by Martin Hall
"Red or blue?"
"Hmm?" Sunlight danced through the leaves of the tree, making patterns on the eyelids of Lucien Claude du Lac Allais du Crieux. He opened one eye to find Victor-Louis Etalon, Vicomte d'Entour. He tutted, reached over to the table and raised his glass, only to discover it empty. As he waved it languidly in the air, he opened his other eye.
"What are you talking about, Victor? You are aware that I was resting, or don't they teach you manners in Entour?" A servant appeared at Lucien's shoulder and splashed wine into his glass. "And do something about that absurd moustache before it offends someone so badly that they have to kill you over it."
The Vicomte stopped in the act of smoothing his wire-thin moustache and laughed lightly, bowing with an extravagant flourish of his cuffs to Lucien. "Lucien, you of all people should know that I am never in Entour. It shocks me to find you so often in Crieux. It's all so…" he wrinkled his nose in the perfect spring morning, "provincial. You never come to Charouse."
Lucien sighed, dabbing at his lips with his handkerchief. "Charouse bores me, and you know why. I find the constant bowing and scraping to that boor Leon tiresome, and bad for the constitution."
Victor raised an eyebrow. "I fear that the main reason you shun the bright light of the Sun Kings court is a certain Lady Jamais?" Lucien remained silent, and Victor leaned in. "Why not settle for my cousin Vilette? She is considerably more available, I could recommend your suit most heartily."
"I do not, in your words, settle for your cousin, because of the frightening resemblance she bears to the steeds your family is famous for. Now, did you wake me to bother me once more with this drivel, or was there a reason?" Lucien sipped his wine.
"Ah, yes. My question. Red or Blue, Lucien? The battle is almost begun, and a wager after the troops have charged is not fair play." Victor indicated the valley ahead of them. Hundreds of men in uniforms of blue and red were drilling in battle formation, pikes glinting in the sun. Officers on horseback waved their swords as they shouted orders to the men and messengers galloped to the hillside, where the Duke of Crieux and lord Etalon du Toille sat facing their armies. Nobles and their paramours drifted in groups, powdered wigs and plumed hats majestic atop the gaily-coloured clothes of Montaigne's favourite sons and daughters.
Lucien made some pretence of studying the armies before responding. "Blue, Vicomte. Quite simply, Blue. No man of taste ever attires himself in red, and an army without dignity cannot function."
Victor smirked. "Red is the colour of passion, Lucien. An army must have the passion to fight, or it will never triumph over your dowdy blue men." He waved his handkerchief in the direction of the blue army, a disdainful flurry of lace.
"Speaking on the subject of passion, I hear you recently took yourself up with an actress in Charouse." Lucien shifted in his chair to see the look on Victor's face.
"My dear fellow!" Victor staggered backwards, gesturing to the servants for refreshment.
Lucien smirked. "Alas, I only report what I hear. If you will enlighten me on the young lady, and her qualities on the stage?"
"The young lady in question was no actress, I can assure you. It was none other than Francine du Bois." Victor regained his composure with the aid of a timely glass of cognac. He dismissed the servant with orders to find a chair for him.
"You know, in the country we oft sit on rugs on the ground." Lucien watched him from the corner of his eye as he drained his glass.
"You're not sitting on a rug." Replied Victor.
"I'm not everyone." Replied Lucien archly. "So she's the Chevalier du Bois daughter? He'll kill you."
"Unlikely," Victor retorted as a chair and cake stand were brought. "I got tired of her last week, and finished the affair." He sat back, his face a picture of rakish cunning.
Lucien stared at him, his eyes as wide as his mouth. "Are you mad? Du Bois will kill you twice! Francine has a notoriously delicate temperament. If you've broken her heart, he'll break yours. With a rapier, or possibly a pistol."
"Oh." Victor placed his cake back on the stand and sat, pale under his make-up, staring across the battlefield. A great shout went up from the armies and they charged. Under the thunder of feet, the polite applause of the nobles could be heard. Victor and Lucien clapped, smiling indulgently. Victors face turned to Lucien and instantly transformed into a mask of honest terror. "What should I do, Lucien? You're my oldest friend. Advise me."
