Paris, Christian decided bitterly, was nothing more than a decadent cage. It was stunning, yes, with all its winking lights and rustic—and slightly romantic—architecture, but it held little more value than that. At its core, the self-proclaimed "City of Love" was starving, keeling over from hunger-pangs so desperate, so violent, that it could no longer feel them.
The city ached for a soul.
Trudging down the cobbled street in a heavy, snow-soaked coat, Christian glanced at a throng of surrounding pedestrians. Five years prior, Paris was gripped by the ardor of social revolution, throwing its citizens into a feverish uproar. They sang of love, groping whoever they pleased in sordid cabarets; they dreamed of truth, searching for it in the welcoming eyes of free love. And they whispered of freedom, but hardly ever found it. Not after the war began, anyway.
He shivered, his skin dancing with icy tendrils. Only a few short months had passed since the brutality of the Schlieffen Plan had nipped at the ankles of Paris, and the city was still reeling from its effects, blanketing it in an atmosphere drearier than winter itself. For one thing, the jewel of France had almost been invaded, leaving the Germans railing against the beleaguered French Army on the shores of the Marne river; and secondly, Paris's government was absent. Simply gone. Rumor had it that they had fled to Bordeaux, were holing up in some comfortable safe-house while the Allies struggled to repulse the Krauts back to Aisne, and wouldn't return until things were all nice and tidy. Knowing the Germans…well, Christian surmised that Paris may as well grow accustomed to the idea of temporary anarchy.
Shoving his winter-blistered hands in his pockets, Christian turned streets, cutting through a dank, narrow alley. Lines of washed clothes hung overhead, waving like flags with the chilly winds, and he could make out woman desperately trying to reel in their laundry before icicles started sprouting from their colorful bloomers. A few drifters wandered around listlessly, grubby faces blushed with cold, noses watery and raw. Animals—dogs, mostly—clung to the sides, their thick pelts poorly masking jutting ribs, their dark eyes watching Christian expectantly as he passed by. Reaching into his coat, he withdrew a thin strip of jerky, tossed it to the nearest dog and—
"I said no! NO, NO, NO!"
Christian froze. At first he thought the voice was coming for overhead, issuing out of some busty woman's window. But as another scream ripped through the alley, he realized that is emanating from behind him, and he whirled. Four men—bums, he assumed—were hunched over something, and Christian drew closer, he knew it was more than that: it was a someone. A woman, fighting and kicking as one of the tramps tried to force her to the ground.
"Stop!" Christian shouted, suddenly breathless. He grabbed at a man's arm, tried to pull him away. "Leave her be, you bloody tinkers."
The man shoved him back, but he wasn't going to be determined that easily. Cocking arm back, he landed a punch to the back of the man's head, the blow resounding with a meaty thwack. The bum stiffened, craning his neck around as if he wasn't sure what had hit him, and then he simply crumpled to ground, his head striking his comrade's on the way down.
Hand going to his head, the other man whirled around, a snarl contorting his grisly features. He lunged forward, groping for Christian with dingy fingers, then caught hold of his collar with a grip so strong, he wouldn't have thought it human. Waves of hot, smelly breath roiled over him, filling his nostrils with a stench he bet was vodka as the bum dragged him forward. Into the circle, where the woman was writhing under one of other men.
And then SNAP! The derelict's fist connected with his nose, and for a few seconds, Christian's vision spun with lights. He reached up a hand, tried if the warm, sticky river he felt trickling from his nostrils was real, and then SNAP again. And again. Each blow come so quickly, so powerfully, that he was having trouble keeping his balance, and soon he was doubled over, the front of coat stained a deep scarlet.
This isn't good, he thought dazedly. Not good at all.
Just when he thought he was going to get a good respite, he felt the heel of a hand connect with the right-hand portion of his lower back, right above his kidney. A wave of fire spread through his side, sending him to the ground, where he felt someone strike his spine. Then a foot slammed up into his solar plexus, driving all breath from his lungs. Fuzzying his vision with ebony dots of pain.
"That's the last time you'll ever cross us, isn't it, Brit?" sneered another man. Christian vaguely recognized him as the man who'd been on top of that woman, pinning her frail form to the freezing ground. "You should've stayed in London with your silly bridge."
