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The fact was, Matthieu knew he was going to die. It wasn’t that he faced death at every turn. No, it was nothing like that. Not anymore. He had been free for almost too long now. His days were spent in the quiet countryside of Ossane; and no one knew anything about him, aside from his apparent wealth. And, it wasn’t because he was getting old. True, every step was slowed, everything that had once been natural to him now required determined effort. But his eyes were still bright and his wit was intact. So, there was nothing to worry about.
But he could feel death’s presence, like a weight on his chest when he lay down. He could feel death swirl around him in the wind and the fog when he went for his walk around his property every morning. He could see it reflected back to him when he looked into his wife’s eyes. When did this start? When did the days start catching up with him? He did not know.
For these reasons, Matthieu was certainly not surprised when he knew one day: I’m going to die today. It was impossible to know how long he had been lying awake in bed under the thin sheets, but the words became clearer by degrees. Going to die. But was he really going anywhere? Going to die. It would be a nice change.
But there was so much to do.
Matthieu surged out of bed with none of the care that a man of his age should use, and immediately got to work. He ignored Lydie, his wife, when she called him to eat. No, he was writing, writing as if his life depended on it (ha ha), but he couldn't expect her to understand, could he? It would all be made clear this evening. Matthieu’s cunning smile was hidden by his white beard.
At the same moment, directly below Mathieu, René was woken sharply. His first thought was to be annoyed. What was it this time? All he wanted was some sleep. Why couldn’t they leave him alone? But then with a sickening feeling, he realized no one had woken him. The sky was still veiled, and the house was quiet. So why was his heart beating faster, faster; why was he alert?
What was that? Someone was there, just outside his bedroom window on the first floor of the house.
Scratch, Scratch. Louder this time.
René gripped the sheets and lay painfully still as minutes stacked on each other, but he could not hear the sound again, no matter how much he strained. Gradually, fatigue overcame him, and he slept until evening. But even as he slept, the subtle threat weaved through his unconscious.
The sun was falling as René woke up for the second time. He had completely forgotten about the noises he heard, but a pale warning lingered, like the bad taste in his mouth.
Lydie set the last steaming dish on the dining table with a kind smile at her guests. She was wondering why Matthieu had insisted that she cook this huge meal on such short notice, but she did not venture to ask.
Her son, René, grinned at her from across the table, and this was all the thanks she needed. She did not expect her husband to even mention the feast she had spent nearly 12 hours preparing. How old was he, really? Was it a mistake to marry a man so much older? Could he even taste the delicious food? He was eating so fast, Lydie couldn’t watch. She turned her attention to her only son, her only joy.
René and Valéry held hands under the table, and once in awhile, Valéry would whisper in his ear and he would laugh. René decided this dinner would be a fine time to announce his engagement. Valéry had told him she wanted it a secret, but then, why should they hide?
Zoé ate little. She prefered to watch the others. Her mother Lydie and her father Matthieu. Her older brother René, and his lady friend. (What was her name? Violette or Vivienne? Or was it Sibylle?) Then there were her 4 older (equally obnoxious) sisters who squawked and talked and drank wine and ate plate after plate of Lydie’s overcooked vegetables, heavily seasoned meat, and syrupy-sweet desserts. (What she lacked in personality, she made up for in extreme cooking.) The other guests used this dinner as an excuse to get drunk. At least that allowed them to ignore the awful cooking. Zoé did not know them, even though they were probably neighbors, and some were her age. She flippantly decided she did not care to. Grandmother sat silently and did not even pretend to touch the food. I’ll have to work on that, noted Zoé. She is too thin.
Some men had begun to discuss politics, but at the mention of the Reprisal, everyone shook with fear. They were in control (unofficially), and they had more power than the King himself. Obviously, their reputation was frightening, and everyone remembered the rule against public gatherings after sunset. Members of the Reprisal mostly came out at night, like bats. They used this time to make examples of any enemies of their cause, or anyone who was travelling alone. Maybe it had become just for sport. Of course, this was an unlikely event since they were so far in the countryside, but then there were stories they had heard that chilled their merriment. After thanking their friends for the meal, the guests left abruptly in groups of at least three.
Valéry was the last guest to remain in the Gilles’ house. Or maybe she did not plan on leaving at all. They had moved from the dining room, and she was now sitting very close to René on a luxurious sofa. She caught their reflection in one of the glass doors and almost purred with satisfaction. It wasn’t just that René was dashingly handsome...Although his lazy smile and perfect bone structure were certainly a plus. She did not even think to be happy that her parents approved the match. She subtly glanced at the exotic paintings and plush sofas in the room. She noticed his family’s meticulous style. Yes, they were always up to date with the fashions. Yes, René would do. She pressed her pink lips to his jaw, she traced her fingers over a portion of his leg, and took in every detail of his profile. She liked that he didn’t conceal any of the tenderness in his reciprocal gaze.