"I think a visit to Charouse is in order, Vicomte. We may be able to dissuade the lady from taking drastic action. Besides, you may be able to defeat the Chevalier if the worst comes to the worst. He has to be at least twice our age, the bloodthirsty old fool." Wine splashed into Lucien's glass as he dipped a ginger biscuit into some sort of creamy sauce. He gestured to it. "You should try some. Rum, sugar, cream cheese. Simple. A Vodacce dessert, I gather."
Victor smiled thinly. "If the worst comes to the worst?"
Lucien nodded as he swallowed a mouthful of cake. "Correct, my dear fellow. If you'll excuse me." He indicated his glass.
"But of course." Lucien sipped at the wine. "Pray continue."
"If we are charming and cunning, then I can see this being to our great benefit. Are you still in touch with Jean?" Lucien stroked his chin.
"Jean Levecque? Can't seem to get rid of him, despite my best efforts. Why?"
"Your prayers have been answered, my friend. We leave for Charouse in the morning." Lucien seemed to drift away.
"She hasn't mentioned you at all, you know. Lady Jamais."
Lucien snorted and turned his iciest glare on Victor. "I was considering other matters."
"You don't have a chance with her. Give up. Run around with an actress, or Charlotte du Beaumarchais." Victor ducked as cream sailed over his plume, chuckling to himself. As red soldiers fled past him up the hill, the smile left his face. "The usual amount?" he asked.
"Of course. Two hundred sols, if you please." Victor tutted at the disgraceful performance of the Red army as the Blues saluted the Duke of Crieux to a shower of polite applause.
Victor squinted at his shoes in the dim lights of the Opera house as the tumultuous second act of Vincenzo et Belloza thundered towards its exciting conclusion. At his side, the ladies whispered behind their fans and Lucien took great care to lean far out in the box. "Getting a better view of the stage?" inquired
Victor, as Vincenzo launched into his despairing solo.
Lucien turned his back on Vodacce's most fashionable masterpiece and looked deep into the murky recesses of the box. "You know me better than that, Victor. I'm simply letting the Marquis d'Arrent know that I beat him. He can have this box when I die and not before." He nodded smugly to himself, content in his triumph.
The sound of a cane pounding on the door disturbed Victor, who lost his balance and slid further into his seat. A strident voice bellowed through the door. "Good sirs, open this instant that I may be seated!"
Lucien shot up indignantly and turned to the box door, moving past the party and muttering to himself. "Who can that possibly be? Who would dare to conduct themselves so in public?" As he seized the door and opened it, a florid face appeared with the reek of liquor upon it, a horrid lime waistcoat stretched tight over his copious belly. Lucien shrank back. "Sebastian! How are you these days?"
The monster tried to squeeze his way into the box, yelling incoherently. "I must be seated, man, damn your eyes! You insolent youth, be out of my way or you shall suffer!" Lucien smiled broadly, his hands clasped earnestly before him.
"Sebastian, we would be delighted to offer you a seat in our humble box, but alas, the view it offers of the stage is somewhat insulting to a gentleman of your station."
"Insulting, dye say? Eh? Out with it, man!" Food and spit fairly flew from his lips as he thundered over the volume of the opera. Lucien's companion fainted. With no more than a cursory glance to her, Lucien smoothly continued.
"Indeed. You will of course remember the glory days of the old king, when a noble would take his seat upon the stage, there to better observe the action of the piece. Why be denied your right now, Sebastian? There are few more noble than you, so you should seat yourself upon the stage. It is your duty that all should see this work and associate it with you, and your presence at the side of the stage will bring renown on this worthy opera." Lucien smiled with complete honesty at the stained creature, whose face worked in confusion. Slowly, Sebastian Deneuve du Surlign turned round and lumbered away, swaying as he receded. Lucien visibly sagged and returned to his seat. "I need a drink, Victor." As he recovered his senses with the aid of brandy, he looked across to his companion. She moaned slightly in her unconscious state. Lucien shrugged and returned to his attempt to be seen by the Marquis d'Arrent.
