Lady Alexis Cassadine
A Story of Phillipe de Pontmercy and Isabella Charboneau
Chapter One: The Traitors
With a nonchalant nod to the wary-eyed innkeeper, Phillipe took the hand of the young lady at his side and led her into the night.
Arching beyond the city walls, the Paris sky sprawled, boundless and black, with the dark majesty of a midnight sea. Phillipe breathed the night air deeply; between the crests of a few feathery clouds here and there, he could glimpse the scattered blaze of a thousand quivering stars.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost dream the city away. Or, so his subconscious would have led him to believe; Paris was too cold, too infinitely real, to be forgotten, even lost, as he now found himself, in the crystal promises of a night like this. Not even the warm pressure of Isabella's hand in his could console his revulsion of the city and the people who had corrupted her. Night herself could only barely mask the ghastly face of the hideous beast that now breathed beneath his feet, the beast that had taken from him everything, once upon a nightmare...
Phillipe Aramis de Pontmercy still relived that nightmare from time to time. He had been out riding all afternoon with a friend that wretched day, one Gilbert de Chagny, an aristocrat like himself, and had returned home to a house cursed by the determined presence of the revolutionary French Republic.
From the shady hills embracing his home estate, Phillipe and his companion had watched the proud Pontmercy family marched into the black clutches from which they would never emerge: Phillipe's mother, father, uncle, aunt, and elder sister were slaughtered at the guillotine that very week.
Suddenly an orphan, an outcast, and a fugitive at that, Phillipe had fled France quickly, penniless but for the small sum loaned to him by his sympathetic boyhood friend Gilbert, whose own family had made plans to flee within the month. Since then, Phillipe grimly reflected, he hadn't heard a word of the de Chagnys in France or elsewhere.
It was not without the shackles of terror that Phillipe had, that night, boarded a ship bound over the Channel; he didn't speak English very well despite the lessons he had taken for the better part of his life. In the cold mystery of that same, strange night, he had been immensely glad to find that he wasn't alone...
He took a brief pause in his ponderings to smile reassuringly at Isabella. At his side, she felt his gaze upon her and turned pale, uncertain eyes to his, the corners of her mouth lifting for a moment or two in response. Phillipe squeezed her hand gently, as though to thank her for her presence tonight, as surely as for her presence that night on the Channel, when he had seen her for the first time.
Isabella Marie Charboneau was an orphan too, but even more so than Phillipe, for she had been orphaned twice in her life: once in childhood (for she had never known her parents), and again by the guillotine, when her given lifetime guardians and adopted parents, the Count and Countess de Charboneau, were murdered in the name of liberty. She was wild, intriguing, brilliant, and beautiful, but indeed quite headstrong and domineering; on more than one occassion, Phillipe had been astounded by her strength of mind, body, and will.
It was these factors that encouraged Phillipe's feelings of fraternity to her, and not his romantic interests. He secretly acknowledged that her independent spirit, although far more intense than his own, was too much akin to his own heart to ever be his soulmate. She had been raised an aristocrat, it was true; but it was obvious, poetically speaking, of course, that she had been born a gypsy. He loved her as a sister, for her strength, for her passionate reluctance to be suppressed...and he loved her for her sudden presence in his life, a mystery, an angel. Without her, without her persistent optimism, and her undeniable vivacity, he wasn't sure that either of them could have survived their mutual emotional loss...
They upheld each other.
Alike in more way than one, the pair had rather bonded that evening on the lonely voyage to England, the closest of companions joined forever in the light of a mutual need for security. Isabella had found a brother, and Phillipe, a sister; but each had found a friend.
Then...the Violet Guild. It had all happened so fast, but somehow, Phillipe and Isabella now found themselves centre-stage in the rearguard of the Scarlet Pimpernel, sworn to the duty of defending the Pimpernel's works and noble cause at all cost. Phillipe had been secretly frightened by this prospect; it was only Isabella's idealistic persuasion that had won him over. Oddly enough, it was this worldly oath, and the unspoken pledge to revenge the wrongs that had left them both alone in the world, that had cast them both back into this forgotten hell tonight.
