Title: The Caged Chameleon
Author: Zath Chauvert
Summary: A tale of Chauvelin, Percy, and an inescapable prison cell.
Feedback: Yes, please! Any and all feedback, positive or negative, would be greatly appreciated. If you've spotted a typo, please tell me so that I can fix it. You're even welcome to tell me that the story is awful as long as you also tell me why it's awful. Just hit the Review button at the bottom of the page.
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or the concepts of The Scarlet Pimpernel and its any sequels. That honor goes to the late Baroness Orczy. I also don't own the minor elements of Brotherhood of the Wolf that crept into the story when I wasn't looking.
Author's Note: This was written for LMT for the 2008 Yuletide fic exchange. The assignment was to use Percy and Chauvelin with the prompt of "Slash, not slash, I don't care. Something interesting with these two!" The story didn't turn out quite as I had intended, because I was writing right up until the deadline (or at least what I thought was the deadline; turns out it had been extended from 9pm to 10pm, but I didn't find that out until after I had submitted the story at 8:55pm) so I didn't have time to include the ending that I had originally planned on using. When I get around to finishing it, I plan to post another chapter here, which will be a second version of the story featuring the 'original' ending, but I want to get chapter 2 of my Jekyll story finished and posted first, so it might take a little while.
The Caged Chameleon
By Zath Chauvert
The room was large, cold, and, by virtue of being underground, windowless. At one end of the room, there was an open door which led to a flight of stairs, which in turn led up to the rest of the once grand building above. At the other end of the room, there was a locked door which led to another room, smaller than the first but equally windowless and possibly even colder. A portable desk stood near the locked door, and on top of this desk stood two small lamps. Each lamp contained a single candle protected by sooty glass, and they provided the only illumination in this joyless space. Such was the scene of our tale.
The small black-clad figure who sat hunched over the desk heard the approaching scrape of worn boots on stone long before the two soldiers stepped into the circle of light, but he did not bother to look up from his writing. The more senior of the soldiers nodded to another soldier who had been standing next to the stout wooden door. This soldier nodded back without a word, then sauntered away, out of the room and up the stairs, leaving the newcomer to take his place. The younger soldier waited by the desk, holding a bowl of soup in his hands and trying not to look nervous. After several minutes had passed without the seated man acknowledging his presence, the soldier cleared his throat as politely as he could. He did not do it loudly, but the sound echoed back to him from bare stone walls anyway. The man at the desk continued to ignore him. Finally, impatience overcame worry, and the soldier dared to speak.
"Food for the prisoner, citizen," he said.
"Oh," chirped the voice of a little Parisian boy from the other side of the door near the desk, sounding far too merry for someone locked in such a dismal place, "is it Tuesday already?"
That got the attention of the man at the desk. He put down his pen, and his thin lips curled into a silent snarl as he glared at the door. A moment passed, then he collected himself and turned his pale gaze on the young soldier.
"I heard you the first time," the man said as he rose from his seat and straightened his plain black coat. "I'll give it to him myself."
"Of course, citizen." Without needing further orders, the soldier handed the soup to the man and took a ring of keys from its place on the desk. With the help of his fellow soldier, he undid the five locks on the door, slid back the two solid iron bolts (each as big around as his upper arm), and pried open the massive door, which seemed to be three times as thick as it had any need to be. The hinges were in good repair, so they only groaned as they shifted position instead of shrieking.
The small man stalked through the door with the soup in one hand and a lamp in the other. The two soldiers remained outside, standing guard. They listened to the rise and fall of voices, though the conversation took place in English, which neither soldier understood. Even without knowing the language, it was easy to hear that the voice of the little boy never lost its good humor while the man in black's voice quickly changed from civil irritation to unconcealed venom. Soon, the man in black came storming back into the larger room, merry laughter drifting through the air behind him.
