Chapter 1: lost in this masquerade
The great country mansion is ablaze with light and music, and even as he strides up the path he can already hear the politely rumbling rise and fall of conversation - men's voices and women's laughter, the whisper of fine clothes and the bright clink of glasses and cutlery and fine bone china.
From all accounts it's a lively and swinging Country Season indeed, and while Viscount Xavier is grateful for the divertimenti he also has to admit that he is beginning to lose patience with the entire exercise - because he has already determined to pass on his estates and titles to the young girl he's taken under his wing, so he really has no need to look for a spouse. Especially since he's already taken such pains to announce his intentions - and the young lady Raven is already nearing her majority, meaning he's about to descend into the obscurity he's always longed for.
Still, he's been invited expressly to this occasion, and it would really not do to offend either of the sisters Emma and Moira, not when they outrank him so, and so he ties on his plain, unembellished copper-velvet domino, and he places his card on the tray offered by the footman at the door - and someone precedes him into the blue ballroom, announcing him in a grandly echoing voice: "The Viscount Xavier of Westchester".
It's not difficult at all to spot the sisters - they're dressed as each other, Moira in pale makeup and a snow-white gown while Emma's dressed in black from head to toe - and Charles kisses their proffered hands, and none of them feign their smiles.
"You look quite dashing," Moira says, and Charles shrugs elegantly, which makes Emma laugh and add, "Enough to make you quite the catch! But please do not let this go to your head. We are actually throwing this fete for a new acquaintance we have made."
Moira nods, and motions to one of the servants, and murmurs to him before offering Charles a glass of wine. "Let us see if we can pry our guest of honor away, because it's been Emma's idea to introduce the two of you, and just between you and me, I think she just wants to see how you react to him."
"I do so quite like it when you slander me as though I am not here," Emma laughs - but the light in her eyes is amused and sincere, and it is she who gets to her feet when the servant returns and quietly announces the newcomer behind him: "Ladies, sir, I present Erik Graf Lehnsherr."
The man stands head and shoulders over all of them, and with a large, worn hand he removes his fanciful mask with its purple and black feathers, and he smiles with a formal, straight-backed reserve. "It is good to speak with you again, my ladies. And it is a pleasure to meet you - sir?"
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Charles murmurs as he straightens up from his bow. "I'm Charles. And how do you wish to be addressed?"
"I am given to understand you also have a title, sir," is the quiet, rumbling reply. "You do not wish to stand on ceremony?"
Charles watches the sisters exchange incredulous looks, before Moira looks away and starts chuckling. "Charles and ceremony? Don't be absurd!"
"Our friend is not much for titles," Emma says, attempting to hide her smile in her wine. "I do believe he would throw his away if he could. As it is, he has already found a means of disposing of it."
"Oh, I hate you both," Charles says, but he's laughing as he speaks and he punctuates his comments with friendly kisses to the sisters' cheeks. When he turns back to the other man, he knows he's blushing furiously; he can feel the heat in his cheeks, and he curses his fair skin for a traitor. "It's true that I have not been overfond of my title, and it's also true that I have already made plans to pass it on."
"My congratulations to your lady wife, then, and to your heir," the Graf murmurs.
"Lady wife - ? Oh, no, you are mistaken," and Charles waves one hand absently in the air. He is still conscious of the sisters keenly watching their conversation. "I - I have an heir - or rather an heiress, and no wife. My ward, companion, I no longer know what to call her because we are friends and she is good enough to put up with all my eccentricities - my young lady, I say sometimes, my young lady Raven will take the title after me, and in fact I am just waiting for next autumn."
But it's Moira who answers, and once again her smile is fond. "Our dear young by-then-no-longer-a-viscount will travel, he says. He's not been much around the Continent, and he intends to go on some kind of pilgrimage."
"Poor deluded soul, who'll be pining for and writing about missing the comforts of home soon enough," Emma says. "You mark my words, my good Count. We will be hearing from Charles directly within the year he sets out."
