Author's Note: Thanks to The Cube, morgan145, Mariagoner, Too Tired to Login, myobsidianbutterfly, Theva and madhermit for taking the time out to review! Special thanks to everyone who offered to join the brave ranks of the historical accuracy police. There's such a large theatre in Revolutionary & Napoleonic combat, small details can daunt.
LCC – any future input you could offer about the Austrian military would be excellent! I'm particularly concerned with military details – specific armaments, uniform, organization – as that's probably my weak spot. I'd say this is my favorite period in European history, too, but I'm an American; as such, it's unlikely I even know where Europe is. (Ba-dum-tss.)
Madhermit – are you thinking of the poem 'Little Boy Blue,' or the rhyme? You're on-target in regards to the poem: Field's work was all 19th-century, and definitely could not appear so early, international or otherwise. The latter's origins are a bit more obscure. The earliest available publication date is 1744, as I understand – but as this publication was a compilation of well-celebrated nursery rhymes, it's often speculated to have originated earlier. As with most of the genre, we'll likely never stick it for certain. (One theory is that it first began to circulate as part of the rhyme-based Tudor opposition propaganda, which would stick its beginnings roundabout in 1500s England. There are of course other theories, such as it being a King Lear reference, but I'm quite skeptical about this. Just a personal thing.)
You probably won't see LaCroix playing piano in this fic – in terms of characterization, I've always thought of him as a strict, passionlessly-done Partita in D Minor violin kind of guy. But that's also due to the associated impracticalities brought about by the life he's going to have in FH: movement, attached costs, flouncing around the countryside. Unkind circumstances for a developing pianist. However, I would definitely be onboard if someone wanted to explore that possibility. Pointed look to audience? I bet one would sit nicely in his penthouse.
Not too much to say in preamble for the chapter this time around. It should be pretty self-explanatory for the most part. Happy reading! Thank you again to all.
Chapter Two: What Makes a Man
To become a man, Sébastien thinks, you must first be able to kill one.
Sebastian Walsh stepped out of the carriage, hand on his weapon, and both boots hit wet London cobbles with a splash.
The city was its particular texture of river fog that early April noon, gathering dew droplets upon elm leaves and dampening brick. Mud swelled gutters and run-off from last night's storm saturated wooden rooftops. This young captain's cellar floor had turned to peat somewhere between falling abed and rising late into the morning; dripping sounds had stirred him, a deep sleeper and rough waker, just past eleven o'clock. He had jolted up in usual routine: sun in his eyes upon the study couch, half-dressed in an empty family house with dusty curtains and bare shelves, windows foggy, cool air leaking in beneath the panes. Hoofclicks on the pavement outside were familiar neighbors; people bustling from early markets, ladies to lunch hours, gentlemen to their leisure. Inside, the smells of rain rot and the candle wax he'd left burning upon a reading desk, books stacked neatly just beyond his chamber door.
It was a meaningless mistake, forgetting to pinch the flames – but one Sébastien made embarrassingly often. Tristan would've doubtless smacked his nephew's ear and sworn he'd burn the house down around himself. It was a more ominous threat than fire had ever been in pastoral Mouscron. Wind and thick air and crowded wood: one flame tossed to the brittle red, crumbling rugs of his modest estate, and their entire street would have collapsed to cinders.
Captain Walsh traversed the lane, modestly populated at this hour – vest collar making a mess of fair hair, damp fringes torn from their rope, shirtsleeves spilling through the coarse blue cuffs of his coat. Clear eyes were impenetrable, unforgiving indigo. His face did not smile. The military cut of this gentleman's clothing did not attempt to hide itself. Suspicion was shrugged away more easily by forward presence; play the young war hero, attract good company, listen with jackdaw attention. Let the disguise be solemn colors, clean white, well-kept weapons that were relics rather than dangerous tools. He could respond in good conscience to his own name.
"Did you want us to wait here for you, Sir?"
Having nearly forgotten the carriage, Sébastien turned back only long enough to wave its attentive driver off.
