetching Jules. He will be helping with preparations."

Phileas smiled inwardly at the thought of Jules Verne being anything more than a hindrance in Passepartout's household chores, then nodded. "Yes, I think so. You should leave immediately."

"Yes, master."

Phileas turned his attention to the window again. Verne's company would prove a welcome diversion until Rebecca's return. There was still this matter to discuss with him, to pass on the Queen's misplaced commendation for excellence of character - let Verne make of that what he would - while ignoring the circumstances of the reprimand. Verne would be as baffled by it as he, of course. There had only been the two of them party to this conversation, Rebecca having been elsewhere, Passepartout serving coffee . . . .

His fingers tightened on the handle of his cane - that was the only external sign he could allow himself, with Passepartout sitting, watchful, across from him. The question was, how watchful? It was not impossible that Chatsworth had agents planted in the Americas, but for one to have been at that station at that time would have been a stroke of luck. Rebecca had set Verne to watch him for a few moments, he was well aware of that. Had someone - Chatsworth - set Passepartout to watch over ?

Unthinkable, and yet . . . .

Phileas turned his gaze on Passepartout, received a small smile for his regard and nodded in reply . . . but did not look away. Not so unthinkable, when he put the better part of his mind to it. After his father's death he was, to be certain, something of a loose cannon. He'd been left on his own recognizance for surely no other reason than the favor of Her Majesty rested with his family. There was Rebecca's position to be considered, after all, as well as her value to a service that had been dealt a great blow with the death of his brother, his own resignation, and then his father's death not so long afterward. To not have him watched would have been a blunder of the highest magnitude.

But . . . Passepartout? In yet another way, it made sense - he would not have borne the constant scrutiny, within or without his household, of a typical agent for the crown. There would have been frequent discoveries, frequent replacements. For someone to succeed in such a thing, they would have to be uncommon, indeed.

Uncommon, perhaps the best descriptive for Passepartout. There was no valet in the world like him, no one in the world like him.

A gentleman's valet was privy to every secret of his life.

Every secret - and which had Passepartout chosen, or been ordered, to share?

He had stared for too long - Passepartout fidgeted beneath his gaze and asked, "Master?"

A cold weight filled the pit of his stomach at the very word. Still, Phileas forced a comforting smile, brought his knuckle to his lips, and stared out the window again.

Traitor.

And yet . . . the man fought with them and beside them. He lent them his skill, his efficiency, his compassion, his friendship, all without measure or expectation of return in kind. There was no man within Phileas' reckoning who could have acted so well upon the delivery of that letter this afternoon, to have shown such distress and compassion in guessing what the letter might have meant.

It was the embarrasing conundrum of the spy trade - that a man dedicated to preserving the honor of his sovereign and his nation must exist in an intricate web of prevarication. Most would be forced to lie to family - Phileas having been spared that, for his family was consumed by the tradecraft - and to intimates, to assume roles and discard them as easily as one did a soiled shirt, and yet somehow manage to retain a sense of honor. He preferred not to think back on his own days in the service for just that reason. Sooner or later, a man who valued honor would require the lies come to an end. Or, at the very least, ensure the lies didn't affect the relationships with those who truly mattered in one's life.

A conversation between he and Verne overheard only by Passepartout - a foolish mistake, if the information was passed as such. Only one conclusion could be reached, that Passepartout was the conduit. And to be tripped up by so trivial a matter - for it was trivial despite the royal reprimand, blown out of proportion by Chatsworth - seemed absurd. Seemed, in fact, well beneath the abilities of someone skilled enough to have won his trust, his admiration, and his friendship in so short a period of time without in any way arousing his suspicions.

A way to ensure the lies didn't affect the relationships with those who truly mattered in one's life.

Not such an idiot.

Phileas started as the carriage jolted to a halt, barely removing his arm from the door before Passepartout had moved passed him again to settle the account with the driver. Descending the carriage, he waited. The door was opened, his hat and gloves and cane were taken . . . and yet Phileas paused there, in the hallway.

Passepartout shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, averting his gaze. "If I am to be bringing back Jules, I must be leavings immediately. Will you be supperings at the club, master? Or shall I be making you suppers before I am to Paris?"