A soft, rustling came from within the man's coat before he produced a long staff, its jet black surface seemingly dampening all light in the alley. It had broad head, wider than Christian's splayed hands, and for a moment he assumed the whole thing was just a charred walking stick, something that'd simply dissolve to ashes if it struck him. Then he noticed the design on the head, all delicate curves and a bright, orange glow, felt heat as it ventured close to his arm.
Christian flinched, preparing for the searing pain that was sure to come, but it never did. He blinked. Opened his eyes, casting wildly about for a sign of the vagabonds, and found that he was completely alone. Well, except for the woman, of course; she was moaning softly on the ground next to him, her eyes rolling chaotically behind their sockets.
"What…what does it look like?" she asked, voice nothing more than a shaky whisper.
Sidling up next to her, he shook his head. "What does what look like? I don't see anything."
Her eyes fluttered open, staring up at him with a piercing intensity. They were inescapable, those eyes. So haunting, so chilling…and blue. Icy blue, almost silvery, contrasting sharply with her strawberry locks. "They marked me. On my neck."
At first glance, every seemed fine. She was beautiful, almost unnatural so, and utterly flawless. Her skin was alabaster, a purer white than the snow. Her lips were full, and her build was so elegant and svelte that he couldn't comparing her to a leopard, a perfect, crystalline one that hunted winter-fairies. Granted, she looked a little clammy, but that was to be expected, right? After all, anyone take on a similar appearance after an encounter like that.
Then his eyes slid carefully over her neck, and he saw it. Raw, melted skin, bubbling just above her collar bone. Beautiful, sensuous lines arching to form a design that sent chills shooting up his limbs.
Branded into her skin was a perfect S, with the faint shape of a diamond in intertwined.
The woman must've picked up on his reaction, because she staring at him even harder now, her mouth set in a firm, carmine line. "You know it, don't you? Tell me what is. Please."
He looked away, lost in canopy of snowflakes drifting lazily about. There wasn't any way in heck that he was going to going to answer her question, not in a trillion eternities. The words to articulate what it meant—what it meant to HIM-simply weren't there, as absent as song birds in a brutal winter. As nonexistent as delicate cherry blossoms in a deafening gale.
Come what may, come what may…
The woman's gaze hardened. "Tell me."
His gaze lost all focus, as if the fuzziness brought on by the blows was returning. He wished she had told him. He willed it from the very core of his being, his heart throbbing for the past to be not only undone, but rewritten. It wouldn't be a perfect place, a fairytale for him to dwell with a Diamond clutched to his chest—but at least he would've known her better. Would've known a secret that was plunging into his chest like an icy stake.
Finally, he faced her, his head heavy from the loss of blood. Honestly, he sort of forgotten of all that. But who could blame him? Adrenaline could work some powerful miracles, especially if you had only a trickle of the red stuff still oozing down your chin. "You never knew your parents, did you?"
The looked a little jilted by the question, but she quickly recovered. "I didn't, actually. My adopted parents always said that my mother had been too young to care for me, and my father must've been long out of the picture. They say she was about my age now when she left me on their doorstep."
"And just how old are you?" he queried sagging wearily against the wall alley wall.
His brow shot up. So she wasn't a leopard, then. This girl—this child—was a frail and delicate blossom, a winter-fairy caught in the storm. "She must've loved you terribly to give you up like that, to keep you from going down with her."
She sat up a little, wincing. "What makes you say that?"
He gave her a long, sad smile. "I think I met her once, about five years ago. I can see a lot of her in you, actually."
He nodded slowly, carefully. "You have her eyes."
The girl brightened, looking for all the world like a tiger lily in a frozen-over hell. So much innocence, here in this stalwart flower. At least, more than her mother had, anyway. "Can you tell me about her?"
"Only if you allow me to see you to your parent's house."
It was her turn to hide her gaze. "They're dead. Both of them. Mother caught tuberculosis years ago, and I recently received word that Father had been killed at the Charelroi by the Germans."
Bitter irony, that part about tuberculosis. "I'm…sorry. I've sort of lost of my family as well, you could say. But I still have my Father, and it's been of quest of mine to be as much like him as I possibly can." He fingered his short beard, ignoring the layers dried blood that flaked off at his touch. "You don't mind living under a broke poet's roof, do you?"
Because it didn't matter whether or not he had money. It didn't matter that he wasn't a sculptor, either, the one who'd build her the biggest the house. Give her what she deserved. All that did was that he had the opportunity to do one last thing for his beloved, to embrace her child as if this girl had been his.
"Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it."—C.S. Lewis