The man stopped in the protection of an apartment terrace, sky overhead still puffy with rain. He looked up at the iron lamps, darkened with soggy daylight, and toward the woodcutter past Noel Street. It was a morning he found pleasant. Everything tasted of coal, of tragedy seeping from East End; the rain was a healthy wash over tar smoke, residents' chronic coughing, struggling bay willows surrounded by brick. It was an interesting replacement for the citrus of Italy, the cut wheat of Flanders, the fish fin of Calais. Two dim floors, dust-ridden curtains, cold coffee and a locked veranda across the way from a shoemaker stood in for a ragged army camp in foreign fields. Solitude in anonymity was a valued reprieve from the swaggering, forced joviality of front lines.
1803 – it was a time of shifting enemies, and an uneasy breath.
This street corner was not a particularly crowded one, but it still stirred with late marketers. Sébastien ignored most of them. He comes here weekly to attend to business in the guise of pleasantries – a strapping company veteran is a stylish centerpiece amongst socialites, providing his heritage is sound enough. You need not be a duke or prat when your mystique is violent, colonial adventure. Powder, wigs and laurels are no longer fashionable. No, they want a serious man, stoic and sparse, violent and lacquered with no extra flourish. These pompous new Brahmins enjoy stories about settlements, treacherous sea-fairing or savage delights. They are ridiculous in their tittering, weak veneers of prudence – the sensible aristocrat, the self-made inheritor, the entrepreneur chiseler with no product to speak of. They make Capitaine de LaCroix want to spit, frankly, but even useless aristocrats do have their uses for a shrewd enough man.
This olden city is muscular and modern, even in the languid moments. There is always movement, always sounds. Not moaning livestock and winded pilgrimages, but clatter, haul, rustle, shout; like home, in some ways, when memories of spring Calais reek in the stench of gutted sole. But make no mistake: this is not la Manche, not Dover, not white sand and crab shells. This is London. It is a dark town, saturation and life suffused by watery charcoal, sparse and imperial in odd ways. Sébastien has always liked the English. Preferred them, perhaps – his admiration stemmed not from quaint orientalism, bygone curios or national eccentricities, but from the utilitarian snap of a culture rooted in long-armed conquest. It is a decided reprieve from both new and old France; it is a desperately welcome boon to be cut from the coattails of that insouciant, tottering knight who calls himself de LaCroix's direct superior. Laurent Mofras is a Chef de Batallion in every way but those that matter, so his subordinate has observed many times before, adhering silently to that man's mocking, meritless orders. But sparing thought for some worthless Flagstaff was a shameful waste of effort. It was that blubberous swine himself who recommended his sharp mentee for promotion and reassignment. He would not be missed. This is a far more prestigious opportunity. And even if it is not, perhaps, quite as prestigious as Sébastien imagined, the position was made gold by simple fact: here, across that perilous North Sea synch, he was autonomous, unhounded, alone. This is a chance he has waited for a very long time.
Masquerading as what he is – an errant officer, retired fresh from battle to parlay politics – amongst Englishmen provides certain perspective on a mother country left waiting, open ears, expecting reports. The lies have never been difficult. Home from the Americas, perchance – from patrol in New South Wales, from an India Company escort, wherever; specifics hardly mattered – to a dead sire's inheritance. They are falsehoods that flatter his face and form well enough. The name itself flatters him, stout and combative: Walsh. Five other intelligencers he is aware of in his vicinity; none of them could the stern-faced operative identify by occupation, title or looks. Misspellings are a trifling inconvenience to trade. And perhaps he likes that better, too; for there is flat practicality to Captain Sebastian Walsh that subdued.
Explosions in Paris are an affront, a show of slack security, but the British royalists themselves are far from immune to espionage. He is hardly a judicious dragoman, double-faced comte or executor – Sébastien knows that. He, like his many cohorts padding through these cities, are expendables; they were sent en masse, told nothing, small eyes watching the off-chance there is a frightful noise. They listen closely for trade murmurings and hints of embargoes violated or ignored. Most of them will return home with mediocre gains. Some of them will die. Capitaine de LaCrox does not count his chickens before they hatch; this officer plans on nothing beyond what services he has been told to perform.