“I’d like to say something important,” Matthieu and René said at the same time.
“Me first,” René insisted, and ignored his father’s reproachful glance. “I love Valéry. We are engaged to be married.”
“Nonsense!” Matthieu was preoccupied. “We’ve heard that one before. I’ve never heard such nonsense. You don’t even know this girl. Look at her, she’s a tart.”
Valéry’s eyes flashed.
“You won't marry her.”
Zoé smirked slightly. Now it was getting interesting- finally!
Lydie gasped. “She seems like a perfectly nice....I mean....René likes her. She seems nice, I suppose.” No one took any notice of her. Grandmother watched silently.
René glared at his father and clenched his fists, and snapped, “I will marry whomever I please! It’s none of your-”
Matthieu waved his hand dismissively. “I was going to say something important,” he enunciated. “I’m going to die.”
“I have no doubt in my mind. I’ve already been on this earth too long. I’ve done my bit, and will soon make my exit. But first, I have a few words to say to my only son. René, stay here.”
René hated the voice his father used, he hated his smooth superiority, he hated being told what to do, time and time again. And how was this more important than his engagement? Matthieu could die any day, who could say it would be as soon as he said it was?
The other members of the Gilles family obeyed Matthieu’s overbearing voice without hesitation. Zoé lingered for a moment behind door. Her father’s voice was quiet, but she could hear her brother clearly.
René was hardly keeping his temper, going on about marriage this, and Valéry that. But a few sudden words from Matthieu silenced him. Matthieu talked for a few minutes and finally Zoé watched through a crack under the hinge of the door he gave René a wooden box the size of a shoe box, and an envelope.
“Zoé!” Her older sister roughly took her arm and led her away from the door. They walked through the richly decorated halls and passed by Valéry, whose face was sour now that René was not beholding it.
“You might as well go home,” Zoé told her, not unkindly. “He won’t come back anytime soon.”
Valery just glared.
Zoé wondered what was going on in the room with her father and brother, but didn’t care quite enough to cross her sister. She entered her bedroom and closed the door, wanting to be alone. She lit a candle, and was startled to find her grandmother was sitting on her bed. Zoé carefully took off each piece of fine jewelry and waited for the old woman to speak.
“There are people after him. After this whole family. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was committing suicide just to get out of the mess he put us in.”
Zoé shrugged and began to untie her hair. “So?”
Grandmother took her time replying. She rarely spoke, but when she did, everyone listened. “They know about you. Your father knows he is going to die. He knows we are all probably at risk.” She paused to look her son’s daughter dead in the eye. “What he does not know is that you are probably next. If you don't watch yourself.”
Zoé didn’t answer. Her silhouette was at the window; she watched Valéry’s riddance. Beautiful, deceitful Valéry mounted her horse and disappeared. Everything goes according to plan.
Downstairs, René concluded the colloquy with his father, and, clutching the ornate box, he left the lounge without a backward glance. Outside the room, his sisters (excluding Zoé) were crowded in the hall. They searched his face for clues, but he made a conscious effort to keep his expression blank. He ignored their furtive glances at the box. “Where is Valéry?”
“Left ages ago,” a sister replied simply.
“Got fed up,” another added.
The oldest one fixed him with a superior look. “What is in the box? And what did Father want?”
René was already hurrying away down the dimly lit hall.
“He is our father, too! You can’t keep this from us. What is happening? Is he going to die, really? Did he tell you exactly the size of his fortune?”
René turned the corner. Finally alone. He leaned against the wall, and was surprised to find his breathing ragged and uneven. He was a different man now than he was before. His life had been so carefree just an hour before, and now everything changed. He had changed. He looked at the box held awkwardly in his hands, and angrily threw it across the hall. It crashed to the floor and its contents fluttered to the ground. He felt all the rage slide out of him then, as he slid down the wall to the floor and sat with his head in his hands. What now?
Fear chilled him when he saw what was inside the box. He knew before, but now he was seeing for himself. At least one hundred wine-coloured feathers littered the ground. So. Matthieu had escaped death that many times? The Reprisal was relentless; it was certainly impossible to escape them even once!
René carefully put each feather back in the box, and left it there in the hallway. He was agitated, and needed to walk for a while. Going out after dark was unwise, but there was hardly any risk so far from the city. He had done this hundreds of times. He absentmindedly tapped his belt and felt the loaded gun and the knife within reach.
He stepped into the inky darkness and his leather boots moved noiselessly across the forest floor. He already felt a shade calmer. Now, he wanted to find Valéry, and apologize for leaving her for so long. They would discuss their bright future, and he would kiss her; with the moon as their only witness. Thoughts of his betrothed helped to lighten his mood, and reminded him that the world was his to play in. He hadn’t felt this free in a long time.
But, the unwanted thoughts wouldn’t stay out of his mind.