Charles throws his hands up, and pretends to frown at the two women, and then turns back to the Graf and spreads his hands and smiles in apology. "I do hope I have entertained you, sir, together with these two terrible excuses for ladies and friends. And now if you'll excuse me I shall go and seek some refreshment."
"I'll still dance with you," Emma laughs.
"If I ask you," Charles says, to Moira's knowing smile, and he shrugs and bows to the three of them, and before he really thinks about it he's out the doors, he's in the great formal gardens, and he thinks vaguely about plunging into the maze when there are footsteps behind him.
Charles sighs, and closes his eyes for a moment, and when he turns around he has his company smile on - but that falters really quickly when he has to look up, and how did it fail to escape his notice that the Graf was that much taller than he?
"You will not object to my company, I hope," the man says after a moment. "I...I made you my excuse to get out from under all the eyes looking my way."
That makes Charles stop and stare, and he tilts his head and considers his interlocutor carefully. "I suppose I will not mind, if you will consent to answer a few of my questions?"
"Let us make a trade of it," is the answer. "You ask me a question and I will answer it, and then I will ask a question and you answer it as you see fit."
"That is fair. I will go first. What brings you here?"
The Graf smiles. "You would be able to ask the most difficult question first. Very well, I will show you that I trust you, and I will answer truthfully. I am sent here on a mission from my sovereign, who has asked me to act as his representative on a few matters of state. Nothing too important. I have only to deliver messages. Had, rather, I should say. This was the last house I was to go to. After this I am to sail home. In a week, perhaps sooner. It will be good to go back to my lands. I miss the mountains."
"I certainly should not pry any further than this - and thank you, by the way, for your candor. I will try to return it accordingly."
"I would like to inquire as to the nature of your relationship with the ladies of this house?"
Charles laughs. "They are both my childhood friends. We have all grown up together. They might know a few of my secrets, and I in turn know almost all of theirs." He shrugs, fondly. "But I must admit that I like being mothered by them both. Only to a certain extent, naturally, because then they become overbearing, and a man can only be polite to them for so long."
"As has just been demonstrated to me," the Graf says, and Charles shakes his head and smiles, and he takes a left, into the maze.
The moon is bright enough to see by, and the night is mild, and they are not the only ones strolling the paths - though after a moment, Charles puts his mask back on, and he watches the Graf follow suit. "At least this way we can all deny seeing each other in the morning," he sighs.
"As cumbersome as this is, I find I must agree. Now you may ask me another question."
"Oh, it's my turn again, yes," Charles says."Hmm, perhaps you might tell me of your family?"
The Graf looks oddly wistful. "I wish I could say much of them. My parents were lost at sea ten years ago. I have been alone for a while."
Charles reaches out to him, gently sympathetic. "I know what that is like - let me answer your question, if I can guess what it will be. I, too, am alone, and as you may have gathered from the earlier conversation, my heiress is not even related to me by blood. I found her, or perhaps she found me, and I took her in, and have stood as her legal guardian."
"Will she not be as burdened as you have seemed to be, if she takes your titles and ranks?"
"And now you think me a dreamer," Charles murmurs. They have stopped near what must be the center of the maze, and there is a fountain babbling quietly to itself nearby. "Very well, it is no accusation - merely a statement of facts. I am a dreamer, and I wish to be able to dream, and Raven is willing and capable of the task I leave to her - she has been correcting my work for some time now. I do believe she's more than ready, and I am happy to give her the task that truly belongs to her and not to me."
The Graf is silent for a while, and Charles takes a deep breath, and he expects that at any moment he will be left alone. He is responsible, and the estate has flourished under his hand, but he has as good as admitted that he is flighty and silly, and this really isn't the first time that something like this has happened to him.
A stray cloud blankets the moon as he watches the sky, and the gardens and the maze are plunged into darkness.
"Come and visit me," the Graf suddenly says. "If you are determined to travel."
"I will be pleased to do so, if my path takes me thither."
"Then that is all I ask. Good night, my good Viscount."
Charles is left alone, but this time it does not hurt at all. On the contrary, he feels something rising in him, like anticipation, like hope. "Good night, my Graf," he murmurs into the whispering wind of the night.
