A/N: I really have to apologize for dropping off the face of the earth for the last few months; school pushed me. I will return to "Time is Not Given" eventually, but for now, I hope you enjoy this. Just to be clear, I say that this is historical fiction set in the 1700s in London, but really the only historical accurate stuff in here is there by chance. I had a whole explanation of my thought process on this, but I'm too lazy to post it. I am building on this story as my NaNoWriMo writing, but the first few chapters were written over the summer, so for a little while at least the quality of the writing should be pretty good. I'll let you know when you should hide your eyes.
The chapter titles are going to be from Shakespeare, unless otherwise indicated. Don't look too deeply into them. I just thought they sounded nice. ENJOY!
CHAPTER ONE: Light, Seeking Light
To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile;
So ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
- Love's Labor's Lost
The noises made by the horses and the equipment of the men they carried were the only sounds in the night. It was not a stifling silence, like those he had heard riding through the slums of the inner city, nor the prim disapproval he felt in the richer quarters. This was the sound of a normal London night, between the midnight hour and the rising of the sun.
He ignored the bonneted heads sticking out from several windows. They were surely wondering who in this uneventful neighborhood would have the Guard called upon them. He might have wondered it himself, but he was not in the position to speculate, let alone cast judgment on his superiors. If they wanted him to pay a surprise visit to a middle class merchant for, as the papers stated, "trafficking the goods of suspicious persons," he would do as instructed. He was in no position to refuse.
They arrived at the house he had been sent to inspect. It was not immediately distinguished from its neighbors by anything except the address. Like the rest of the street, it was a two-story, grey building, with a flat roof and walls that met the houses on either side. It could have been a sardine in a can. There were two windows on each floor, and he knew from the architecture of this district that a small alley behind it allowed for another set of windows. He noted the relative sturdiness of its structure: the bricks were freshly caulked after last winter's freeze, and each entrance, even the windows, had prominent locks of the strongest fashion. A well-off man for this district, then, and one with a need for security.
He dismounted and handed the reigns to one of his men. He would rather have left the horses behind for all the racket they made, but an officer must look official, especially if he is bursting in on someone's home. In fact, he wished the majority of these soldiers had been left in the palace. No matter the vagabonds that roamed London at night, two soldiers in regalia and weapons in full view would be enough deterrence, and an emissary on a quiet mission would do well to bring four at most. But per a man of his station, he had been ordered to bring ten fully uniformed guards, many of whom he knew only by sight.
He surveyed these men, milling about in the str e et l ike bumbling militiamen, and said, in a voice that carried no further than the group assembled, "Sergeant Jensen, Private Ellis, you will accompany me inside. The rest of you, patrol the street. Make sure no one approaches or leaves this house, and question anyone you see outside. Question, not interrogate; draw no adverse attention. I want half of you in the alley behind these residences. Lieutenant Walker, give assignments. And for Christ's sake, stand like soldiers, not milkmaids waiting for your pigs to fatten!"
The dolts, of course, snapped right to attention, and more than one horse let out a startled snort. He closed his eyes, trying to compose himself. When he heard Lieutenant Walker begin to give semi-intelligent direction, he opened his eyes and beckoned to the two men he had named.
He had chosen them because they had been under his command before, and despite their youth (Ellis could not be older than sixteen) had proven to be smart at following direction. Not to mention the fact that both came from middling families, and so would understand the need not to frighten the women and children. He had worked with enough aristocrats and men who had come from nothing to know that both types were prone to overcompensating, and that overcompensation often involved quite a bit of shouting and shoving vases off the mantelpiece.
Ellis and Jensen flanked him as he mounted the stairs and gave the door three shorts, authoritative raps. Trusting his soldiers to watch for danger, he concentrated on the sounds from inside the house. All was silent.
As he was about to knock a second time, silently berating an evening wasted, he heard rapid, slippered footsteps from within, and the tumblers slid inside the door. A maid in bonnet and apron appeared in the crack, flooding the dark street with light from her candle.
It's strange for a maid to still be fully clothed at this hour. For a lower merchant to have a live-in at all is odd. Sparing a short glance for the interior of the house, which at the moment was cloaked in blackness, he swept her a bow, perhaps a little more courteous than her station required. She regarded him silently, her quick, black eyes taking in the red-coated men in front of her.
