The fog hung dense upon the air. No hand moved to mar the virginal purity of the sky's white veil, no heated breath disturbed its unmoved, cold visage, no heartbeat seduced an echo of sound out of its implacable silence. Virtue is a cumbersome weight to bear and the sky itself seemed to sink a little further into nothingness with every crawling second, as if Atlas himself stooped beneath his burden in the extremity of exhaustion.
A spark of red penetrated the mists, sharp, dazzling, like a drop of blood falling on a bride's wedding gown from a pricked finger, or the first juice of a pomegranate staining Proserpine's alabaster chin. It neither increased nor dissipated, but winked impishly, an almost lurid breach of the sacrosanct white.
At some undefined point in the immeasurable haze a young man sprawled on a crudely hewn wooden chair, his elbows propped listlessly on the rickety table before him, as if the desolate landscape was the most natural place in the world for a gentleman--or a rogue, as his slovenly garb, his dishevelled hair, his extraordinary lack of concern for his circumstances very nearly branded him; to take his ease in complete solitude. An uninteresting figure in his idleness, perhaps, though somewhat incongruous, but it was from him that the piercing spark of colour emanated. Dark eyes, quite at odds with the carelessness of his regular featured countenance, were focused with a peculiar intensity on an object that he spun cleverly in his fingers, his aptitude for the task alone preventing any precious liquid from spilling, wasted from the fragile confines of its vessel to soak into the unworthy wood of the table. In his awkwardly folded hands he twisted a brimming glass of red wine.
"Hesperides' rotten fruit, mon ami, what's happened here?" A startled voice grated through the stillness and a second figure leaned heavily upon the table, one hand pressed to his apparently aching forehead.
His seated companion looked sharply up, his momentary lapse of concentration causing a few drops to spray his hands with trickles of scarlet. Surprised, he uttered a few words, mingling imprecations with a hasty greeting that made his companion raise bleary eyes to study him with a bewildered expression. Haltingly the new arrival answered, his languorous speech all but affixed by the chill of the climate to drop and shatter like the words of Cadmus' icemen, on the coarse timber of the table.
"It's all right," drawled the seated man blithely, altering his language with the same degree of unconscious aptitude he applied to toying with the wine glass to match that of his new acquaintance. "I speak French. Though God knows I've reason enough to despise the language. And love it too, if the world needed another paradox. Take a seat, m'sieur, take a glass. Neither of them are mine, but no one's arrived to evict me, yet. Unless that's your job."
Somewhat disconcerted, the other man dropped clumsily into a chair that may or may not have been present before its introduction, it seemed superfluous to enquire, and put to his lips a glass of equally dubious origins. Over this reassuring prop he scrutinised his companion's dress and features with puzzled curiosity, as if he beheld a togate Roman. "Mine? Venus' fidelity and Diana's wantonness, no. I'd be the last man to deprive someone of his wine. Too much effort, to start with."
Chuckles of wry agreement rumbled in response and a hand was loosed from a glass and proffered. "Carton, Sydney. Advocate," he introduced himself, uttering the appellations almost as if they were read from another man's business card, laced with deprecating amusement.
"Grantaire, Darcel. Student," returned the other in dry, slightly mocking mimicry, though both the smile that brushed his features and the hand that gripped the newly identified Carton's were genial enough. "As far as you can call that a trade. Though I doubt we drink less than the tailors or gamble less than the clerks, however little money our profession might earn us."
He slumped back simultaneously into the embrace of the chair's hardened frame and the more alluring vapours of the maenads' that he held in his fingers. An ungainly figure, younger than the other man, short and gaunt of frame, with features as mismatched as Carton's were dissolute and clad in equal disarray; they formed in their impromptu drinking party an odd tableau, a deliberate and, in their mutual sarcastic wit and good humour, not wholly unappealing blot on the otherwise unsullied perfection around them. On Helen's lips, they were the mischievous smile.
"Knowledge is a poor coin to pay the rent with, after all. Archimedes protested for his life on the grounds of his knowledge and Socrates on the grounds of his morals--and look where it got them. Spitted and poisoned, respectively. If I want a knife in my ribs I can get it without the pain in my head from excessive studying, and there are better things to drown in than hemlock. No, knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, but they don't tell you to who. An envenomed spear, with no decent shaft to hold on to, so its wielders are always slicing their flesh open. Not that the ignorant fair any better. They'll kiss the bleeding hands of the learned and fall foul of the poison themselves. So we're all doomed from the outset and might as well go and sit under a ladder with Laigle. Incidentally, when I first saw you, I took you for a friend of mine, except--"
His diatribe careened to an abrupt halt and half lidded eyes grew wide.