"Close the door," said the man as soon as he had crossed the threshold. His voice sounded calm enough when he addressed the soldiers, but he spoke through clenched teeth, and his knuckles were white from his grip on the handle of the lamp. The man watched as the soldiers pushed the door shut, slid the iron bolts back into place, and relocked each of the five locks. Once that monumental task had been completed, he glanced at his pocket watch, gathered the correspondence that he had been working on, and disappeared out of the room and up the stairs, presumably to find food of his own and then his bed.
There was nothing unusual about this. A similar scene had played out every day for the past two weeks. The difference was that each time the voice belonged to someone new. Everyone could remember throwing a tall man into the bare room when they first arrived, and only the small man in black, Citizen Chauvelin, had gone into or out of the locked room since they had first installed their captive in his current lodgings, but today, the voice from within had been that of a young boy from Paris, while yesterday, it had been an old washer woman from Rouen. The day before that, he had claimed to be Maximilien Robespierre, the incorruptible one himself, and the day before that his only attempts at communication had been a series of extremely realistic bird calls. There was no telling who or what he would sound like tomorrow. Such was the nature of their prisoner. Luckily, they were in what was possibly the only place in the country that was capable of holding him.
While the first marquis d'Apcher was having his castle built, he gave the architect instructions to include a special room in the bowels of the structure. The architect, knowing how unwise is was to annoy the marquis with questions such as "Why?," immediately redesigned the wine cellar to make space for this late addition to the floor plan. It was only a single room, so it did not really deserve to be called a dungeon, but it was certainly a cell, an inescapable prison cell meant to house a man until the end of his days. The prisoner was moved into the cell months before the marquis's family was moved into their own rooms above, and there he stayed for years and years, never setting foot outside of it.
Speculation abounded as to who the man was and why he was kept in a cold, windowless cell deep underground. Some believed that the man had been caught deflowering the marquis's bride-to-be the day before the wedding. Some believed that the man was the marquis's own younger brother, who the marquis feared wanted to kill him and take the title for himself. Some believed both of these ideas to be true. There were many other rumored possibilities of all varieties. Some were wild. Some were fantastic. Some were treasonous to speak out loud. No one aside from the marquis, and possibly his wife, knew for certain. It didn't matter anyway. Knowing the original cause would not change the current facts of the man's incarceration, and the most important fact was that it was hell. Eventually, the cold and the dark and the damp and the separation from all other life overcame the man. His situation was hopeless and he had known as much for years. He would never be allowed to cross the threshold of the cell back into freedom while he was still alive, and there was no way to escape, though he had spent years trying. There was only one way out, and after seemingly endless years of imprisonment, he was finally willing to take it. He had never eaten very much, so it was not a large step to decide to eat nothing at all. He lay down with his back towards the door and his forehead against the wall and did not move again. He died several days later, nameless and alone. The marquis took the man's corpse and loaded it into a cart, then took it deep into the woods, far from any road, and left it in a clearing for the wolves and crows to eat.
"Food for the prisoner, citizen."
"Oh, is it Wednesday already?" No one present could correctly identify the accent this time, but it was, in fact, a perfect imitation of the tones used by members of Hungarian nobility.
Life went on. No one ever came seeking justice for the man. No one even mourned him. Eventually, the marquis himself died too, leaving his title and estate to his son. The years rolled on, and the son died, leaving the title and estate to his own son. The years continued rolling onward, until no one with firsthand knowledge of the unfortunate prisoner remained. Throughout the surrounding countryside, the story was passed from parents to children in covert whispers, reminders that, however affable the current marquis might seem, he was still an aristocrat and therefore never to be trusted because he was capable of anything. Within the castle the story was passed on more openly, as stern lectures by cooks and head butlers to their underlings, with the intent to frighten disobedient serving boys and girls who were tempted to linger in the wine cellar on hot summer days when they should be upstairs fulfilling their duties. Subsequent generations of the d'Apcher family used the odd room as a larder, and it housed dead animals just as well as it had housed a live man. Game could be left to hang and age for as long as was necessary without fear of being chewed by vermin, because the architect, for all his haste, had excelled at his appointed task. Once the heavy door was shut and locked, not even a baby mouse could get into or out of that cell.
