Even though she was used to seeing it now, she could hardly believe it. There was blood on her hands.
The unveiling of the portrait—the last gift she would give to her family—had been absolutely ruined. She felt like crying. She had run from her parents, from Nanny, from Armand, and especially from André. This blood, this consumption, this lung disease would ruin everything!
They all had to know, now… They all to suspect what had plagued her for so long, the reason her face was so pale and her body so thin.
She couldn't stop the hot tears from falling. Never, in her 33 years of life, had she felt so weak, so drained. She liked to think that the pain was unbearable, but she sighed to herself and closed her eyes, the salty tears mixing with the bitter tang of her blood. If it was unbearable, she thought, she would not be where she was.
Just a little longer, she told herself. Her strength, not all of it, but enough, would return if she waited awhile. She didn't even have the energy to wipe away the mixture of blood and tears.
Her blood was splattered across her face, covering her lips except where the trail of her tears had disappeared into her mouth. Blood covered the front of her blouse, her pillow, and even the blanket on top of her bed.
Her breathing was harsh and ragged, but she felt strangely calm.
Was she going to die like this, alone in her room surrounded by nothing but blood? Suddenly, she wanted André back; she regretted sending him away with the maids.
She couldn't die! Not alone! She tried to sit up, tried to call out to him, but her body refused to cooperate. Only a rasping, "A…n…" came out, and she choked on her own saliva, bitter with the addition of her blood and salty thanks to her tears.
My God… My God! How much more of this could she take? She couldn't do so much as stand, but she could cough, and she did just that, coughing so hard she felt as if her lungs would join the blood splattered across her bedcovers. Each one ripped through her body like a carriage pulled by eight runaway robust stallions. It hurt, it hurt, and all she could do was fist her hand weakly by her mouth in a futile attempt to keep more blood from ending up on the bed.
Where was André? She really wanted him, now. She wanted comforting words, a hand on her back, someone to tell her that it would all end soon.
This too shall pass.
It would, oh, she knew it would, and the thought both saddened and cheered her heart. To know that it would happen again and again until her death scared her, but to know that she would live to see André again, to see the faces of her parents, of Nanny, of Alain and François and the rest of her beloved French Guards… It brought her joy.
Her face felt both hot and cold; the tears had stopped flowing, leaving clear trails through the crimson stains on her lips and chin.
She shook for a long time, and her heart thudded painfully against her ribcage. How had she gotten so fragile? Had she always been that way? No, no, she wasn't… A fragile commander would have failed in the eyes of the French Guard. She was a strong person stuck inside a dying body.
A knocking sounded on her door, and a familiar warm, concerned voice filtered through. "Oscar? Oscar, are you all right?"
The tears came again, completely unbidden; nothing could stop them from falling at his unfailing loyalty to her, at the love she knew he had kept inside for his entire life. Love for her…
She continued to cry, letting her eyes close when she felt too weak to keep them open. She wasn't worthy of such love, she thought. Not after twenty years of pretending it wasn't there. Not after he had been blinded because of her stupidity, not after he had confessed and she had been too scared and intimidated by it to respond properly!
A love so big, so expansive that it could not even be contained in the night sky in the same way as the stars! How could anyone, any man, look at her and love her, continue to love her, for everything she was, for everything she stood for? It had to be a lie, a joke, a mistake.
Nobody could love her, could they?
How was it possible? How could he look and her and see someone that he wanted to be with forever?
No one in their right mind would love the obstinate thirteen-year-old she had been, fist-fighting with her childhood friend because he told the truth. But twenty years…
Twenty years. Then he had loved her then, and he had loved the eighteen-year-old who saw Marie Antoinette's loneliness and heartache, and he had loved the colonel who had angrily demanded a duel at the loss of a child's life, and he had loved her drunk and angry and happy and sad. He had loved and loved and she had… She had ignored.
It was there all along! From the moment his fingers closed around her own on the riverbank after their fight, he had shown it in every gesture, in every sentence, in every question and concern.
Her fingers were trembling. Oh, his love was beautiful, far more than anything material.
"Oscar? Oscar, please talk to me later… I need to know you are okay."
She heard his footsteps as he left and she shuddered, wanting to reach out for him. No, no, he couldn't leave her, he had promised not to! She had never been more frightened in her life.