"Pardon the intrusion, mum, but is Donald Dillane at home?"
"What is your business with Master Dillane?" she asked softly, looking him unflinchingly in the eye. Her voice was reedy, and he could detect hints of a common cockney accent beneath her well-bred pronunciation. This vein of her past was well hidden, though: she had been in service, possibly with this family, for a long time.
"I have orders to question Mr. Dillane on aspects of his business, and search his residence."
"It cannot wait until morning?"
He felt Jensen shifting behind him at the maid's impertinence. He gestured sharply with his fingers to keep still. It was unusual for anyone to resist soldiers visiting in the dead of night, let alone a diminutive servant (this lady hardly came to his chest), but he would not let a ruckus break out from such a silly cause.
"No, mum, I'm afraid it cannot," he replied softly, but firmly. He leaned forward, cutting his eyes sharply and finally making her flinch. "Is Mr. Dillane home?"
"Where is he?"
"Away on holiday, sir, taking his lady and daughters to visit relations near Manchester. He shan't return for a week, at least."
At this point, he had expected nothing less. "Step aside then, we're to search the house." Without waiting for an answer, he started forward, and she stepped quickly out of the way to keep her candle from flying. With a few murmured instructions he sent out Jensen and Ellis, and instructed the maid to light the rooms. She did so silently and efficiently; no matter her distaste at them being there, she would not impede them. He respected the diminutive woman a bit more for it.
He quickly searched the modest sitting room he found himself in, then continued to the kitchen and study, checking under rugs for trap doors and behind pictures for hidden documents.
He honestly did not expect to find anything: if the man was guilty, leaving for an extended journey showed he had the foresight to destroy any evidence, and the fact of his advanced notice suggested he had sources in the palace to inform him of an impending search. There was a large possibility that he was not guilty, though, and this whole excursion was a complete farce. King Edward had ways of keeping the distrusted merchants in line, and this was the least intrusive.
In a short time Ellis and Jensen returned to report the first floor clear, and he sent the maid to light the upstairs, following close behind. The upper floor consisted only of a short hallway with two doors, which he discovered led to a bedroom and washroom. The maid stood in the far corner of the hallway, in front of a window hidden by a floor to ceiling curtain. She watched carefully to see they took nothing; soldiers had a horrid reputation of thievery, which was, unfortunately, widely deserved.
She had little to worry about. The soldiers finished their jobs quickly and well. The only suggestion of illicit activity they could find was a deck of pornographic cards hidden deep in the sock drawer. Much to Ellis's chagrin, this was not the sort of item that could be confiscated.
"I apologize sincerely for the intrusion, mum; please extend my feelings to the master of the house upon his return. Good night to you." He inclined his head to her, and she replied with a curt nod. He allowed Jensen and Ellis down the stairs before him, the former teasing the latter about having to give up his precious find.
The maid still watching him carefully, he started to follow, but a sudden noise brought him up short. His eyes locked with the panicked gaze of the maid, and they listened.
At first he believed it to be the mewling of a cat. It rose from nowhere, hovering in the air like a trembling cello string, but in the broken silence creating a sensation that transcended music. He could feel the sound down to his bones, wrestling deeper into his chest; his body throbbed with it. Such sorrow he could not believe a single breath could hold. In the moments before it dropped beyond sensation, he felt a yearning he had never before known: to throw himself to the sea, to ride upon lightning, to dance with thunder, to lay among the grasses and sink deep down, surrender to the sweet Earth. I would follow this voice, he thought, I would follow it, to the ends of all lands to keep in my grasp a single drop of this ocean.
The silence as the echoes faded was deafening. He stood transfixed in something far greater than awe; but as the silence returned, he saw the maid's transfixion was something else entirely. Her eyes were wary and the lines of her body quivered with nerve: the same vibrations had reached both their ears, but each had heard different chords. This sight brought him back to himself.
"Stand aside, mum," he whispered. Filled with defeat, she drew back the curtain, to reveal not a window but a door. He took the handle and opened it.
The room was plain, except for a large still life, done in a mediocre hand, hanging on the wall. A small writing desk sat in the corner, and an armoire stood opposite. Dominating the room was a large bed, upon which lay the prone figure of a woman.