Now, over two hundred years since the castle was built and slightly less than a month since it was confiscated from last marquis d'Apcher (his head would have been confiscated as well, but the old man disappeared along with everyone else in his tumbrel while being transported from the prison to the main city square for execution), the room was once again serving its original purpose. This time, there was no question of the nature of the prisoner's crime. He was the infamous Scarlet Pimpernel, guilty of countless outrages against the young but glorious republic of France. After running amuck and causing havoc all around the country, his spree had ended in a small inn only a few miles from the castle, where he was caught first by an early winter storm and then by the men pursuing him.
"Food for the prisoner, citizen."
Only the yowling of a cat answered, but the cadence was suspiciously similar to the phrase "Oh, is it Friday already?" Needless to say, Citizen Chauvelin did not bother trying to converse with the prisoner that day.
Fearful that the finger of accusation was threatening to be pointed in his own direction, the innkeeper had been only too happy to help the good citizens once he learned exactly who he had been harboring in his third best room. Even in remote regions such as this, everyone had heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel and what happened to those who were caught aiding him. The innkeeper told his guests from Paris of the castle that sat near the top of the mountain and then shared the tale of the nameless captive in the inescapable cell. His daughter had worked as a scullery maid in the castle, so he was able to produce the keys to the prison-turned-larder, which the girl had taken as a souvenir at the time of the marquis's arrest. He even offered to send provisions for everyone up to the castle every day for as long as was needed.
The innkeeper would soon come to regret that last gesture of loyalty to the Republic. He had only expected the men to rest at the castle for a few days at most before taking their prisoner back to the capital. Storm after storm struck the region. Every time folks had nearly finished digging themselves out from the last blizzard, another would strike, once again rendering the roads nearly impassable. It was far too risky to attempt to transport their prisoner through such conditions. They knew what sort of man they were dealing with. If even the smallest thing went wrong during the journey, chances were that he would take advantage of the situation to escape again, so they remained where they were, waiting for better travel conditions.
"Food for the prisoner, citizen."
"Oh, is it Monday already?" wheezed a consumptive with a Spanish accent. A violent coughing fit followed, full of rattling phlegm. The current pair of soldiers took an involuntary step away from the door to avoid possible contagion, even though both men were fairly certain that it was all part of the usual act, and even if it was not an act, they were already kept safe by over half a foot of solid oak. However, Citizen Chauvelin was in an exceptionally good humor this evening, so not even his sworn enemy's antics were enough to sour his mood. He took the bowl of food from the soldier who had brought it, and as soon as the massive door was opened he entered the cell with a spring in his step and a smile on his face.
Within, the walls were made of the same bare stone as on the other side of the door. There were small piles of refuse beginning to accumulate in some of the corners, but most of the floor was as naked as the walls, without even a layer of straw to protect the single occupant from the cold. It was a fairly small room, no more than a few paces in any direction, but it appeared larger now than it would have in the recent past. The counters and shelves that had helped to fill the space during its tenure as a larder were gone. However, the many iron hooks that had been installed in the rafters for the purpose hanging game remained where they were. They had been sunk deep into the old wood, which was itself nearly as hard as iron, and were sturdy enough to support a full grown wild boar, so removal had proved to be impossible.