"Long live the republic!"
A rush of voices and a roar of movement, like the Wild Hunt called into the fray. The deadly glitter of bayonets, so many dragons' teeth snapping menacingly.
A young and intrepid Beowulf, sartorially resplendent in his vivid waistcoat, dashed upon them. A uniformed Goliath bearing down on a childish, ragged David. A handsome boy, pallid with fear, resolutely flourishing a bare fist at his assailant as he hailed for assistance.
"Mon Dieu! Help--Combeferre! Enjolras! For God's sake-"
"A friend of mine--"
A chaotic press of bodies. Blood spilling, thicker, more intoxicating than wine. Stench of sweat, stench of fear. Cries of valour. A golden haired polemarch, his strategois at his heels, leading a sally.
"Steady! Don't fire at random!"
A terrified stampede. An officious gentleman brandishing his sword at a gallant young captain.
"Lay down your arms!"
Acrid smoke. Harsh, rasping breaths. Eyes stinging, others flushed with tears. Red fountains of blood like gruesome war monuments. Guttural moans of agony.
"Clear out, or I'll blow up the barricade!"
A stupefied pause.
"Clear out, or I'll blow up the whole place!"
"If you blow up the barricade, you'll blow up yourself as well!"
"And myself as well."
"Are you all right, m'sieur? You look as if your wine glass spoke to you." Carton leaned across the table to swat his abstracted drinking partner on the shoulder. "And what the wine itself has to say is quite enough without hearing from the cup as well."
With conscious dismissiveness the younger man swallowed a gulp of wine. "I'm no worse than I was before, nor any better, nor am I likely to improve or degenerate in the immediate future. Once you reach the bottom of the abyss, you can always start digging; but it's as hard that way as climbing back up; and I'm not fond of strenuous labour. What is this place?"
"Heaven? Hell? Earth? Purgatory? The darkest recesses of madness?" An apathetic shrug accompanied Carton's words. "I've learned not to ask. No one can be bothered to answer. God only knows, I suppose. Or perhaps not. If I were God, and wanted to lose something, this would be the place to abandon it."
"Angels' moulting wings and devils' ingrown horns, are we dead then? And here I was expecting rusty gates and a harried Saint Peter directing the traffic." He raised the glass again, wetting his throat after expelling that blast of dry irony.
"Devil take me if I know. From the amount you've been drinking, I might be your hallucination. Or you might be mine. Certainly, I've no business being here if I'm not; but I've never claimed to have any business anywhere."
A hushed consultation, fair head bent close to brown, voices laden with worry. A bound prisoner, bushy head tilted, listening curiously.
"He's nowhere about. I've counted three times."
"He's been taken, then."
"They've got our friend and we've got their agent. Are you really so set on the death of this spy?"
"Yes. But less than on the life of Jean Prouvaire."
"Well then, I'll tie a handkerchief to my stick and go and bargain with them--their man in exchange for ours."
A slender hand clenching, sapphire eyes narrowed in intense concentration.
The fearsome cacophony of muskets preparing to discharge. A distant voice, melodic and resonant in its desperation.
"Long live France! Long live the future!"
"They've shot him!"
Piercing blue eyes turning upon the bound spectator, a voice vehement with purpose and blighted with grief.
"Your friends have killed you as well."
"He's dead..." Grantaire's voice was barely a breath above a stunned whisper, his face ashen, gaze focused on some unseen image in the mists behind Carton's head.
"An application of the guillotine will do that to a man," observed the other, wryly, misinterpreting the cause of his companion's distress.
"My ticket across the Styx. Didn't cost as much as a passage back to England, but it turns out that the return journey from here is more than I can afford."
All affable indifference, despite his colourless cheeks, the sot folded his arms across the table. "Pragmatic of you. Though I can't say that the accommodation here's worth remembering. God's housekeeping is no better here than on earth. He's swept the great clouds of mist under eternity in the hope that no one'll think to look, and never mind if our lungs are filled with the stuff. People are expendable. They breed in the world like rats in a sewer, and their only purpose is to devour the excrement God flings out of his window."
"Or the mess they make, themselves. I've seen enough of that sort of gluttony. Mobs harping on liberation and enlightenment, and the foundation of the new world. The only thing I saw them constructing was a rather grotesque mound of heads. An Englishman mixed up in French politics is bound to be a sanguinary affair--and vice versa, I suppose. There's likely to be enough bloodshed when they mind their own business, without doubling the number of drawn knives and gnashing teeth. Revolution, they called it, but--"
An unholy clamour, a deadly rain of bullets mingled with half fey laughter. Fatigued men and boys, their coats and their wounds open darting daringly forward, close enough to Death to steal a kiss from the glowering spectre.
