Book I: Pax

Chapter 8: La Danse Macabre

Books had a tendency of slipping out of Christine's grasp when she most needed them for escape. This was caused most frequently by lack of interest or time, but on that bitter cold morning found a more literal manifestation. When the aging spine of her present read hit the floor, half of its pages came out of their binding to scatter across the room.

She muttered something spiteful then climbed out of the plush confines of the front parlor chair to retrieve them. Stained a musky brown from the years of wear and tear, they had given way easily. As she knelt to gather up the strays that had fallen, Christine noticed the title page that rested beneath the chair. It had lodged itself under one of the curved cherry wood paws that made for all of the furniture's feet. The title had never concerned her, the book itself chosen at random from the amply stocked shelf. The Subtle of Pembroke. It was a romance, and not quite as subtle as forewarned.

Christine thought it odd that Raoul would even have such a book. It hadn't been long, though, before all else was forgotten but the story in her hands. Swept up in the passionate tale of a young woman suffering the loss of a mother, subject to the advances of an aggressive suitor with whom she was brought up and to her father's morbid depression, Christine was taken aback at first by its rather carnal beginning, not particularly accustomed to such vivid description, but took to peeking over the top of the pages like a child once curiosity settled in. The bronze lion remained, like a gentle, breathless pet, nestled in her lap. Every other moment she would pick it up to run it through her hands, almost erotically.

When the book fell, so went her concentration. Worn pages collected in the crook of her arm as she darted here and there after them. But the second time she searched beneath the large centerpiece armchair she paused when her fingertips found something oddly course amidst the immense layers of lint and grime. It was the spine of another book.

Christine pulled it out from its hiding place and immediately dusted off its cover. By the look of it, the filthy old thing had been lodged beneath the chair for quite a while.

"Yersinia Pestis: the Origins of the Black Death," she read softly to herself, tracing the embossed letters across the deep green hardcover. "Why on earth would...?"

The question faded away into the dank, dripping confines of the back of her mind.

Without hesitation, Christine set her fervent romance face down on a nearby stand and dove without caution into a much grimmer treatise.

The opening page yielded a black and white reproduction of a most perturbing work of art—an allegory labeled at the very bottom of the page to have originated in the 1400s. Portrayed there were skeletons of many shapes and forms. They were dancing, jowls hanging down in ruthless laughter, eye sockets cold and void of anything but vile menace. Christine recognized the work immediately. It was a caricature Death itself. Death, in the sense that it is the equalizer of all men, was shown taking shape in people from diverse walks of life. It is the final dance and the delight of all things in opposition to man—things that seek to destroy the human spirit.

For a moment, she studied its artistic detail. Completely unaware at first of how suddenly the image had spoken to her in a visual language she seemed not yet to comprehend fully, Christine took her time in turning the page. The picture's grip on her attention soon retracted its claws and set her free, allowing passage into the following text.

Instead of settling back into the chair, Christine began to pace the room with the book in hand. She was immediately engrossed in the account of a deadlier time and place. Europe's darker days seemed to come alive before her eyes in only the span of a paragraph. The further she went, the further the afflictions were described. Christine felt the pure ivory skin of her arm when the sensation of blackening flesh, the unerring sign of lethal internal hemorrhage, crawled across her nerves.

Horrendous living conditions, extreme death tolls, the destruction of society and unthinkable acts of persecution followed as she continued to devour the pages, wincing every so often in response.

Her pacing stopped when she came upon a particular little passage that caught her attention. The symptoms of the bubonic pandemic were there being described in vivid detail. Only one characteristic of the disease stood out: the swelling of the lymph nodes.

Christine paused to think. Raoul had mentioned something about the nodes in Liam's inner thighs being swollen. She had not been allowed to see it herself, but was certain that it matched the description shown in the book. It left her feeling shaken, the way one symptom—the very one her poor little waif was inflicted with—could practically define a tragic, fatal disease. She closed the book immediately and promised herself that Liam was not infected by a plague that had not reoccurred for centuries. Of course, she had no immediate idea that enlarged buboes could be a symptom of many different afflictions. What was there before her eyes was the only knowledge that she possessed.