There was no sign of a Spaniard, consumptive or otherwise. Instead, Chauvelin was greeted by an even stranger sight. The man known to most of France as the Scarlet Pimpernel was a master of disguises, capable of changing his appearance as easily as he changed his voice. At the time of his capture he had been unrecognizable to anyone but the small man in black who had obsessively hunted him for so long, but the weeks of incarceration were taking their toll on his appearance. He had given up any pretense of being who he had previously claimed to be, so rough peasant clothing stood at odds with aristocratic bearing, and bit by bit, like a lizard shedding old skin, patches of makeup were being smudged away to reveal the true face beneath. He was currently stuck halfway through the transformation between Jacques, the extremely ancient school teacher, and Sir Percy Blakeney, the young fop and richest man in England. Or, Chauvelin mused to himself as he stared down at the man seated on the bare stone, maybe he was becoming something else entirely. Each day, as his beard grew in and whatever it was that he had used to darken his hair flaked out, Blakeney was becoming more and more golden, like one of the countless gilded saints that had adorned the walls of the church that Chauvelin's mother had forced him to attend as a child. Chauvelin liked that idea, though he had no use for religion. If Blakeney wants to be a saint, he thought, then let him be a saint. After all, you could not become a saint until you were dead.
If Sir Percy possessed any awareness of the nature of his jailer's thoughts, then he showed no sign of it. He merely looked placidly up from his place on the floor with an inane grin while his lazy blue eyes tried to accustom themselves to the sudden light.
"Ah, my dear M. Chambertin, how good of you to stop by for another visit. I was just now thinking to myself how much I missed your company," Blakeney said, speaking English now, but still using the wheezing Spanish accent. He gave another horribly realistic cough, then threw back his head and laughed as if he had just told the wittiest joke in the world. When he continued speaking, all traces of illness were gone from his voice, as was the Spanish accent. "And I see that you brought another one of your chef's culinary adventures," he said in the drawl that would have been so familiar to anyone who frequented the parties of the uppermost reaches of England's high society. "Truly, sir, the day keeps getting better." He took the proffered bowl from Chauvelin's outstretched hand. He gave the soup a tentative sniff, then brought it to his lips and took a delicate sip, no more than a taste. He gave the appearance of carefully contemplating the flavor before declaring, "An adequate effort, I suppose, but I'm still not sure if I could in good conscience provide a positive recommendation for the fellow should he ask for one the next time that he seeks employment."
"He will be heartbroken to hear that," Chauvelin said blandly, still smiling.
"Yes, that is a genuine possibility, but I always strive to be honest in such matters." Sir Percy then tipped up the bowl of soup and quickly drank down the tepid liquid to reveal whatever had been lurking beneath its surface. He used one long, delicate finger to poke at the various bits, and unearthed a wishbone, which he displayed to his visitor. "You will be amused to know, M. Chambertin, that I have often found one of these in the refreshments you provide. Indeed sir, it happens so often that I refuse to believe it might be an accident," Blakeney drawled. "At first, I thought your man was wishing me luck, but now I suspect that it is merely his way of letting me know that there is always meat in his cauldron though there is never any in my bowl." He gave an elegant shrug and tossed the bone into the far corner of the room, which did in fact already contain quite a few other wishbones. "And yet," Sir Percy continued as he probed the remaining contents of the bowl, "here appears to be a delicious chicken neck. La! Perhaps the man likes me after all." He balanced the bowl in his lap so that he could use both hands to attack his latest discovery.
Deciding that it was time to get to the point, Chauvelin finally revealed the reason for his good mood. "You will be interested to know, Blakeney, that a messenger from Paris arrived today," he said. The man on the floor instantly sat up straighter, his eyes filled with interest.
"So the roads are clear, and we're off to Paris at last then? Sink me, but that's wonderful news, demmed wonderful! I had promised the wife that I would be home in time for Christmas, and I was beginning to worry that your inconsiderate French weather would make a liar of me." Smiling, Sir Percy punctuated his sentence by popping a lump of potato into his mouth and chewing happily.
"The roads are clear, but we are going nowhere. The Committee has decreed that chances of your escape in transit are too high," Chauvelin explained, ignoring his prisoner's feigned look of total innocence, "so rather than taking you to your execution, your execution will be brought to you."
