and from your lips, the hallelujah

(It rains the day of the lady’s funeral. Even the Duchess comes, a solemn cold figure all in black; her smiles are gone into the earth with her daughter, and she can’t even spare one for the girl who throws a lily into the open grave with shaking hands. Break presses his hand over where his missing eye would be, and tilts his umbrella to cover her instead.)

+++

He fights when people come for him: mindlessly and like an animal, lashing out until people grab his arms and legs and carry him in stretched out and squirming, but unable to do much else. His eye aches until he thinks the pain might swallow him whole, and there’d be nothing left of him — just this shell, this mad creature who could do nothing more than spit into the wind and shriek. There are voices around him that he can’t bother to sort out; they’re all loud and rough and unkind, and he’ll kill them all, he will kill them all as soon as they let go–

And then, a softer voice, which cuts through the whole ugly cacaphony: “Let me see.”

Blessed silence follows for a heartbeat, two, and then there’s protests again: “Milady Sheri!” “Madam, you mustn’t!” “Milady, you don’t know what sort of person this is!” “You must stay back, Lady Sheri, this man’s dangerous–”

“Let me see,” the woman says again. Her voice is still soft, and he turns his head towards it. With a moment of effort, he opens his one eye and manages to look up.

There’s the little girl from before, still wide-eyed and staring — but not afraid, he thinks; she’s staring straight at his bloody ruined face and isn’t afraid — with her tiny fist curled in a woman’s long skirts. There is light coming in through the glass door behind her, and he can’t quite see her face clearly, but she has the same pale-gold hair as the girl, and her eyes are gentle with the same lack of fear. There are men as well — at least five or six surrounding him, and all of them stern-faced and white with disapproval. They’re the ones who stare at him with open hostility; one would have to be completely blind to miss the stink of their terror. It tastes worse with the blood in his throat.

“Ah,” the woman says. She kneels down beside him and he flinches back before he can quite help it: she’s pure white in his world of red, and he’s suddenly the one who’s afraid. He doesn’t want — he won’t —

She touches his cheek. The lady’s hand is smooth and slim, and he can feel how delicate her fingers are even from that small contact. “Poor thing,” she says, and her voice is still gentle. “Sharon, my love, what have you found this time?”

The girl makes a tiny noise. She ducks behind her mother’s arm, but then peeks out at him again. “He was hurt,” she says, and she doesn’t mumble like most children: her voice is high and sharp, but very clear. “I couldn’t leave him.”

“Of course not,” the woman murmurs. She moves her hand away, and he makes a noise in spite of himself. Like a living thing, the pain from before stirs, and it surprises him to realize how much it had abated from the contact. He stares dully as the woman produces a handkerchief — pale violet, edged in lace — and then uses it to blot gently at his face.

“My lady,” comes the angry protest — one of the men holding his arms, redfaced and stunned. “You mustn’t–!”

“Hush, Geoffery,” the lady says. She’s very gentle, and her handkerchief smells of lavender. “Can’t you see the poor man’s already in pain as it is?”

“Lady Sheri,” says another man, this one hovering by the door and vaguely familiar, “perhaps this is something we should leave to the proper authorities. This man has no identification, and it took five men to subdue him enough to bring him inside–”

The woman pauses. She straightens and looks over her shoulder, and through the doors, the sunlight catches brilliantly in her gold hair. “Dear Remus,” she says, and there is now steel in her tone, “by law and history of the people of Lybia, I am one of the proper authorities. This man is injured and obviously in need of our help. It would be poor manners indeed to turn him away — and, indeed, bad luck to turn one’s back upon those in need.” She rises, though her daughter remains crouched at her feet, and the adoration in the little girl’s face isn’t difficult to miss. “Send for a doctor, quickly — there is a guest bedroom that is currently open on the second-floor. Send one of the girls to make it up; I will wait here with him until the doctor arrives.”

“My lady,” the man Remus protests again. “Alone? At least make sure that someone–”

The woman raises a hand to cut him off. She looks down at the little girl and smiles. “I will have Sharon with me,” she says. “So no, not alone.” And when angry voices rise in protest again, she makes a sharp cutting gesture with one hand, punctuated by the flutter of her bell-sleeves. “Hurry, now, we’ve wasted enough time already.”

For a moment they don’t move. A rattling noise rises from his throat, something that might evolve into a laugh sooner or later. The girl looks at him again, all wide-eyed and thoughtful, and then she smiles at him.

And like that, the men begin to move, shuffling slowly at first, and then hurrying faster under the lady’s even stare. One drops his arm, but a sharp glare from the lady has the rest of them lowering him the rest of the way. The carpet is softer than the grass outside, but he can’t help the noise of pain he makes when his body comes to rest. Almost immediately, though, the little girl is by his side, her tiny hip to his, looking at him with the same curious fearlessness. When the door closes, the lady turns and kneels again, turning the handkerchief in her fingers to a cleaner portion of cloth.

“Poor thing,” she says again, her voice soft. “You’re tired, aren’t you.”

He licks his lips. They taste metallic and bitter. At this moment, he doesn’t think he can trust his own voice, and so he just mutely watches as she leans over him. Her expression is gentle and maybe a little sad, and she continues to carefully wipe at his face. He can actually feel his headache receeding with each pass, and that in itself is amazing enough to keep him still. The little girl sits in the same comfortable silence, watching intently for a moment before she reaches out and places both of her tiny hands on his own. She’s surprisingly warm. He should feel caged-in, trapped by too-soft creatures and their wide eyes, but he finds himself relaxing instead, closing his eyes when fingers brush the hair back from his forehead.

And he doesn’t mean to sleep: he doesn’t have the time for it, he shouldn’t allow it of himself — but sleep he does.

+++

(“Mother would laugh at us,” the girl says. Her back is straight and her shoulders squared; her eyes are clearer than the sky. “There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. There’s still work to be done.”)

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