His father, Matthieu, was a loyalist. This was a risky political stance, because loyalists were persecuted and often executed by a rising power: the Reprisal. If they perceived you as a threat, you would receive a scarlet feather inside an anonymous letter, or find one outside your door. Then, you would wait. Sometimes, it took days, or months. Sometimes the victims would go into hiding. But the Reprisal always caught up. Sometimes, it only took a few hours, and the loyalist victim would be found dead by morning. Years ago, Matthieu had been an activist, who educated others on the corrupt nature of the reprisal, and kept many people loyal to the throne. He was certainly a target. So he had never stayed in one place, he lived as a sort of gypsy, seeking refuge in the homes of fellow loyalists. The Reprisal followed his every move, and sought to kill him, but even with their vast power, they could not stop him. They sent him feather after scarlet feather, which he had kept as a reminder of his cause. René knew all of this. His father rarely spoke of his past, but René had managed to piece the story together. Now that he was nearly 20, René assumed he knew it all. His father, the hero.
But he had learned the rest of the story that night. Before all of this, Matthieuhad been one of them. He had been an influential...leader. Back when it was still in its earliest stages. He had been close friends with Eloi Célestin, and together they had carefully plotted to overthrow King Gaël. But first, they would eliminate each member of the Royal family, along with any troublesome loyalists.
The rebel party soon became extremely popular and rich, and Matthieu and Eloi lived like kings, almost completely detached from society, except to give orders to their inferiors. But one day, Matthieu and Eloi had been in a carriage, travelling to a new city for a banquet. Eloi had been scheming, and Matthieu had been watching the commoners in the streets. One woman was standing in the street, handing out leaflets.
“Stop the carriage,” Eloi ordered. He looked to the ground and read one that had fallen there.
The Reprisal is evil. They do not want to make life better for us, they want to crush us. Do NOT support them. Do NOT become one of them. It would be a crime against the king, against humanity, against God.
Eloi snapped his fingers, and two of his armed guards got out of the carriage and approached the woman. All the passers by stood a safe distance away, and watched. One guard roughly took her arm and cast her to the ground, and paper flew everywhere. She tried to run, but the other guard snatched her hair, kicked her. She sank to the ground.
“Kill her,” Eloi told them.
The guard raised his gun. The woman was silent.
“No!” Matthieu said.
Eloi raised an eyebrow.
“We can take her with us,” Matthieu said quickly. “And decide what to do when we get there.”
A foul smile crossed Eloi’s lips. “Indeed...” Then, to the guards: “Tie her up and put her in the back. We will...yes...decide later.”
That was when Matthieu knew he had to get away. He recalled all the doubt that had been flooding his mind lately, about all of Eloi’s cruel plans. He had held it back for too long, drowned it under endless parties and plots. But Eloi had changed. He could see it now.
Hours later, they stopped at a hotel. That night, the woman was brought to Matthieu’s room. She was still, except for her wide eyes which darted around the room. Matthieu untied her, and together, they escaped through the window. Matthieu had not told René the woman’s name, but René knew they had been on the run together for many years. Matthieu had skipped over that part of the story. Many years later, Matthieu had gone to the countryside of Ossane, and the Reprisal either lost his trail, or lost interest. Actually, neither was a possible answer. Eloi had been betrayed; he would never forget. More likely, they were biding their time, until they were ready to strike. Even the feathers had stopped coming. Except for a week before, when Matthieu had woken up with a feather over his heart. The message was clear.
So, as Matthieu explained to his son, he was choosing a more dignified death: suicide. He would not let his sworn enemy decide his fate. He would end it himself. Dignified. Strong. Free.
René sighed. His father had been known as a hero earlier in life, and he was. He had saved lives and slowed the rebellion. But now... he was taking the easy way out. Taking an indefinite rest. Passing the role to his son.
The troubled young man turned his thoughts to Valéry. Lovely Valéry. Hopefully they would be married within the year. Maybe they would stay above the conflicts of the past, and lead a quiet life in their own little world.
Presently, René tripped and fell into the mud. He pushed himself up and checked to see what he had tripped over. It was Valéry.
There she was, lying in a bed of leaves, her neck turned at an impossible angle. He had tripped over her blood spattered arm. A strangled cry was choked out of René, and he felt faint.
He knelt beside his future wife, and studied her pale features. He looked into her empty eyes, and saw only his own wild expression mirrored back.
Her horse was gone; he could see the prints in the mud. So, she had fallen off her horse. Why? She was an experienced rider. Then all at once he saw the answer, a gunshot wound in her shoulder.
“Valéry, Valéry,” he whispered as he knelt by her side. “Valéry! Who did this to you?”
He whispered her name until words had no meaning, until the world stopped spinning, until his voice gave way to sobs. He loved her.
Bats circled overhead, and the autumnal wind shook the trees. A twig snapped.
René looked up sharply, only to see himself surrounded by a large group of men.