“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.