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Les Fleurs du Mort

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It had been fourteen years since the Bastille. Four years since the Coup d'État du 18 Brumaire and the removal of the blight on France which took from him everything he had. Eight months since he slunk back to France, his meagre title, paling in significance to others’... to His... enabling a silent return. The once-considerable military pension to which he had been entitled was gone, an offering to those who had had the power to save him in his years in exile, and to God. His inheritance had always been negligible, consisting of little more than a title with no estate to speak of once his father’s debtors had drunk their fill. And now he had returned to the country he had once thought of as his, to the country which should have been his right – a stranger.

Much had changed in the years he had spent abroad, reduced to aristocratic begging at the coattails of those more eminent. Streets he once would have shunned were now his sole domain; he had been lucky to make it even this far into His France and would not seek to better himself in the few years which he had left to him (already he could feel the shadows growing longer and the chill he had picked up after too many English winters was a permanent addition). A military man now sat on the throne – or rather, at the head of the Consulate, as it was now called – a man he would once have considered to be like him. The tales he had heard of this man’s ascent to such a position were worthy of God himself – wooing the people with charm and intellect, dazzling the citizens with words and ambition... how different things would have been if He had ascended to His true birthright. But that was in the past.

The man formerly styled the Comte de Peyrol (now Lazare Colombe)*sat now by a sputtering grate on the ground floor of a tenement on the outskirts of Paris. Outside the windows, now more board than glass, was a blanket of drizzle and fog and despite the late hour, a sea of people hurrying to and fro, perhaps night workers, perhaps rushing to a family, perhaps with no home to go to. He wasn’t sure why he came back. Perhaps he thought that under this man, this First Consul, there could be a place for those of military background who might contribute their wisdom to soldiers of the future. Perhaps, like a tired dog, part of him wanted to die on his own soil. On His soil, no matter that He was not there. Lazare coughed. His eyes returned to the window.

Something outside caught his eye. Something... familiar?

He turned fully and squinted into the mist outside. For long minutes he could see nothing and then- neatly coiffed dark hair and a dark coat with silver brocade... like a ghost returned from his past. Like a ghost? But he was the ghost. The man out there was alive, flesh and blood, with a career, a family, a future... the mist descended more fully and Lazare turned from the window, closer to the pitiful fire fighting its last against the creeping mist and damp.

---

He woke suddenly. The fire had gone out, but only just – there was residual warmth by the floorboards. He felt something he vaguely remembered, something he hadn’t felt in years... he was being watched. His military instincts were the cry which had wakened him. He turned again to the window – and there! there was the man, the ghost from earlier. The streets were still overflowing with bodies and the fog and rain remained, but now Lazare could see despite them all. He cautiously raised himself to his feet – without an army behind him, he could no longer afford to be brash about these things and let himself out of the door of the building into the damp and cold. He paused, before setting a course through the thriving street for the shape half in shadow by the far wall.

The figure visibly started and hurried onwards into the dark. Lazare paused, much to the chagrin of other streetgoers, whose vocabulary could run to the somewhat imaginative side, briefly contemplating returning to the meagre comforts he left behind him. After one particularly choice insult and a meaty fist in his ribcage, he decided to follow the source of his awakening.

His destination turned out to be a derelict drinking house on a derelict street several minutes away, like so many others in this quarter of the city (the damage done by the bourgeouis brats largely remained). The figure stood there, silent and still. Lazare waited in the shadows, but the figure (who he now saw was a man of above-usual stature) remained immobile, gazing up at the building in front of him. The fog finally began to dissipate and Peyrol had to smother a gasp of surprise (and the subsequent coughing fit) – the man’s coat matched that of his former rank perfectly. There was no question of there being two of the same; the seamstress who had made it had died in childbirth not long after. He felt the chill enveloping his bones creep into his heart. Once it became infinitely clear that the figure (man? ghost? apparition?) would remain in its current state, Lazare moved forwards into the light cast by a pale moon.

“Why did you stand by my lodgings?” His voice betrayed nothing of the chill in his soul; he had had too many years of hiding and hurting for that.

“Is there a law against it, Monsieur?” came the smooth reply. The voice, though French, carried a hint of some other accent – Spanish, perhaps – which again put Peyrol on his guard. Surely they could not consider his return to France defection? Surely they could not be so petty as to dress a man as... himself... in order to bring him to his demise?

He changed tack. “Who are you?” He saved the “why”s for later, being a simple man he preferred his conversations to continue in the same fashion. Save for where He was concerned. He did as He wished.

The man turned towards him fully, smiled. He was... almost cherubic-looking, nothing like a younger Peyrol, who had been sharp of face and manner alike. “You are a simple man. I like that. Please,” he gestured towards the burnt-out public house as though it were a palace, “Join me.”

The man turned away again, walking with such light tread Lazare could scarce believe he was there. The military man and the band around his heart told him that this was dangerous, that this was a fool’s errand; the blood in his lungs and chill in his bones told him it hardly mattered. He followed the cherub.

---

The drinking house was little more inviting on the inside than out, Lazare thought as he stepped over the threshold, dislodging considerably more debris than his partner. He squinted slightly through the gloom before his eyes adjusted to the dust and soot coating the surfaces, making out the glint of silver brocade by the moonlight coming through the window.

