a/n I had nearly decided to abandon this as I'm not too proud of these early efforts at characterisation, but because people mention and review it from time to time and request a conclusion, I've decided to plough ahead, finish it, and then try to revise it all (particularly earlier chapters). Thanks to everyone who has been nudging me to finish it – I've been having the usual crisis of confidence (and have been caught up in non-fiction publishing connected with my research field), so it took an awful lot of coddling and kindness to persuade me to write anything. I'll try to post updates more regularly, and the chapters may be shorter to encourage that.
After all these dreams there remained on waking a remembrance of having been in a place very nearly dark, and of having spoken to people whom I could not see; and especially of one clear voice, of a female's, very deep, that spoke as if at a distance, slowly, and producing always the same sensation of indescribable solemnity and fear. Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing, that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious.
Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872
It was hardly that Courfeyrac didn't know that what they did was serious…very serious indeed. He'd had friends whose lives had been made extremely difficult indeed over a careless word, a failure to explain what they were doing in a particular street at a particular time, or who had been unable to give reasons for the wording on a scrap of paper in their pocket. And if he, fleeing over the Paris rooftops after a police charge, dropping down a skylight with a debonair tip of the hat to the alarmed occupants and a request for directions to the front door, took some pleasure in the more theatrical aspects of what they did, it didn't mean he took matters any less seriously. But sincerity did not preclude joy, and it could sometimes be an asset…as even Combeferre had conceded when they'd been stopped by a gendarme and Courfeyrac had managed to convince him that the scribbled writing in his notebook said "recharge" rather than "revólver", and that the notes referred to the perfumes he had promised his mistress.
Now, trying to keep his legs under him as he ran, hoping not to slip on the paving stones where they were worn smooth by passing traffic and slick with moisture, he felt none of the joy, that effervescent sense of élan that made his seditious activities so enjoyable. This was cold fear, as he despaired of gaining on the coach which moved like a nightmarish hallucination before him. It seemed to flicker in and out of his vision, more than it should have given the lights that shone from rooms and streetlights, and it moved with a speed that should not be possible in the narrowness of the passage. It was a carriage that had ridden out of a dream, and which lured him on into the dark, elusive and changeable.
This was his final chance. He pumped his arms hard, regretting the fashionably high and tight armholes that made his coat feel so restrictive across the shoulders, feeling even his cravat was choking and his waistcoat too tight. But he must push himself, must press on, even if he felt he could not draw grasping breath. Because that nightmarish coach was his last link to Enjolras, and if it vanished altogether, then Enjolras was gone too.
It slowed to turn, and soon it would be lost further in the winding medieval streets – but at least it did slow, and Courfeyrac could assume it was heading north towards the river. He pushed himself to one final supreme effort, felt something give way in his jacket as he burst some seam or other, and pushed his legs to one last burst, pushing air through clenched jaws.
And then his legs gave way. It was a sudden and complete, his feet slipping in horse manure and his footing completely gone. There was no hope of recovery – he seemed to feel suspended a moment in air before slamming down on his hip and side with a jarring crash that knocked what little air there was out of his lungs. He rolled over on to his hands and knees, looking after where the coach had vanished.
And he grinned fiercely.
"He does not think –"
"He means well, but it is not enough to mean well. He has to think through consequences. When a ship sails into an uncharted harbour one has to take soundings. And we are sailing in much unchartered waters indeed – rashness and imprudence are our worst foes…"
"I'm worried too, Combeferre."
"I'm saying all this aloud, aren't I?" Combeferre ceased surveying the streets around them and looked at his friend. "I wish I had Enjolras' gift of silence, but sometimes I must state these things or they niggle at my thoughts and rattle around my head. I –"
"You don't need to explain," Joly said soothingly. Combeferre's distress was more than understandable, given his two dearest friends had just vanished, one taken and one racing into the dark. "We'll find him. We'll find both of them."
The words were meaningless, but what was to be said? Joly wanted to rattle on himself – to speak and say something comforting and safe and, well, anything, anything to hold against the memory of that dreadful fiend, that abomination, and the thought that there had been a nest of them, active agents of malice that knew of their existence and were working against them. It was the very deliberateness of their actions he found so chilling. They were not mindless creatures, but possessed of a plotting, malignant, bestial intelligence that had singled out one of their own.
