Sometimes, it was hard to tell whether things ended with a bang or a whimper. Hard when a whimper could sound like a bang in the silence, or a bang could echo like a whimper long after it was done.
In the time he'd spent hiding out in Laurent and Damianos's apartment, Berenger had discovered that the floor and walls did a poor job of muting the music and rabble from the bar, whilst the richly-coloured drapes curtaining the windows did a much better job of blocking the morning sun. The place was surprisingly homely, with bare wooden walls which showed off the age of the historic building, and which in the evenings reflected the flame of the oil lamps with a warm, pleasant glow. A furnished spare bedroom slotted in down the corridor between the master bedroom and the room used as the study. A sizable living area completing the space with a couple of plush chairs, and a couch that was just slightly too soft. Berenger had taken the spare bedroom. Ancel, he knew, had spent more than one of the recent nights on that couch.
He'd also discovered that the thick drapes were just as good at keeping out the sun at midday, and into the afternoon too, for the late-early hours after club closing had seen them long awake around the wooden dining table that was too wide for two people but a little tight for four. The show had to go on, after all. And it seemed, for those who split their life between the dust of the streets and the spotlights of the stage, it was the darkest hours before dawn that was the time for plans.
The days it had taken them to make their move had felt long. Dragging, stumbling, without the rhythm and focus of the work that had followed Berenger for the last decade. Sometimes when the others were busy with dailies of the club, he wandered downstairs. Dropping in almost like he'd used to, when he grew too restless to continue sitting alone in the apartment not his own, that belonged to two people he didn't know and had to trust.
They knew. The people of Black Light, not all of them were involved, but they all knew. It had been unmissable from the moment Berenger had stepped back inside and felt the pall of carefully balanced tension that the bar staff and the guards—and the very walls themselves, it seemed—had shifted into place around him. But whilst it was wary, scored with the uncertainty that came from being wrongfooted, it wasn't hostile. They knew, and they trusted the judgement of their boss. Bosses.
And they didn't avoid him. They didn't talk to him like before, and they didn't talk to him as if he were one of them, but he'd unexpectedly seemed to slot in somewhere a step sideways of both. Through dribs and drabs of conversation he found out that Jord and Orlant had been Laurent's bodyguards from before they'd left Regent, and had adapted comfortably into their extra roles at the club. Likewise, the Akielons currently working security were Damianos's men who'd arrived with him to Vere. Kallias had been a gift of sorts from Damianos's brother when they'd begun their search for performers. Erasmus, meanwhile, had been hired from the streets of Arles. He was also perfectly aware, though, of course, of exactly whom he was working for.
No one asked Berenger any questions. Berenger wasn't sure if it was because they'd been instructed not to, or because they didn't want to know. Either way, he was thankful. He had no answers even for himself, in those days, let alone anyone else.
Of the ones who did ask him questions, who did press him at every chance for information and details and possibilities, they spoke of little else but the matter at hand. Perhaps even amongst themselves, from what Berenger had gleaned staying in that homely apartment with not very thick walls. Laurent and Damianos both were quiet when not at the planning table, drifting in some combination of simultaneously drained and on-edge. Berenger saw them together one time, through the slightly ajar door of their bedroom. They were embracing, what sounded like murmured Akielon passing in low tones between them. Their position wasn't lewd, not amorous, but there was a depth of rightness in the way they fit against each other that felt startlingly intimate. Berenger had hastened past down the corridor with as quiet a step as he could manage.
And then, there was Ancel. Ancel. Berenger saw yet another side of him in those days, the side that had placed him at Laurent's right hand, and on the front page of the police's attention. They each had different seats at the table, the three of them. Damianos, the battlefield commander who directed the broad-reaching movements. Laurent, the strategist who spun tangled threads of manoeuvres and manipulations around his enemy. And Ancel, the one on the street. The one who got his hands dirty, and who had the last say on the best way to do it.
They, Berenger and Ancel, were rarely alone in that time. At first Berenger had some suspicion that he wasn't being trusted to not change his mind, not to turn around and rush the other way at any disruption to his tentatively balanced emotional footing. Later, he began to realise that it might have been more for Ancel's sake than his own. This thing, this weight that hung over the three others, this fight that Berenger had just barely started to stumble into, was too big. Like a smog so thick it blocked not only the sun, but every light around. They were too close, now, to look away long enough to stumble.
