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Obscurity, The Twenty-Ninth Chapter
In which the mercenary hunts the Comte.
Rémy carried that deceased woman to the chapel where she was laid in a wooden box washed with white paint and poured over with peonies. How Séverine desired to crumple to the ground, to be held and loved and supported by the Earth solely for her existence upon it. Only that ground that held her could love her and adore her, and for that she envied the corpse her fate.
Séverine’s soul ached that the woman should die. She prayed the rosary over in her mind and on her breath as she admired those cheeks as rosy as apples and stroked that hair as lovely as silk. There would be none to mourn that most beautiful soul, for nothing was known of her and there were none to claim her. Séverine beheld those perfect fingertips as though they were hers to mourn and kissed those perfect eyelids as though they were hers to close.
There were rumors that a number of men had reached a similar fate. They were discovered in some secreted location nearby, naked in the embrace of love yet veiled with the shroud of death. The church would not honor those fine young men for the sake of their behavior, nor would their mothers claim them for the sake of their impropriety.
Their bodies were laid in a heap of one another’s arms, interred in some undisclosed and unimportant location, the truth of their love lost to moralist minds who had neither experienced a thing so profound, nor were free enough to enjoy it. Those disapproving minds adhered only to what they had been taught and never what they thought, and thus they deserved to be mourned for their miserable lives. For they outlived their children, perhaps, but they had the added misfortune of under living them.
This fate rested heavily on Séverine’s mind. How she longed then, as only adults can do, for her childhood. For a time when she would play outdoors all day and fall asleep in the meadow. When her father would carry her to her bed, unlacing each of her shoes as she slept. How many days since then, she wondered, had she gone to bed of her own volition and unlaced her shoes by an act of her own will?
How carefree it was to be a child, she remembered, for she was not expected to be good and yet was loved unconditionally. She was an untamed creature escaped into the wild, and yet was cared for completely. She had no knowledge of the world or concern for its fate. She had no future to fear nor darkness to contend with. She had only the small happiness of a child, and that was always the most perfect and idyl thing.
Instead, she had fallen asleep in that woman’s blood and it crept into her skin and darkened her veins. There would come a day, she knew, when the sun would rise upon a woman with skin so sheer one could see her blood, and veins that ran black for all to see. And that day was hastening toward her.
We have mentioned, albeit briefly, that the widow’s residence was once a hotel—one she had transformed into a cabaret on one floor and a residence on two. We have also mentioned that there remained in that residence one room unopened, its door lost of its key and impenetrable to its owner.
Now there appeared a bevy of keys at the mercenary’s disposal, and he set about discovering their secrets. It took him the larger portion of a day, sitting upon the hallway floor, setting one key and then another into the brass latch at the end of the hall, until at last its mysteries were unlocked and its contents discovered.
It was not so unexpected at first, a narrow stair curled into an abbreviated attic wherein lay a room both ordinary and sparse. Perhaps the lodgings of a former caretaker, it had a metal bed with tightly made sheets, a wooden coatrack, a modest desk. Wallpaper curled from the walls in strips of red damask, the wooden roof pitched steeply at the edges.
What was perhaps less expected was that the room was disturbed of its dust, the spider webs trailing where they broke, the shroud of age shifted where someone once stood. There was a tome upon the nightstand marked where the reader had left it. A leather briefcase leaned against the desk, a small green oil lamp recently lit atop it.
The mercenary struck a match illuminating heaps of journals and loose pages, the mad scrawlings of the Comte slithering across them in tortured epithets. Beneath them were found untidy rows of paperwork—ledgers and bank notes signed in the hand of the mercenary’s investor. That businessman who once paid him to find his ruiner was none other than the priest who journeyed from Spain, and his ruiner none other than the philanthropist he had come to spite.
Alas, as alleged by those documents, some portion of the philanthropist’s sum were spent to the care of the Comte and then proffered at an assortment of disreputable establishments, among them, the apothecary.
It appeared the Comte was well planned and well endowed, and ever more present than they knew him to be. He was also, the mercenary thought, a dead man.
Rémy stood on a street corner, his cloak obscuring his hatred, his face dark and determined. The streets were empty save for the besotted sort, then the moon dipped beneath a cloud and a movement was caught within the impending darkness. It was naught but a flicker, but it drew Rémy’s eye to the apothecary.
