The candles flickered out, leaving the chamber clothed in darkness. The corridors echoed with her parting words; when Virlais shut his eyes at night, her accusing gaze stared back at him. He was not haunted by the dead, but one who was very much alive. How could you? You promised, you promised. During all daylight hours, Virlais simply refused to think upon it. He kept himself busy, but at night the visions refused to abate. Virlais lived in dreams, and slept in horror.
Tomorrow she died.
It was not yet time for any to be about, yet within his head, Virlais heard whispers. Whispers from another time, when he was happy. You promised, you promised. The whimper of a weak boy echoed through the recesses of his mind, coming from places he'd hoped to efface from memory. Her eyes stared at him, light and beseeching, and far too innocent. She was not- her word was for naught; all she'd ever told him were lies, honeyed tones of lies, a bitter draught of hemlock hidden within rich wine. He remembered how they'd been, how he'd believed in all her goodness and kind soul. Instead, he'd wed a traitor, a murderess. Her promises were of death, not peace.
And tomorrow she died.
Sarah. Even her name had been a puzzle to Virlais when it had appeared in the letters. He'd spent nights sounding it out, rolling the short plain syllables around in his mouth. What sort of woman had such a name? What sort of wife would he have? Italian women had names of lengthy, symphonious diction, like Ganetta, Catalina, Simona, or Giuliana. And in France, the ladies of Charles VII court had fluid names of wealth and luxury: Isabella, Loyse, Symonne. Those were names of pearls; Sarah was the name of a river stone.
But Virlais meant to make ties with England now that Charles VII daughter was to marry an Englishman. And Henry V would be king of France.
And so, he'd wed an English woman, the daughter of a prominent English lord. He'd awaited the day she would arrive with apprehension, and some amount of regret. But as the ambassador for the Medici's to France, he could not afford to anger England by ignoring them, as one day an Englishman would take the throne of France.
And then, she had come.
Virlais paced around his room, though his gaze darted from wall to wall, he took in nothing of the tangible world. A wall of darkness resided between his eyes and his mind, and neither knowledge nor sensibility could pass between. Sarah had threaded her English eyes into his heart; he knew she could not have betrayed the peace she had been sent to maintain. So why had he helped convict her?
And so the wall of darkness remained…
As night lingered, a knock came upon Virlais door, heavy handed and persistent. He did not wish to rise and answer; the outer world no longer belonged with him.
"Mathio." His cousin wore an expression of grief, but Virlais doubted it was for himself. There was a hard light in Mathio's eyes.
"Coz. Are you enjoying your triumph, then?" His voice was cold, accusative. Virlais staggered back at the weight of those words. Mathio was a good man, a just man- how could he condemn Virlais for protecting Florence? Traitors did not deserve grief.
"You know as well as I that war with England or France would destroy us. Relations are wary as it is. If I were to die by English hands, at the point of Henry and Charles' treaty, what else would come but disaster?"
"And you had no concern for your own life, I suppose?" An ugly grin twisted Mathio's usually genial countenance; Virlais tried to ignore the harsh sting in his cousin's words.
Because they were true.
"I don't need to listen to this, coz. My wi-" Virlais almost chocked on his own words, "my wife was a traitor to our country and her own. She should be thankful that her weaker sex allows her burning."
If possible, the space between the two cousins grew colder, and Mathio's face became more distant and cold. His tone grew soft, and sickeningly conspiratory.
"And you'd prefer to see her drawn and quartered in front of the crowd then, hm?" Virlais averted his gaze; Mathio's eyes blazed with sudden fury. "You're filth." He spat the words as one might stab a lance into an enemy, then turned to leave. As he strode through the doorway, without turning around, he said, "She may burn for but a moment, Virlais, and be sent straight into heaven's arms. I hope you burn in hell for this, coz. For eternity."
Then, Virlais was alone.
) .0. (
The air grew progressively colder as Virlais descended the staircase; as he stepped off its edge, his breath clouded in front of him in a web of dewy mist. The air tasted stale, death's presence hung over the entire area in an eerie, ethereal feeling. The only sounds besides Virlais' own footfalls were those of muffled groans and sobbing, mixed with the frequent grind of iron chains dragging upon the stone. And once, a scream.
The atmosphere was intensely grim, and gave Virlais a slight chill as he moved through the never-ending tunnels of gray. He walked, ignoring thoughts, unbidden and unwelcome, of Sarah's welfare. Killers and traitors had no need of welfare. Sarah had no need of welfare.
Tomorrow she died.
Virlais approached the door, and looked down at the keys in his hands. Do I truly wish to do this? I could leave, forgo the burning, and forget. But he saw again a begging pair of eyes, silent screams emanating from within, light and foreign windows to an English soul.
He could never forget.
The midnight bell rang far above the dismal underground maze, reminding Virlais, that somewhere, life continued. But not his life. He was stuck in this night; this night that would define the rest of his existence.
