Chapter One - Gone
“So this is what eternity looks like.”
- Prince Grella
* * *
“Why do your hands tremble so?”
I heard the words, plucked them from an intangible distance.
It could have been me, the name sounded familiar.
Like an island lost in a sea fog, I remained remote.
“Jean, you are shaking. You're scaring me.”
That felt wrong. The girl who owned that ice-cool voice feared nothing, or so I recalled.
“Take my hand,” she said.
Sweeter than any angel, her words mingled with the stinging winds that swept through the chamber. With a vacuum of kindness, she sought to cleanse my mind. But my mind, as ever, remained beyond such aid.
“Jean. Look at me, Jean!” a command, not a request.
I opened heavy eyes to the letter clenched in my left hand and the balled fist of my right. The slender, delicate fingers of an alabaster hand interlaced and unlocked mine offering a strength alone I lacked. A second raised me by the chin, a most delicate ascension, and there she stood. Aurora took me in with those sapphire eyes. How I longed for them to shine green.
“With your permission?” She held out a hand.
“May you what?”
“The letter, Jean.”
I looked to the crumpled paper unable to place the thing as a meaningful document, the information it held but two words, yet feeling like a novel composed of my doom.
When Aurora leant forward and kissed my cheek, her gentle fingers prising the letter from my hand, I acquiesced.
“Hm,” she said, flattened the paper and envelope back out and replaced the latter within the former. She then slipped the reacquainted pair inside her blouse, the spell broken.
“Thank you,” I said.
“We will find her,” she whispered. “I promise you, Jean, we will find her. The Marquis shall not evade us.”
Aurora seemed adamant, so resolute. I was neither.
Merryweather stood off to one side in wretched torment. A marionette, strings cut and broken, a husk, he seemed shattered by affairs. His limp form swayed from side to side like a reed in a windswept lagoon, his every feeble motion a provocation.
“Leave him,” Aurora instructed. “Jean, leave him be.”
But I could not. Even in the depths of despair, Merryweather riled me. I had my hands about his throat in an instant. Another, and I found myself in a collapsed heap at the far side of the gargantuan chamber.
For a second, I thought Aurora to have intervened; she had not. The Nordic princess stood where I'd left her, a look of shock coating her pale visage. No person, man or woman, not even Grella the strongest to have ever laid a hand on me had struck me harder. The shock of it so confused, I looked about seeking some unseen army where there was none. And slowly, ever so slowly, as I shook my head and stilled the spiralling stars, the truth dawned. As my world stopped revolving to settle like an autumn leaf, I returned my eyes to the Britannian.
Merryweather remained impassive, his face upturned to the broken ceiling and the falling snow. The Arctic coated him in a slow accumulation of white, not even the snowflakes landing in his staring eyes causing him to blink. He stood there, catatonic, swaying to another world's breeze; I would never see another look so forlorn for as long as I lived. A broken man, Merryweather's lips mouthed unheard words, his eyes more, but not a hint of animosity was shown towards me. The situation called for a different approach.
“Walter,” I said, softly closing the distance between us. “Where have they taken her?” It was a punt, but I had to try something.
“Yes, she's gone, and I must know where.”
“I do not know where,” he breathed.
For once, I believed him. The anguish in his eyes could not be faked, for anguish is that most base of human emotions. Then again, were we still human?
“Do you know who is with her?” I attempted.
I waited for what seemed an appropriate amount of time, but he was not forthcoming.
“Who?” I persisted, as Aurora glided to his side. She slipped her hand into Merryweather's and placed an arm around his shoulders. Even from one so cold as she, the action warmed the heart.
“Who, Walter? You must tell us if you can.”
The crunching happened in such gradual increments, I didn't realise what occurred. I thought myself to have stood on something, a shattered pot, glass, or some such object, and backed away a pace. I had not. The chamber floor remained immaculate in its ice smoothness. But the sound, that slow grating, hung in the air like churned gravel beneath a carriage's wheels.