And in the midst of this hell, Lady Hastings of the Violet Guild had herself arranged a moonlit rendez-vous in the very courtyard of the devil, where Madame la Guillotine now slept and waited, in hunger, for the dawn. Why the brilliant Guild leader had chosen such a vulgar spot for a rendez- vous was, in Phillipe's young mind, inconceivable.
Impressed by their mutual passion and devotion, not to mention the advantage of their fluent French, Lady Hastings had carefully selected Phillipe and Isabella to join her "into the fire" this night; it was early this morning that that pair had arrived in Paris and taken a room at the run- down, if discreet, inn known as Le Souris Verte. There, they had found a sealed note from the Guild leader requesting a meeting at the Place de la Greve an hour before midnight. Isabella and Phillipe together recognized that, on reading the note, the journey suddenly seemed real, purposeful. Both felt themselves awash in a tide of emotion...their was fear, of course, and sadness; but there was also an undeniable sense of excitement, and the thrill at the prospect of the adventures that awaited...
Mere minutes separated the pair from the Place de la Greve when Isabella suddenly started in alarm. Phillipe snapped his head round and saw that she had stopped short in her tracks and now stood peering intensely into the dark. Phillipe, momentarily alarmed by the rigidity of her hand in his, silently noted that he wasn't the only one feeling a trifle jumpy. Then he himself saw the dark form, looming there in the alley, and felt his own heart skip a beat as well.
"Mam'zelle...m'sieur?" came the tiny voice, no more than the scrape of a shadow in the whispering night.
Phillipe squinted a bit and barely made out the figure of a child, clad in an enormous cloak that sprawled over the ground about the bare, dirty feet. Two wide, heavily-shadowed eyes twinkled in the sparse starlight. He felt Isabella release his hand and step forth.
"Please, mam'zelle..." the child repeated, and opened his small, hidden mouth to speak again, only to be shocked off balance by a small sound just off to his left.
The cloak leapt, as though living, into the air as the child fled into the alleyway. Phillipe found his senses momentarily distracted by the sight of a startled old woman in the shadows, stooping to reach the item that she had dropped from her basket, perhaps an apple, that had frightened the child so.
Then suddenly he noticed Isabella, her hand seizing his arm and frantically drawing him into the waiting alley. He moved away abruptly.
"Bella...whatever are you doing?" he hissed, pulling her back.
"That child..."she answered, and sought his face with uncertain eyes, "he was in trouble. Can you just walk away?"
She tried to pull away again, and again he pulled her back. "You can't just go charging into alleys in a place like this. I won't allow it."
"Suit yourself," she shrugged, then wrenched herself fiercely from his grasp and dodged, wild once more, into the night, her full black cloak belling mysteriously behind her.
Astounded, Phillipe scarcely held back for a moment
before lunging after her, shouting her name to the sinister darkness.
Isabella only paused to cast one stray glance over her shoulder as she ran, knowing that she didn't need to. Phillipe was there. He was always there, she noted, laughing a little to herself. Well, as much as she admired and simply adored his overprotective whims, she couldn't let them get the best of her all the time! That child could be in real distress...
At last, she turned into a lonely, secluded bend of a moonlit side-street, lifting her skirts daintily from the filth of the pathway, and saw the little boy crouched there in the corner, shivering.
Still quite distant in the echoing night, Phillipe's heavy footfalls rang out somewhere behind her; for a moment she thought she could even hear the far away gasp of his ragged, strained breathing. She thought it amusing that her flight had hardly left her short of breath.
Returning her attention to the small figure before her, Isabella advanced quietly and bent a little close to the child, reaching one hand out in encouragement.
"Now then, little one," she began gently, "won't you tell me wható"
The words froze in her throat as a hand clamped over her shoulder, a hand too forceful to be Phillipe's, and whirled her around until her face rested only centimeters away from the biting edge of a glittering dagger.
