A/N: I am in love with the end of this chapter, and I hope you'll love it too!
The word "collied" in the chapter title is the same as saying "black as coal," aka Shakespeare getting all fancy on us.
CHAPTER FIVE - Lightning in the Collied Night
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say "Behold!"
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
"I did not believe I would be seeing you so soon, Captain. Are you sure you are not following me?"
Captain Montmare smiled at her, stepping out of the way of the crowd to join her in the shadow of the customs house.
"I would rather think it was I who was being followed, for this is the first time I have seen you that I have been on duty."
"I do not want to distract you from it, then," she said, drawing in her brows.
"There are distractions enough for me, Miss, and you the most welcome. I am here only for appearances' sake, for I know nothing of the customs house, except maybe how to tell a franc from a pound. But each port to the outside world must have its proper Englishman, and I am the closest to that to be had."
"There is surely no better Englishman than you."
"You say that now, Miss, but wait until you know me better." He leaned leisurely against the building's side, crossing his arms. She mirrored his stance, shifting her weight to a single hip in a way that would make Helena gag at the unseemliness of it. Angeline could, at the moment, honestly care less.
"I think I am a good enough judge of character to know that you believe such a post under your talents."
"You have a good eye then," he said, cocking an eyebrow and making her want to shove him for the audacity. "Is this locale not beneath you, then? I did not expect to run into you here, of all places. Of course, finding you in a dank lane of the slums was unexpected as well.
"Maybe you should expect the unexpected from me, then."
"I believe I shall," he said, smiling crookedly. "Why are you here, then?"
"My father is expecting a parcel from a patron in Manchester," she lied smoothly. "He did not trust his servants to give it the care it is due, and so I was sent to retrieve it."
"What kind of parcel needs the personal attentions of a daughter?"
"One that the daughter is not aware of," she said, crinkling her eyes for effect. It shocked her how easy it was to deceive here.
"If you do not know why you are here, and I am hardly aware of why I am, I suppose it would not matter if we spent some time in conversation?"
"I do not think so," Angeline said, and abruptly they both fell silent. The wind had blown a lock of smooth brown hair from his pony tail, and it fluttered past his head, looking like a extension of an eyebrow. She wanted very badly to tell him about it, and imagined the sigh of relief she would feel as he tucked it in before she did, but held fast; now was not the time for that.
"Who was that woman you were speaking with?" she asked, and his brows rose in surprise. "That day in the slums, I mean. Rather, why were you speaking with her? I am not ignorant in what men do," his lips tightened and she felt he was laughing at her, "but there are surely more proper ladies to be found, elsewhere."
"Why are you asking this?" he asked, smiling openly now. She felt the harsh flush of embarrassment begin to course through her.
"I was just wondering, is all," she muttered, turning her head to try and hide her mortification. "You did not seem the kind of man to settle…for…that…"
"And what do you think I should settle for?"
"Stop this!" she cried. "Forget I mentioned it, I am sorry, I was only confused." She took a step backwards and would have turned to flee, but he shot a hand out and grabbed her forearm again, although much more gently than the first time.
"Angeline, I am sorry," he said solemnly, despite the twinkle in his eyes; the strange pronunciation of her name was even more prominent now, effused with emotion as it was. "I was only teasing. Don't let these little things I do offend you, as I said before, they are not meant to do so."
"Perhaps you should keep a tighter watch over the impression you give others, then," she snapped, jerking her shoulder out of his grasp. "How do you keep your rank with a humor like yours?"
"I assure you, I am normally very uptight and proper. You have happened to catch me on days when my lips have grown looser than normal."
"I highly doubt that," she said dryly. "If that were the truth you would not be banished to guarding the customs house." After she spoke, she feared that these words would offend him, but instead he offered a small chuckle.
"You may have a point there. I know that is not the only factor, but it may go a ways to explaining why the others matter so much." He left that cryptic statement hanging in the air. "Are you still curious about that woman? Or do you fear being laughed at so much you would stifle your interest?"
She scowled. "If you would stop teasing me, then yes, I am still curious." In truth she believed she would rather not know, but it was too late now.
"She was a friend of my mother's, and when I came to London she decided to come with me. She would not accept charity, not even a job as a washer woman, which I could have gotten her easily enough. The streets are all she has ever known. I bring her food and coin, when she is short."
Angeline felt a huge pressure lift from her chest. "Where were you before you came to London?" she asked.
"Until I was twelve, I lived in Brest, in French Brittany. My mother sent me here for tutelage, which she could never give me." So this accounted for his pronunciation, as well as the ease with which he had spoken to the scoundrel in the marketplace.