She had been afraid to duel de Guemènè, frightened at the prospect of possibly having to take another human life, and, perhaps to an extent, of losing her own. But this… The coughing and her deteriorating condition… It was something she could not fight against with a sword, with a pistol. It was attacking her from the inside out, and, scarier than the pain, than the blood and the chills she felt even in the heat of July, was the fact that it was consuming her and there was nothing she could do.
She laid on her bed, curled slightly, unable to move herself for a long time. She thought about all of the things André had said and done for her, and all of them had been out of love. She thought of his warm smile and his eyes, of his rough hands and the look on his face when he had seen her in a dress for the first—and last—time.
How had she not seen it? Her chest burned painfully at the thought that it had been there all along, and she had not seen it. Oh, it was love, it was always love! They had almost drowned, he had taken her hand, he held her back before she could do something she would regret, he told her she looked beautiful, she tripped in the dress and he smiled sweetly… He helped her home from a bar fight, carrying her all the way by himself, he wore the clothes of the Black Knight, he lost an eye, he smiled and said he was glad it hadn't been hers, he held her tight and tried to kiss her and shouted his love over and over…
He saluted her from the back of a group of men in the barracks that belonged to the French Guards Company B.
And oh, the love, the love, the love the love the love…
It had been in his eyes, in his smile, in his hands, in his words, his actions, and in his heart!
She fell in and out of consciousness, dozing for snatches of time before she would awaken, her eyelashes fluttering softly against her bloodstained cheeks. But it was always him she thought about as she laid there, cold and scared and alone even though André had not left the house.
She loved him, too. And she told him, had confessed it as her heart pounded in her chest nervously, had felt it skip in fear as he held her, crying in relief, in happiness. Those had been tears of love.
But love… how did one show it? Why didn't she know how to show it like he had been for the last twenty years? Just kissing him, stroking his hair, telling him she loved him… It wasn't enough! It couldn't be enough! Not after all he had done, after all he had said, after twenty years of waiting for someone like her—someone who certainly didn't deserve love.
Finally, she was able to move again, and she stripped the soiled blankets and pillowcases from the bed. She threw them into a hamper with her shirt and breeches and replaced them with fresh, clean linens, pulling on a clean blouse and pants after she had rinsed the remnants of her struggle from her face and lips.
She had gone down to dinner against her better judgment; she still felt weak. But making an appearance was important. The portrait would be her last gift to her family. They had begged her to sit for one like that for most of her life, and she had always refused. She knew they liked it, and it pleased her that her gift was accepted. But this dinner…
With a heavy heart, she sighed and looked at André, trying to put all of her love and all of her feelings into that one look. But her head ached and she felt infinitely tired. Discreetly, she asked him to come to her rooms later. He looked confused, but agreed, and she cast her eyes over the food, over all of the delicious things that the common people of France—that, oh God, Rosalie and Bernard and Alain and Francois—would never savor.
Her heart seemed to tear at the thought, and it only intensified her feelings about what she would certainly do on the morrow.
"Oscar, are you feeling better, now?" her mother asked, and she felt tears spring to her eyes.
"Yes, Mother… Much better." Her voice was soft, but she forced it to sound in control. It worked, because Madame de Jarjayes smiled and nodded, accepting without question her daughter's answer.
She felt miserable, and she tried to eat, but even though the food was no doubt amazing, she tasted nothing. She spent more time watching the cutlery of her father and her mother as they slowly and silently ate. The silence, she hated it. Didn't they know, couldn't they tell? She was dying!
She was dying and she loved André and her passion for France was going to turn her against the nobility—even those she loved. This was to be her last meal with them, with the General and his wife, with the man who had made a decision that had given her a life unlike any other woman's, with the woman that had been gentle and sweet and caring and had listened and guided and comforted without saying a thing.
Mother, she wanted to shout. Mother! I love you! Father, I love you! Can't you see how much I love you? Don't you know? You do know, don't you? Please, please, please tell me that you know I love you!
But she remained quiet, bowing her head to hide the tears that escaped as she set her fork down beside her almost untouched plate.
She didn't know what she was doing.
