We came for salvation
We came for family
We came for all that's good that's how we'll walk away
We came to break the bad
We came to cheer the sad
We came to leave behind the world a better way
-"Salvation Song"/The Avett Brothers
1 October 1958
On a cool night, beneath a heavy blanket of fog, on a cobblestone street amidst the crumbling grandiosity of a forgotten capital of old Europe, a most remarkable event took place, with no one there to witness it.
After a very long absence, a man was coming home.
He had stepped out of a black cab, and tipped the driver outrageously, and he had remained frozen on the pavement as the cab drove away. As the seconds ticked by still he lingered, standing beneath the green and white striped awning of a bakery, billows of steam rising periodically from the grate below, mingling with the fog and the mist and turning everything in sight hazy and grey and insubstantial. He stood with his back to the bakery, wrapped in a heavy grey coat with the collar turned up against the chill. On his head he wore a black fedora, as was his habit, and between the fog and the steam and the coat collar and the hat his features remained cloaked in shadow. As he stood, still, frozen in a misty, murky moment, he reached into his pocket, and withdrew a battered cigarette case. He pulled one out, and tucked it between his lips. From the cigarette case he retrieved a small pack of matches, of the kind often distributed by hotels to their anonymous guests. With an ease borne of practice he struck the match, held the flame to his cigarette, and inhaled deeply. If any one had been present to witness it, they would have seen in that moment the way the tiny flame threw his features into sharp relief, the sunken pockets of his eyes, the square line of his jaw visible even beneath a neat salt-and-pepper beard. The man was unobserved, however, as he shook out the match and dropped it onto the pavement at his feet, as he tucked the cigarette case back into his pocket, as he stood, still and calm, as if he were waiting for something.
In a way he was. He was waiting to be caught, waiting for the men who'd brought him here - the men he had promptly evaded and left floundering in his wake, confused and concerned - to come barreling down upon him. He was waiting for fanfare of some sort, for a chorus of shouts to erupt from the stone facade of the grand building across the way, for the heavens to open and pour down the rain that had been threatening for most of the day in place of this miserable mist. He was waiting for his own heart, waiting to feel...something. Surely, he told himself, a night as momentous as this one should feel momentous. Surely, he told himself, his heart ought to have been full to bursting in that moment, with joy at his homecoming, grief at his circumstances, anger for the hand that had been dealt to him by cruel fate.
And yet, he felt none of those things. He stood, still and waiting, and felt...nothing. He felt the mist settle damp on his cheeks, and relaxed deeper into the recesses of his coat. He felt the chill began to sink into his fingertips, and buried his hands deep in his pockets. He felt the rasp of the smoke as he puffed on his cigarette, the smoke and the mist and the fog and the steam swirling round his head, turning him into the very image of an old, garrulous officer standing in a field in France; he had seen something like it once, he thought, on a newsreel during the war.
The damned bloody war.
As he gazed at his surroundings now he saw no sign that the war had ever touched this place. It had, he knew; bombs had fallen on this city, had left some of its greatest treasures no more than smoldering ruins. People had traded everything they had - sometimes their very selves - for bags of sugar and blocks of butter in back alleys, made desperate by strict rations. Families had wept, as their young men marched off in ill-fitting uniforms, some of them never to return.
And yet he had returned, thirteen years after the war had ended. Old, and weary, broken in soul and in body, he had returned to this place he had once called home, this place a part of him had thought - had hoped - he would never see again. He had not gone to war thinking he would die, but then the Japanese had come, and he had prayed for it. Prayed for an end, a release, prayed for peace and eternal slumber away from violence and pain and misery and the endless parade of loss. It seemed selfish, to think of it now, the way he had so desperately wished to leave the world. People depend on you, that's what his father always used to say. You must be the man they need you to be. Not the man that you are.
He had not understood, when he was young. He had only heard his father's admonishment, the biting critique of his character, and he had felt only the insolent rage of the very young in response to the very old. That rage had propelled him out into the world, sent him in search of the true nature of his own self. He had known, then, what sort of man his father wanted him to be. He had not known, yet, what sort of man he was.
Now, though, he supposed he had learned. Through the years he had polished many skills, and spent many a long night pouring over the shortcomings of his character with a whiskey glass in hand. Through the years he had discovered talents never before imagined - there had been a brief period in Berlin, before the war, when he had discovered to his delight that he was quite competent with a drum kit - and plumbed the very depths of his own depravity, and yet through it all, still he heard his father's chastising words. Not the man you are. The man he was, it seemed, would never be good enough to earn his father's praise.
Not that it mattered so very much, any more. The old man was dying; that was why he had come. Six sober faced men in dark uniforms had pulled him from his cot in a bedsit in Hong Kong, and they had dragged him bodily across the sea, watching him every moment with mistrust in their eyes. They did not know him, these men who were younger now than he had been when he went off to war. They knew only that they had been given a mission, and that failure was not an option. Oh, he had never intended to stay in Hong Kong, once they told him the truth of the matter; his father was dying, even now lying abed half-paralyzed and mute, and he had known that he must go, and pay his last respects. There were a thousand tiny details that would need to be seen to, when the old man left this world, and while some of his adolescent petulance remained he had matured enough to recognize that there were some responsibilities from which he could not hide indefinitely. Better to face them like a man.