"Why not go to Paris?" Angeline asked. "It is closer, and surely would have been easier to acclimate to."
"We had distant relatives situated in the Palace here, and we had none of those connections anywhere in France." He looked to the left, blinking. "I am glad to be here. Despite all the difficulties, it is more home to me than Brest ever was."
"Why do you think that is so?" Angeline asked softly, resisting the urge to put a hand on his arm.
He smiled sadly. "It was… difficult, living with my mother. She was… not of high station, socially or morally." Angeline thought of the whore who had been his mother's friend. He looked at her nervously, and she was touched by his need for her good opinion. She smiled encouragingly, and he continued: "Here I have made friends. I have a chance to change things I do not like, in my life and in the lives of others. And besides, my French is wasted on the women in France." He flashed a cheeky grin, and Angeline couldn't help but laugh.
"Oh, surely. Although there are so many differing voices in London these days, I am not so sure you would find more French women there than here."
"With the state of the world, I don't know if those voices will be heard here much longer."
Angeline frowned. "There is tension with Spain, yes, but surely the crown would not close the city to all foreigners? We are still looking for a treaty with France, are we not?"
Captain Montmare shrugged. "King Edward is growing restless. As he gets older, every word he does not know becomes a threat in his mind. His advisors are trying to keep his delusions in line, but I do not know if they will resist him much longer."
Angeline frowned, perturbed. "How do you know all this?"
"As I said, I have friends in the palace. And you have no idea how helpful it is to be invisible." She did know, more than he could guess, but she did not say so.
"But you are a captain! How can you be invisible?"
"Invisible to the people who matter, that is." His head jerked up for a reason unknown to Angeline. She gave him a questioning look, but he had brushed past her, heading towards the gate of the customs house. Now that Angeline had her focus in the direction, she could hear the angry shouting that must have alerted him. She ran to keep in step with his long strides.
A small brawl had erupted between the privates on duty and a group of thick chested men in nondescript cloaks, although the smell emanating from their beards marked them sailors. From what she could see, the fighting was mostly fists, as the young soldiers were too frightened to have the sense of pulling a knife or pistol, and the thugs did not need steel to get the job done. Angeline was about to tell Captain Montmare to fire a shot into the air, as she had seen officers do many times before at a riot, but he had left her side. She looked up just in time to see him plunge into the fray.
She let out an involuntary gasp as he disappeared into the hill of pulsing bodies, and clamored atop the base of a streetlamp to get a better view. She steadied her body and gaze upon him just in time to see his fist connect solidly with a tough's jaw, the muscles in his arm tight against his jacket. He was one man, and half the width of any of these brutes, but he stood half a head above the tallest, and his presence seemed to rally the scared boys into a team of fighting men. They began taking ground as much as they gave it, despite being outmanned and out muscled, pushing the gang against the side of the far building.
As quickly as it had begun, the fight was over. At Captain Montmare's command, the guards knelt on the backs of the fallen captives, binding their hands tightly, and feet loosely, with rope, then tying them all together. Captain Montmare was in the dirt and splattered blood with the rest of them, and soon the pristine white of his coat sleeves was an unappetizing brown.
Angeline began to leap down from the pole, but stopped short at the sight of the one slim figure among the fallen men. The kohl on his eyes was smudged and hurried, and his hair hung loose and unkempt about his face, but she knew him as easily as breathing. She stood a few moment, heart pounding in her ears, before she slid down and prepared to vanish into the growing crowd. She must warn her father, so he could get to the snake himself before the palace locked him and his services away forever.
Then she saw Captain Montmare approaching her, and she knew she must at least make her good byes to him; it would be rude not to. She prepared the pithiest statement she could think of in her head, and glanced quickly past him to make sure Mr. Bishop's delicate face was still pressed into the dirt, but the blood flooding in waves down the side of Captain Montmare's head stopped her short.
"Captain!" she gasped, forgetting the need not to be seen, and fumbling wildly at the sleeve of her dress, finally producing her silk kerchief. She found it, and looked up at him triumphantly, then realized she had no idea in the slightest what to do.
He smiled crookedly, and shook his head. "No, Miss Angeline, save it. It's just a scratch," he said, wiping the sticky red stuff out of his eye so he could see her. "Are you all right?" he asked in concern. "I know ladies are not used to these kinds of barbarities…"
Why must he always pick just the things to say to infuriate her the most? "Captain," she repeated, but this time in exasperation, "I have seen things that would curl every hair on your body. A street fight does not affect me in the least."