"Play us something else," Mofras would sigh back in Italy, chatting with more decorated men, drinking lukewarm barley inside a war tent. The darkness outside would feel oppressive with saddled geldings, stamping feet, hungry militiamen from both their ranks and enemy camps. Sound carried far on this thin European breeze. Melancholy strings tumbled into cricket noise and the aromatic quality of flatland summer. Sébastien, a corporal then, would grit away powerful contempt and reset violin beneath his pointed chin. "Surely not every tune you know is a somber one."
So much credit overlooked; so much talent frittered away; so much dedication brushed off for the worthless entertainment of a musician. De LaCroix had slain his first man before he had ever donned a greatcoat – had splattered an Austrian's head with a cudgel improvised from Tante Lottie's stew pot, then stabbed him two dozen times with a knife made for cutting veal. And he would have laid more, had not Tristian grabbed the armed wrist mid-strike and hauled his nephew away. Perhaps two or three more soldiers he had shot from a slatted tavern window when the brewing battle finally erupted over poorly-drawn country lines. Yet for all that – for all that odium, well-applied force and willingness to kill – there he was but a few years later: acting bard for some boastful chief who liked his music sprightly, meaningless and very much in the background.
Hate was not too strong a word for how the young Révolution troop regarded his boarish, self-declared mentor. The assumptions made him sick with anger. There was no acknowledgement, no desire to coach or instruct. There was only this selfish cow with ragged goatee, pressed clothing and mean eyes, caring for little else beyond making a façade of glory for himself… and it infuriated the attendant corporal. Sébastien was not a liquored officer's sideshow, sycophant child or an incompetent, insubstantial pet player meant to pare away notes and hide behind false betters. He was not anyone's joke. And so he would seethe coldly, close his eyes not to be reminded of boyhood in Mouscron, and strike happy chords for uninterested creatures of war.
"I am your father now, lad," the sot harrumphed one week later when Sébastien had written home at Milan, parchment pressed across his thigh in a hovel-turned-barracks. There was no response for some time. Silent de LaCroix sat there upon an ammunition crate, brow furrowed, unable to express what unpacked within his head. He could not articulate it. Nothing had enraged him more at that point in his short and unimpressive life.
And he had stood up – paper crunched in one hand, new sergeant's stripe on his vest – and he had pushed aside that violin, and he had said: "No. You are a fat, belligerent old man shivering under his arms – who is content to sit back upon the weight of his laurels while pageboys wage war."
Six days later, he was walking in the battle lines. Everything afterwards had fallen into place like the rods of a well-oiled rifle.
The young man suspects it was his language mastery that eventually won him this position – border port origins, a perfect accent, a domineering clip to his stride and disdain for what is fantastic. His service record, too, is impeccable; speaking for him is military history as polished as the black of this soldier's boots. He is strict, focused, laughless, frighteningly stubborn and fiercely clever. They are all outstanding traits to fit a Third Coalition spy. But Sébastien would rather think it is something more. It is something in the way you hold your spine and shoulders here – a seal of martyrish cunning – some harsh, well-bred pride imbedded in the back of your bite. It is this he appreciates about a stanch and bloated nation. It suits him. It sweetens the satisfaction in becoming one of them, in matching what these mounting enemies have to offer, reproducing it, assimilating centuries of doggedness to strengthen the clap of his step. It makes the secret of being a mole – a scout for Napoléon's current ambition – much deadlier, and much more precious.
Beside his hip there is a dagger to replace inept watchmen and to look properly obstinate. Below the dress of Britishness there is definitive, insidious foreign purpose. Beneath his shirt there is a scar where an Austrian tore the infantryman from a dead hussar's horse and struck musket steel along his lowest rib in Montebello. It had been Sébastien's last battle, vanguarding in the scrub of Lombardy. He was not unworldly enough to presume it would be the final one.
