Whispers greeted her homecoming, and rumor followed. Mercédès expected no less. Marseilles had changed little in the years since she left, and memory stretched long. Enough people remembered the young Catalan fiancée of a traitorous sailor. Even more had heard news about the injured widow of a duplicitous general.
Look at what sorrow beauty brings, the gossipmongers whispered. Their poisoned words tainted even this, her last remaining sanctuary. Do not covet beauty, lest you dare risk its corruption.
She thought of Paris: its shining lights, its garish opulence, its unfailing love of beauty. For all that her own beauty had been renowned in her youth, perhaps still was even now, Mercédès had not once imagined making a home in Paris. Edmond had been a sailor, and Marseilles was his home. Until the Fates intervened, she, like Edmond, had expected to live here until the end of her days.
"Aren't the navettes to your liking?" Valentine dabbed crumbs from her lips, a delicate flick of wrist and napkin.
The time spent away from the capital had done the girl good. She thrived under the auspices of the Morrel family, and the scouring sea air brought color to her face in ways even the most expensive of cosmetics failed to do. And, Mercédès noted with a smile, the company of the attentive Maximilien certainly did not hurt either.
"They are exactly as I remember." She traced patterns over the boat-shaped pastry waiting forlornly on her plate. Fernand had insisted she give these up when they made their Parisian debut. Another link in the chain to their past that required breaking. Another hint to the truth that required burying.
Valentine took another bite of hers. "It must be strange to come back after so many years away. But how wonderful it must be to see your childhood friends again. The stories you can share with one another."
My childhood friends are buried in a hilltop cemetery overlooking the ocean.
Valentine meant well. If a cruel bone existed in her body, Mercédès had yet to encounter it. But Maximilien had done her a kindness, spiriting her away when he had. Hearing accounts of the events that had transpired in Paris and experiencing them stood on opposite sides of a yawning chasm, and Mercédès felt that distance keenly.
"It is... different," she admitted. "You can never truly come home again, after all."
Her words gave Valentine cause for disquiet. She saw that immediately, and regretted it.
"Have you heard from Albert?"
Mercédès shook her head, the sigh escaping her lips before she could catch it. "My son is busy these days."
The sympathy on the other woman's face cut almost too deep to bear. Mercédès chose to hide behind her café au lait rather than acknowledge it. Over the course of her life, she had played many roles -- daughter, lover, wife, mother, widow -- but she refused to accept the part of pitiful wretch.
Mercédès had lost much, but not her pride.
In the next second, Valentine nearly stole even that. "Have you visited their graves recently?"
The coffee soured in her mouth. She cared little for appearances these days, a blessed freedom after so many years of secrets and caution, but she had Valentine to think of. The girl was young and a relative stranger here. Mercédès doubted she realized how precarious she made her reputation, simply by virtue of being seen in public with a woman beloved by two traitors. A public display of temper would help matters not at all.
A public display of grief would shatter the illusion Mercédès worked so hard to maintain.
"No." She prided herself on how steady her voice was. "I have not."
Genuine puzzlement filled the girl's face. "Why not? I thought you loved them both."
Mercédès closed her eyes, pitiful armor against truth that nonetheless found its mark, straight and true. She looked towards the sea. "I already said goodbye."
At night she dreamed.
She walked along the beach, near the shore's edge, where Edmond and Fernand had once chased her windswept hat. Sand crunched beneath her feet, grains clinging to her bare soles, as she closed the distance separating her from the elegant figure silhouetted against the blood red sun.
"Mercédès Herrera." Fangs flashed in the dying sunlight.
He wore the mask of the Count, as always. The demon knew her weakness well. No matter the changes wrought by time and distance, place and circumstance, Mercédès would always recognize Edmond's face. As the sailor, as the prisoner of the Chateau d'If, as the Count of Monte Cristo, she would know his beloved face always.
But the voice Gankutsuou used was his own. "If you despise me so much, why do you come?"
"You left Edmond to die."
"I fulfilled my half of the bargain. Our compact was complete. Edmond Dantés knew the price." The demon opened his true eyes then, glittering and inhuman in their violet splendor, and studied her. "And do not speak to me of abandonment. He suffered the same fate from you."
"Yes," Mercédès agreed, unflinching. He spoke only the truth, after all. "And we shall both pay for it."
Mercédès awoke to the sound of laughter, but when she looked around the night-blanketed bedroom, she was alone.
After Mercédès arrived in Marseilles, the first order of business had been to secure a permanent place of residence. She disliked relying on the charity of others, and her sensibilities recoiled at the thought of becoming a long-term customer at an inn. Renting a room meant she expected to leave at some point, and that was the one thing Mercédès would never do. Not now, not again.
In the end she chose the old Dantés house. The home had stood empty since Louis died of a father's broken heart. Few people wished to dwell in a place filled with such sorrow. It saturated the walls and leeched deep into its foundation.
As Mercédès walked through its empty rooms, remembering Louis's final days, she thought it fitting that she should spend the rest of her life here.
"I can give you back everything you lost."
"Lies." The wind snatched at her hair, pulling it free from its lover's knot. "You give nothing but lies."
He continued as if she had not spoken. "Do you desire wealth? Do you yearn for your former status? I can give you those things. I can grant you anything. You need only say you will be my friend."