It was the only thing left, the only thing she could do to show him how much she loved him. Would it be enough? She didn't feel as if it could be, but she knew nothing. Fear coursed down her spine, causing her to shiver, and she unintentionally pulled away from him.
She was trembling, but he caught her hand and pulled her back to him, holding her against his chest, letting the warmth he had to offer surround her. She had never done anything like this before, had tried to keep those thoughts from her mind because she knew she would never be allowed to marry.
But now… Now things were different. He loved her unconditionally. He loved the little girl who pretended to be a boy, the woman that dressed like a man, the cold distant colonel, the stern commander, and the fragile, sick woman. Now, she was going to die, and he wasn't blind yet but maybe he would be soon. She would never, ever marry, not unless it was him! She would never marry another because nobody could ever love her like that!
"Don't be afraid," he soothed, holding her gently as if she would break. She felt her heart flutter in her chest, felt herself melting against him.
She was afraid! She didn't know what to expect, didn't know anything about that sort of thing because she had never been taught, and if she had, she had long ago forgotten about it, thinking she would never need to know.
This was what she wanted… This was what she wanted to do for him, for herself, for them. They would never be allowed to marry in a church without a permit—something that, after the next morning, they would never be able to get. No, this was it, this was their only chance!
Who needed an earthly king's permission to marry? Surely, God would not condemn them because they were in love and had been for their entire lives! This was God's destiny for them, perhaps. They were made for one another! They needed one another, and she wanted nothing more than to become his wife.
God, God… Please, bless this union between two lost hearts who have finally found one another.
Suddenly, she was on the bed and he was removing his clothes. Her fingers fumbled with her own blouse, with her boots, her breeches. She couldn't stop trembling. Was it the excitement? Nervousness? Hope? Love?
It was everything.
He kneeled by the bed and took her hand, bringing it to his lips, kissing every one of her shaking fingers. He kissed the back of her hand and stroked her fingers with his thumb, squeezing gently. "Oscar?" he asked hesitantly.
"Yes?" Her voice was small and sounded frightened, her cheeks red with embarrassment because nobody had ever seen her so exposed and so very female before.
"Are you certain this is what you want?"
She nodded without delay, a small smile crossing her lips. "Yes."
He smiled gently and stood, lowering himself over her on the bed, searching in the dark for her lips. When he found them, he pressed his against hers softly, and her heart cried out with joy. This man, why had she been so blind? He cared about her so much… He knew she was nervous, was afraid… And he would go slow and be patient…
Just for her.
Tears welled up in her eyes but did not spill over.
She kissed him back, and after a long moment he pulled away so that she could catch her breath; while he waited, he smiled and ran his fingers through her hair, tucking a few wild strands back out of her face.
"Do you trust me, Oscar?" he asked, bending over her to kiss her, covering her eyes and her cheeks with little tokens of his affection.
She almost choked on her emotions, as thick and substantial as they were. "I do, André…" she whispered, her voice steady, a few tears spilling from her eyes as she let a trembling hand rest on his shoulder while the other stroked his face, finding his blind eye hidden beneath his hair; she ran her fingertips over the scar there. "I do!"
He smiled, his own hands shaking just slightly as he let one of his calloused hands run down the side of her face and neck to her breasts, and further, to her ribs and the curve of her hip and her thigh, her calf, and finally, her foot. Lightly, his fingertips raked across the bottom of her foot, then across her toes, and she couldn't help but giggle at the sensation.
Setting her foot down, he kissed her again and stroked her cheek. "Don't be afraid…"
She looked over at him across the bed that they shared. He had tears in his eyes, and she wanted to kiss them away despite the fact that tears were running down her face, too. God had granted them his blessing, she thought, and now…
Now she was the wife of this handsome, gentle, sensitive, kind, considerate, patient, loving man. Her tears slowed slightly at the sight of him under her blankets. She had tried to memorize everything about him. The sharp slant of his jaw, his chin, his chest that she had rested against, his shoulders and arms, strong from his work in the stables… The smell of his skin, salty like tears, but warm like the sun… The look of love, of appreciation, of adoration in his eye…
Oh, how she loved this man!
She smiled at him, content to gaze at what she had been missing her entire life, the final piece to the puzzle that was Oscar François…Grandier.
"My husband…" she whispered to him, her voice full of awe and hope and contentment.