The very idea was pure nonsense anyway; she knew she would only upset herself exploring it further. Still she wondered…

There was a knock at the door from the adjoining hall. Raoul's footsteps sounded rhythmically from the stairs. She hadn't the slightest idea why it had taken him so long to come back down and hoped he hadn't been brooding over something again—something like marriage.

Anxiously biting her lip, Christine shoved the plague book into the cushion of her plush reading chair, laced her hands together and went for the door. Before she could reach it, Romina darted past, insisting that it was her trouble to let in the guests. Eyebrows furrowing down at the little maid, Christine allowed her to greet the doctor and his assistant while she met Raoul on his way to the door.

"Is he on time?" she scoffed, brushing into him as he passed.

"Of course. He's much too particular to be anything else," replied the Vicomte wearily.

They continued on to meet their guests together, stride for nervous stride, afraid to look each other in the eyes.

Snowy boots scuffed against the hardwood floor as Romina took the men's coats. Face strained for calm, the doctor thanked the young servant quietly. Something was apparently troubling him.

Armand's thick leather mackintosh dropped to the ground in a heap the moment Christine came into view, just as Romina reached out to grab it. His tongue knotted up when the lady made her woefully stunning appearance. Her perfume intoxicated, her eyes captivated, the golden tendrils that fell about her face arrested...he was nothing more than a mass of spineless, rushing young hormones who happened to be able to stand upright in her presence. He took her in the way beggars admire the windows of pastry shops.

It took but one firm glance from D'Brouilliard to know why he shouldn't stare for long. Armand greeted the intimidating likes of the Vicomte first, as he had been instructed, before nearly swooning at the chance to kiss the lady's hand. After much hesitation, he did so quite awkwardly upon urging, not entirely certain whether he was overdoing it, under-doing it or whether he was taking too long, already nauseous with unease beyond reasonable composure.

When Christine addressed him, acting quite frailly to appease the gods of propriety, the lad wanted so desperately to say so much more than the few words his weak constitution would allow to escape him.

"Armand Pomeroy…and it is such a pleasure…to meet you," the pink faced ward stumbled over each syllable. He then sank back behind his master, ashamed of his own meekness. He wanted terribly to hear her speak again; to tell her how many times he had seen her perform and wished to meet her in person.

D'Brouilliard met Raoul with a welcoming embrace. This puzzled the boy and Christine equally, for they had not an inkling of the connection between the two.

"It's been quite a while, old man," sighed Raoul, a tight, infectious grin inching across his face.

D'Brouilliard did not smile. He did not blink. He did not even seem to breathe as the two of them pulled apart.

"It has. And perhaps it is for the best, Raoul. It was about time you got out from under my wing and learned to mend your own scraped knees."

The jest in his voice and his eyes finally shone through as his tone began to melt from the frigid cold, but something dismal about the aging surgeon still remained.

"Probably so. Needless to say, I don't believe I would have survived past fifteen without you," the Vicomte chuckled with great reserve.

D'Brouilliard removed the gloves from his hands one after the other, stretching and curling the joints of his arthritic fingers to relieve the stiffness. "That is exactly what your father used to tell me," he replied. "After all those summers I spent teaching you and Michel the way of things, it's some consolation to see at least you've grasped sensibility."

He nodded dutifully, though no less stiffly, to Christine. She obliged a smile in return, not certain whether this man knew about the 'insensibility' of her origins and was mocking her or was truly oblivious.

Raoul raised a simpering eyebrow, "And the old devil hasn't? He would be the last I would imagine to be getting along poorly."

"Michel is well," D'Brouilliard huffed. "Well enough. He's found another avenue for his cause—one of the thousands of them. I'm afraid he's got it in his head that, well…it may not be my place to say, but…"

For a moment the old man pinched the bridge of his nose, bowed his head and seemed to be in deep, yet rapid thought. Thought that seemed to cause him pain.