Sometimes Ancel stayed on the couch, when the nights had gone too long for him to make the walk back to his own apartment. The walls weren't quite so thin that Berenger was able to make out the sleeping evenness of his breath from the other room. Sometimes he walked past close enough that Berenger could catch a hint of the perfume of his soap.
On the day they finally made their move, Berenger's nose was too full of old damp earth to smell anything else as he stood pressed between Ancel's side and the rough stone wall. The passage under the building at Steppes and East Gate Street was cramped and near pitch black with the barest gloom of the shuttered lantern on the ground behind them. Through the hidden peeping sliver, they watched as the mean-looking Regent bodyguard pushed through the door, to freeze in shock at the sight of the empty basement. Shock turned to franticness as he began to walk the length of the floor, casing the room for signs of another exit. Even after he roared in anger and kicked over the stacked half-broken chairs, throwing the rickety abandoned table against the wall, he didn't find the combination of bricks that marked the passage's entrance.
‘Secret and bold', went the motto of old Vere. They may no longer be rebels hiding in foxholes, but the Arles police force had a number of secret tunnels throughout the city, unveiled and amassed and repurposed over the decades. Some were relics of smuggling operations, some dug during wartime. The locations of the newer police stations were chosen so that many had clandestine routes in and out. The tunnels not between stations remained aces up their sleeves for moving undetected about different parts of the city. All of them, primarily, were used by undercover officers. And this one led to Dockland.
Laurent and Damianos had already left down the black mouth, porting the dead weight of their target between them. They'd argued about it, beforehand, about the risk of having Laurent actually present to greet his uncle, of taking the monumental leap of showing off their position. But, Laurent had insisted it was the only way to capture his uncle's attention, truly and completely, whilst Ancel sneaked up behind on silent feet with the grace of the dancer that he was. He'd been right.
Berenger had known it before, seen it before, that it always seemed too fast. Too easy, in the end. But even those at the very top had their arrogances, blind pin-spots, bare moments of lapse, and all it took was one. It wasn't the first time he'd seen a person drop like that. Literally, figuratively, both.
Blow to the back of the head with a blunt force weapon. Not certain to be fatal, but likely to cause dangerous injury to the brain, especially if the subsequent consciousness loss was left untreated. Berenger had heard the medical diagnosis before. Or, more commonly, read the coroner's report.
Afterward, in the dark of the tunnel with the quiet breath and slight warmth of the familiar body beside him, he wondered if this had been another reason for Ancel's delicate distance between them. Because Ancel had known the likelihood of it coming to something like this, of Berenger watching with his own eyes what he already knew with his mind that those hands could do. Had done. As if seeing would upend the tenuous understanding they'd come to.
Between lungfuls of dusty air, as he watched the Regent man finally give up his wild search, stomp out the door, slam it so hard it shook its frame, Berenger decided it didn't. He hadn't enjoyed it, no, not given the stricture around his pounding heart that had yet to release, the lingering sliver of numb, sharp shock edging his consciousness at the efficiency of Ancel's single brutally effective motion. But, he'd spent long enough in the alleys and crannies of Arles city to shy from the notion of burying his head under the sand in the face of truths that hurt to look at. Even if he was still blinking the grains from his eyes to behold the force he'd devoted his career to, and the man he—well.
World was exactly what it always had been. He was simply one who knew it better now.
Ancel's breath was gentle against his ear, as the last heavy footsteps retreated up the stairs and back to the street. Berenger could feel the length of him shiver, then slump just the lightest bit.
It was. He'd taken down the most wanted man in Arles, maybe Vere, and he'd done it like this.
The next part, actually, hadn't been part of the plan. At least, not part of Berenger's initial proposal. He hadn't thought far past Damianos waiting in the tunnel to lend his strength to the extraction, his men stationed on guard at its other end. Berenger himself emerging behind them after making sure their way out had remained undiscovered, Ancel wiping the few drops of blood off his heavy iron candlestick and disposing of it back into any one of the piles of refuse that lay at the doorsteps of so many abandoned buildings. Berenger didn't know which one of them would be the exact one to finish the job. Perhaps Laurent. Either way, Ancel would deal with it, after.
And with all that, Berenger supposed, it was simply an opportunity too good to pass up. One last disappearance, this time unable to be missed unlike the others, a failure to report within the very police themselves. To explain one last body, average height and broad build, little else recognisable as always. The age wasn't right, but age was hard to pinpoint, with the Tallow Man. Given a cant of suggestion, the margin of error could be flexible.