"You are the first lady I have met with this fortitude." His eyes seemed to shine with admiration. "That is good, then, it is just that you look pale." Her cheeks became suffused with warmth at the comment, and she knew being pale was no longer a problem. One of the privates handed him a wad of cloth taken from one of the prisoners' clothing. He thanked the boy and pressed it to his head, hoping to staunch the steady blood flow.
"You accept that filthy thing and not my kerchief?" she asked, in indignation that was only slightly mocking.
"It is too pretty a thing to ruin with a trifle like this."
"That trifle has already soaked the cloth through." She hesitated only a moment; thinking about the news she must get to her father: that the man he based half of his operation on had tried to escape the wrath of his judgment; that she hardly knew this man, and it was the habit of charming young men to get even younger women off their guard with flattery; but she saw such a wooziness begin to overtake his eyes that she realized she had no choice.
"Come with me," she said, "I'll clean it for you."
He gave half-hearted protests, but she had already begun to walk towards the stables that sat snug between the customs house and the city walls. Behind her she heard him delegate to an underling to bring the prisoners to the palace, but care for the wounded first, before light boot falls told her he was following.
A shy stable boy got very wide eyes at the sight of the stricken hero, and looked like he was ready to bolt for the back door, but Captain Montmare soothed him, asking softly and politely if he could borrow some water; Angeline added a request for alcohol, and the Captain grimaced; he obviously knew what liquor felt like on raw flesh. She smiled ruefully at the ground, and sat on a stool to wait for the boy.
Captain Montmare would have continued standing, but she gave him a strong look and he plopped unceremoniously onto a pile of hay. She giggled, mostly inwardly, at the sight he made; the aristocratic starch of his suit and arch of his nose, and the clear grey eyes that held definite authority did not mesh well with his rumpled hair, blood stained personage and the hay that was now clinging to his trousers.
He closed his eyes and tilted his head towards the ceiling. She saw his nostrils flare, and she realized he was smelling the place. He looked utterly peaceful.
"What are you doing?" she asked, tilting her head.
His eyes blinked open and he smiled leisurely. "The smell of horses comforts me," he said simply, and she would have questioned him further if the boy had not come running back just then, clutching a huge barrel of water in his hands and bottles of brandy in the corks of his elbows, plus clean linens slung over his shoulders. The captain gave him a genuine smile and tossed him what Angeline suspected to be a gold coin. The lad flashed them a grin bereft of quite a few teeth, then retreated into the recess of the stable.
Angeline beckoned him with a crooked finger, and, with some grimacing, he shifted his seat so he sat directly in front of her, his back remaining ramrod straight, and she did not feel his presence on her skirts. Bending forward, she examined the wound.
It was not as bad as she had feared, and really, it had been supremely foolish to act the way she had: she felt her bowels begin to clench at the very memory. She knew that head wounds were notoriously heavy bleeders; indeed, Agents had been rushed to Magdalene's care with their whole face suffused in blood, and the majority had born cuts that did not even scrape the bone. This, indeed, was a scratch, by the shape most likely caused by a ring on a heavy knuckle that had broken the skin.
She dipped one of the cloths the boy had given her in the water – the good lad had even had the foresight to bring it heated – and dabbed gently at the wound. There was an initial sharp intake of breath, but after that, no sounds of protest. He sat still as death in front of her, the only sign of life being the shallow rise and fall of his shoulders, and the pulse that jumped against her palm.
She worked in silence for several minutes, until the hairs on her arms were once again lying flat against her skin. The blood cleared away to reveal a nice little wound, and she mused at the wonders of the human body that would spew forth so much doom from so small an injury. She remarked to so the captain, fighting to keep her voice at normal pitch.
"Believe me, Miss Angeline, when you have first seen a man's lifeblood draining away, you will know the true sight of blood." Angeline's hands froze on his head, and he half turned around before she remembered herself enough to put pressure against the movement, so he remained facing forward. "I'm sorry if I offended your sensibilities," he said. "You did say that you had seen violence before."
"Not the kind that leaves a mark." The stable was very quiet; in the dark recesses she heard a horse's snort, and another's answer, stirring dust motes in the half light.
She had cleared all the blood away that she could, saving what had crusted in his hair and would take too vigorous a scrubbing to do away with now. She knew what came next, and it seemed that he did too, as his stillness was broken by an intake of breath.
"I'll try to make this quick," she said uneasily. "I don't want to get it in your eyes, though, so you'll have to tilt your head back.