"Oh, never mind," he then shook his head, dismissing himself angrily. "The less I speak my mind the better—really, lad, he's as much of himself as he's always been. I haven't heard from him, though, in a little over a fortnight. He has been back from Moscow for weeks now, you know."

Raoul quietly took his fiancée's hand and smiled warmly through his words, "Yes, I know. Michel spoke with me before he left…he told me everything. From what I understand there aren't many who know the reason why he took leave for four months. Many nasty rumors floating about…"

D'Brouilliard's eyes grew even more distant than before, hands wringing the gloves clenched between his aching fists. Armand fidgeted behind his back.

"Most who do know what he's been up to would rather not speak of it," he uttered gruffly, consciously slurring the words. The doctor shifted his feet as if briefly losing balance, then went back to massaging the bridge of his nose. Everything about the man exuded unquestionable anxiety.

"Is something the matter, Geoffroi?"

D'Brouilliard's eyes shot up to face Raoul's immediately, "Nothing, my boy...just an ounce shaken from the morning. Damn Fridays..."

"Was there a mistfortune this morning"

"Yes. One death," Geoffroi pretended to choke out with all of the stern, righteous dignity he could muster. "An old woman...past ripened age...pneumonia..."

"But monsie-" Armand interrupted, sounding rather urgent.

"Quiet boy!" the doctor suddenly snapped angrily at his assisant. The young fool shrank back again, more out of fear than obedience this time around.

A singular bead of sweat streamed down from Geoffroi's forehead and the stress-induced lines about his face contorted into frightful ridges, but other than this, his expression showed flawlessly blank. The doctor was attempting to cheat his way through the natural human sensory of body language. He lied poorly, being much too much of a prude and of strict religious upbringing for this sort of deception.

He would hold his tongue, for there was no need yet to express the jarring distress that he had stumbled into earlier that morning to this innocent couple. He would not burden his dear young friend whom he had practically raised from boyhood with something of this potential magnitude that he was not certain of himself. What he had witnessed haunted him. It had manifested itself before his eyes much like a ghost. If he were to describe what he suspected of what he had seen that sinister morning in the terms of his deepest, darkest fears that in turn sprung up from the intense insecurity the anomaly had caused him, he surely would be labeled mad.

While he was contemplating this, Christine was already surging with impatience. She did not care to hear the specifics of their acquaintanceship anymore than she cared to hear a stranger on the street's life story.

"Isn't it about time someone attended the patient?" she snapped openly, stopping their conversation—rather, the leftover carcass which had once been light conversation—dead in its tracks and bringing gawking little Armand back into an awakened state.

Before Raoul could berate her disrespectful outburst in front of the men, D'Brouilliard agreed promptly—loudly—and asked to be shown up to the room. His request would not be delayed. He and his stocky assistant were ushered along.

When the most acclaimed doctor in all of the cluttered left bank of the Seine first laid eyes on his newest patient, his first impulse was to hold back a boisterous scoff of indignity. This he failed at doing so eloquently that Christine nearly turned to spit in his face. She kept quietly on the opposite side of her beloved, determined not to jeopardize the life of her friend only to oppose this man's cruel prejudice.

Raoul and Armand crowded on either side of the dissatisfied old doctor, waiting to hear his first impression of Liam's condition at a glance.

Eyes squinted but still alive with the same twinkle as always present, Liam sensed their presence in the room and turned over to face his visitors. Such an idiotic expression of elation spread across his bandaged face that it caused D'Brouilliard to sneer with almost piteous disdain.

Raoul only looked to the doctor in hope, wondering whether D'Brouilliard was his last chance of winning back his fiancée's peace of mind and therefore her good favor by helping this man. Christine still refused to meet him eye to eye, now finding something to affix her loving, coveted gaze on in the figure of the sickly man sprawled out on the chaise.

The doctor cleared his throat, testing his young friend's endurance with a brief and compulsory game of the eyes, "I trust you know that I am not a charity doctor…no matter what incredulous ideas he has been putting into your head."