Victor looked to the stage. "Which opera is it? I didn't take the liberty of glancing at the playbill, having.." he patted the bare arm of the girl who occupied the seat next to him, making her giggle, "better things to occupy my attention."
Lucien pulled on his chin. "Don Armando, there's no doubt. That he…" pointed at Vincenzo, "is Armando, and that he…" pointed at Matteo, who listened from behind a pillar, "is his servant, Rodrigo."
Victor turned to the girl on his arm, watching the breeze from her fan lift the ringlets of her snowy wig from her alabaster shoulders. "What would we do without you, Lucien? We'd be simply lost."
An earnest voice drifted from the rear of the box, and the house lights caught the lenses of Jean Levecque d'Aurs eyeglasses. "Actually, sirs, the opera in question is Vincenzo et Belloza, the first work of Bartholomeus Corradin. You will notice that the tale is primarily one of confused love and the choral piece by the angry spirits of those Armando has slain which marks the first act of Castille's most tragic opera is absent from this piece. Further, there have been no deaths at this point, whereas the first two acts of Don Armando contain no less than thirteen deaths." Jean Levecque smiled awkwardly, his lecture finished.
Lucien regarded him icily, then broke into a smile. "Well, the act isn't over yet. I fancy that man could kill thirteen people in five minutes. What say you, Victor?"
Victor leaned closer to the girl who accompanied him, and the box filled with low whispers. He looked at his shoes again, then turned to Lucien. "You know, Lucien, I do not believe that I have ever laid eyes on these shoes before in my life."
Lucien irritably prodded the Vicomte with his cane. "Were you listening to a word I said, Victor?"
Victor frowned at the stage, Lucien, Jean and the girls. He furrowed his brow in thought. "No, Lucien, I don't think I was. Which ones Don Armando?"
Lucien jabbed his finger at Vincenzo. "That one. Now, I said he could kill thirteen men before the end of this act."
Victor squealed. "Look, Lucien! Its Sebastian Deneuve du Surlign! He's positively pickled, the old goat!" Down on the stage, the portly nobleman was loudly demanding a chair of Vincenzo, or at least a stool, damn his ignorant eyes. He paced back and forth, bellowing like a bull and waving his cane, drawing the laughter of the lesser nobles crammed into the pit.
Luciens eyes bulged. "He's trying to sit on the stage! I can't believe he actually fell for it. Look at Armando! He's furious! There'll be at least one killing before this act is done. We'd best boo Deneuve, I suppose, else this interminable opera will never finish. Boo, sir! Leave the stage!"
Victors eyes gleamed maliciously as he picked up an orange and hurled it with pin-point accuracy at Deneuve's head. "With any luck hell be much too drunk to remember we put him up to this," mused Victor, as he threw another orange at the drunkard in an attempt to dislodge his wig. "Still, it is fun, eh Charlotte?" Charlotte giggled and playfully swatted at the Vicomte's throwing arm.
Deneuve, apparently incensed at the temerity of the actors for refusing to supply him with a stool and unable to fathom the source of the blows to his head, laid about the actor playing Matteo with his cane as Vincenzo scampered away. As the boos of the audience grew more pronounced, he hurled his cane into the pit and waddled off to the left. As he left the stage, the orchestra as one struck up with the great chord of the angry Commendatore from Don Armando. "I told you it was Don Armando!" cried Lucien. "I'd recognise that anywhere."
Jean Levecque sat forward. "Sirs, as the opera may take some time to recover, might I take this moment to ask why you have decided to bring me?"
Lucien turned to him, his face a mask of pure honesty and fatherly concern. "We like you, Jean, the Vicomte and I. We make it our business to know how you progress in your study of the great Numan classics."
"I study Natural Philosophy, the writings of Hibbot and Arceniega." Jean helpfully pointed out.
"Well, quite. Victor has been most worried about you this past year in Charouse. On those too-rare occasions when you are at court, he has noticed that your eye bears a certain regard for a young lady." Lucien raised his handkerchief to his nose.
"It does?" Jean polished his spectacles again, quite hastily and with little skill.
"Oh, we are no strangers to affairs of the heart, Victor and I. We have seen you regard young Francine du Bois with more than passing fancy. Is this not the case?" Lucien innocently asked.