"Walsh," someone called, and though it took him a moment, de LaCroix halted short and twisted his chin about. "Here you are, Walsh! About time, wouldn't you say?"
Sébastien remembered being introduced to Mr. Belden very distinctly, roundabout one month ago, at a social assembly fretful Lieutenant Colonel Merle quietly procured his two newest intelligencers invitations for. The capitaine could not tell you whom his fellow agent had been. He spent most of that night with mouth full of claret or cigar plumes. He listened politely to farcically masculine, peering gentlemen ask uninterested questions about occupation, family – rest his poor English father's fevered soul. He took in and delivered stuffed political statements with little insight behind them. He nodded blandly to skeptical jokes and dismissive comments about aspiring emperors. Then, at some point in the swaggering affair – standing briefly to fetch another drink – a plump girl with black eyes beneath bronze ringlets approached him, tapped Sébastien's sleeve, and announced:
"Young man" – or so she called him that, though looked several years younger than he – "If you'll excuse me, my name is Marabel Belden, and I am here on a mission. Would you like us to rescue you from those grey-hairs? My father –" And she pointed. "—asked me to invite you to our table."
He looked to where she gestured, several parties away, and saw a pot-bellied sir with wine-red face and vivacity that struggled against both suit and middle age. Lawrence Belden held a glass in one hand – a great, prizefighter hand – and his waifish wife's glove in the other. Thinning black curls sat compressed beneath a John Bull. His stare, jovial but bitter green, was astoundingly clear for how little drink remained in the cup. His companions giggles at every insignificant thing he said. This was the gloss of a man who had always been surrounded by women; Sébastien's coldness marked him as one who'd grown with none.
At that very forward gathering, he'd met the Beldens in their entirety (or at least the entirety of those who mattered): Mistress Flora, skeletal and raven-maned house lady; pale Miss Lisbet, equally gaunt and equally voiceless; Miss Marabel, bold and buxom favorite, engaged to translucent Hugh Staley, who clutched top hat-in-lap and smiled his way through all; and finally Master Robert Staley, eighteen years of age and every bit as offensive as that status implied, drumming imprudent fingers onto tabletop. They were a gentile coterie involved with steel export and a series of pottery kilns in Notting Hill respectively. They spoke decidedly modern, were punctual-at-will, painstakingly brisk and purportedly self-made (or, at the very least, self-improved). And perhaps their inflated stories of youth, shipping and government debauchery had grown tedious, for they were ever-eager to add to their company a sparser, decorated, differently well-to-do man.
"Walsh," Belden groused at the rain-damp cornerstone of Noel Street. He was slightly winded, complexion rouged, great eyebrows furrowed with kinship that clung to bygone days. "Here you are, indeed. Fine thing, too! We were fast tiring of loitering about, waiting for your arrival. Almost thought you were against showing up," the man said, blustering on before Sébastien could offer any formal gesture of respect. It was not needed in such boisterous company. But they liked that formula about him, that he would bow anyway, his storybookness summarized by a curt and militant dip.
"You are usually so punctual," Mr. Staley agreed, insignificant and behind his father-in-law, plainer than the brownish hair upon his cheeks. Sébastien cannot help but wonder how many men just like this one he has killed. All troops of their nation, in product or in service; it's an ideology that has spanned several oceans, many continents.
"I apologize. I was detained." (A better excuse than oversleeping in the dark of his den and the incense of a cool, dank London afternoon.)
Belden guffawed. The action, good-natured but breath-heavy, did not assist his already struggling face. "I have a hard time, sir, imagining a thing that might detain you."
"Leave Mister Walsh be," Ms. Marabel tutted, skirts twisting in small hands, stepping unassisted from a trinket storefront and on to the curb. Her betrothed hurried to assist. Imperial fabric was grating and absurd flouncing down this market street; pastel yellow between characterless eyes and ginger knots turned her skin to wet paper. The train was already damp. "We barely have noon; hardly that much time has passed. And I daresay I have yet to see either one of you two do much of note this morning."