And now he must say anything to stop thinking of Musichetta and whether she was safe, and whether Bossuet had made it home or whether he was still out abroad in a night that harboured such monsters so very close to them.
"I know it's a subject for jest among us, but Courfeyrac really does have a genius for landing on his feet. He'll be fine –"
"And if he is?" Combeferre said, so softly he was almost inaudible. "Even if he returns to us, what then? Enjolras is gone. He might be dead even as we speak. Or transfigured beyond hope or help."
"One foot in front of another," Joly comforted…then clenched Combeferre's arm tightly. "Even if our gait is as stumbling as Courfeyrac's over there."
Sure enough, with dirt staining his light coloured trousers and a limping stride, there was Courfeyrac, hobbling up to meet them, grinning lopsidedly and waving. Combeferre gave full vent to his relief in a vehement scolding.
"You are ten different kinds of a fool, de Courfeyrac! It's a damned good thing that Enjolras isn't here, because he'd have nothing good to say about such monumental stupidity. I can only assume that those demons aren't collecting foolish rakes as well…"
"Peace!" Courfeyrac held up a hand, still smiling. "Don't befuddle me – I need to remember it, I need to keep something in my head…quick, let's start walking back to Enjolras' apartments, I must write this down." He turned grabbed his friends' arms and turned them around to go back in the direction from which they came, closing his eyes as he walked and holding on to them. "This! Remember this exactly…motto: Vive ut vivas. Coronet with alternating acanthus leaves and groups of three pearls in trefoil…that means a marquis, I think, not a duke…although who uses the title of marquis anymore? How very unfashionable. Must be newly minted…only they would be so vulgar…helm between affronty and profile; main tincture argent; secondary gules; charges, three barbeaux…mantle of acanthus leaves…"
"Heraldry?" Combeferre queried. "What does…"
"Don't interrupt! I'll forget!" Courfeyrac always did better when he was able to see things and fix them in his mind.
"The carriage!" Joly blurted. "It had must have had a coat of arms!"
"Coronet of a marquise…helm between affrontry and profile…."
It was a distant chance. Who knew what sort of decoy the carriage had been festooned with, or what mock-up of a heraldic shield had been emblazoned on it. The nobility had once ferociously protected their titles and privileges, but the Empire and Restoration had rendered many formerly solid practices rather rackety. Still, it was all they had – and it was hope. Slender and elusive though it was, it was their own real link to Enjolras and the vampires who had him.
Combeferre carefully noted every word.
Feuilly separated from the others after leaving the Musain, heading back towards his rooms, turning the information they had gleaned that day over in his mind and even as he was paying attention to his surroundings. He always did this, as a man who was obviously distracted made himself a target. If one walked with shoulders back and met the gaze of others directly, it helped shift those with predatory intent towards other targets. Tonight, after what he had read, he was more than ever aware of the things that crawled out when one turned over their shelters or ventured too close to their lairs. The rot around him was deeper than he had imagined, and extended beyond the redeemable. Light was needed to drive out these creatures, just as he and his friends sought to generate light in its other forms to drive out the social malaise that mired men in the dangerous and desperate classes.
His conversations with Prouvaire that day had turned his mind in esoteric directions – as conversations with Prouvaire were wont to do. One moment the poet had been musing on their foes as the symbolic nadir of the evils to be swept away by the Revolutionary deluge, the next he was trying to determine if the weight of evidence suggested ash or oak as the most effective wood to use in weapons to destroy them, and precisely what measurement of silver was most efficacious in killing them.
One point had stood out in Prouvaire's wanderings into the more abstract realm of ideas. Why, he asked, had Enjolras been the victim of choice? "Chance," Feuilly had argued, but Prouvaire was not so certain. Were these beings the expression of the dark that hungered, in both a metaphoric and very literal sense, for the light?
"The imagery of light and dark is overused," he had said. "But that is because it is of a power we cannot deny. Why take only that which is already touched with decay and despair? If you were a vampire –"
"Not an occupation I've ever considered adopting," Feuilly said dryly.
