Letter Found In A Chest Belonging To The Marquis de Monsteraille, Following The Death Of That Worthy Individual
by Marie Brennan
My dearest darling Madallaine,
It is presumptuous of me, you must be thinking, to use such terms of affection in addressing you, for we are at best passing acquaintances, such as would nod and mouth an empty greeting were we to find ourselves at the opera together. I pray you, have patience with me, for the purpose of this letter, which I write knowing that the sickness now resident in my lungs will soon kill me, is to explain to you why it is that we know each other so poorly — and why such a thing should matter to you. In doing so, I hope I will make it clear why I have begun in so familiar a fashion.
Think back, if you will, to a ball you attended in your sixteenth year. I imagine the intervening time, filled with so very many balls, has blurred the memory, but this one was particularly splendid; it was at this ball that the Duc de Corsevois exhibited the tame lions he had recently acquired. The event lingers in my mind for other reasons, though; on that evening, I first had the pleasure of your acquaintance.
Remember that meeting, if you can. It is burned forever into my memory. You wore a gown of the palest rose silk, embroidered down the sleeves with seed pearls; this was the first time you had been permitted anything so fine, you later confided to me, and I told you that you outshone every lady there, and even the moon in the sky. But the evening was not all pretty compliments and dancing; later that night, I drew you aside in a corner and gave to you a small package, which I begged you to deliver to the Duc. I dared not do so myself, but in our conversation you had impressed me not only with your beauty, but also with your quick wit and level head.
Please, do not dismiss this as the ramblings of an elderly man whose senses have been fogged by illness. I know that you have no recollection of such an encounter, no matter how you search your memory for one. This, too, I shall explain, if you will but read on.
You took the package and saw it safely into the Duc’s keeping. And because of that deed, he soon left the country, and by doing so escaped the headsman’s block. You were not aware until later that your efforts had saved his life, but I made certain he knew, and he was grateful.
We saw much of each other after that. I confess, I had been in love before, and from my experiences I knew that, within a short while, such heady bliss would fade; soon your presence would cease to light up the room, and a single smile from you would no longer cause my heart to falter. Except that you, my darling, were different; your radiance did not fade. I asked your father for your hand, and soon after we were wed.
I had not ever expected to gain a wife, for my life was not one conducive to domestic bliss. But you knew when you wed me that I had for many years been plotting to overthrow the Usurper who had stolen the throne and replace him with the White Prince, our true king. You, alone of all women I have known, not only agreed with me, but wanted to aid my efforts! Ours was a most peculiar marriage, perhaps, full of schemes and intrigue, but it suited us both admirably; together we worked to remove the Usurper from the throne, and in doing so we were happy.
And then came Azray-sur-le-Mont.
I pray you pardon me if tearstains blur my words; this is not easy for me to recount.
The Duc de Corsevois had sent word that he would soon be returning from his exile with a tremendous army to support his Highness. We knew that Azray-sur-le-Mont would be a key battle, for its lord was one of the Usurper’s strongest supporters, and you — ever fearless — volunteered to infiltrate the court there and keep us informed as we prepared to strike the first blows for the White Prince. Without your aid, we would have been blind, but with it, we knew we could prevail.
But when the time came for the battle to begin, everything moved too quickly; suddenly our army was outside the castle walls, and you, my darling, were still inside.
I shall not burden you with the details of the battle; they do not matter now.
What matters is that when we overran the castle, the lord of Azray-sur-le-Mont escaped and fled to the docks. I gave chase, with a small company of men, and thus I learned that your duplicity had been discovered; the lord had taken you hostage, and had you with him as he boarded his ship.
My love, forgive me.
We could not let him escape to warn the Usurper of what we had done. Neither could we allow him to have you as his prisoner; the Usurper is a ruthless man, and would have stopped at nothing to make you tell what you knew. We had to stop the ship from sailing, and the only way to do that was to destroy it.
You saw me, from the deck of the ship, and you knew what I would do.
And so it was, my sweet, that in your nineteenth year your life came to an end; you died in the wreckage of that ship, and I gave the order that killed you.
It may be too much to hope that you have read this far. How can I say you died at the age of nineteen when there you stand, alive and well, a woman in her silver years? We met at the Duc’s ball, yes, but nothing more; you delivered no package, saw little of me that night but a brief introduction early on. I made my excuses and departed from your company quite rapidly — no doubt leaving the impression that I found you tedious. The White Prince fought at Azray-sur-le-Mont with only a small army, and he fell, defeated, on the battlefield there. We were never in love; we never wed. I have been, at best, a familiar name, a less familiar face.