"I understand, Geoffroi, and I do not question the fact that your practice is of the utmost professional caliber. Christine insisted that we take in this man after she found him dying in the streets. There was no way to leave him with clear conscience… I will be taking full responsibility for the treatment of his afflictions now and I intend to see him completely cured before I allow him out of my home, if that is possible. I do not ask for your sympathy, only for you to do whatever it takes," explained Raoul in the sternest of terms.

It was most obvious to Christine that he was attempting to acquire her better side. She thought perhaps that what happened between them the night before had secured his newfound willingness to do for her whatever she wanted. The manipulation, apparently, worked in many different directions. Since the deception was now keeping Liam alive instead of only covering her insecurity, she was thoroughly convinced that there was nothing wrong in such methods of gaining the upper hand.

Liam regarded them softly but kindly. This softened the doctor a bit, who set his bitterness aside to genuinely care for this man, if only because Raoul genuinely cared for him and because it was his duty to do so.

"Let's have a look at you, then," nodded D'Brouilliard as he reached for the linens covering the heavily bruised man before him.

When the blanket was lifted, Christine found herself cringing. A fist-full of Raoul's waistcoat was suffocating in her grasp. He held her fast with one arm around her waist and the other firmly about her chest to prevent any rash action—or otherwise only to have her close—letting a reasonable distance between them and the doctor's work.

The Vicomte thought twice about allowing her to see the massive abscesses that had formed in the man's deep upper groin. Aside from the unclothed contents of the afflictions' immediate area, the sight of bulbs of raw, inflamed tissue festering with internal fluids was nothing a lady should concern herself with. The distress of seeing his condition would not alleviate any qualms stirring in her mind either. Christine and distress were well acquainted. They would swallow each other up if given good reason.

This was a good enough reason.

Yet when she strained to see around D'Brouilliard's back he found himself unresisting to her frantic need. There would be no keeping her away from this. It had been imbedded in Christine's bombarded mind that Liam was hers. Like a lioness to her mewling cub, something primitively instinctive—possibly maternal—was making him more and more vital to her stability with every mounting second; Raoul could feel it through her unseen tremors.

She protested to be let go, finally drawing the line and tearing away from his grasp to be at the doctor's side…at her beloved Liam's side. That first sudden stab of harsh refusal felt to Raoul like a stake driven into the chest. There was no relief from this sort of pain; nothing to do but push it away and focus on the issue at hand.

He could have very well realized within that instant that Christine had been right to tell him he was strong, but he was only that way beneath his devotion to her. The only way the resiliency could resurface was if that devotion was stripped away. Raoul clung to his dependence upon love for dear, dear life, the fear of losing her taking precedence over dignity and self-confidence. This was his choice: strength to face the trials before him with head held high or the constant, groveling need for her affection and favor. He found himself failing miserably at gaining either.

With Liam's exhausted consent, Geoffroi felt around the afflicted areas, assessing the range of severity.

The beaten little waif could not hold back the tremble in his inner thigh when the doctor's touch passed closer. His embarrassed blush was followed suit by a spike of pain that made him writhe so that Christine nearly jumped with fright. Still, she merely gasped and stepped closer to where he lay.

"How severe is the pain?" D'Brouilliard grunted.

"Very, good 'sieur," Liam fought himself to speak. He did so softly so that only the doctor could hear his hesitant answer.

"Localized lymphadenopathy...badly swollen groinal buboes," the doctor droned

without discernible expression. D'Brouilliard then turned to Liam, still devoid of emotion, "How long have they been present?"

The man found himself daunted by the old surgeon's cologne. It was thick all around him, a cloud of precious incense. In this flushing state of numbness, Liam could not speak nor breathe nor recognize the words coming out of Geoffroi's mouth. Christine dabbed the sweat from his neck and forehead with the end of the shawl she kept around her then nudged him kindly on the shoulder.