My eyes swept the chamber, but all looked undisturbed, the snow too light to cause disruption. I gazed at the sky, but a falling winter is a silent oblivion at the best of times. My examination complete, I returned my attention to Merryweather who stared into the darkness impassive. Aurora, however, was less so. In utter disbelief, I watched her eyes narrow, lips purse, face contort. The crunching grew louder, ever louder, as the Nordic princess recoiled in obvious pain, though I still knew not why. Yet even in agony Aurora remained composed.
“Merryweather,” she said.
There was no response.
“Walter,” she prompted.
“Walter, you are hurting me,” she gasped.
He did not acknowledge her.
“Please, dearest Walter, it's time to let go now.”
And as suddenly as it had started, the crunching stopped. Aurora's released hand fell to her side, no longer milk-white, but blue. The girl doubled over in clear distress, as Walter turned and whispered, “I'm sorry.”
“I don't understand!”
“I'm not sure you ever will.”
That annoyed, although he meant no ill.
“Just tell me who she is with and I shall forgive you.” I lied, of course, but as I was clueless as to what he referred, I had little choice but to feign leniency. “Who did she leave with, Walter?”
“With the Marquis, Raphael Santini, two Nordic princesses, the twins, and Linka, of course. There may have been others, but they are all I witnessed.”
It took a second for his list to sink into my thick skull. Somehow, something didn't seem right? I scratched at my chin and mulled his words over and over, name by name. I looked to Aurora, who still rubbed at her discoloured hand. The girl shrugged a silent reply.
“So, she is with those you mention?” I sought reconfirmation.
“Then, she is alive?”
“Have they harmed her?”
“She cannot be harmed.”
“News to me!” I exclaimed, raising my eyebrows to Aurora.
“She is immortal,” Merryweather whispered.
“Aren't we all?”
“There are differing stages of immortality.”
“So Linka is safe, you are certain?”
“Yes, Linka,” I snapped, unable to control my building anger.
“I do not know.”
“Then, why say what you said?”
“I'm not talking about Linka.”
“Then who the hell are you talking about?” I fumed.
Merryweather's eyes narrowed, his face turning from the Arctic night. “Who did you think I was talking about?” he asked.
“Linka,” I replied, wondering what new lunacy I'd become embroiled in.
“You refer to my mother, don't you?” Aurora said.
“Of course,” he replied. “Who else?”
I stared from the dandy to the princess and back again in utter bemusement.
“Why?” asked Aurora.
“Because I love her. I have always loved her. I will always love her. And she will always love me.”
“What!” I interjected, the fires of rage approaching inferno.
“I thought you knew,” he stated, quite unabashed by my temper.
“Why the hell would I think that? All I care about is Linka.”
“Don't I know it,” he huffed, once more back to his old self.
I would have vented my fury upon him, but Aurora came between us, her arms outstretched in placation.
“Why is he always like this?” Merryweather asked her.
“Jean cares for Linka as much as you do for my mother.”
“Are you sure?” He gave me a quizzical look before returning his attention to Aurora. “I didn't think him capable of caring for anyone.”
“I am sure,” she smiled. “So tell me, where has the Marquis taken my mother and the others?”
“I do not know.”
“Think, Walter,” she insisted. “You are so much wiser than Jean and I. You have seen so much compared to our young selves.”
“Well, you are mere saplings,” he said, but the intonation of his words set my blood to boiling.
“We are,” Aurora agreed, “which is why we need you to think.”
I bristled at that but kept my mouth shut for expedience's sake.
“Where would you take them to be safe from Jean?”
“Hmm?” Walter tapped his fingers on his forehead in a most irritating fashion. “Where would I take them?” he mused.
“This year,” I added.
“He is so impatient,” he said to Aurora out of the back of his hand.
“Even so,” she replied.
“Well, either to the Baltics and Gorgon. Old allegiances and all that,” he winked. “Or, if not there, then home.”
“This is home, you idiot,” I said, shaking my head in frustration.
“Not the Nordics' home, meine dummkopf. His home.”
“Then we must hurry to his castle,” I said.
“That was Portia's home, never his.”
