Disclaimer: I do not own any characters apart from Granada, Venice, Vienna, Christian and Greta, nor do I own any of the places.
Nadja felt numb beyond all reason as she stroked her tiny son's hair. He was no longer as small as he used to be, but she still held him whenever she could, and his brother as well. She loved her sons. They were what kept the numbness at bay during the day. The two-year-olds would smile brightly at the smallest things, and that would keep her happy.
But during the night, she could not help reflecting on what might have been—what could have been. Her hand trembled as it brushed through the little boy's soft hair. She could not help wishing, even as she knew that there was nothing left that she could do.
Until half a year ago, all had been perfect. It had all started eight years ago—had it really been so long?—when she was thirteen. Oh, it hadn't seemed perfect at all at first, after the beginning. She had been saved by a mysterious young man one night, and had admired him with all her heart, even naming him her Star-Eyed Knight. Only one day later (and it was a very busy day—she had gone to London and joined the traveling performers, Troupe Dandelion, as a dancing girl), she had encountered the famous thief of Europe—the Black Rose.
The people loved the Black Rose. He stole from the rich and gave that money to the poor. His victims, however, were only those who obtained their money by unjust means. Nadja, however, had seen him differently. A thief was a thief, no matter what his purpose. Upon encountering the thief in London, she had felt strangely drawn to him until he had insulted her.
Skinny little girl.
Those words now made her smile as she thought back. He had been teasing, as he had always tended to do around her.
Then she had seen Francis at a nobles' estate outside London. Upon seeing his face, she had known at once that he was her Star-Eyed Knight. She had tried to meet him, but had learned that that was something that she could not even hope for—Francis was a noble, and she a commoner. But she had met him. Drawn out by the beautiful music of the ball, she had put on her mother's first ball gown, a gift that had reached her at the orphanage for her thirteenth birthday, and begun to waltz alone in the garden.
Francis had found her there, and she had hidden. But they had talked. He had told her of his mother, and she of her dream of finding her mother. He made her feel at home and comfortable. She had fallen in love with Francis.
When she left and encountered the Black Rose again in Paris, he had told her a little of his beliefs, and why he stole.
So that everyone should be able to live as equals…I'll continue to steal.
She understood his words better now than she had then. At the time, it had seemed to her to be a simple excuse.
Then she had met Francis again at a Swiss orphanage. It had been a chance encounter, and at first, she didn't even dare to approach him. When she finally gained the courage to do so, she had been unable to find him. Eventually she had found him, and they had talked. She had learned of the concept of noblesse oblige, and why Francis did what he did, donating money to many places. That night, meeting again, they had talked a little more, and then shared their first kiss in the sunrise. Everything had seemed perfect.
Then, in Venice, she had met the Black Rose again. Thinking back, she supposed that that was when things had started to seem off balance. Until then, she could dismiss everything the Black Rose had said as excuses. But then a friend of hers, Harvey, a journalist who specialized in the Black Rose, had told her something that caused that perception to waver.
Taking on people as powerful as that as enemies…were he caught, he would be killed without even a trial. …I think that he must have a very strong belief to do what he does. And I want to find out what that is.
Instantly, she had recalled the Black Rose's words from their previous encounter. When she met the Black Rose that night, she had first drawn his attention to an attacker coming at him from behind, then approached him to ask why he did things the way he did. He had replied that one could never change anything if they feared getting hurt. So she had suggested Francis' way of doing things. But he said that that was hypocritical. That giving money to the poor while being above them yourself was not at all right. So she had mentioned Francis' name. An instant change had come over him—greater than the one when she had mentioned noblesse oblige.
And he had kissed her. So she slapped him, and he left. But she was left feeling confused.
But that had not been when her world had turned upside down. That had been when she had met Francis in Granada, and they had spent the day together. Something was different about Francis, but she felt that he was only showing her a new side of himself. But something still seemed off. When she had voiced her thoughts, his reply had seemed rather strange.
Nadja…I just want you to remember this. I am me. I am no one else. And…every emotion that you feel right now is, indisputably, what you feel for me!