Chapter 2: letters lost and found
Ten months later
My dearest wonderful Charles,
I wonder if you heard me shouting for joy all the way over there on the continent! I have just taken delivery of your package, and - oh, I have no words to express my happiness! You keep secrets so well - I hadn't known that you had been planning something like this! And this is such a magnificent coat - perfect for this rainy winter we have been having! It fits me so well and it even smells so good.
It was so sweet of you to tuck those little pomanders into the pockets. I will be saving those, now, and I am going to ask Mrs Turner to help me hang them up around my room as soon as I am finished with this day's work.
When the rain and snows abate, I will wear this to go out to town, to the Misses Frost, and I will be happy to take their compliments and praise your excellent good taste to the skies. I can think of no better way to repay your extraordinary kindness in sending me something that I have needed and wanted, and that will be both treasured and well-used in time to come, I hope.
I wish you the best of the year, and I hope that you continue to be happy, and I miss you so very very much.
Write to me soon.
All my love
Sent from Xavier House, the seat of the viscountcy of Westchester
We hope that this package reaches you in time for your own holiday revels. It was not possible to procure all of the items on your list, but we hope that the items we have substituted for that which is missing will be more than suitable.
The winter winds blow fiercely this year and they are also bringing down such dreary rains, and so it is a lot of work to keep warm. We are considering decamping to the continent ourselves, perhaps to the south, and should this come to pass you may expect another missive from us. It would be most excellent to have your company again, and we hope that you would consent to join us at that time, and to rest your weary feet at a familiar hearth.
[Emma writes:] I have been keeping an eye out on your excellent young lady and I must say, Lady Westchester is even better than perhaps you ever were at caring for the land and for the people! We have heard tell of her riding tirelessly out at the fences, even through the worst of the winter winds. I must say, I remember that you took such risks to your person in order to make sure everything on your estates was running well, but she seems to have surpassed you in both courage and intelligence. I pay my respects to you, my dear. You have done something good for the world with her.
[Moira writes:] You will write back to me and tell me what you think of the scarf I have enclosed in the package, because it took me the better part of a month to finish the embroidery. I wanted to remind you of the days when we would pick violets and try to braid them into Emma's hair while she was sleeping. How I wish that you had been here to see the maze bloom - just for a week, mind, before the cold began to set in. Perhaps you will see new flowers as the spring comes to the continent. I think of you sometimes and think of the hours you spent in your gardens and ours during the many summers. It does seem to help me remember that Spring will come in its own time.
We look forward to hearing from you soon, dear Charles, whether you send us your reply here or we spend that time together.
Emma and Moira
Sent from Muir Lake, country seat of the Frost family
To The Viscount Xavier
Be aware that I have been advised in this matter by the Graf himself, and yet as this is his first missive to you, he finds refuge in formality. Perhaps in future he will consent to write to you in his own name.
Allow me to introduce myself; I am the Graf's secretary, and for lack of a more cogent term I am also employed as his chatelaine. My name is Magda, and I assist him in overseeing his estates, and for this I am also serving as his voice to you.
Erik Graf Lehnsherr has very kindly asked me to remind you of the invitation that he extended to you when he was sojourning in England. I add my entreaty to his and respectfully suggest you come as soon as you can, before the winter comes in earnest and we are buried under the quiet snow again, unable to come or go until the thaw.
Enclosed please find a map and a series of written directions. You may make your way to the Lehnsherr lands from the city of Schwerin. It is a journey of three days by horse, and the Graf trusts that this will not be cause for discouragement.
If you find your way takes you towards us please be so kind as to send us a message to announce that you have commenced your journey. A letter from any of the great cities will suffice, and you will find the address at the end of this letter.
On behalf of the Graf, welcome, and I hope to make your acquaintance in person very soon.
Sent from the Lehnsherr estates in the north of Germany
The candle flickers and Charles instinctively cups one hand around the wavering flame, and when it stops guttering he carefully folds each letter and places it back into its envelope.
He thinks about Raven's fondness for dark purple ink, and of the differences between Emma's and Moira's handwriting, and of Magda's painstakingly formal cadence. He thinks long and hard about the differences between him and them, right now - and that's when the flame of his candle flickers out with a defeated hiss, leaving him in a deep shadowy darkness.