Tall glass windows allowed him to see into the dimly lit shop. Amber bottles settled on wooden shelves. Phosphorescent elixirs rattled gently from some disturbance and a lone gold bell sat atop the counter. Rémy entered quietly into the store, a musk drifting mercurially from the shelves, the remnant of powders lost from their jars throughout the day. Those remnants drifted abstractly to the back of his throat, causing him to choke silently on the particulate air.
He made not a sound but drew near to the counter, sensing some specter which was present only a moment prior. There arose some sound therein, from behind the counter where a red velvet rope closed off a downward stair. There was a gentle timber to the air, a tone from some melodious sound. His finger touched the bell and a chime rang out, it’s pitch distinct against the sedated quiet.
There was a sound from the stairs. The gentle cadence of an elderly man, his step at last reaching the precipice where the apothecary would come face-to-face with the mercenary. The two looked upon one another. They had never met and yet both knew of one another’s intentions. Without a word, the apothecary turned and led the mercenary down those spiraling stairs.
The room was as a sultan’s palace might have appeared many years after its fall. For all its decadence—brocade curtained walls, velvet tufted cushions, a sanctuary of smoke and spice—it was also ruinous: tassels frayed, wine glasses half drunk, untethered limbs draped from bedposts, unmoored minds sleeping sleeplessly.
The apothecary led Rémy to a glass enclosed counter laden with bottles and tinctures and implements. The apothecary set about preparing some morsel. There was an oil lamp involved, a light of the match, a sparking of the stars; and then that sweet morsel was melting, contorting, seducing the senses as a courtesan might taunt her lover from his worth.
It was sensual, nocturnal, a gathering of the stars that might convince one to abandon the ground altogether. Indeed, Rémy was drawn into its most illustrious fragrance. Coaxed by some tempestuous muse, some blighted poet, he struggled to stay grounded in his senses, to remain fastened to the earth by some sheer sense of willpower. Against his best wishes, his senses faltered and his faculties weakened.
He had been poisoned, Rémy realized, as he coughed the remnant dust from his throat. The hinges had been powdered, his mission thwarted, this whole thing an elaborate ruse at the design of the Comte to eliminate his competitor. Rémy was meant to find the key, to read the ledgers, he was enticed to follow the Comte out into the night, to meet the end that would await him.
“I know who you seek,” the apothecary said softly, procuring a wooden pipe, the morsel now suspended within a chamber of stone. “But he does not wish to be found.”
He inhaled of the pipe deeply, his alchemy alighting as the waves do at night, splashing brightly against a darkened shore. The perfume was intoxicating, as a blossoming woodland caught in a breeze, every fragrant gust an invitation to curl up in its embrace and enjoy a most peaceful sleep. Rémy buckled to the carpets, his mind succumbing to the allure of a long dream as the apothecary placed pillows behind his head, and the vessel to his lips.
He gazed at those about the room, their souls forlorn in some far-off place. Men disrobed of their cloaks, women with stockinged feet exposed draped upon a dais. They were elegant in their unconsciousness, asleep in their extasy and yet none were the man he sought, the phantom evaporated into oblivion. He attempted to remember that man, who might bring harm to the woman he loved if he did not maintain some sense of rationality. Alas, it slipped from his mind in one tantalizing sweep of delusion.
Rémy breathed tentatively the paradise perched at his lips, and then was lost—his mind free from the inferno, the purgatorio, the plight of Virgil now complete as the gates to paradisio were at last allowed. His Beatrice became Séverine, a woman so deserving of his every devotion. He thought of her lips at first, and then her skin, and then by some trick of the imagination he fell into her very being, as though she were a museum and he wandering every room of her soul.
It was a collection of her. A painting of a rose, a crucifix splintering to the floor, a marriage book signed with her signature, a hymnal missing of its pages, a strand of pearls, a portrait with no picture in its frame.
For a moment, he was afraid, aware that there was some harm that might come to that woman whose rooms he walked, but then the worry went scattering away from him—a splash of stardust careening him off the cliffs of the world until he was hovering in some ether beyond it. He was drawn into the very center of life and he wanted nothing more than to peer into it. To at last see who stood at the precipice and to not be left craving for it.
As he tumbled into that starless night, his mind leaving behind all woes and entering, at last, that beautiful beyond, through some last cloud of cognition he recognized a man, a scar carved abstractly through his most menacing face as his eyes peered at Rémy with a most delighted gleam.
But then in the next moment, he existed no more.
We next read The Thirtieth Chapter, in which the Comte finds his wife alone.