There had been a fire in his eyes as he spoke that startled Nadja. They had kissed once more, this one with much more passion that the previous one. She had fallen deeply for the Francis that she had met on that day.
But not a minute after they had parted, she saw Francis walking passed her with another woman, wearing completely different clothing. So she had turned. And behind her there had been another Francis: the Francis with whom she had been all day long. And even as she stared, that Francis had put on a black mask that covered his eyes and nose with three red points under one eye.
It was the Black Rose.
She had spent a few months being confused beyond reason as the truth appeared before her. She had met and admired Keith, Francis' elder twin brother, as her Star-Eyed Knight. Then she had fallen in love with Francis. But while Francis had fallen for her as well, Keith had fallen in love with her through their encounters while he was the Black Rose.
Nadja had been even further confused as more events occurred: she had first watched Francis attempt to repair a orphanage that had been ruined because of the charity money that he had given to it; then Keith had gone and retrieved her stolen brooch, despite everything—his determination not to allow her to enter the world of nobles, the torture that he endured when he had allowed himself to be caught simply so that he could obtain information about the girl who was called 'Nadja' who was not Nadja, and even Nadja's own reluctance to accept anything that had been stolen. The significance of what Keith had done for her, however, had not hit her until years later.
At one point, faced with a quick decision between the two, she had chosen Francis. Maryann, Francis' childhood friend, had come along as well. Between her own still-unsure heart and Maryann, Nadja had become more confused than ever.
In the end, around the time that she found her mother, she had realized that she didn't have to choose yet. Keith quit the Black Rose, went into hiding for a while, and Francis returned to England in the mean time. When Keith came out into the open once more as a Harcourt, he and Francis had begun to properly court Nadja.
The years had passed, and Nadja had been content. She knew that she didn't have to choose until she knew clearly for herself which one she wanted to be with, and that Francis and Keith would wait patiently for her to decide. She was still young to make such a decision, as many people pointed out.
However, when she was fifteen, Francis had come to her and apologized. He still loved her, he said, but he now realized that it was more of a brother's love for a sister than that of a lover. In fact, he had said hesitantly, as though fearing her reaction, he was in love with Maryann, and they planned to marry soon.
Nadja, to both his surprise and her own, had smiled brightly and congratulated him. It was in that moment that she realized that her feelings for Francis were the same as what he had described to be feeling for her. He was still special—the first person she had ever spoken to about her dream of finding her mother, the first person to tell her that all would turn out well—but her feelings for him were not those one feels for a lover.
After he had gone back, she had thought about it deeply. She began to realize that it wasn't anything sudden. With Francis, there was a feeling of contentment, and she liked to talk to him about all sorts of things—her childhood at the orphanage, her mother, the Troupe… They would laugh at jokes and he would tell her stories of his own life. But with Keith, while they seemed to talk about the same sort of thing, there were subtle differences. For instance, when a young girl walked up to Francis on the street to flirt (this did not happen very frequently, but both Keith and Francis were quite good-looking, so it did happen), she would feel rather annoyed that their conversation had been interrupted, but would wait while Francis dealt with the girl; she had even laughed a few times at the ridiculousness of it all—especially when one girl had clung firmly to Francis and refused to release him, even when he had dropped all the manners and told her very plainly that he would appreciate it if she would let go and leave (it was very fortunate that Maryann had been in town to save him). But when this happened with Keith, she would be more than 'rather annoyed'. On the first occasion, she had stood by as Keith let the girl down more bluntly than Francis. However, when it had happened for a second time that same day, Nadja had given the unfortunate girl a very annoyed glare and stomped off, dragging Keith along behind her. It was because of this that Keith and Nadja spent most of their time in more secluded areas. When talking with Keith, Nadja would always be happier when he took her hand in his, but she never particularly craved that much physical contact from Francis apart from the occasional hug in greeting. In the end, her relationship with Francis had been that of a brother and sister for quite a while.
Nadja smiled and looked down at the boy in her arms as she remembered the look on Keith's face when she had seen him after Francis's announcement.
"There is someone who you're in love with. As a lover."
"Yes, there is. Standing right in front of me."
She was in his arms, his face buried in her hair.