It was a quick discovery, this one. Timed to a beat cop who was in the habit of poking his head in on the more potentially dangerous buildings on his circuit. Interviews with every beat cop in Dockland had been included in the investigation casefiles. All it took was Berenger's standard issue service weapon, kicked deep into one of the debris-strewn corners of the old factory that now housed the remains of what used to be Laurent's uncle. The new detectives called in had not managed to miss it.
That was how the lynchpin of Arles's underbelly vanished out from under the attention of his own personal bodyguard, without a trace. And how Berenger died.
- - -
The night after the morning he made front page headlines, Berenger walked by the half-open door of the study to catch a flash of coppery red through the frame.
He was on his way out of the guest room, where he'd been sitting at the edge of his temporary bed, examining the small colourful tapestry of a market scene on the opposite wall. One of Laurent's contributions to the decoration, he hazarded a guess. He'd been planning to stroll to the kitchen, maybe make himself a cup of tea.
Instead, he paused. His socked feet glided against the floorboards, limbs locking almost before he gave them the command. The thing in his chest, unlike his limbs, did not still.
Damianos and Laurent had yet to return all day. Out dealing with the chaos of Regent's sudden loss of leadership—all the more shocking for its inexplicable end—and hopeful collapse. Nothing that could be seen on the surface of the city, of course, but Berenger was sure it was there. Just as he was sure that, soon, the news would be spreading about Laurent's seizure of control in the wake of the new power vacuum, backed by both his alliance with Vasilias and the fact that he commanded a ghost who could remove his enemies without a trace. With any luck, no one would ever make any connection to the Tallow Man, whose reign of terror in Dockland would eventually slip into old newspaper clippings and stories told around the shuttered lantern.
It was late now, even by their standards. Just after closing for the club, as the old building settled into the strange muffled hush of a space not used to silence. Laurent had missed this evening's show, Berenger was fairly sure Ancel hadn't performed either. It must have been a quiet night on the floor.
Through the office doorway, Ancel sat in the stuffed chair with his booted feet crossed at the ankles in front of him. His hair was piled in a messy bun at the top of his head, slightly off-centre. He was dressed in casual clothes, not the deliberately drab ensemble of his street disguise, but also not quite hitting his usual impeccable style. Maybe someone else could have missed it, but to Berenger the outfit, as a whole, appeared slightly off. Like Ancel had simply picked up the first items on the tops of his drawers.
He made Berenger think of a soldier after the end of a war. Quietly, imperatively content, forcibly satisfied, and dropped back into life with just the slightest mismatch in the edges of their puzzle piece place within it. Or maybe like a detective at the close of a case.
Ancel didn't move at the soft glide of the opening door. Concentrating, Berenger realised, on the thick book in his lap. He wasn't going so far as squinting, there was no furrow in the perfect smooth skin of his brow, but those sharp green eyes were affixed with singular intent on the page before him. They were only lightly ringed with the dark of fatigue.
It was past closing on Ventiday night. Berenger looked, took a breath, felt his heart thump over in the moment that passed for him to let it back out. Then, he leapt. Or, perhaps, he quietly let the last remnants of the ground crumble away from beneath him.
“You're not practicing?“
It was an interesting thing, to pick out that he'd taken Ancel by surprise. Barely a flash of it across his countenance before it smoothed back out. Not just surprise at his presence, Berenger knew, but at his words. The fact he'd had words at all.
These weren't the first they'd exchanged—far from it, of course, but they still hadn't quite figured it out. This new thing of talking to each other as what—who—they really were. Not yet.
The fabric of Ancel's embroidered shirt rustled against the chair back. He shook his head, said, “Brushing up on my Akielon.“
At a glance, his choice of reading material looked on par with the short stack of volumes by the wall that barely qualified as a bookshelf. Berenger took a stab. “One of Damianos's?“
Another rustle. “Yes.“
Those green eyes were clear like forged glass. A moment passed, still and long. Almost a moment and a half, even, before Berenger gave the door a firm push wider and stepped inside.
“Does it have a better story?“
The corners of Ancel's mouth tugged. Long fingers hesitated over the pages before he slid the book a little further down his lap, shifting in his seat to sit up a little straighter. Turning to face more in the direction of the door.