The corridors stretched forever, seeming to expand the misery and suffering they held far beyond any horizon. But Virlais did not have very far to go. The keys burned a hole through his hand; the cell was at his right, and…
"…but there is no one else!"
"I know, yet I simply have no option. What am I to do from this cell?" The second voice trailed off, clipped and soft. It was a familiar tone to Virlais, one he'd had oft chance to hear. Sarah's.
Virlais froze; was she guilty of other crimes as well? The voice she conversed with was male. He waited in the shadows, and listened.
"He was going to kill Virlais. I couldn't wait, and I had no time to find a replacement. You know what would have happened had he died. Disaster. Chaos, for England, for Italy, for…"
"And what has it gotten you, protecting all these fine countries, all these fine people, your husband included? A death sentence!" Virlais cringed at the unknown man's sardonic tone. And what did Sarah speak of? Who would have killed him? And what did she need a replacement for? Another traitor, another spy to set within the Medici's midst perchance?
"I had to kill him. And then, feign my own involvement in the plot for the death of the ambassador. Now, they'll believe he died from my hand too. You won't fear discovery." Sarah's voice became softer as she spoke, as if fighting off some unknown, and unseen, demons.
"I would have…You…" the man seemed to be tangled in emotion, and Virlais heard the sound of a fist hitting stone. "There was no need for this kind of drastic action. Not yet."
"But there was. And I thought," here her words became so soft as almost indistinguishable to Virlais, "that he would help me. Not prosecute me."
She fell silent, and the words of the other man became a hushed, consoling murmur. Virlais reeled back against the wall behind him, a light, dizzying feeling had taken control of his head, of his limbs. Finally, he heard the other visitor leave, but Virlais did not go to the door as he had planned. Instead, he tentatively peered around the edge of the wall.
Sarah slumped back against the cold wall of her cell, and brought her hands to wipe away her tears, leaving a trail of grime upon her pale cheeks. Her fair hair gave the hazy appearance of a halo; its refulgence lent her an angelic presence different from the dark women Virlais had grown up with.
She sobbed silently, for although her slim shoulders shook, and tears brimmed from her eyes, she made no sound. No sigh, no snuffle- nothing.
Her silence echoed within Virlais' head.
He watched her, and felt a foreign cold swim through his chest, and scratchy fingers tighten around his throat. What's happening to me? He thought of her pleas, and the conversation he'd overheard. Was it possible she could be innocent? You promised. But he had seen her with the knife in her hands. It had shone like a diamond with the torchlight. In their chamber, with no reason to fear danger. But she just said…she seemed like she was in danger. But how could that be true? Virlais could not disbelieve his own eyes. He had survived for years on only judgment, and retaining control. Emotions were the surest way to a swift end. Isn't too late for you, though? His own mind sneered at him, while the words of his cousin resounded within his skull, over and over, sickened.
You're filth. Filth. Filth. Without warning, Virlais slammed his fist into the wall.
And then he sank to the floor, cradling his head in his hands.
The night continued, and Virlais felt the time weighing on him like a lead pendulum pressing the air from his lungs. He knew she was guilty; she had to be guilty. He'd seen her. Beyond doubt is she guilty? She wasn't tried. She was convicted upon the great and omniscient power of a mere man, all because he is the great ambassador. Virlais moved towards the door of his wife's cell, creeping, not sure if he dared move around the wall. Could he see her?
Amidst his new found doubt, Virlais wondered if she would tear away his resolve. Sarah—was it even possible to think she was guiltless? She had sacrificed her own freedom in marriage to him to keep peace. Why would she betray that now, unless she had all along been a spy? And Virlais thought she had not been. She had many opportunities to kill you. As well as any Medici. Or politician. So, why now would she risk, when the treaty is complete? Are you a fool? Virlais wished he could run from his thoughts, silence his mind, order it to silence. His thoughts made him weak.
As yet another bell rang high above the prison; Virlais remained trapped within the prison of his own mind: in blackness and in the future, a hint of flame. Filth. Filth. Filth. Virlais could endure it no longer; he stood, and strode purposefully to Sarah's cell, shoving all thoughts away; he saw only her.
He knew she saw him, yet she made no motion to rise. The air grew colder, darker. Strange spots danced in front of Virlais' eyes. His chest constricted, it was too hard to breath. He shouldn't have come. You should have come. The dark haired man stepped to the bars of the cell.
Sarah slowly raised her head; her eyes were bright, but a darkness seemed to rise to their surface as she looked upon him. Her shoulders shrunk inward for a half second, and then she threw them back. The flickering torch high above her reach shone on her burnished tresses, causing her face to recede, and hide within the shadow of her hair.
"What are you doing here?" she rasped, not allowing her eyes to waver from Virlais' face. He felt their burn on his flesh, and slowly shook his head.