"Perhaps three days 'sieur," Liam finally returned to consciousness at her touch. His tender upturned smile kept Christine from pulling away. She remained there to kneel by his side and whisper soft reassurances while D'Brouilliard's examination pressed on.

Raoul attempted to cool the blood boiling through him. He felt almost compelled to leave the room, as if he had no right to come between this fragile woman and her smutty urchin. It was almost as if they were strangers before him. Only, he couldn't. He would turn to face one of the outer walls, cringing through the sting of fresh, raw, bleeding rejection and castigating himself severely for this sin against his own pride.

It was all for her, but Christine would never fully understand the depth his sacrifice. Not for a very long time to come.

In the exposed light all four of them could see Liam's shaking grow from a mild tremble to a shudder, his broken body only trying to keep itself from shutting down under the immense pain and the direct touch of the cooler air in the room.

Within moments, the movement became severe. Violent creaking sounded from the stained chaise, triggering D'Brouilliard's hand to shoot out from beneath the leather bound notebook he had been writing in so intently to urge his patient's uncovered form back into a resting position.

When the good doctor felt the moistened skin, soft and giving beneath his own, his concern mounted.

"Don't move," Geoffroi ordered, "If what you're telling me is true, then you are in no condition to be stirring. Three days. This infection becomes severe within hours; they've had plenty of quality time to inflame themselves."

D'Brouilliard then addressed the worried pair hovering around him, continuing his monotone diagnosis, "Since it is localized, thank Christ, it will not be as difficult to treat. Your waif will need strong analgesics—Armand will take care of this. In the meanwhile, the swollen areas should be properly addressed. Have your housekeeper prepare a few dampened cloths…preferably warm."

"I will get them, docteur," daintily insisted Christine, rising from where she knelt with pretty white hands clasped together. They were seeped with not only Liam's sweat, but her own as well. The urgency in her voice compelled the men not to say a word. But even still before anyone could oppose she had taken for the hall, bound for the kitchen and to handle to job herself.

Geoffroi then took the Vicomte aside and spoke softly, "The cause is unimportant for the time being, but if the swelling is the product of something venereal or cancerous we may have a greater problem on our hands."

"What is to be done for the time being then?" questioned Raoul, only relieved that Christine was out of the room and away from the source of misery.

"Surgery. The buboes must be removed," replied his dear old friend. D'Brouilliard dipped his hands into a limpid solution he had poured into a small dish at his side before gesturing Armand who had been standing stiffly at attention on the other side of the chaise to go for the large case kept at all times in the back of the coupé.

The lad knew what he meant right away and skidded out of the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fair maiden on his way down.

Sterile tension seemed to radiate from everything around them. Not the kind which causes discomfort, but rather the sort of tension that heightens the senses and readies the body and mind for what is to come. All the same, Raoul could not grasp any form of certainty and therefore he lost himself to worry again.

He quivered slightly as the doctor began laying out various knives and other instruments in calm preparation.

"Surgery! Certainly you can't perform a procedure in—"

"Do you have a problem with the location or the procedure itself, Raoul? With all of his other conditions that must be taken into consideration, I would rather not move him, and in all honesty, that chaise of yours has been through hell already. What's a bit more excretion going to make a difference?"

"It isn't that Geoffroi, it's—Christine. Must the surgery go through this morning? Is there any way it could be postponed?"

The nobleman would have foolishly sold his soul to hear the solitary word 'yes' from D'Brouilliard's mouth that very instant. He had not anticipated something so serious so soon. Christine didn't need this…less importantly, neither did he.

Perfected through the years, the doctor's intense sigh through the nostrils gathered and expelled the same raw emotion as an infuriated stallion. And then he spoke plainly, "This man is in pain. Great pain. He has done an exceptional job of convincing the mademoiselle otherwise. If you do not consent to this, well, then you've called me here for nothing. The infection will grow, he will reach the absolute end of the threshold and then there is a good chance that something like, oh, say…sepsis sets in."

Raoul's burdened gaze settled on his own. There was an incredible amount of despair there which melted a little more of the doctor's stone cold heart.