She felt her throat constrict in horror as her eyes met those of her attacker, but she hadn't the power to scream.
"Well, what have we here?" a deep, husky voice said, speaking in clear, immaculate French.
"What's a pretty thing like you doing on the streets at night?"
A shadowed mouth sneered.
"That is, I only ask because I doubt the obvious..."
Isabella twisted her arm in an effort to loosen his powerful hold on her wrist. The man, she recognized by the large badge on his dark coat, was a French spy of some sort; the orderliness of his language and appearance ruled out the possibility of his being a soldier. Still gripping the knife in one hand, the man turned to address the child, who now stood upright and was watching with interest, perhaps even impatience.
"Good show, boy," the man said, and tossed him a coin. Giggling in pleasure, the boy caught the reward in one upraised hand and faded into the darkness from whence he had come.
The man turned to face her again; his visage was almost entirely lost in shadow.
"Now, mamselle...I propose we skip formalities and you answer a simple question: what were you doing in the street?"
Isabella, uncertain, didn't answer at first. "I...was walking," she said quietly.
"I see. And just where were you walking to, in this treacherous neighborhood?"
"We have received information that the Scarlet Pimpernel is to try something tomorrow at the Temple Prison; you wouldn't know anything about that, would you? Headed for the Place de la Greve at this time of night?"
We've been watched...Isabella thought frantically, and took a moment to wonder what might have become of Lady Hastings.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel?" she scoffed, or pretended to scoff. "What would I know of the Scarlet Pimpernel? And what makes you so sure I was headed for the Place de la Greve?"
"You've been followed. Each of the most squalid inns of Paris have been watched today. This afternoon, a sealed note was delivered, with great discretion, to Le Souris Verte. It all looks rather suspicious, if you don't mind my saying so. We've been watching you...you and a friend of yours..." here, the man paused to glance down the opposite end of the alley; all was silent. In the moonlight of half a moment, Isabella caught a glance of dark hair and a lean, calculating face. "Where has he gone, by the way? On to your prospective rendez-vous, without you?"
"I know nothing of a rendez-vous, monsieur. And I wouldn't know where he has gone," Isabella said quietly. "We were simply separated."
"You seem reluctant to answer clearly," the dark man went on. "I suppose I'll have to escort you down to headquarters for questioning, then. Come along; I have a few soldiers waiting up ahead."
And, just as he had turned to lead her into the street, where Isabella vaguely saw a small assembly of the said French soldiers waiting in the shadows, she saw the man's tall form jerk aside and drop to the dirty floor, releasing her wrist from his iron grip as he did so. Her eyes jolted upward and barely made out Phillipe's taut face. Then she noticed his clenched fist, gripping the length of scrap wood with which Phillipe had launched his attack. Casting the length of wood aside and glancing once at Isabella, he knelt to the dark man's side and searched for a pulse. Finding one, he breathed a deep, desperate sigh of relief.
Rising, he extended one quavering hand.
"Come," he said, warily eyeing the oblivious soldiers in the distant alley, "let's get out of here before he wakes up."
Wordless, Isabella accepted his help and followed him out of the twisting alley. She found his hand clammy in a cold sweat. It was not before they had reached the open blue Paris streets that Isabella met Phillipe's gaze cautiously, like a child expecting a harsh reprimand, and prepared to speak.
"Well," she breathed, smiling a little to conceal her shakiness, "it looks as though I do need someone to look out for me after all."
Phillipe didn't smile back.
"Do you realize that you could have been killed? Or worse?" he shot back, his voice shaking. "You don't seem to realize, mamselle Charboneau, that we risk our lives just showing our faces in Paris."
Isabella didn't respond; Phillipe turned to her, gripped her arms tightly, and looked deep into her eyes. "You must understand. We have everything against us here: not only are we fugitives. We are traitors."
"I'm sorry, Phillipe," she whispered. He looked at her a moment before taking her in his arms in forgiveness.