Unexpected, but not unprepared for, and Charles sighs and feels his way back to the rickety bed, and even when he pulls all the covers up around his ears he still feels the winter night surrounding him, in a sort of cold contemplative silence.
How far he's run from familiar haunts and well-known places, and how far he has yet to run, he thinks.
He thinks of the last fortnight at Xavier House: he intended to leave a week after Raven's birthday, but she had pleaded with him, had asked him over and over to stay just a little longer while she got her feet under her - and so his last memory of the great and shining house is of the bare trees like black veins in a pale forbidding sky, and of Raven tucking a packet adorned with a nosegay of dried violets into the pocket of his coat.
He thinks of the note he sent in to the Frost sisters as he made his way to London, and again he finds himself wondering just how quickly their footman had ridden to place the reply in his hands just as he was boarding the ship to the continent. He could tell Emma's hand by the way the lines were very nearly sword-strokes into the thick paper: Be safe. Luck be with you. We will worry, but we will try not to worry over much.
Now this, the last note, recently delivered. He's not surprised to come by a reply; what does surprise him is that the reply found him at all.
There are bits of paper crumpled up in his pockets: letters begun and left unfinished, because he's left tongue-tied, unable to say what he wants to say.
The windows in his room are tightly shuttered against the wind, but it doesn't stop him from smelling the salt on the breeze, and it doesn't stop him from hearing the muted roar of the surf.
He wishes he could bottle these impressions and send them back in lieu of replies. After all, it isn't enough simply to put pen to paper and write "I wish you were here with me", not if he were to write to Raven or to Emma and Moira.
And what would he write to the Graf, when all he knows about him is based on a stilted, brief conversation?
Charles closes his eyes and thinks about walking some more on the wild and lonely mainland moors, and he thinks of letters he would like to send back, if only he could tell the truth.
To The Graf Lehnsherr
I am in your debt for once again extending your gracious invitation.
I am currently sojourning in France, and the path I am taking will soon lead me to Paris; I will take in the sights and make ready, god and the weather willing, to visit your domain.
I look forward to speaking with you again soon.
If I cannot make it in time for the turn of the year, please accept my greetings.
With friendship and respect
Charles Xavier, formerly of Westchester
Sent from Calais
It might be warmer in Paris, but not by much, and Charles is more than grateful not just for Moira's present but also for Raven's: she'd slipped him an extra pair of gloves, and though the knitted material clashes just a little with his overcoat and hat, he's glad for the gift, and he resolves to send her some good watercolors and brushes when he can.
There are new galleries being opened at the Louvre and he spends his time haunting the cold corridors, and he can see his own breath in thin misty clouds but he stamps his feet quietly, and keeps looking. The new paintings and acquisitions are fascinating, and he loses himself in contemplation, happy in his self-imposed silence.
That is, until he pauses once again in front of something older, one of his favorite paintings, the Oath of the Horatii: he lets out a quiet sigh, and thinks hard about feelings and about duty - and he is interrupted by someone clearing his throat.
"Good evening, Herr Xavier," someone murmurs, in very familiar, very grave accents.
Charles doesn't jump in surprise, but it is a very near thing, and he can feel his heart hammering in his ears as he turns to his right - and there is the familiar aquiline profile of the Graf next to him. It takes him a moment to reply, just as quietly: "But the snow?"
The Graf smiles, just a little bit. "Falling thick and fast when I left. I may not be able to return until the spring."
"Why are you here?" Charles says, and he hopes he isn't being impertinent.
"To see a friend. You might know him. He seems to like coppery hues."
Charles smiles, and takes his hands out of his pockets to reveal his gloves, which are almost the same shade as his domino mask from that party. "Perhaps I do."
They stand quietly before the painting for a little while longer - and then a bell rings, echoing faintly in the corridors of the museum, and the Graf says, "Come and take supper with me."
Charles nods, once, and when he follows the other man out it is both like and unlike their walk in the maze, and he wonders about their destination, this time.