"If you want this man healed, this is the way it is going to be done. I'm sorry, Raoul, but there is no other path to take at this point. Christine is a strong soul. Why, with all that she has encountered," he stepped over those last few words carefully, "I am certain she will be fine."

"Then as I've said," sighed the Vicomte, "Do what you must...only what you must."

When Christine returned to the doorway of the room a while later with a supply of towels, soaps and a fresh steaming pan of water she was met with the scent of chloroform wafting thickly through the air.

Armand had opened the door to find her standing there, confused as to what was going on inside. Shakily, he took the supplies from her hands and told her with the greatest of reluctance that the doctor would allow no one to enter for a while. One could only imagine the look of horror on the enamored young man's face when she began to shout with outrage, having wanted only one thing at the time and that being to please her.

Luckily, the Vicomte had anticipated such an outburst and was determined not to let her disturb the doctor.

Upon his emerging from the room—Armand quickly shutting the door behind him—Raoul took her gently by the shoulders and held her back against the wall with unshakable strength into the same position she had forced him the night before.

"It isn't a serious procedure. He's only removing the swollen nodes," he assured, leaning into her affectionately, hoping like mad that it would take only a gentle touch to calm her.

The struggle against his grip quickly began to gain fervor, "I've got to be with him. I thought you understood—I must be with him."

"Stop that thrashing!" the Vicomte pled, mentally abusing himself for sounding so weak when she obviously needed his guidance and protection…his strength which was rapidly falling away.

"I won't let them! I won't let them cut into him that way without my being there!"

"You're overreacting and are obviously not well. You will rest until the operation is over…come now," he attempted to guide her, now in the broad daylight, along the hall to the nearby guest-room.

She only flailed more furiously than before, "Let go of me! You lied! You told me there would be only an examination!"

"I can explain this to you if you would calm down and think rationally for a moment. It's only light surgery. It isn't even…"

"I don't care!" she spat, forcing down the sobs in her throat to the point that it felt as if it were tearing open, "I don't want that pompous old wretch laying a hand on him! Did you see the way he was looking down his nose at my Liam? He'll be treated with the same care of a worthless animal!"

Raoul felt a most livid surge of rage when the woman in his arms referred to the beaten man as 'her Liam'. Two insignificant words. Never before had he felt so close to hating her. Only from a love most dangerously profound could arise such anger.

He wanted so ardently for Christine to see that this was all for her, and it was driving him to the edge of sanity.

"If you cared about that poor, miserable creature in the least you would let them do their jobs instead of making the situation worse than it should be!" he bellowed, the fury of his voice threatening to shake the city to its foundation. "And what in God's name am I raving for?! I could tell you these things until the life falls out of me and it will still be of no use! You ask for understanding. Why can't you understand me?"

She stopped completely. For a moment he thought the sheer force of his words to have frightened her into calming down, and for once was not ashamed of scaring her as he had once been.

But when she shoved him in the chest with every last ounce of her strength, Raoul knew that there was nothing left to be done about Christine but to let her go. The damage was far past done.

He could only stand breathless in the place she had deserted him to watch her run blindly down the stairwell, hands holding her lovely, pristine face so overwrought with incomprehensible grief, in retreat from him and from all that stood in the way of her happiness, which were now, regretfully, the very same thing.

Christine tore the Black Death book from where it had sunk beneath the parlor chair's cushion and clutched it tightly to her chest. She would read it for eerie solace later on.

Salt from the tears streaming down her face burned like acid every time she tried to wipe them away. She wanted to bury her own head into the dark space between the cushions and would have promptly if it weren't for the risk of looking like a shamed child to anyone who cared to walk past the open parlor.

There wasn't anything in the world that she needed more than a comforting embrace, a warm body in which she could burrow her face and fragile sobs into without the complexity of mature romantic involvement. She did not want to see before her the hideous past and the confounding likes of the future that were constantly being thrown in her face. She wanted to let go of her despair out loud without anyone's disapproving glower or words.

She wanted, more than anything, to be a little girl again.