“Sit,” came a voice from the disembodied cherubic face above the silver. “I would offer you a beverage but it has been... many years and they have gone out of business, it would seem.”

Lazare almost laughed – gone out of business?! That was one way of describing it. Then he remembered his unanswered question. “Who are you?” he asked again.
Another smile. “To the point. A practical, pragmatic man. In love. Out of love. Abandoned. A wanderer. Now,” he paused, grinning in a manner which Lazare would have found charming ten years ago, “to whom do I refer? Yourself, or I?”

Lazare realised that he may have been dealing with pragmatism and practicality, but he was not dealing with simplicity. He sighed inwardly and steeled himself for a long night. But his companion must have recognised his frustration, for the next words were-

“Don Carlos. My name is Don Carlos. And you, you are the Comte Lazare de Peyrol.”

Lazare almost jumped from his seat in shock at hearing his former title, his gasp instigating yet another coughing fit. Don Carlos watched him with an indecipherable look on his face... was it concern? Certainly Lazare would not know, the last time he had seen such an expression was when his mother had put the finishing stitches to his new brocade coat and set it on his shoulders back in 1781. Perhaps it was concern. The chill in his heart lessened a little.

“We are the same,” Don Carlos continued earnestly. “We have the same fate. I don’t know why I am here, only that I had to find you. I-”

“Who sent you then?” interrupted Peyrol, determined to work out this mirage, this glowing fresh-faced youth in front of him, to pin him down and assign him a number.

Don Carlos hung his head, the shadows once again engulfing his face where the moon had shone before. Lazare almost felt sorry. “I... I don’t know. And I don’t remember where I came from either before you ask. Everything is...white. And red. There is a red rose. And... and him.” He glanced up timidly. “We are the same,” he repeated, more quietly. “You know of whom I speak.”

Lazare knew. In his life too, though he remained unafflicted by foliage of any kind, He was all he could think of, almost all he could remember. What purpose did he have in those days long gone in the palace, other than to serve Him, to follow Him, to be His most trustworthy disciple? Who was the youth in the yellow jacket who plagues his nightmares? When was he ever complete but when he was at His side? Why did he ever leave? Why did he leave? Why?

Lazare!” came an insistent voice. His head jerked up and he realised he had been curled half in a ball, face contorted, unaware of the man opposite.

“I... I... can only-”

“I know. I know, Lazare. He has the same effect on me if I think too hard. I... I have had a long time to learn how not to think, I believe. It feels like a lifetime... like two lifetimes. I am not sure. All I know is the white and the rose and him.” He breathed the last word reverently, exactly as Peyrol spoke of his God in his mind. Exactly as Lazare would never dare to voice. But they were the same.

“He was... untouchable.” Peyrol swallowed, unsure how far he could continue before the hand of God would extend across the Channel and smite him down, finally disposing of the loyal and pathetic dog who had plagued Him for so long. The blood in his lungs told him it didn’t matter.

Don Carlos nodded. “Truly a pioneer among men. A beautiful soul, surrounded by the canker and greed of man – I still believe this. I know this. He didn’t deserve his fate, no matter what he-”

“-did, no matter who he chained, within all the pomp and the bravado, there remained a man who I knew, a boy with whom I grew up, whom I l-” Lazare felt the band of ice descend again on his heart. A lifetime of following the Comte d’Artois did not lend itself to comfort when expressing emotion.

A shadow passed over Don Carlos’ face, his eyes glittering in the moonlight. His face blurred strangely. Lazare’s face was wet suddenly. It took the shock of Don Carlos reaching across the table to grab the hand doing its best to gouge tracks into the wooden planks for him to realise this was because he was... crying. Lazare Comte de Peyrol, lately Lazare Colombe, was crying.

Once he realised this he lost the power to stop it. He slipped to the floor, still joined by the hand to Don Carlos, as hollow sobs and hacking coughs racked his body intermittently. He didn’t understand, but he knew Don Carlos would. They were the same.

Suddenly he felt a warmth by his side. A sudden thought cut through his mind like a knife, the concern that the fire that ravaged this place was more recent than they had known – and he turned towards the warmth in alarm – to find himself nose to nose with Don Carlos. This mysterious Don Carlos with the cherubic face and the soft brown hair and the glittering eyes streaking down his cheeks- wait.

Peyrol extracted his hand from Don Carlos’ with difficulty and transferred it to his face, looking in puzzlement at the shining tears he found there.

“Did I not say?” Don Carlos’ face, still inches from his, creased into a smile, but his eyes turned down. “We are the same, Lazare.

Peyrol stared at him, still confused, wheezing a little from the combined efforts of tears and coughing.

Don Carlos continued smiling and closed the gap, gently bringing their lips together – kissing, kissing him, Lazare remembered that – then drew away, still with a soft upturn to his lips and rouge at the corner.

“Thank you, Lazare,” he said, turning away to sit next to him instead of in front, and clasping their hands together once more. He was asleep in seconds, chest gently rising and falling and a soft smile still affixed to his sweet face.

Lazare sat back with more questions than answers, but found himself drifting off into darkness. It was late, after all. It was only on the cusp of sleep that he realised that neither of them were wearing rouge.

---

Back at the tenement, a small tabby cat yowled by the front window. Someone shouted upstairs. The ashes cooled in the downstairs grate.