"If you were a vampire," Prouvaire persisted, "Would you confine yourself to the existing only on the very extremities of society, taking that which would least be missed, scrambling among the abased for your sustenance? If you lived forever, wouldn't you rather taste something rarer once in a while? We crave what we most lack. And what sort of temptation would a prize that embodied absolute conviction and walked upright in the sun, the harbinger of a dawn to banish their darkness, represent?"
"You alarm me," Feuilly said quietly. "I do not like to think that this is personally directed at Enjolras."
"But there's more. These actions have repercussions, even for monsters. Why do they not rule us, if they wield such power? There must be limitations on them, as the texts suggest. They have great powers, but moments of acute vulnerability. Their weaknesses are our strengths – we move in the light, we fashion the weapons with our science and intellect that obliterate them. So, being vulnerable, they have still exposed themselves by striking at Enjolras. There must be a commensurate reaction."
"You think they will go underground?"
"I think one of two possibilities is in play. Either this is a cycle and they will need to conceal themselves soon, either by fleeing or going more deeply underground. Or they are growing in power and boldness, and anticipate a time when they will be so strong, they will not need to fear us in any way. Either thought fills me with dread."
Feuilly did not like to entertain these possibilities either, threatening as they did either a time in which vampires imposed a new and more terrible aristocracy upon them all, or when they reverted completely to the shadows and escaped justice to strike again at a future time.
But there was comfort in Prouvaire's words as well. These creatures were vulnerable. So – ash, oak and silver. He knew where to source the woods he needed…and, thanks to a gift Enjolras had given him long before, he knew where and how he could source the silver as well.
He was pale, dishevelled and wounded when they brought him in, bled almost white. Marfa flickered down the halls, intrigued and excited by this departure from routine. Someone new. Someone younger than her. Someone to stir the routines and patterns and create eddies and flows to change and alter their interactions. If he lived.
Looking down between the arches of the first floor gallery to the entrance below, highlighted in the pool of light from the solitary lit chandelier, a low, snarling conversation was taking place between Ambrus and Oscar. She could hear perfectly well Oscar's hissing words and Ambrus' snarling replies, while the boy hung raggedly and bleeding between them, head thrown back to expose the long, bloodied pillar of his neck.
"But you did not tell me!" Oscar said petulantly, his words wanting only an accompanying stamp of the foot to complete the illusion of a spoiled child. He ripped off his cape with one hand, careless of the fastenings, and threw it behind himself. "Look at him! He is my mirror image-"
"Oh, I'd say his hair is more flaxen, and his nose more Grecian" Irma said smilingly as she entered behind the two and broke in on the argument in progress. "Transformed, he may well be much the handsomer." She slid to Ambrus' side and, grasping Enjolras' head by the hair, pulled it up to more closely examine his features, running one long white finger down the length of his nose, like a flirtatious young girl with her beau. Irma must be in one of her more playful moods, Marfa decided. Sometimes she tired of arbitrating between her clan members and preferred instead to sow her own trouble. In this, she succeeded – Oscar did not stamp his food, but he did clench his hands into fists and make a short, sharp movement to close the gap between himself and Ambrus' prey. Irma, mischief done, stepped away.
"Not a step more." Ambrus' words came from between bared teeth and with rumble of forcefulness to them. Although accompanied by no other dramatic gesture, Oscar obediently recoiled, chastised by the stronger being. "You will not touch him. You will not enter his room and you will not interfere with him. He is not for taking. And if you cross me in this, I will rend you into pieces."
Oscar would probably have turned and stormed out, but in many ways his will was still fundamentally enslaved to that of Ambrus, his master. He nodded once, reluctantly, and then removed himself.
As he slunk away, Moréno entered, moving aside to accommodate his passing. "They have prepared the room," he told Ambrus.
Ambrus took his leave, and as he strode up the wide staircase, Marfa laughed as they passed – one tall and dark, the other white and clasped to his chest, a pale and pallid thing in his night robes. The two lovers or even a nuptial couple that they parodied entertained her immensely.
Her gaze caught that of Moreno's, looking up to where she stood. One rarely knew quite what he was thinking – he seemed to draw thoughts to him where they vanished like darkness down a well – and the meaning of his expression eluded her now. Unaccountably, in a rare gesture, she shuddered and turned away.