"What have you done with your hat?"
"It was taken off by a cannon ball."
A tonsured youth, luckless to the end, catching his feet on a perilous field of cartridge cases and assisted to the ground by grasping bayonets. A cadaverous young man hefting a splintered walking stick with an anguished cry to defend the prone form.
"What are we to make of the men who promised to join us and swore to assist us, who gave us their word of honour, who were to have been our leaders and who have deserted us?"
"There are people who observe the rules of honour as we do the stars, from a very long way off."
A flurry of movement, fanning the heat of the furnace. One boy, an Ajax in a battered coat, choked by billowing hands of smoke; a veritable Ganymede, armed with a sword instead of a cup, mutilated by enemy hands like the leader at Thermopylae. A young man of mild demeanour, his weapon discarded, tumbling suddenly upon the body of the man he had been trying to lift, his eyes seeking the heavens as his life's blood sought the ground.
An infernally dynamic man, his golden hair stained crimson by a film of blood, shielding the remnants of his following with his own body as they fled into their last stronghold, a much abused tavern.
"This is the only door."
"M'sieur, can you hear me?"
Twisted eyebrows tilted in ostensible unconcern. "Of course. Politics, you said. The guillotine and mounds of heads. I hear enough of that sort of talk every day to recognise it."
"And botheration it's a macabre line of thought" concluded the other, with another swallow of wine. "Hard to escape, though--M'sieur, are you all right?"
Grantaire's expression remained phlegmatic, but his fingers tightened convulsively on the glass in sharp agitation.
"As well as can be expected. It's quiet, that's all."
"The only constant thing I've noticed about this place is the quiet."
"No, I mean--"
Carton leaned slowly forwards, studying the features of his companion. "Well, now" he said cryptically. "One thing I've learned is that there's always a final card to play. Even if--sometimes--you have to pull it out of your sleeve."
Flung into a nadir of distraction, the other man merely shook his head. "Damn it, Enjolras."
A melancholy smile smoothed the careless features of the lawyer into something akin to nobility. "In the end, some things are worth less than they seem--but others are worth more. There is something...?"
"Friend of mine," answered Grantaire, hoarsely. "Thinks he's Ephialties of Athens, or Brutus or any one of a dozen other blood soaked martyrs to that heretical dogma, politics. Revolution, you said, and so did they. And now--" He paused again, his head tilted in obscure contemplation. "Heaven's fiery pits, I think the stairs have fallen."
"I think," observed Carton, cautiously, "that here is not really where you want to be. I think I can assure you that it isn't where I want to be, but that is a different matter entirely. Now and then, it's better to set aside the wine glass for something else. Even though you know you've no choice in picking it up again. I know." Pensive eyes drifted away, to murmur, sotto voce, "bless her compassionate soul!"
Raucous laughter, an unconvincing feint at heedlessness, was wrested forcibly from Grantaire's lips. "If I have a mind to set aside the wine glass, it'll be to pick up the absinthe bottle." He shook his head, to still the riotous tremors that were hacked from his lips and gained his feet. "But, I suppose I'd better avoid being the one who has to write to their mothers. We can continue this in a moment." His smile turned rueful. "I can't imagine that this'd take long."
Amused sympathy crept into Carton's eyes as his gaze met that of the departing man in half understood empathy. A breath of familiar determination lit this strange man's eyes, as his body prepared itself to be flung, in circumstances unknown to his drinking companion upon the altar of devoted self-sacrifice. "Go on, then. I won't drink all the wine."
An uneven chin tilted up, resolute, even as the spare frame tilted in a rough parody of a bow. "Appreciated, m'sieur, for what words are worth." He turned, purposefully, and was gone.
Isolated once more, Sydney Carton slouched further into his chair, eyes half lidded in thought. Like one of Martha's visions, abstruse and double edged, an image tugged at his wine-fogged mind.
A voice, clear and steady, piercing the confused and heavy silence of the room.
"Long live the republic! I am one of them."
Heads turning in dismay, armed men distracted from their grisly task; a golden haired youth drawing a faint breath of surprise. A dishevelled young man, his eyes glinting with his fiercest weapon, mockery, crossing the floor to confront the barely restrained pack of muskets.
"Might as well kill two birds with one stone." Gentler, almost a plea. "If you don't mind?"
Hands clasping, twin smiles flickering across wholly dissimilar features. A ferocious, metallic roar and a blinding flash.
And overlaid on it all, and far, far sweeter to his heart and mind.
The echo of a young, Frenchborn woman's innocent, approving smile.