His eyes softened and he sat up, taking her in his arms to kiss her again, softly. "My wife," he murmured, clearly pleased to be saying it; she wondered how long he had wanted to speak those words.
She opened her mouth to speak—she had so much to say—but she felt it coming. Her tears started again as her eyes widened in fright and horror, and she pulled away.
No, not now! Not now!
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and hunched over as it came, holding a pillow to her mouth. A long, wracking cough assaulted her body, and her chest felt as if it was being crushed as she sobbed and coughed and choked at the same time.
No… No, not now…
"Oscar?" Concerned, she felt him sit beside her and wrap his warm arm around her before he tried pulling her closer to him.
She complied, but her body was shaking so badly that she wondered if perhaps she would simply fall apart.
"What happened, Oscar?" he asked. "What's wrong?"
She could only cry, and when she felt fingers on her cheeks, gently wiping away her tears, she could only cry harder.
He kissed the corner of her mouth and pulled back, his expression one filled with puzzlement and shock. "Oscar…"
"I'm sorry, André!" she burst out, wiping her mouth on the clean edge of the pillow before she threw it to the floor and huddled against him. "I'm sorry…"
"Sorry for what, love?" He stroked her hair and held her, startled by the cold temperature of her body on such a warm summer night. "Sorry for what? For having such bitter-tasting tears?"
Her breath caught in her throat and she sighed, the sound raspy and terrible in her own ears. Was he joking with her? Trying to lighten the mood? She knew he had tasted her blood. "For not telling you that I am dying," she whispered, both ashamed and frightened.
He was silent for a long moment, but when he did speak, his words were warm. "Do you remember the other day, when you asked me not to leave you?" She nodded against his chest, and he continued. "What was my response?"
She hesitated, but she remembered his answer. "You said that you would stay with me until death…"
"That's right." He pulled her away from him and kissed her gently, removing the last trace of blood from her face with his lips before he pulled her back into his arms.
She had never felt safer.
"I still feel the same," he reassured her, rubbing her back, burying his face in her long hair. "Nothing will change that."
She stayed there for a long time; perhaps only minutes passed in his arms, perhaps an hour before she pulled away. He let her go reluctantly, and she looked up at him and smiled, outlining his jaw with her hand. "I love you," she murmured. "More than anything…"
"Anything?" he asked, and she assumed he was attempting to lighten the dark mood again. "Isn't that a bit far, Oscar?"
"No…" She cut him off. "I mean it." She looked away from him for a few moments before she turned her head to catch his gaze again. "André… After tomorrow, I won't return here ever again." He said nothing; he only waited for her to continue. "I'm not going to fire on the citizens, and I'm not going to order Company B to, either." Suddenly, her voice was clogged with tears and hope and fear. "I guess you could say I will become a betrayer, André."
"Is this what you feel is right?"
"Yes, with all my heart…" She hugged him then, throwing her arms around him and burying her face into the crook of his neck, feeling his curly hair brush against her cheek. "Will you…go with me?"
He squeezed her back, afraid of using too much pressure, and sighed. "Oscar, I am your husband… I will follow you wherever you go. I'll be wherever you are no matter where it is."
"Isn't it usually the other way around?" A smile found its way to her face; a husband following his wife was not something a person saw every day!
"It doesn't matter," he said. "So long as I am with you."
"Our Company B will want to follow you anyway, Oscar. I would not doubt if they asked you to lead them on the other side of the fight since we will be joining it anyway."
She swallowed. "I would be honored to do just that."
"To help create a new France?"
"And afterward?" His question was so simple, but the answer was complex.
"Afterward…" she sighed, kissing him lightly before pulling away. "If we are victorious, I would like to retire to the countryside and marry you and live out the rest of my life, be it six months or thirty years."
"What do you mean, if we are victorious?" he asked her, his lips hovering mere centimeters away from her own. "We will be, in one way or another."
"How do you know?" she whispered, eyes as soft as his as she felt his breath on her face.
"Because," he answered, tilting his neck down to claim her lips with his own, "I can almost taste it."
There are so many notes on this that I'll be putting them in my journal instead of here. So look in my profile for the link if you're interested in knowing the method behind my madness, so to speak.
Thank you for reading! Feedback is much appreciated!