“But we shall never find Shangri-La.”
“Is he always so stupid, dear girl?”
Aurora gave a slight shake of her head, which seemed to placate him. I pretended not to notice and remained silent.
“Where is his home?” Aurora asked in so polite a fashion as to be grovelling.
“Venice, of course.”
“Venice is gone!” I snapped.
“But not forgotten,” he sang back in a lilting voice.
“He's lost it,” I said to Aurora. “We might as well give up on him.”
“Have I, Jean, have I lost it? Have I really?” he rounded on me. “Where would you hide from you, pray tell? Come on, snap, snap.”
“I'm going to rip your head off,” I growled.
“Not if I'm underwater, you're not.”
“And like being tipped over the edge of a waterfall to crash upon the rocks beneath in liquid fury, it hit me.”
“Ah, the penny drops. Where to hide from a hydrophobe? Let's have a think. Duh! Under the sea, perhaps? Although in your case the middle of a puddle would probably do.”
Despite wanting to slash him in two, his logic was impeccable. Venice had sunk beneath the Aegean long before I was born to a world on the brink of death. The place inhabited the same legendary status Atlantis had to humanity if books were to be believed. I would never have given a thought to a city being inhabitable beneath the sea, but why not? It made no difference to an Eternal who neither breathed nor wished to if his home was sunk beneath the waves. The Marquis, like all the Hierarchy, knew of my distaste for water. If one wished to remain distant from me, there would be no better place. Although that still beggared the question why would one wish to remain hidden from me? Until now, when they had every reason to.
“It'll take us an age to get there, you know,” he continued, prattling to nobody in particular. “Still, it is far more appealing than this dire scene. I am bored beyond words of all this snow and ice. It's so plain, so very plain,” he said to Aurora, as an aside. “But someone else will have to navigate, I'm really quite lost. And I have no intention of running like a lunatic across an unending, monotonous landscape clueless of which direction I head.”
“We can take a Zeppelin,” I chimed.
“Well, that's marvellous that is. What Zeppelin?”
“They crashed one and had another in here, chances are there's another somewhere to be found.”
“Be a good boy then and go and have a look, whilst I sit and wallow in abject self-pity.”
“You're good at that,” I retaliated.
“Look who's talking.”
“Gentlemen,” Aurora interrupted, “I suspect we may have more pressing concerns.”
“Like what?” I snapped.
“Yes, like what?” Merryweather parroted.
Aurora turned from us with the calm assurance I had become accustomed to and pointed to the funnelled entrance we'd emerged from.
“Do you get the impression we were not meant to leave?” Merryweather mused.
I would have answered with some glib comeback but there wasn't much point. A faint dusting of ice fell from the tunnelled entry point like a broken hourglass. It was nothing really, yet deeply disturbing in that nothingness. I slunk over to the thing and placed a hand to the cold ice: it vibrated. When the floor started shaking, which only added to my initial worry, and then a crack split out from either side of the passageway, I imagined the worst.
“You're taking it rather well,” Merryweather chuckled.
“What, being crushed?”
“Not crushed, dear boy. If we stand in the centre of this immense carbuncle, I suspect the disappeared roof will harm us not. It is the ocean that shall soon consume the space we inhabit that I would worry about. If I was you, that is.”
My face fell, much to Merryweather's amusement, as he ran off on a circuit of the chamber; I couldn't be bothered to chase him.
An explosion of sufficient proportions as to flatten all three of us rocked the chamber then. Chunks of ice the size of coffins fell from the ceiling's leading edge and I doubted if Merryweather's first proclamation of non-harm might be correct. A second blast and the first droplets of Arctic water seeped into the chamber.
“Any suggestions, Aura?” I asked, more in hope than expectation.
“I have never ventured here, all this is as new to me, as you. My one suggestion would be to remain central, as Walter suggested, and wait until we can swim out.”
“Yes, let's do that,” Merryweather laughed. “Let's all hold hands too. I think that would be a nice touch, don't you, Jean?”
“I am not waiting to be submerged,” I retorted. “Or eaten, for that matter.”