"I love you too." The words were whispered, but she heard them.
Two weeks later, Nadja had turned sixteen, and a week after that Keith had proposed. They had been married only a week later. Surprisingly, the objections had come not from Nadja's grandfather, Duke Preminger, as they had expected, but from Keith's father, Duke Harcourt. Nadja barely knew her grandfather, the one who had separated her from her mother and sent her to an orphanage, and Keith, disliking the whole concept of nobility in the first place, never listened to his father anyway. Any objections from the two of them would have been brushed off, but Nadja had been oddly touched when her grandfather had given her and Keith his blessing, even with the knowledge that Keith would probably never take the place as Duke Harcourt when his father passed away. Duke Harcourt's objections had been in the fact that Keith should be the one to inherit the Harcourt estate, and therefore should marry a suitable young woman. Nadja, having refused to become Duke Preminger's heir, was not what he regarded as being 'suitable'.
The first two years of their marriage they had spent traveling. They had agreed upon their engagement that though they both wanted children, they would have none until Nadja was at least eighteen (Colette, Nadja's mother, had told them that they were very smart to think so, but that she would not be very happy if Nadja ended up pregnant before she was eighteen), and had decided to spend that time seeing as much of the world as they could. Nadja had dropped out of the Troupe, and she and Keith traveled freely. Wherever they went they made their living doing anything they could do, and though they never had that much, they were both truly happy.
They had been in Venice when Nadja found out that she was with child. They had spent a great deal of time simply standing on familiar bridge where Keith had first kissed Nadja, sometimes talking, but mostly enjoying each other's company in silence. They had discussed laughingly how they had come from a thief kissing an angry girl on that bridge, to a happy couple (albeit an often-arguing couple, but happy all the same). Soon, however, they had gone to Nadja's mother, Colette, in Vienna. Staying there for six months, longer than they had stayed in one place in the three years of their marriage, at the age of nineteen Nadja had given birth to twin boys—the elder Granada, and the younger Venice.
Nadja allowed a small chuckle to escape her lips, and she shifted Granada's weight as she walked to a rocking chair and sat down. She clearly remembered everyone's reaction to those names.
"'Venice' and 'Granada'?"
"Yes, from when we went—when I was in the Troupe."
"But we've only been to each of those once while you were with us, and that was at the beginning—your first year with us."
"Yes, I can't recall anything special happening at either of those places."
"Actually," Francis cut in, "I think I understand Granada—there was something that Nadja mentioned once when she was extremely mad—or maybe upset is a better word—but what happened in Venice?"
"I don't remember anything special," Arvell replied. "We only stayed there one night: there was a big mask festival, but then Black Rose appeared… And Nadja spent the next few months or so growling at the words 'thief' and 'Black Rose' so I didn't think that anything particularly good had happened there. In fact, that was why we decided not to go there the year after that."
Nadja turned red and Keith and Francis shot a surprised look her way.
"You never told me that," Keith said with an eyebrow raised in amusement.
"What did you expect? And after that…that…encounter, I spent about ten minutes attacking the bridge's railing. You don't just-" Nadja cut herself off, remembering at the last moment that they were in company, but went on gesturing wildly in an attempt to express herself.
"I think they're lovely names," Colette said to Nadja.
"They're perfect," Granny agreed from the corner with her usual, uncanny, all-knowing smile.
"Then Venice and Granada it is," said Keith.
Seeing Venice beginning to stir in the cradle, she stood, went over to the other side of the room, placed Granada in the cradle, and took Venice into her arms, softly singing the lullaby that her own father had written for her long ago.
For a few months after the twins' birth, Nadja and Keith had remained in Colette's house. Eventually, however, they decided to resume their traveling. However, they had found that traveling with two little boys was very difficult, and so would stay in one place for months at a time. Keith took up a job as a courier of sorts. This way he had time between journeys, and with Nadja running a small healing shop as well, they made enough money to live on. He made it known that he would not travel too far, and that he required time to spend with his family. As he was a quick and efficient worker, his employers allowed him these benefits, and when he and Nadja decided that they wanted to move, he would tell his employers, and they would contact another branch in the area to which they intended to go. So from Vienna, they had gone to Paris, Madrid, and then Rome.