She picked up the bottle of brandy and pulled out the already loose cork. "Put your back against my legs," she directed. He obliged, and she felt his warmth press against her to the knee. "Tilt your head," she said softly, and put a gentle hand on his chin, bringing back his skull until it lay on her knees. His upside down eyes met hers, and she could feel the rough pinpricks of stubble on her fingertips. Wrenching her eyes from his, she tilted the bottle, and let a healthy stream fall upon his exposed flesh.
A bolt of tension shot through him, and she could feel the shock wave ripple up his spine, arching his back and pressing his shoulders and neck into her violently. She tightened her grip on his chin, fighting to keep her hold calm and clinical as his face tightened in pain, growing red as a harlot's bodice in the effort of not crying out. His boots made a sharp scratching sound as his heels dug into the floor, and his hands sought a grip on the hay strewn boards. He uttered not a word, but a small whimper rattled in his throat, and her steely fingers spasmed against his chin.
Expelled with the air in his lungs through a violent breath, the tension left his body, and he collapsed against her; she supported his weight now, and she saw how rigidly he had been holding himself before.
"Mary, mother of Christ," he muttered, eyes closed, taking in slow, deep breaths. "Monsieur Stable Master likes his liquor strong, it seems."
"Are you alright?" she asked when she was able to ignore the feeling of his heart beating through his back against her legs.
He leaned his skull back onto her knees and looked at her upside down again. A drop of brandy slunk its way down the side of his temple, disappearing into his hair. His grey eyes were hooded but alert. "I have just had alcohol that is most likely three times beyond the legal proof poured into a hole in my head. And you do not even have the grace to act a bit guilty."
Scowling, she gave him a little kick in the small of his back. His cheeks lifted in amusement. "You are lucky I had the grace not to do this in front of your fellows. What would they think, seeing you pressed against a maid's skirts in a deserted stable house?"
A soft look spread across his face. "They would think me a very lucky man indeed."
She tightened her face against the upward creeping of her lips, and set about dipping linen in the warm water, then pressing it gently on the sterile flesh. He sighed in contentment as the water washed away the last drops of stinging alcohol. The potency of the spirit was proved by the final wound; with all the blood gone and the surrounding skin bleached white from the shock of cleansing, it was really barely a wound at all; she had been cut worse by her sewing machine. Even through his increased heart rate, it had finished bleeding.
"I am not certain, but you just might live," she said in an over hearty tone. He gave up a chuckle for her efforts, and pushed away to leave her legs cold, standing fluidly, quite unlike a man who had just received a head wound. Only the pause and care he took in turning around showed he was feeling woozy.
"You ought to lie down, I think," she said, eyeing the waver in his gaze worriedly.
"Non, non, I have lived through worse than this. I must report back to my colonel on this riot. Oh, but first I must gather the reports…" He rubbed the back of his neck.
"Perhaps you can find a lieutenant to do it," she suggested gently. He smiled in relief.
"Yes, I think I can. Come, help me look for one." She lifted the used linen from its pile on the floor and folded it neatly, laying it across the stool. When she stood back up her was looking at her in what appeared to be horror.
"What is it?" she asked, frightened.
"Your skirts," he said, pointing needlessly. She looked down and could not help a gasp: they were stained all down the front with brandy, which looked unfortunately like dried bodily excrement, and brilliant blotches of blood. Some stains had even gotten to her bodice when he had thrown his head back.
She sighed, and began undoing the laces at the small of her back. She heard the captain's strangled gasp, and she looked up, perplexed; he had begun to back away hurriedly.
"What is wrong now?" she asked testily, beginning to lose her patience.
"You… your skirt… Angeline, you cannot take your clothes off in front of a man, do you know what might happen!"
She rolled her eyes heavenward; why must men surprise her so often with their stupidity? "Captain, I have two more layers beneath this ruined thing, and neither are flesh colored, nor scarlet. I hope that homespun blue will not offend you."
"I will turn my back while you attend to it." He did just that, revealing the blush on the back of his neck.
"You are more the fool for it," she muttered, yanking the last tie free and letting the stained cloth crumple around her ankles. "Behold, I am decent," she said dryly, and when he turned around warily she gave a little spin. The revealed garment was nearly identical to the removed, if with a lack of embroidery. She saw him make this connection as his jaw clenched in embarrassment.
"Fine. All right. May we go?" Without waiting for her reply, he turned and strode out of the stable, just barely avoiding the door frame as the displaced fluids in his head sloshed about. Smiling secretly, she gathered the ruined cloth and followed him out the door.
The back of the captain's head vanished as a thick hand grabbed her arm and pulled her into the crowd.
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