“It's a history, actually,“ he replied. Then he did smile properly, albeit in a here-and-gone blink. “One of Damen's favourites. He's been trying to recommend it forever.“
A memory flickered behind Berenger's eyes. Another time, at Ancel's rickety kitchen table, with their roles reversed. And like Ancel had asked then about The Conquest Of Arsaces, he asked now, “Tell me the story?“
They hadn't quite figured it out, hadn't managed to peel away all the layers of hovering uncertainty, to find their shifting footholds on trying to remember what to make of each other. But, somewhere in the last days, between the revelations and the scheming and the shared place in a strange apartment, it had sunk in for Berenger with the weight of inevitability that they would. One day. Soon.
Ancel's fingers arched gently, tips stroking down his open page in a seemingly unconscious movement. “It's the history of Damalis, the slave-queen of Akielos. Rumour has it, Damen's family is descended from her.“ He paused, pale throat shifted in a swallow. At the lack of interjection, after a beat, his tongue darted out to wet his lips as he continued. “When King Theron and both his heirs were killed in the same battle at the front of the Patran War, the country was thrown into uncertainty. The only person with any claim to the throne was the late queen's daughter, conceived illegitimately by her favourite slave.“
Berenger cocked a hip, settling his weight to lean against the door behind him. He knew enough of the history of both countries to guess this story wasn't going the direction an illegitimate royal conception would have gone in Vere.
"Damalis had been trained as a palace slave, but educated in secret by her mother. With her knowledge of the inner workings of the palace, the aid of a ring of supporters from amongst the staff, not to mention the power of the secrets she'd amassed over the years, she rose up to seize control in the capital of Ios. She was no army commander, but she sent off prompt missives to the battlefront fortifying strategies and appointing the best generals in the wake of their losses. The day her armies arrived home victorious, was the same day she took her official coronation as queen.“
Ancel's gaze dropped from Berenger's again, not in avoidance, just turning faraway.
“But, the victory in the war isn't what she's most remembered for.“ Pink lips firmed, not just in a smile but an affirmation. “That, they say, began the very next day. And lasted ten long years, but in the end it was done. Her campaign to end slavery in Akielos.“
Paper crinkled as Ancel picked up the left stack of pages and began to rifle through, leaving one finger to mark his current spot. When he stopped, it was to tip the book upwards to display a rendition of a simple sketch of a man's face. The shading suggested high cheekbones and sleek hair, pale lips, light eyes.
“This is the only image we have of Damalis's father, a personal keepsake it looks like. He disappeared from history before her reign. No one knows if he lived, or how.“ The book tipped back down. “One thing, though. It's believed that he was Veretian.“
Slowly, Berenger shifted and took a step forward, and another, floorboards creaking lightly beneath his heels until he stood at the arm of the chair. Close enough he could have reached out and trailed fingers over the book, or over the back of Ancel's hand. Memory flickered again. He said, “That was a good story.“
Not a very Akielon one, even, with secrets and schemes and no righteous definitions of honour. There was some of Vere in Akielos's history, it seemed, in more ways than one. But Berenger could see how a family like Vasilias might like a story like this, an unexpected a connection as it might be. Power was a fickle thing, a nebulous one. So many people believed they deserved it for so many different reasons. Kings and slaves. Chiefs and criminals. Who was to say which of them had the greater right, the longer legacy.
And maybe, in all of this, all there was for one person to do was dodge the towers as they toppled.
Ancel didn't say more. His eyes were still far away, fingers drumming idly over top of the queen's father's face. As Berenger waited for his mind to return, his own thoughts began to roll back through the conversation. Something occurred.
He asked, “Brushing up on your Akielon? Now?“
In a breath, Ancel's head swivelled, their gazes meeting once more. He nodded, once, before pursing his lips to reply.
“Laurent,“ he began, syllables carefully rounded behind his lips, “thought it might be a good idea for me to go away.“ The strong curve of his shoulders fell, a fraction, along with his tone. “At least for a while. We were as thorough as we could be, but there are people around who could recognise me. And people who will be poking around with suspicions, asking questions.“
“Oh.“ And Berenger, suddenly, didn't know what else to say. “You're leaving.“
A silence, the thump of his heart in his own ears. He cleared his throat.
“They'll miss you.“
Ancel's eyes swept to the door, the one that led down the staircase into the club. They were soft. “I hope so.“
“Wh—where will you go?“
There was a small sound, the click of tongue against soft palate as it found its speech. “Damen's brother has a few clubs in Delfeur. At least one of them could use another dancer.“
“Oh,“ Berenger repeated. His nod was instinctive, barely felt in his own body. He said, on the fly, “I was thinking of going back to Varenne. Not that there's much for me there now, but at least it's somewhere I—“
“You don't have to, you know.“
The interruption was sharp. Catching even Ancel himself off guard perhaps, judging by the look that flicked over his face. In his lap, his fingers began to drum. His voice was clipped.