"Is it? I'm afraid my knowledge of the heart is limited to its function as a muscle, facilitating the flow of blood through…"
"Of course it is!" interrupted Victor, detaching himself from his companion. "That is why you need our help, my dear friend. You are so rarely away from the University, are you not? Lucien and I are frequently in society, and with our help, you can press your suit and woo the young lady in question."
"Can I?" Jean could not have looked more amazed had he been presented with evidence that alchemy was a fine alternative to reasoned knowledge.
"Absolutely," oiled Lucien, picking up from where the Vicomte had left off, "with our assistance, the young lady can be yours."
"She can?" Jeans head spun to face Lucien.
"Of course. We can write love letters from a secret admirer." Victor warmed to the game, trying to hide his smile beneath his sincere expression and rakish moustache.
"Will that work? After all, she will not be aware of my identity."
"Trust me," chimed Lucien, "women swoon over it, don't you, Charlotte?" Victors companion giggled, her fan fluttering at her neck. "It will be an absolute advantage to you that she is not aware of your identity."
"What? How can that be?"
"It will build an air of mystery about you." Lucien smirked. "When you reveal your identity, she will feel the same for you. Trust us, we are aware of how the young lady feels. Nothing makes me happier than seeing two people who are made for each other find true love together." A tear welled at the corner of Lucien's eye.
Jean leaped forward and kissed his hand. "A thousand thanks, sir! You are the truest friends a man could hope for, and with your help, Francine and I shall find love!"
Lucien withdrew the hand and dabbed at it with his handkerchief. "You are most welcome, Jean." The sound of a chord from the orchestra brought the attention of the group to the stage for a moment. Ah, it seems that they're ready for us again.
The final song of act two began again, the most critically acclaimed piece of music written in recent years. Victor returned to studying his shoes. "Opera's a bore, though, isn't it? I mean, this Don Armando is what? Punishment for sins? It's all very Vaticine."
Charlotte du Beaumarchais stroked Victors arm lazily, watching the opera through perfect half-lidded eyes. "Dearest, its Vincenzo et Belloza, and it's about star-crossed lovers." She purred, as she folded her fan.
"Whatever you say, my only," muttered Victor distractedly, his attention riveted on his mysterious shoes. "I say, Lucien, do you think I could toss a grape down Armando's throat when he hits his big final chord?"
Lucien stifled a herculean yawn. "Please, no, Victor. As it stands, I don't see this evening ever coming to an end. There are still two acts to follow this one, and I must get home to compose a poem."
"She mocked you publicly last week, Lucien. Give it up before you make an idiot of yourself. I'm sure Charlotte has friends she could happily introduce you to." Victor laughed as Charlotte tickled his nose with a feather.
As Vincenzo mused secretly at great volume as to whether he would ever find his true love, Lucien glowered sulkily at the stage and waited for the angry ghosts to deliver their warning of repentance to the villainous Don Armando. As he neared the crescendo of the acts final piece, Victor plucked a grape and smiled slyly to himself.
The Marquis dArrent placed down his cup gently into its saucer with a click. "I am indebted to you, Charlotte. Thank you for indulging an old man in his requests."
Charlotte du Beaumarchais smiled as she cast her eye over the portraits that lined the walls of the breakfast room. "Think nothing of it. You saved my father's life during the War of the Cross. It is my family who owe you the debt of gratitude. Besides, I am well aware of the kind of rumours the Vicomte spreads behind my back."
The Marquis nodded, his mouth full of tea. As he swallowed, he cooed sympathetically. "Quite so. They have annoyed me at no less than three social occasions this month, and that kind of disrespect I do not abide. Now I learn that it was they who set the drunkard on Thybalt di Gregorio in the middle of the finest performance I have seen him give, and further insulted this fine performer by hurling a grape into his throat!" The handle snapped on the Marquis china cup, and he shot upright, his face a dark and ugly red. "No, they will pay for their vulgarity. Perhaps their wit can save them in court, but we shall see how it aids them on the high seas." The Marquis grinned and turned to a servant.
"Antoine! I believe the Naval Appropriations Board owes me a favour."