"Yes, completely useless," Hugh lamented, not quite clear if he was taking his lady's arm or being ushered forward by it.
"Useless! Do you hear this, Walsh? It makes you wonder what sort of a man you are – when your own daughter speaks to you however she pleases." A Belden patriarch, fatter in savings than belt, had the rare privilege to make light of himself in such a way and compromise nothing. His chin jerked their party away from these cramped buildings and towards the thoroughfare. "Unless my child would rather stand about all the day, making a sport of how clever she is? – I say we ought to be on our way."
"No need to be so petulant, father." She fixed the lip of her bonnet. "But yes, we should. Else we might miss Catharine. And I mustn't miss her. She rarely visits the garden these days."
"Again, I apologize," Sébastien noted. The placidness of his face and neutral words communicated uncaring; they recognized it as only the way he was. It all confirmed the presumptions of upper-crust people. A soldier with a middle-class household and buried family is no one they want marrying their heiresses, but he makes them all feel cosmopolitan and safe to invite about. They like to take him to parties as a war token with acceptable mannerisms. He meets lords and brokers and baronets. Sebastian Walsh tells stark and unpadded tales of combat, exploration, a conquering crown; Sébastien de LaCroix listens carefully to comments about silver stocks, trade route woes, weapons ships issued across a European Theatre.
"A late start is better than none," Staley offered – uselessly.
"Catch us a coach, will you, Walsh?"
To his credit, Lawrence Belden makes no overtures about tired legs or bad knees. This is a request rooted in class; there is no point to twisting it otherwise. Business enterprises are central to mobility and those who capitalize upon them do not fetch their own horses.
They climbed in with no hint of impropriety; for all their colorfulness and modern sensibilities, it is a long history of vaunted superiority this country ticks to. A tight fit, perhaps, with the four of them. Hugh Staley claims to have been a team boxer in his schooling days and is oppressively broad-shouldered to compensate for a small, smiling personality. He looks uncomfortable next to the already voluminous Beldens. It is even more awkward how they arrange themselves, deferring to the tycoon – for both betrotheds squeezed into Sébastien's row, crunching their shoulders into window frames. The mass of Lawrence bolstered casually in its own divan, fussing with something in his pockets. The officer cannot help but scowl a moment as a stray elbow nearly cuffs him in the gut; Staley gives an apologetic grin and pulls that foppishly clean hat into lap. It's the most he ever does.
'Useless, indeed,' Sébastien thinks, jostled beneath his station, disliking to be touched.
They chattered inanely for a moment in which LaCroix was forced to remember himself. Iron shoes clattered the street; carriage workings squeaked; Hugh Staley's oversized, suited arm kept kicking into his neighbor's. A fortunate thing military sons have so much more patience than trade barons or their protégés. A fortunate thing that this one is more adhered to successes than cheap comforts. He is a product of a changing world where birthright has been conquered by the living barrage of skill, talent, drive. Fair? Not entirely. But mark this: Sébastien de LaCroix is a child who has earned what he has.
The utterance of his name – his adopted name, at any rate – startled him from this brief retreat. Belden's self-interested, slightly glazed eyes were looking at him from beneath that care-creased brow. "Do you do any hunting, Walsh?"
"My father is an excellent hunter," Miss Marabel boasted, chopping in with that quick, blasé air of hers. "He's hunted every where and quite nearly every thing."
The last gentle creature Sébastien shot was a roe off the Italian foothills; they dragged its body camp-bound to carve, he and another man from his regiment. He remembered how their boots crunched, how the animal snorted into the yellow ground, blood slick and red on dry alpine grass. It had then reminded him of calf butchering in Mouscron. Now it reminds him of lying in that same strawlike, frail grass, holding his side and wondering tonguelessly if the heart inside had burst. "A luxury I haven't much opportunity for, I fear."