But it was then, half a year ago, that disaster had struck. They found out that Nadja was with child again, so when Keith went to Egypt on a ship across the Mediterranean, he had promised to be back soon, he said, and then they would head to Colette's home.
So Nadja had waited with Venice and Granada. But Keith had not returned. Instead, she had read in the newspaper that the ship he was on had sunk, and that no survivors could be found anywhere.
She had been a mess when her mother had come, hearing what had happened. Colette had managed to get Nadja and the twins back to her own place, and while there, Nadja had gradually calmed. It was not that she had accepted and come to terms with her husband's death; her constantly aching heart had simply numbed. Half the time, she caught herself about to call out to Keith, or expecting to hear him tease her or laugh behind her for some odd reason that he would not explain.
She knew that she should be thankful. She had her mother, her sister- and brother-in-law, her two sons, and another child was to be born any day now. Her mother had been in a similar situation, and had only one child, herself, and she had been torn from her mother mercilessly when Colette had collapsed from a fever shortly after Raymond's death. She was much more fortunate than her mother had been.
Yet she wanted Keith back. She could not accept his death. Everything seemed wrong now, without Keith there with her. Once upon a time, she had only needed friends, and had even been able to leave them, as long as she knew that they were well somewhere. She had not even noticed when those days had ended. Now, for some reason, Keith felt like a necessary part of her life—a part that she could not function without. Colette had said that that was the way it felt at first, but the pain would eventually become so distant that she would only feel it if she reached out and tried to feel it. However, that was the first and only thing that her mother had ever told her that Nadja simply could not believe.
With a sigh, she set Venice back in the cradle and went to bed. Her back ached and she felt extremely tired.
She woke during the middle of the night to a sharp pain in her abdomen. When she gave a cry of pain, her mother and Maryann, who had come with Francis upon hearing of Keith's accident, were at her side. They assured her in soothing voices that they had sent Francis for the midwife, and that she would be there any moment. Then the pain came again, and everything was blocked out from her consciousness except for the pain.
She found herself laughing through her tears as she remembered how during Venice's and Granada's birth, she had screamed at Keith (she had had to scream, since the midwife would not let him in the same room with her and the door was quite thick), voicing various random accusations. Colette had laughed afterwards as well, telling her that she herself had hissed through clenched teeth at Raymond that they were never going to have any children ever again as she gave birth to Nadja. Afterwards, the midwife had told her it was quite normal for a woman in labor to tell her husband that she was never going to have children again.
However, Nadja's accusations had been seemingly unrelated to her pain at the time. She had screamed something along the lines of "thieving, heartless, impersonating fool", followed a number of angry accusations—related, for the most part, to the events that had occurred at Granada and Venice. Considering the amount of things that she had screamed through the door, she now looked back and wondered why the Troupe, waiting outside the door, had appeared to know nothing of those events later, when she had named Granada and Venice.
Such memories drifted through her mind almost idly despite the pain, and so absorbed by pain and memory, she almost felt detached from herself.
And then she was holding a little girl in her arms.
She stroked the girl's wet hair, tears rolling down her cheeks. She wished more than anything that Keith were there—so that she could yell at him again for reasons hardly related to the pain that she endured through their children's birth, so that he could tease her about the silliest things imaginable—but on some level, she knew it to be fruitless.
So she wept.
"Nadja…" Nadja turned upon hearing a woman's voice call her name.
"Maryann!" she said with a smile.
They were outside Colette's house, and Nadja sat in the grass with her back against a tree, rocking Vienna as Venice and Granada attempted to climb a small tree not too far off. Maryann sat down beside her. They sat in companionable silence for some time, watching the twins, before Maryann spoke.
"I was actually wondering… What are you going to do now that Vienna is born?" Nadja shrugged.
"I don't really know…I can't stay with Mother too long, I'd feel like I was intruding. I suppose I'll travel some more."
"By yourself? With three infants to care for?"