"I don't know. I…"
"Leave." Her voice did not get any higher, but it was hard as a colorless diamond.
Leave? Surely, that wasn't hurt Virlais saw in her eyes.
"I came to see if you were…."
"Damned?" But the word lacked hate upon her lips. She moved closer to the bars-the old, iron, barring poles- and whispered, "Only in your eyes, husband." Virlais thought he'd feel anger at the tone of her words, their implication. No. What he felt was unexpected, unacceptable, undesired. Pain. Traitors don't deserve grief. Once again, his own words echoed hollow within his head. Her blue eyes remained locked upon his face, guileless, and blank. No hope, no hate. The acceptance that Virlais saw there was worse than any bitterness or condemnation; it hit him like a douse of frigid water. She knew she was going to die.
"Don't. Just pray for my soul." Virlais wondered if she feared inside; she attended Church, she'd had to convert from Anglican to Catholic, or Italy would have never accepted her peace bargain. And she attended with him- he heard the Priest's words. Human kind sinned. Human kind went to hell, and God's mercy was not spared on the small. He would be afraid to die. Filth, filth, filth. Something within Virlais' stomach weakened, and his breaths grew more ragged. She was guilty. Guilty? Guilty, not guilty. Spy, traitor…peace, wife, pleas. Justice had to be done. Justice, or vengeance? Justice, or stupidity? She was a traitor. Traitor to whom? Traitor of what?
And her eyes looked up at him, the color of the heavens.
Virlais realized he lacked time, and saw his life, lonely and doubt-ridden loom before him like all of hell's worst fire. Demons could torment him in death if he was wrong, but none would plague him in life.
"Sarah." She still looked at him, but said nothing, her face composed into careful blackness, and pale within the dimness of her prison. "Sarah, I should let you explain. I'll call a judge, I'll…"
Finally, she moved, but it was not a motion Virlais wished to see. She shook her head no.
"Why? You have already deemed me guilty, the one who should trust me the most. I trusted in you. And I find you to lack faith." Sarah put a hand against one of the bars; her fingertips were blue with chill. "Husband, you are the traitor to peace, not I."
And Virlais fell back, because, as with his cousin's harsh words, they were true. And he was helpless in the face of fiasco, and torment.
"I did not mean…I mean, I saw you, and the spies…"
"I work only in the name of peace for England and Italy, Virlais, you knew it when I came to you. I know of another who murdered, and we meant to bring him to justice. You, husband, let him go free." Sarah's tone remained non-condescending, blameless. And yet, Virlais felt the weight of guilt for something he knew nothing about. For things that he'd considered himself the master of, and now found, that he was only the cabin boy.
"Sarah, I can free you."
"Do you believe I am innocent?"
Virlais opened his mouth to answer, but no sound emerged from his lips. Guilty. Innocent. Is it possible, is she innocent? Guilty?
And she stared back at him, with eyes the color of the angels high.
) .0. (
The air was dry and cold, but it still carried the scent of ash, and a sickly sweet char that made Virlais' stomach cringe. A face above the hell fires, with eyes of heaven stared back at him from every shadow, every cornice: everywhere. He was to leave for the convention in France in two days time, and yet Virlais made no preparation, no farewells. He paced about the estate, stumbling within the horrors of his own mind, unable to leave the past.
He was alone. He was innocent. What had he done? You're guilty, guilty. Filth, filth. Matters could not be floundered over, judgment was final, and had to be sure. Filth. Sure…sure? You were sure, sure of nothing. Filth. Virlais walked across the yard, not sure why he was there. Judgment, or murder? Murder. Murderer. Killer. He avoided the left corner, where faint fingers of scorch-marks lingered on the stonewall, and a sprinkling of soot dusted the cobblestones. Nothing important was there. Nothing important. He looked not. Out of the courtyard then, and Virlais wandered still about the grounds.
The wind blew harsh against his face, cold with the oncoming scent of winter, brisk and clean. Much better than in the yard. You can't escape it. Filth, murderer. She's there; you knew you could not forget. Cannot forget. Run from it, it will follow. Pandora's guilt followed for eternity. Yes, eternity. His grandmother had told him the story of Pandora- but at the end of her tale, she had found, in the bottom of her wretched box, hope. Virlais had burned his.
He saw no one while returning to his chambers, for even if they'd passed, all Virlais saw was fire. Fire ate at his mind, while it consumed his heart. The only thing it missed was his flesh.
But he could remedy that. Virlais heard Sarah's voice, accepting and blank from the dungeon. He heard Mathio's hatred. He heard his own inanity. His room was dark, and Virlais left it that way. It fit with his heart. Virlais shut the heavy door, and turned the key in its lock. Today it would end. The guilt, the judgment- those eyes.
) .0. (
The chair was empty where Italy should have sat, but the other attendees did not puzzle over its vacancy. They'd received a letter.
Yesterday, he'd died.