While traversing the last remaining minutes' distance from the Place de la Greve, Isabella quickly told him all that the dark man had said to her, regarding his knowledge of the Scarlet Pimpernel's plans.
"If the streets are watched, we may have a chore finding Lady Hastings," Phillipe noted quietly. "We must be careful."
Isabella nodded and fell a couple paces behind, watching Phillipe for guidance. She couldn't seem to get that dark man's face out of her mind.
Something about it haunted her...could it have been...familiarity? Her skin rippled with a sudden chill; she quickened her step and replaced herself at Phillipe's side.
The night was still once more. She lifted her eyes to see the moon and gulped suddenly as something dark rose into the sky, where the street widened and came to an abrupt end just before her...she was quite alarmed to find the moon half masked by a shadow black but for the light gleaming white on a single, vicious blade. The guillotine!
Even in the peace of the night, it was utterly terrifying. Words ran dry at the lonely sight of the narrow wooden frame, seated majestically on its waiting scaffold, looking down its silver blade with arrogant eyes of pride on the sleeping city. Like an empress, Madame Guillotine ruled all. Phillipe stood still for a moment to survey the Place de la Greve in silence.
Yes, the people of France had killed the king and queen in the name of liberty...but in the same heartbeat, Phillipe noted, they had only enslaved themselves to a new queen, one infinitely more cruel and hideous than any that had ever taken an historical throne.
Such was the hypocrisy of man.
Phillipe gently drew Isabella with him against the wall bordering their side of the wide blue courtyard, hidden by the shadow of the building, where together they surveyed the Place de la Greve with impeccable caution. Isabella whispered to Phillipe and, with one finger, indicated a cloaked figure resting in the doorway of the opposite building.
The figure in the doorway seemed to study the couple for a hesitant moment before walking quietly into the street and extending one hand discreetly into the light. The hand brushed the air twice, at a perfect ninety-degree angle. Yes, that was the correct signal; it meant "all clear". Isabella took Phillipe's arm again and, together, they crept through the shadows to the other end of the Place de la Greve, where Lady Hastings awaited.
Lady Eliza Hastings was a woman of extreme refinement and considerable beauty; her face possessed, in one glance, the supercilious air of a lady and the raw intelligence of a hero, rare among her respected station. Still, no first impression of her could begin to suggest her true identity as an advocate and defender of the infamous Scarlet Pimpernel. Ladies weren't expected to even show interest in such politics, unless, of course, they involved the Pimpernel's hidden identity or physical appearance.
"The two of you are rather late," she noted, her tone more concerned than irritated. "I trust you encountered no difficulties in the streets?"
"Au contraire," Phillipe began, "Isabella had a rather startling encounter with some French authority of sorts in an alley back there."
Shocked into silence, Lady Hastings turned brilliant eyes to
Isabella's, as though in a demand for quick explanation.
Uncertain, Isabella's words poured out in a jumble. "He was watching the streets forówell, he lured me into an alley and told me tható"
"Who told you what, child?" Lady Hastings asked hurriedly, taking Isabella's arms supportively. "Were you injured?"
Phillipe intervened. "Someone working for the French authorities trapped her in the alley and told her that it is known that the Scarlet Pimpernel is to make one of his escape attempts this morning," he whispered hastily. "They've been watching the streets carefully for anyone potentially involved."
"They know..."said Lady Hastings, half to herself. "But how?"
"I...I don't know," Isabella broke in, suddenly afraid once more, "but if Phillipe hadn't come to the rescue, I would have beenó"
"Arrested, yes. The authorities here look for any excuse to make an arrest these days." Lady Hastings paused to squeeze Isabella's hand gently. "But don't you worry. You got away from him, and there's little chance he'll even remember your face in the morning. That is..." she glanced gingerly at Phillipe, "you didn't...kill him, did you?"
"No. Of course not."
But perhaps it would have been better that way...
Isabella didn't tell Lady Hastings that she and Phillipe had been watched since their arrival; she had caused enough trouble already without the addition that she and Phillipe were both marked by the French republic, and for more than one reason...
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