Please believe me when I say the events I have recounted to you are not simply a product of my fancy, a dream born of some unrequited longing. All that I have said did happen. I saw it, lived through it, from the delirious joy of our courtship and marriage to the soul-rending grief of your death.
I have promised you an explanation, and you shall have it.
You recall the late Comte de la Fourré, I assume? Certainly his name should be familiar to you, although I doubt a lady of your station had his acquaintance. His dubious reputation was not unfounded, I admit, although I would not go so far as to call him wicked. Oh, indeed, I knew him well — as did you, in the time of which I have spoken already. It was he who brought this to pass, that I should remember things which never happened.
I blamed myself for your death. As well I should; were it not for me, you would never have become involved with the intrigues that ultimately led to your demise. Had I not given you that package at the Duc’s ball, you would have lived a long and fruitful life.
As indeed you have.
De la Fourré approached me not long after your death, when I was sunk deeply into the mire of grief and guilt. At first I did not believe what he told me; it was too fantastical. In my agony, I believed he was mocking me. He was certainly capable of such. But there was no mockery; his offer, for once, was true. He could grant me the opportunity to undo my mistake. I could go back to that night when I started you down the path to your doom, and make a different choice. I could save you, as I had failed to do at Azray-sur-le-Mont.
There is no reason you should believe my words, but I swear to you by all I hold sacred that they are true.
I returned to that night, the night of the Duc’s ball, and I removed myself from your company, and forever thereafter I have avoided you at every opportunity. This was for both our sakes; I respected you too much, and knew that if I became an intimate of yours, sooner or later I would be tempted to bring you once more into my world of intrigue. This had slain you once already. I would not risk it doing so again. And because I still loved you, and remembered you as my cherished wife, it was too painful to be near you and know that we must remain apart.
Thus I have lived my life as if I were an exile. The price, however, is one I have gladly paid. Following your death, I was in a terrible state; I doubt I would have been driven so far as to do myself harm, but I fear I would soon have perished through self-neglect and a simple lack of will to live. Instead, you and I have both enjoyed decades more of life. You have married — though not to me — and borne children, and never known the hideous pain of betrayal, of a husband who orders your death. De la Fourré did me a favor I can never repay. Far preferable for us to live apart than
I have committed the words to the page, but I cannot make myself believe them. My strength is ebbing fast; I fear that I cannot take the time to rewrite this letter. The words will stay. And if what I say next causes you to despise me, then my one, feeble defense shall be that I did write those words; I tried to believe them, although I failed in the end.
The words are a lie. We have lived decades longer than we would have, it is true, but we have not enjoyed them. I have watched you, my love, from the distance of my self-imposed exile, and I know that you are as wretched as I. Your husband does not respect you, let alone love you; you may have wed into a far wealthier home than I was able to give you, but it has provided you with no outlet for your most excellent mind, much less warmth and affection. You have borne children out of duty, not love, and you despise the Usurper as much as I do. For my part, I have lived my life as a lonely bachelor, deprived of love, thwarted in my attempts to bring the White Prince to the throne, and fearful of what would happen should the Usurper learn of those attempts. But I will pass beyond his reach soon, and so I will say here what I have until now feared even to think: I chose wrongly. You, my darling, were dead, and I surely would soon have followed, but we were blessed with three years of love that were more valuable to me than my decades of misery. We loved, and laughed, and by our efforts we brought peace to this land, and a king who ruled with justice instead of caprice. Better to have lived that time, in the fullness of its joy, than to have passed it up for fear of pain. No — I should not have accepted de la Fourré’s help. I curse the day he came to me.
You must think me a monster. How can I claim to love you, yet wish you dead? In my defense, I can say only this: that while you were with me, you knew happiness, and that happiness was greater than the sum total of all the life I have replaced it with. I made the choice for you, though, and for that I must beg your forgiveness.
It is too late change anything. My hand shakes so terribly, I can barely hold the pen. I shall not live much longer, not even to look upon your face before I die. I will leave instructions for you to receive this letter when I am gone. Know that I adore you, my treasure, and if there is any mercy in heaven, we will be reunited there, when the stains of my sins have been purged from my soul.
Your devoted love,
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. Her short stories have sold to more than a dozen venues, including Talebones, On Spec, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her Elizabethan faerie spy fantasy Midnight Never Come received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and its sequel In Ashes Lie will be out in June of 2009. More information can be found on her website, www.swantower.com.
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