“We could work something out.“ He held Berenger's gaze, held the weight of their gaze. “Come up with another story of where you were. Get rid of your chief, get your job back. We could. You don't have to—“
The space between them was very loud, as the words trailed off. In it, Berenger could just grasp the imprint of the edge that had started to unravel Ancel's tone—something fierce, something fervent, the intent of wishful thinking rather than the cool logic he'd maintained through the previous days. And for a moment, one soaring moment, Berenger let himself wish too—
But it wouldn't ever be the same. Or, maybe, it would be exactly the same. Laurent would remove Audin and the rest of Regent's people, but what else would he do but replace them with his own. Perhaps he, Berenger, would even be one of them. He wouldn't be able to stop it—maybe Arles and its citizens, from the low echelons to high, with its delicate balance of turning wheels, couldn't handle it being stopped. But he wouldn't pretend he wasn't part of it. The force he'd dedicated his life to until now, it may have been a facade in some ways, but he'd respect what it stood for by keeping clean his own loyalty. When he'd served, he'd believed. He believed no longer.
In the end, there wasn't that much for him here either. Not besides work, even after all these years. Some colleagues he'd like to say goodbye to. Some informants he'd like to check back up on. The latter, at least, he might actually be able to do one day.
With a shake of his head, he said, only, “I don't think so.“
He'd also be able to say more, one day, at least to somebody. When his old career felt a little less like the remains of a surgical excision. Through their long hours of planning he'd shared a lot about the force, what they knew, how they worked, but not about himself. Not about his father or the other bright-faced recruits he'd trained alongside, or the fellows down at the station he'd exchange wry glances with during debriefings. He hadn't told his story, his true one, not Iike Ancel had done. But he could have imagined doing it one day.
Ancel blinked, eyes falling shut, and failing to open again. His hand stilled. For all he hadn't heard the stories, he knew enough of Berenger all the same.
Berenger looked down over the unmoving form filling the chair, the form that looked almost unnatural to be unmoving when it should have been swaying and twisting to a heard or unheard beat, defying gravity and desire in its untouchable grace. With another half-step he leant down and reached out, taking gentle grasp of the book between them. His hold on the cover overlapped with Ancel's, lingering over the familiar feel of skin slightly roughened by work and slightly uneven with layers of healed burns, fingers that he'd seen take a person's life and felt touch his body with pleasure. Those beautiful green eyes slipped back open at the contact.
“If,“ Berenger said, and his voice was quiet, and deep, “you're going to show the crowds in Akielos what you can do. Then, shouldn't you be practicing?“
Ancel stared. His lips parted.
And then he smiled, small but free, face crinkling with it, like he hadn't in a while.
“Would feel good to get back on the stage,“ he replied, and the hoarseness in his voice was like a song.
He let Berenger take the book from his hands, and set it on the desk with a scrap of pilfered paper to mark the page. Let Berenger trail three steps behind him as he descended the staircase down to the club floor, to that gutted hull of empty tables and unlit booths, where the walls echoed with the ghosts of lust and laughter and spilt wine. Led them through the staff door into the backstage, down the corridor to his dressing room, like he'd done all those weeks ago.
It was at his door that he paused. Turned, looked past his shoulder to where Berenger was still lingering a length behind. Stopped before the room they'd entered all those weeks ago, entered and become—this.
“You know,“ Ancel said, as a heartbeat passed, “I'm sure a club in Delfeur could use an extra man on security, too.“
Berenger breathed in, through the smell of the backstage of cigar smoke and performers' perfume. He replied, “Yeah?“
With a twist to the knob, Ancel cracked the door open, edged a half step inside. He raised an arm, reaching back, fingers unfurling. A beckon. An offer. “Yeah.“
The lights were warm, backstage at Black Light. They could, Berenger decided, feel them again one day. Maybe between mornings waking up with ridiculous radio dramas and afternoons exercising together or talking costume colours or playing rounds of cards that never got finished before they were distracted. Maybe after days practicing Akielon from old histories and new paperbacks, and nights on an unfamiliar floor. Maybe even alongside them all doing what they needed to do.
“Okay,“ he said. And it meant everything.
He took Ancel's hand.