Lucien squinted up at the rising sun as light drifted into the gardens. "On
the bright side, it's going to be a lovely morning."
Victor stopped pacing and turned on his friend. "What do I care for the morning?" he shrieked, and pigeons fled a nearby tree in a fit of panic. "She elopes with a blasted scholar, and they leave a message of thanks to me to me for bringing them together. At least it did her father the favour of not having to look for someone to kill!"
Lucien glowered at the dew on his shoe buckles and leaned on his cane for support. "They meant well, I suppose. I do despise that quality in people. However, we are now in something of a problematic situation. I believe you'll have to kill the chevalier if you mean to keep face in Charouse."
Victors eyes suddenly lit up. "What if I refuse? He can't fight me if I refuse. Can he?"
Lucien ground his teeth. "We've been through this, Vicomte. You are finished socially if you are known to be a coward, and no woman of standing will come within a mile of you."
"Actresses?" queried Victor, without much hope. Lucien shook his head grimly.
"Very well, then," said Victor, drawing a deep breath as he picked up his sabre and swung it experimentally. "Do you have a flask with you, or snuff?"
Lucien produced a silver flask from one pocket and a snuffbox from another and smiled. "Take your pick." He said, as he cracked the box open and took a pinch for himself. "He should be here by now. He said dawn, and this wet grass will ruin my shoes, confound him."
Victor squeaked. "Your shoes? I'm the one he's going to…" he waved his arms, the sabre swishing in the grey air, "assassinate! I don't want to die like this. Oh, if only I had paid more attention to the fencing master." Piqued, he snatched the flask from Lucien and tipped its contents down his throat.
Lucien gaped. "Victor! I'm appalled. A little brush with death and your manners disappear."
Victor laughed, wiped his lips and bowed mockingly, his sword swinging unsteadily in his hand. "I'm so terribly sorry, Lucien. After you." He offered the flask with a flourish, causing liquor to spill over his cuff. His face stiffened when the muffled noise of an approaching carriage drifted across the gardens. As a peacock crowed somewhere, the starkly furnished carriage of the Chevalier du Bois loomed through the morning mist like the messenger of death. Victor yelped involuntarily and leaped backwards. The flask fell to the ground, its contents gurgling into the wet earth. As the carriage drew near, a black-liveried footman marched toward the two men.
"You are Victor-Louis Etalon?" inquired the servant, a crisply folded notice held limply in his right hand. Victor nodded dumbly as the servant passed him the letter. The man then returned to the carriage and opened the door. The tall form of the Chevalier du Bois loomed from within, his steely eyes searching Victor contemptuously as the servant removed his cape.
The notice fell from Victors fingers as the tip of his sabre scraped the ground. Lucien coughed at his side, causing him to gasp. "Your coat, Victor?"
"Certainly not. It's cold." Victor mumbled, drawing the coat tight around him.
The Chevaliers servant marched across the wet lawn. Are you ready to begin? My lord wishes to know if this man is to be your second. Lucien coughed nervously into his handkerchief.
"I represent the Vicomte. He is ready to meet your master," Lucien emphasised the last word, "on the field of honour. The challenged party has decided to use the sabre to settle this matter."
The servant glared down his nose at Lucien. "Excellent. My lord will be most pleased with such a choice." He turned on his heel and stalked across the lawn to the Chevalier.
Victor turned to Lucien. "What does he mean by that? You said the Chevalier was no good with the sabre. Why will that make him happy? Lucien?" Victor shot a glance across the lawn as du Bois swung a sabre with practiced ease and nodded to his servant.
Lucien waved his hand in annoyance. "Quiet, dear fellow, please. If I'm going to talk you out of this I'll need to have less of your infernal chatter. Now act like you know how to duel. Do what he does." Lucien jabbed a finger at the Chevalier.
Victor glowered at Lucien. "I'll kill you. Talk me out of this? Now? The time for talking, you may have noticed, is long past!" he shrieked, his voice rising with the colour of his cheeks. He waved the sabre frantically under Lucien's nose.