Mercédès pursed her lips. "Can you give me Edmond?"
When the demon remained silent, she turned. Gankutsuou hid nothing tonight. His eyes, his mocking leer, everything stood out on sharp display. And for that Mercédès was glad. It made facing him easier, because she saw not Edmond but instead the monster who corrupted her lover's soul, who wore his guise to torment her.
"Once life is extinguished, it cannot be ignited again. There are some things even I cannot do."
"Then there is nothing you have that I want."
"What about your son's love?"
Mercédès turned away.
When she awoke, Mercédès caught a glimmer of violet, a crimson and gold cuff, in the mirror across from her bed.
But upon closer inspection, all she saw was her own moonlit reflection.
During the day Mercédès wrote letters.
To Eugénie, who responded with effusive messages, regaling her with anecdotes of the Conservatory. Of the people she met. The concerts she gave.
To Haydée, who responded with polite missives penned in a graceful script. The hidden princess was at last returning home, accompanied by the Count's -- Edmond's -- loyal servants. They could never be friends, Haydée and she, not in the way it was with Eugénie. The shadow of the Count loomed dark and heavy between them, but perhaps they could understand one another.
And to Albert, who responded not at all.
She stood on the dock where she had often waited for Edmond's return in her younger days. An odd choice of venue. Gankutsuou preferred the beach as the backdrop for their dreamscape rendezvous. It suited his guise of the Count better. The docks belonged to the purview of Edmond, and the Edmond he had met deep within the fortress of the Chateau d'If was nothing like the Edmond Mercédès had loved. Not once, since their nightly encounters began, had he ever tried to wear Edmond's original face.
Sometimes she wondered if that was what kept her coming back: the chance of seeing Edmond's true face once more.
Then, the Fates smiled.
Time stopped. Disbelieving, not daring to hope, bracing for disappointment, she turned. Her breath caught.
Tears stung her eyes.
Valentine lowered her teacup to the table with a decisive thunk. If it were anyone else, Mercédès would blame clumsiness but the de Villefort scion was not prone to such gracelessness.
"You look terrible."
Or, perhaps, Mercédès was mistaken.
Ah, but no. While Valentine had settled into life here, Marseilles had failed to strip away the manners drilled into her through years of maneuvering Paris's treacherous social waters. Color stained the girl's cheeks, betraying her awareness of her verbal misstep.
Valentine surprised her again. "You spend so much time by yourself. I thought you were happy to come home."
Mercédès sipped her tea, feeling strangely calm as she considered her answer. She decided to gift Valentine with a surprise of her own: the truth. "I am relieved, if anything. Paris is not for me, but Fernand wanted it so much." With enough ambition to construct a life built entirely of lies.
"Then why do you spend so much time by yourself?"
"I am used to it."
Valentine furrowed her brow. Her pretty features made the expression comely, but it suited her poorly. Valentine was the type of woman who inspired protective feelings, fueled dreams of saving her from peril. The type of woman Mercédès had never been, and would never be. "I don't understand," she said.
"No?" Born to a father more interested in politics than his own family, raised by a stepmother who schemed to make her own son the de Villefort heir, Valentine, of all people, knew somewhat of self-imposed isolation.
To her credit, Valentine did not flinch. "I am not alone anymore." She clutched her teacup with shaking fingers, the only visible sign of her anxiety. "And there is no reason you must be either."
Mercédès shook her head, a smile playing on her lips. "I am not like you. I spent a lifetime pretending to be someone else. I want to relearn myself again. No masks. No illusions. No lies.
"And that rediscovery is best done in solitude."
"I cannot stay long."
"Oh?" The mocking leer returned. "Have you found a new lower then? Another man to fill the emptiness inside you?"
"No." Mercédès looked towards the ocean, searching the calm waters for a ship she would never see again. She hoped Edmond enjoyed his last voyage through the afterlife. She hoped he would return to shore when it was her time to go. "But I thought it best to keep this short."
Gankutsuou heard the finality in her voice. "You do not wish to be my friend?"
She thought perhaps his form blurred, losing shape and focus, but she could not be certain. This was a dream, after all, and dreams were ever-changing, never constant. "As I told you before, you have nothing I want or need."
"You need me."
"No." She faced him, gazed into beloved features warped by fury and vengeance. The Count was both Edmond and not, memory and present combined. "I can remember him without you. I can remember them both without you."
Glittering eyes narrowed. "You have been unfaithful. You have been visiting someone else."
"Only once. And it was merely the person I truly wished to see."
No mistake. His form bled, dissolving until all that remained was glowing energy. "And what of your son?"
"I will bide my time, and hold out hope."
Mercédès opened her eyes to feel the sunlight kissing her face.
It was the first time, since her arrival in Marseilles, that she had slept through an entire night.
The hill sloped gently and the summer breeze danced through the overgrown grass. Mercédès held her loose hair back with one hand as she placed the bouquets atop the grave markers. Side by side in death, as they had once stood in life.
She touched one. "Hello, Fernand." Then the other. "Hello, Edmond. I promise I will live for you." Her fingers lingered. "Please wait for me."
She returned from dinner with Valentine and the Morrel family to find a stack of mail waiting.
On top was a letter from Albert.
He planned to visit in the fall.