"I think it could work. I learned a lot about healing and herbs from an old woman near Moscow; I used to run a small healer's shop with that knowledge, so I could just do that again. Or I could join Troupe Dandelion again: I can still dance. Then they could take care of the children for me while I practiced and performed. But then again, that would just make me a burden to them. Especially with Granada, Venice, and Vienna. Then again, I might be able to make up for the extra trouble by working as both a dancer and a healer…"
"I was thinking about it, Nadja. And…you know how I told you that I can't have children?" Nadja's eyes snapped to Maryann, suddenly alert.
She felt that she knew exactly where this was going—Maryann wanted children, but was unable to have any; Nadja had three infants, but did not have the means of caring for all of them properly. The ideal solution would be for Maryann to adopt one or two to raise as her own. But Nadja couldn't bear the thought of parting with any of them. Yet, if Maryann suggested that, there was no way that she could refuse—for Maryann's sake, for Francis' sake, and for the sake of her three children.
Maryann smiled at Nadja as though she knew exactly what was going through the younger woman's mind.
"I don't mean to take any of your children from you, Nadja," she said gently. "I know that you love them more than anything, especially now… I was going to suggest that you, Granada, Venice and Vienna come to England to live with Francis and myself. That way you would have a place to live, you could travel with us whenever we go somewhere, and we could help take care of the children. And you wouldn't be intruding, because Francis and I would get to help raise our niece and nephews. What do you think?"
Nadja hesitated, but knew her answer already. It was much more than she could have ever hoped for. Turning to Maryann with a smile, she nodded.
"I think that that sounds wonderful."
"Venice! Be careful with your sister! No, Granada! No climbing bookcases!"
When Francis entered his bedroom, he was not surprised to find Venice and Granada giving Maryann an extremely difficult time. Even their own mother had trouble keeping the outdoor-loving twins under control when they wanted to but couldn't go outside.
"Where's Nadja?" Francis asked his wife, lifting Venice and thereby stopping him from prodding the girl in Maryann's arms. Venice struggled, but Francis did not relent. After a short while, Venice gave up and slumped unhappily—he knew that his uncle could be very firm when he wanted to be.
"In her room, sleeping—I offered to take care of the children for her since she looks so terrible. I think she might be getting sick."
"Granada," Francis called hastily. "Why do you find the need to climb Aunt Mary's bookcase?" They had found that it was easier to let the children refer to them with shortened names. So (much to the proper Duke Harcourt's displeasure) Maryann became 'Aunt Mary' and Francis 'Uncle Francy', though they way that they pronounced it, it tended to come out sounding more like 'Unc-oo Fwancy'.
"I'm bored! I want to go out!" came the angry reply from the two-year old.
"But it's raining outside."
"I want to go out!" Francis smiled at this.
"Alright, then. You can go outside as long as you change as soon as you get back inside, alright?"
Almost instantly Venice had struggled out of his arms, and he and Granada were toddling down the hall as fast as they could. Placing a kiss on the top of the relieved Maryann's head, Francis followed.
"Father, I cannot see what you want me to do about it!"
"I do not care what you do, as long as you get an heir!"
"You know as well as I do that Maryann can't have children. And if you are suggesting that I get a mistress, then you clearly do not know me." Francis' voice was colder than ice as he spoke to his father.
"I know you, Francis. I am not suggesting a mistress. I am suggesting adoption." Francis' brow furrowed.
"Adoption? But the whole point of an heir is that he would have to have Harcourt blood."
"And you have three fatherless children with Harcourt blood running around this mansion! Adopt one or two—I am sure that the girl will be grateful to have less responsibility."
"I thought you just said that you wanted me to provide an heir because Keith's children are not sufficient!"
"Come now, think about it, Francis. Their mother could have been the heir of Duke Preminger, one of the richest nobles in Europe, and yet she refused. Their father should have been the heir to the Harcourt estates, but he continued to refuse. With parents like that, none of them would ever become heirs to Duke Preminger or myself. However, one parent is dead, and the other struggling. If you raised them, they could become proper gentlemen and a lady. The girl can still see them everyday, they simply would not be under her charge."
"She's Nadja, father! She has a name! And I refuse to do something like that just for the sake of lineage."