"Execution?" Sir Percy picked up the chicken neck again and idly toyed with it while he stared up at his jailer. "I do believe that you've missed a step or two in there, my dear M. Chambertin." He laughed and, without bothering to look at it, separated the largest vertebra from the neck in one quick twist and dropped in back into the soup bowl. "For all your mob-rule, you Frenchies are quite keen to maintain the appearance of lawfulness. Am I not entitled to a trial before my execution, sir?" Another vertebra was twisted off and dropped into the bowl.
"Did no one tell you, Sir Percy?" asked Chauvelin with mock concern, his thin-lipped smile stretching even wider. "Usually you seem to know all the news in France before it even happens, so I was sure you knew that you've already had your trial. It happened over a year ago. You were unavailable at the time, so the court convicted you in absentia of no less than twenty capital crimes against the Republic. Having been condemned on so many counts, holding another trial in regards to your more recent offences would only be a waste of everyone's time."
"Oh, well, if I have already had my trial, then I suppose I have no grounds for complaint," Blakeney drawled sweetly. "It is most reassuring to be told that I have had a trial. Until you shared that pertinent detail with me, kind sir, I must admit that I was beginning to fear that this whole affair could turn into a miscarriage of justice, possibly even a mockery of justice, and neither of us would ever want that." His expression was earnest, and his voice lacked even the slightest hint of irony. Before Chauvelin could comment, Sir Percy continued. "So, you are going to try to execute me. Now that you have told me, I hope you are not going to make me wait for ages before you make the attempt. It would be demmed inconsiderate of you lot to dither around until spring, because, as I mentioned before, I promised Lady Blakeney that I would be home for Christmas."
"You will not have long to wait at all. The messenger brought word saying that, with the weather having warmed and the roads being clear, the guillotine and official witnesses will arrive from Paris in two days' time. Everyone is looking forward to the show."
"My dear sir, I hope you were kind enough to immediately send your intrepid courier back again with instructions for your friends not to waste their time making the journey. Let them stay comfortably in Paris, because I'll provide no entertainment for them here. I won't die by your hateful machine, not now, not ever." As he spoke, a righteous fire seemed to glow within Blakeney's eyes, and the last of his affectations slipped away, revealing a rare glimpse of the man that Chauvelin had come to think of as 'the real Sir Percy.' Gone was any trace of the idle fop and laughing idiot, leaving behind only the Scarlet Pimpernel, smart, unyielding, and dangerous.
"Oh, but you will, Sir Percy. I assure you, you will." Chauvelin did not care how much of his real self Blakeney cared to expose. He had the man where he wanted him, and death was the only way out.
"No, M. Chauvelin, I will not. God himself would not allow it." And Blakeney truly believed as much. Only when he was at his most serious would the Englishman bother to pronounce Citizen Chauvelin's name correctly.
Caught off guard by his adversary's vehement faith, the man in black had no response to that declaration beyond a wry smile and a snort of derisive laughter.
"You may mock if you wish, but in the end you will not have me. If all else fails, He'll send down His angels," and here Blakeney gestured upward, though tons of stone and timbers and a few iron hooks stood between himself and the heavens, "to take me away before He lets you push me into your bloodstained lady's embrace." He separated the last of the neck bones from each other and dropped them one by one into the bowl that still rested in his lap.
"If you say so, Sir Percy. We could argue this all night. You have your dinner, but I have not yet had mine, so I will leave you. Time will prove me right. Until then, goodnight." The man in black turned on his heel and departed.
"Goodnight, M. Chambertin," Blakeney called after the retreating figure as the soldiers closed the door. "Good luck, and goodbye! Until we meet again." The locks and bars were once again put into place, drowning out anything more he might have said.
The next day, when the soldier on duty arrived and declared, "Food for the prisoner, citizen," there was no answer at all. When the door was pulled open, it revealed only an empty cell with a collection of wishbones arranged on the floor to form a star shaped flower. The Scarlet Pimpernel had escaped in the night and gone to spend Christmas with his wife.