"I think . . . I shall dine in tonight, Passepartout, but nothing formal - perhaps some light fare before you go. Or--" Phileas paused again, "perhaps it would make more sense to accompany you. I have nothing pressing at the moment and there's a matter I'd like to discuss with Verne."

He headed into the study, not at all surprised that Passepartout followed. "Nothing is amisses, master?"

"Amiss? No. Not as such." His brown leather gloves were still lying on the floor, where he'd discarded them earlier. Phileas bent to retrieve them, snatching them up the barest second before Passepartout could reach them. He handed the gloves to the valet. "The Queen commended me for an initiative that was Verne's idea - I was forced to accept the compliment on his behalf and thought I'd pass it along." Watch the eyes. "Something about using the Aurora to transport slaves fleeing from the South. A discussion Verne and I had - surely you were there?"

A slight shrug of the shoulders, a shake of the head. "I am not remembering such, master."

Not a sign of it. Dear Lord, he was good.

And then, after the barest hesitation, Passepartout added, "But, if it was not being of much matter, master, I do not remember such things."

There it was, not so much of an admission as an establishment of ground rules, the beginning of an understanding.

How best to reply? To admit the existence of this subterfuge would be to destroy it. He didn't wish to see Passepartout leave their lives, nor did he much look forward to explaining the circumstances of it to Rebecca, who would understand, or to Verne, who would not.

"You're correct, Passepartout, in that it didn't matter. It doesn't matter. Nor will it be of any concern in future."

The barest nod of his head, Passepartout stooped to collect a button from the leather gloves, which had fallen to the floor earlier. "Jules will have wonderings why we are having such joy at Miss Rebecca's returning?"

"Yes. Well, best to keep our thoughts on the matter from him." As Passepartout met his gaze, Phileas added, "Regarding the letter, of course. And Rebecca. Perhaps this will balance out some of the many secrets she's keeping from us."

And there - finally! - the barest slip, a smile just a shade too broad as the understanding was reached - it was not to be mentioned to either Rebecca or Jules, the status quo would be preserved.

Phileas consulted his pocket watch. "Will two hours be sufficient time to prepare, Passepartout?"

He already knew the answer to his question and Passepartout confirmed it with an enthusiastic, "Yes, master."

"Excellent. Please collect me when we're ready to leave." The watch was returned to his pocket. "Thank you, Passepartout."

A nod, accompanied by a far more sober smile. "Thank you, master."

Phileas turned to the window and stared out into the darkness - the gas lamps had been lit by the maid in preparation for evening. The fire that had been burning had been banked after his earlier departure; it needed to be stoked.

Phileas walked to the fireplace, picked up the poker and then paused . . . let it remain banked for a time longer. It could be set aside for the moment, along with such considerations as what would happen when Rebecca discovered the truth. He half suspected that she might already know, coming to similar or identical conclusions about the situation. Verne, however, was going to be a problem - he was too bright not to figure it out eventually, too idealistic not to be outraged, too attached to Passepartout and to them not to be heartbroken by such a betrayal of confidence. Unlike him, unlike Rebecca, unlike Passepartout, Verne had no real secrets; he'd not yet learned to live with lies as a matter of course.

Yes, better to let it remain banked. The longer Verne remained in their company, the more secrets he'd acquire. He'd learn to lie, would learn to live with the lies, just as they had. Nothing would be gained by forcing the issue now; a solution would come naturally in its own time. Verne would accept this, just as Rebecca had or would, just as he had. Verne would learn to ensure the lies didn't affect the relationships with those who truly mattered in one's life.

Phileas replaced the poker, then walked to the decanter and poured himself a claret. He sipped it as he walked around the room, shutting off each of the gas lamps in turn, until only the moonlight filtered in through the window. Seating himself, he faced the window, watching the light play across the desk and the floor and wondered how long it would be before Verne recognized, as they all had, that every relationship that truly mattered in one's life was, one way or another, founded completely on lies.

****

"He entered the territory of lies without a passport for return."

Graham Greene - The Heart of the Matter

****

The End