With that, Francis stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Leaning back on the large doors of the study, he took deep breaths to calm himself.
Slamming doors had always been Keith's thing. So had talking back to their father. Francis wondered briefly if he was channeling his brother—and then laughed at the absurdity of that idea. What now? He shook his head absently…and then froze.
Nadja stood in the shadows, looking straight at him. They looked at each other in silence for a few moments.
"Nadja," said Francis.
"Francis," Nadja replied. Her voice was low—dead, almost. Francis had a brief flashback to the woman that Nadja used to be, and felt a shudder run through his body at the change. Her eyes were dark—and she was clothed in black, he realized with a jolt.
"Nadja, your clothes—" Nadja had refused to wear black while the rest of the Harcourt family had. She had no proof of Keith's death, she had said, and refused to mourn a man who still might return.
"I received this this morning," Nadja said calmly, handing out an open envelope.
It was from Egypt, Francis realized in surprise. He quickly opened the letter.
Dear Mrs. Nadja Harcourt,
We hope that you will receive this letter. We do not have very much information to go on as we send this—only what your husband told us in the moments when he was lucid.
Mr. Keith Harcourt washed up on the beach near our house a month ago; he was in terrible health, and my husband and I did what we could for him.
However, I regret to inform you that he passed away in his sleep last night. My husband and I plan to bury him locally, as we do not know if this will even reach you. Mr. Keith Harcourt was rarely lucid, but sometimes spoke feverishly of a wife named Nadja, and his children Granada and Venice. There were mentions of a Francis Harcourt, and he mentioned that if Mr. Francis had any sense of decency, he would take you in and help you with your children; so we send this to you at Harcourt Manor, hoping that it will reach you.
Your husband was a wonderful man—my husband and I cared for him very much, and were devastated to see him go.
We apologize for burying him so far from home, but we believe that it was the best option available to us. We know that we may have displeased you with this decision, and hope that you will visit us at the address enclosed.
We send our condolences, though we realize that this probably means nothing to you.
Our condolences and affection,
Greta and Christian Witherwaith
"Nadja," said Francis, looking up at her with concern.
"I'm sorry, Francis," said Nadja, shaking her head. "I love you and Maryann, and I know that the boys love you. But I can't…I can't give my children to you. They're all I have left."
"I know," Francis said hastily, reaching out desperately to the friend that he suddenly felt like he was about to lose. "I'm not asking you for that—I'm not asking you to give up your children to me."
"But your father would rather they be yours," Nadja said calmly. "Of course he would—of course he'd want them brought up as befits their status. As part of society, it would probably be better for them. If you and I had married, our children would have been brought up that way and I daresay I would have been pleased to see them grow up to be gentlemen."
Francis knew that something ominous was impending.
"But their father is Keith." A hard light entered Nadja's eyes. "Keith may be gone, but I made all the decisions I need ever make when I decided to love Keith. When I decided to marry him. And I will burn for eternity in the flames of hell if I have to, but I will not stand for my children to be raised in this cage of a life!"
The flames that had risen in Nadja's eyes for a moment were hidden when she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout. But I'm leaving. I can't stand to see what your father will try and do to my children if we stay."
Francis felt a lump in his throat, and swallowed a few times. "Will you visit?"
Nadja's eyes softened. "Yes, of course. They only have two uncles, after all, and they love them both so dearly."
Francis smiled sadly as Nadja turned and walked away.
When the housekeeper came rushing to Francis' and Maryann's bedside the next morning, panicking at the absence of Nadja and the three children, Francis did not bat an eye. Maryann's eyes were perhaps wetter than usual, but her face remained dry as she stood calmly and dressed for the day.
"She's strong," said Maryann after the housekeeper left, "and free. I knew she wouldn't stay here long. Especially with your father breathing down her neck like that."
Francis smiled wryly, and put his arms around his wife's waist from behind.
"Maryann, dear, I've been meaning to ask you for a while…but how do you feel about adoption?"
There was a pause, then Maryann turned in his arms with a wide smile across her face. "Why, Francis! I must say, you've read my mind!"