"Yorke cannot even loosen the crown leash for a little sport? Shame. What point is there, I ask, in being bound out to the Bengal – or where ever – at all?"
"It was Mysore," the captain said evenly – no influx, no snub, no implications – merely a correction made.
Belden flattened his lapels, a minor gesture with great application of strength. A mislaid rock bumped them all inside the closed coach. "To tell you truly, that country is all the same jungle to me."
Marabel's black eyes flickered impatiently towards the carriage top, loving annoyance. "Father, don't be barbaric," she scolded, picking at the rumples in her gloves. His guffawing insistence that the comment was said in jest did not impress. There was something pleasurable in their persistent bickering, however; a father who liked to be chided, and a daughter whose affection came whittled into patient remarks. "When you take on that tone, it is difficult to tell when you are being serious or not. Shall I remind you that Mister Walsh is less accustomed your bizarre sense of humor than the rest of us?" She leant forward, peeking around Staley's self-conscious form, to address their guest with purpose. "He means well, I promise you. Or at least I may promise you that my father thinks he does."
"She derides me constantly, do you see? The joke was obvious, dear girl. It is hardly my fault if it passed your handsome little head right by."
"You might make it clearer to understand when you are making light of someone."
"Men understand," he averred, and satisfied with the meaninglessness of that conclusion, they settled easily back to his leadership again. There was no offense taken by a spy who had never actually set foot in India. Sébastien kept his cogitations to himself. "At any rate, it's certain that jungle is still fine jungle. I once knew a gentleman with a monstrosity of cat skull mounted on his mantle – claimed he took it in the East. Teeth as large as my finger, here. Have you ever killed a tiger, Walsh?"
"I've never seen a tiger."
"Shame," Belden said again, propped his spine back against the bench, and looked distantly out along these moving streets.
They rattled along at a fair pace. Ugly thatches of city housing gradually transformed to latticework, heavy fencing, broad park roads and greenery. Buildings, stories stacked messily on top of each other, opened to the barrenness of mid-spring sky. Sébastien quietly counted lampposts as dust from the gardens mingled with cobbles. Lime and ash trees lined the boulevard and edged out metals but not convention. You could already spot the excessives of color, gown trains unfit for outdoor wear, meandering throngs of socialites who had not yet departed from their insubstantial conversations. Vendors had set market tables oddly betwixt rain puddles leftover from last night. Perfumes, produce and small décor were bartered. A brown-speckled dog trotted along the yards, large and occupied, something dug from a dirt patch clutched in its mouth. He watched it lope decisively away from all these idling aristocrats and felt an odd metaphor stirring.
Strange to be here – stranger how natural it felt, how empty pleasantries and seemliness echoed of border-town provinciality and boats on white bluff shores.
He could not have guessed from that roadside inn or shellfish-strewn beach that this might be his future. Authority, yes – discomfiting subservience with a determined plan – but not a military life. Sébastien's muscle had molded the memory of smoothbore bouncing against a shoulder, barrel cold through uniform shirt, sunlight sparking against steel beneath the shadows of his hat. Short épée rattled dutifully at one thigh with every step. Knees bent and marched on to the drummer's tempo. Oh, de LaCroix was a soldier; there was no doubting to be done about that. Keep your eye on the man in-front had never been philosophy meant for him, though. He had been cut for an officer's sash. He had been an aloof and independent boy with a commitment to moving forward. He could remember a sharpened stick and sea breeze.
Tristan complimented his nephew, stance so strict, a fine player – but had always told him he would never be great. There was a disappointment in his stanch successes that made each recital lack. The shortcomings weren't mislaid fingers or amateur mistakes, but the method of it… the stiffness, the precision, the absence of genuine passion behind abrupt and perfect motion. Intensity was not emotion. If fussing old musicians were to be believed, this hollow was what sliced the divide between mediocrity and greatness; tactful coolness resonated in the failure to feel.