"Sir, please, I beg pardon for the deception," the maid whispered rapidly; her earlier calm was gone, replaced by something approaching terror. "Shortly before my master set out for his trip, the middling daughter fell ill, too ill to be moved, and I was told to stay behind to care for her. I would not have hid her but I am the only protection she has, and armed men knocking on the door late at night… forgive me sir, forgive me, I do not mean to insult you or your fellows, but you know not what is done to women these days." She finished her speech and wrung her hands.
"What is wrong with her?" he asked, peering at the figure on the bed.
"It began as a simple cold, but she has been under a fever for days, and when she wakes I do not know if she recognizes me."
"Did you give her any medicine?"
"Some opium, for the aches."
"Have you called a doctor?"
"My master left me no funds, sir. I sent a letter for his return but there has been no reply."
He paused a moment to consider; then, in a decisive movement, he shucked his jacket and folded his long frame into a chair beside the bed.
"Sir! Sir, what are you doing?" cried the maid, truly alarmed.
"I don't know what I can do, mum, but… I've been trained in field medicine, and I've heard physicians speak and seen them work. I don't know if I can cure her, but perhaps something can be done…"
The maid, still wringing her hands, did not know what else to do. She nodded her consent and moved to the head of the bed.
He turned to his charge. She looked young, likely no more than 25, although the fever must age her dramatically. She was sincerely and utterly plain: her face was round with little definition, and sun freckles dotted an uneven complexion. Her nose was too small for her mouth, her eyes too large for her head, and her lips were chapped and swollen. Even in the bloom of health this girl would be no beauty.
Rushing to shake off the errant thought that such a sound, even in fever dream, could not have come from this creature, he turned his attention to her symptoms. Moving with purpose and a clinical hand, so not to give any suggestion of ulterior motives, he placed a hand on forehead, neck, and the inside of her wrist. Consistent with a fever, her skin felt hot and tight as stretched leather, and her pulse was alarmingly rapid.
After a murmured "pardon me," to both the girl and her guardian, he laid an ear against her chest. Ignoring the drum line of her heart, he listened to her breathing. Surprisingly, it was not as he feared. Though slow and shallow, there was no sound of blockage, nor the bubbling that occurred when fluids flooded the lungs. He had seen men with chests half-filled with blood recover, and with gangrenous limbs besides.
Satisfied and thankful that, although he had done no good, he would be able to assure against anything bad, he looked up into the most exquisite eyes he had ever seen.
At some point while his head was against her breast, the girl had woken, and he froze with their noses inches apart. Her face was the same as it had been: unexceptional and common. But with her lids raised, such matters did not concern him.
Her eyes seemed perfectly round, an illusion aided by the surprise in her brow and pupils that the opium had shrunk to pinpricks. Around those pupils were irises that dropped away forever, as if the cornea were only a glass ceiling and the retina nonexistent. They were blue, but not a blue he could name: it was not sapphire, not cobalt, nor neon or aqua or ultramarine. This blue was the blue of heaven on a clear day, just where it brushes the earth. It was stained glass, without the gilt. A pool with a beating heart.
It was not the color nor the quality that gripped him: a gem could be as pretty. But although she was muddled and disoriented, beneath this surface he found an unshakable calm, a dignity, one that he had not seen even in queens.
"Sir? Do you need assistance?"
The moment was gone, and he broke their gaze with a nearly audible snap. Private Ellis stood in the doorway, a proper, soldierly expression on his face, his bewilderment revealed only by the knit in his young brow. The maid's visage was not outraged, as he expected, but utterly blank. A thin finger tapped against her thigh.
He stood quickly. The chair scraped and his fingers trembled, but otherwise he was the image of calm. A soldier again.
He turned to the maid without really seeing her. "Do not worry, Miss. Her lungs sound fine. She should recover soon. Have a good night."
He started out of the room. He felt the maid's eyes again on his back, carrying a much more dangerous emotion than suspicion, but he could not resist a last look from the doorway.
The girl lay once more as if half dead, her eyes again closed. Although he observed this with his senses, all he could see was that glass ceiling, trapping her as surely as this fever held her body.
He let a shiver run through him, then turned to the night, and did not think of the girl in a bed for some time.
A/N: So, how did I do? Is the writing style too old-timey and boring? Were those epiphany moments too over the top? I love feedback!