And so he stood, still and smoking, on the pavement, and stared out into the night, through the foggy haze, at his childhood home.
Palace was something of a misnomer, truth be told. It was a castle of the old guard, squat and fat and fortified, with turrets at every corner and recesses spaced regularly through the thick stone walls where centuries before archers had stood at the ready. Electric lights twinkled merrily in the windows now, rather than tallow candles. The moat had been filled with dirt and planted with wildflowers, and the heavy wooden drawbridge had been replaced by a wrought iron gate. Two soldiers stood sentry by that gate, but they did not carry swords; they were dressed in sharp navy uniforms, turned black by the mist, and they held rifles in place of spears. They stood with their backs as straight as his own, staring at him from across the way, but he could not be sure if they'd taken note of him. They must have done, he supposed, but they did not move or chatter amongst themselves. It occurred to him they might well have been statutes, but for the latent threat of those rifles. No marble could wound so deeply as a bullet.
The city had grown up around the castle, somewhere in the dark days before William the Conqueror ever arrived at Hastings. The keep itself had once been home to a master blacksmith and a master tanner and a master brewer and a master-at-arms and countless other masters of countless other fields, but as their little country prospered the castle could no longer house them all. The merchants came first with carts, and then established tents, as he recalled from his history lessons, eventually giving way to shacks, giving way to stone buildings. The industrial revolution had boomed through that city aided by the discovery of a massive copper deposit only a few miles away. The city had belched smog and productivity and the wheel of progress had churned inexorably on. The castle did not sit alone its high hill surrounded by green fields and the gentle bend of the river any longer; it now sat at the beating heart of the most beautiful, most hopeless city he had ever seen.
A car drove by, splashing through a puddle and leaving the legs of his trousers dripping. His cigarette had all but burnt out between his lips, and no feeling of certainty had come to him.
Best press on, he told himself.
And so he pitched his cigarette into the grate, squared his shoulders, and marched across the street.
The guards noticed his approach at once. They moved as one, stepping so that they stood side-by-side and barred the gate behind them. There was no pavement on this side of the street; pedestrians were not encouraged to approach. If he had looked up he would have seen another half dozen men at the least standing on the catwalk above him, rifles trained on his head, but he paid them no mind. He had spent enough of his life staring down the barrel of a gun, and he was not keen to repeat the experience.
"Evening, gentlemen," he said as he approached, pulling his hands out of his pockets and holding them out in front of him to show he meant no harm.
"Move along," one of them said, a young man whose face was still round and sweet, though his eyes seemed terribly sad.
"I believe you're expecting me," he answered.
The guard on the left nudged his somber compatriot, and an unspoken question seemed to hang in the air between them.
"Get the boss!" The first lad said. That was enough to set his fears at rest; they had been expecting him, after all. Perhaps they did not know him on sight, but they could hardly be expected to; the last time he had passed through that gate neither of these lads had even been born.
He did not try to make small talk with the guards as they waited for the boss; palace guards were a touchy lot, and not eager to make friends. Besides, it simply wasn't done; those boys were only doing their job, and it would be most impolite to distract them or belittle the earnest duty with which they had been charged. He knew his father believed he had never been a good listener, that he had never retained a single lesson the old man tried to teach him, but the truth was quite the opposite; he had known, all his life, exactly what was expected of him. He just hadn't done it.
More than five minutes, but less than ten, passed before another man appeared at the gate. He was older, much older than either of the boys who stood guard outside, and he walked with a limp, leaning heavily on a cane. His hair was blonde and short, and the rise of his cheeks so sharp they could have cut glass. His eyes were set deep back in his face, and for a moment he stood in silence, staring out into the night. Two electric lamps stood on either side of the heavy iron gate, and the man took one step towards them, intending to shed a bit more light on his own face so that the boss might seen him better, and know him for who he was. The young guards tensed and tried to bar his path, but their boss only smiled, a quick, mirthless smile.
"Open the gate!" he roared, the words sharp and loud, and then he took a step back as the heavy machinery began to move, as the lads above obeyed his orders without hesitation.
He did not speak to the guards, only waited until the gate was open, and then stepped through, following the line of pavement that led straight from that gate to the entrance of the castle. The moment he had cleared it the gate gave a might groan, and slowly swung back together, shutting out the world beyond and imprisoning Prince Lucien once more within the walls that were his birthright.
"Your Royal Highness," the boss said as he drew near, bowing his head as was required of him.
"I can't believe you're still here, Matthew," the prince answered, reaching out to shake his old friend's hand. It was a gift he had not looked for, to find a familiar face so soon upon arrival. When they were very small, Matthew's mother had been a cook, and the cook's boy and the crown prince had run laughing through the halls of the castle without a care in the world. And then Her Majesty the Queen had met an untimely end, and the prince's days of joy and peace were ended, too.
"Welcome home, sir," Matthew answered.