Sébastien loved his uncle well enough, but decided the tsking artist was a sentimental puff. He knew that a great man saves his passions for victory processions and war.
There was much war had taught this boy – now a captain, and one whom could not properly be called boy any longer. He was aware there was still much left to learn, however. Étienne de LaCroix's last son may have been proud of his focus and accomplishments thus far, but not foolishly so. For all the anticipation and well-deservedness of this venture across that cerulean straight, he had not known what to expect in London, and uncertainties once made his hands shake. He had not known how to earn the interests of tradesmen or what tainted politics their arrogant conversation may unearth. And the stricken soldier had not known how long he lay in the golden grass of Lombardy all those months ago, oozing like that shot stag, seeing only sun rays and cardinal stains spreading through his vest.
Sébastien had waited there to die for some time, spine frozen at attention, afraid to move, light grey and blinding through sparse clouds in a white Italian sky. The ringing in his ears wined to a high, flawless pitch. It grew, an odd and far-flung sound, until there were no pounding cavalry hooves or gunpowder cracks or men shouting nonsensical distress. A swallow skirted overhead, one dark crescent in an incredible nothingness. He could feel the hair that stuck to his face, a beetle crawling softly, battle thunder rolling distantly through packed earth. Felt hat corners had been crushed beneath neck, head, back. His mouth was dry and cracked. His blue eyes did not blink or twitch. They stared up, stunned, counting on what they did not know.
When the firmament dimmed suddenly, shadows encroaching, de LaCroix had thought his end flanked upon him. Air rushed from the soldier's lungs, fearfully cold; vision spun; he swore, for one moment, to feel life slipping away through one long and rustless sieve.
And then someone above him laughed, and there was a distinct nudge in his shoulder… and gloomy figures began to take form: jackets, feathers, tasseled caps, men's gazes. Sébastien gasped as it became clear the pressure on his arm was from a neat black military shoe.
There had only been a faint din before – the low sounds of suffering and death still buzzed powerfully from every direction – but now there were distinct, vaguely surprised words, as well. Two infantrymen stood above him. Both full-suited in friendly colors; both older, not much; both sporting drenched fighting blades on their waists – neither particularly troubled. He tried to speak. Nothing came out beyond a pant of panicked, sputtering breath. They regarded him with smiles somewhere between pity and mockery. Their gaiters were crusted with dirt. Each carried a cutlass glossed with steaming blood.
"-Is that Mofras's fiddler?" one asked, the jumble of syllables and teeth finally becoming intelligible again. Sébastien found he could not answer, fingers clutching at his chest; brass buttons came loose beneath them. The petty sergent's band pinned there fluttered uselessly with no voice behind it. Horse hair covered both gloves, one crisp and the other speckled crimson.
The other gentleman – this one faintly recognizable, littered with pockmarks and dense, sable moustache – squinted, cocked his head, and considered. There were no saving palms stopping up gore or fumbling for bandages. Indeed, they studied him casually. The injured officer noticed, then, that each wore his own battalion badge; Sébastien fought to chase lingering blurriness away from those faces. He was barely successful. They were mere ghost troops from an army of thousands, a gathering of hundreds at their fork of campsite, and reticent de LaCroix spent little time commingling with common men.
This second, bearded gunner nodded. "I think you are correct. What do you suppose got him all the way up here with Ott's dragoons, then?"
"Salut, officier! Hello down there. Is this the first time you have ever been cut, friend? Are you able to hear us?" the first asked, grin large and sporting. Short sorrel tufts jutted out at unkempt angles. He'd tucked his shako, plume ragged, under one arm. "Can you say anything?"