Du Bois advanced across the field like a vengeful spirit, flanked by his henchman. Victor smoothed his moustache with one gloved finger, then cocked his head on one side. "Vincenzo et Belloza," he muttered.
"What?" Lucien turned to his friend.
The opera. "I don't think it was Don Armando."
"Don't talk so much rot, man. You're delirious. I'm never wrong on matters of culture. It was Don Armando."
"Are you ready?" The voice, like drawn steel, cut across the bickering like a deadly blow. The Chevalier du Bois stood silent in fencing stance as his servant stood smirking at Victor. Victor nodded and adopted a similar posture. The Chevalier glared down at his feet.
"Your feet, Monsieur."
Victor stared back.
"I will not kill a man who does not even know where to put his feet in a duel." The Chevalier gestured with his blade. Victor clumsily rearranged his feet, embarrassed to meet du Bois eye.
A sound like gentle thunder echoed in the distance as du Bois brought his blade up to meet Victors. The two swords ground across each other in the cool morning air as the Chevaliers servant brought forth a handkerchief. Lucien sneered at it.
"Is that the best you can do? Oh, come on. The Chevalier has some sort of income, surely? Here, use one of mine." He produced an elaborately laced handkerchief with a triumphant flourish and handed it to the servant. The servant studied it as if he expected it to be laced with solid decadence, then raised it above the two duellists. Lucien furrowed his brow, as if in concentration. Victor and the Chevalier backed away from each other to a count of three paces, their sabres glinting in the grey morning, mist forming on their breath.
On the count of three, the handkerchief fluttered to the ground. Victor and du Bois leaped at each other, and the Chevaliers sword swung at Victors with great force. Victors sabre flew from his hand, narrowly missing Lucien's cuff. Du Bois drew back his sword for the final thrust, and Victor turned to run. The dew slid under his feet, and he crashed noisily to the earth.
"Halt! In the name of LEmpereur!" The shout rang out across the lawn, and du Bois froze as if struck dead. Victor slowly staggered to his feet, grass and mud making a ruin of his fine clothes. A single horse shot through the mist, soil churning at its passage. The rider grasped the reins in one hand and a letter in the other. As the horse drew up to the duellists, he leaped from the saddle. "Do I speak to Victor-Louis Etalon, Vicomte dEntour, and Lucien Claude du Lac Allais du Crieux?" Victor brushed his shirt and smiled politely at the rider.
"You do. Now may I ask your business here?"
The rider saluted. "Sirs, the Royal Navy has the honour of requesting that you journey to Arisent to take command of a frigate when one becomes available. The Empereur himself has expressed a wish that more of our young gentlemen should take a career of honour defending our nation against all foes."
Victor glanced at his sabre, quivering in the ground some twelve feet away. "What his beloved Majesty requests must be done." He bowed formally to the Chevalier. "I am sure you understand, my dear du Bois, that this point of honour must be addressed at some future time. Until such time as that, let us be as brothers, and put our differences behind us." He held his arms wide to embrace du Bois. The Chevalier turned and stalked away, the world's fury on his shoulders.
"Well," shrugged Victor, "I suppose not everyone agrees with our beloved Empereur." The rider stood rigid. "I had lured him into a most devious trap." The rider stared straight ahead. Lucien stepped forward and took the commission from him. "We accept." The rider leaped back onto his horse and urged it on.
"Come on, Lucien, lets be on our way. Besides, I hear the girls are all over Valoix." Victor mused, as he bent to retrieve his sword.
"Him? Why, he must be at least fifty! A simple naval commission, eh? All we need to do is get ourselves assigned somewhere nice and safe, then ride out du Bois anger. What could possibly be easier?"
"What indeed? Tell me, Lucien, do you still have that snuff?"
"It's a bit early for snuff, Victor."
"Nonsense. You had some earlier."
"The circumstances were different then, my dear Victor."
"Not at all. I would have triumphed. You saw me."
"Yes, I did. You had that face you get during Squares."
"The one where you start begging for mercy."
"If I were you, Victor, I really would do something about that moustache. It is quite horrid."
The two friends walked through the gardens as the rays of the sun dispersed the mists of dawn, ambling at a dignified pace towards a bright new future in the Navy.