Sébastien's fear had not decreased; it ruined his attempted gestures. Instead the soldier lurched upper body forward, stomach winching, pawing for leverage. His sword had been broken from its scabbard and tossed several feet away; there was no sight of a gun. He was only tangentially conscious of the bodies that lay everywhere. Egg-laying flies worried open flesh; crippled colts snorted desperately for strength; limbs had been flung carelessly about their lifeless owners. It was a remarkable, dreadfully familiar stench. You could not dwell upon it. Fortunately, shock made the task of looking beyond mutilated, bloated corpses fairly simple. This was his third battlefield only, but already had selective comprehension become a gruesome routine. He did not fret over infection, pus or hemorrhaging. Flashes of movement were far more concerning. And so it was not innards or blisters, but frothy hiccups from a spent plain that drew these two infantrymen's glances aside. They wanted to be sure their throat-cuttings had been thorough. Neat gashes had been laid upon every jugular as far as de LaCroix could see.
"Thinks he's been killed," the auburn-haired soldier announced. This was a realization to make them both snicker. "It isn't only but a kitten scratch, little caporal. Up! Time to return to the living. Don't you know we've won the day?"
His companion tutted after leaving long enough to kick a jerking hussar flat, callous sole thumped cruelly upon breastbone, then to split his gullet deep. You could hear the plunk-plunk-plunk of liquid running off unsheathed sabers. LaCroix realized he could not taste it in his mouth. "Look. I doubt he is understanding a thing we've told him. Lad's been shaken out of his head, Bertrand."
"I suppose Mofras would be unhappy if we left him," Bertrand observed, still smiling in that untailored, unruffled way.
There was argument poppling up in Sébastien's insistent, unsparing gut – and he labored to choke something sensible out – and suddenly, sharp and fresh-feeling, there was pain. Where once only the blankness of dead men yawned wide, fire lit through the nerves of his slashed side, a barrage of needle-heads. The soldier found his voice with an unmuffled yelp. He grabbed at the laceration, bare expression scrunching fiercely, bewilderment mingling with poorly-timed but powerful anger at having been hit. Severed muscles shrieked where untouched organs had not. New scabs pulled, cracked, yanked at tender skin. Slow-flowing crimson left a sloppy but unremarkable splotch on his crossbelt and shirts. He spluttered. He tried to unclench long enough to heft forward and rise.
"Come along, then, fiddler," they said, and took his bloody cuffs in their hands, and picked him up as though he was a weightless revolution gun.
It was not many years later that the London coach stopped in a graveled square.
"Here we are at last. Shall we be on our way? Quickly, I hope. Else the weather may turn unkind and rain again…" With great import, Marabel tucked loose curls into her bonnet and reached to push the door. An arm absently reached for Staley, who jostled to assist her, nearly knocking another elbow into Sébastien's cheekbone when the young and overlarge couple moved to depart. He ducked it. Their entire carriage shifted with the sudden unevenness of mass. Pressed up against a window, de LaCroix's frown did not bother disguising itself as intent thought. The captain scowled after them. It made his benefactor chuckle.
"Come on, Walsh," Lawrence Belden gruffed, and when there was no more delaying to be done, rustled out ahead.
Sébastien stepped out into a field of green, not gold, and he looked towards the lime trees milling soldierlike along their garden boulevard.
A month later, there is war again.
I haven't had time to proofread this, but I likely won't have ANY creative opportunities over the next two weeks (exams), so I thought I'd stick it up. Be prepared for some changes in this chapter later.
Random note of interest: there is an amazing (and free!) collection of maps available online for anyone interested in the urban growth of Great Britain. They don't all apply to this historical period, of course, but it was such a great net find I had to pass it on: search Genmaps, fill out your target info, and eureka.
Contraction usage: I'm going middle-ground. Because of publishing bias against contractions in formal print, we'll probably always have a somewhat skewed understanding of how various classes spoke amongst themselves. It's widely supported that English contractions were significantly less acceptable for the upper-classes than lower-classes (and were very frowned upon in writing), but you'll find them every so often across almost all genres/social groupings. Since it's difficult to know how astringently those formal requirements actually applied to spoken word amongst friends – and out of a want not to sound gratingly pretentious – I'll sprinkle a few in here and there.
If LaCroix hears any Evelina jokes, however…