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The Aphorist

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It seemed to Passepartout, less than two weeks into his employment with Monsieur Fogg and knee deep in mud somewhere south of Tsaritsyn, that his new master was unfazed by anything.

This was a desolate place, the land stretching out before them as grey and empty as the sky above. Cold wind cut through Passepartout's heavy coat and he wished for a wool scarf and a cup of coffee and a form of transport other than his sodden legs to carry him.

Ahead of him, Monsieur Fogg walked with a confidence Passepartout could not fathom. They did not know where they were going, except for further and further away from the railtracks. From the city. From life. Even if they could escape they had no map. Daylight was slowly sliding into dusk. Passepartout could feel icy water infiltrating his socks.

He considered making a run for it again, but did not think he could move fast enough now, his legs cramped and his head aching from the last time he’d tried. And their captors learned quickly. He was kept separate from Monsieur Fogg now, was watched too closely. If there was one thing a valet worth his salt could not do it was to leave his master behind.

"We are not bandits," the broadest, most fearsome bandit had told them as he'd emptied their pockets and relieved Passepartout of their baggage. "The Guild will not rule us. We are revolutionaries."

More like thugs, Passepartout thought viciously, rubbing ruefully at the back of his head where he’d been knocked down.

That same bandit now took Passepartout's arm and pulled hard enough that he thought his shoulder might wrench from its socket. He barked, "Hurry up, little man."

“Hurry?” Passepartout snorted. “To where?”

He regretted asking immediately, more for the unseemliness of his tone than for the blow across the back of the head he received for it. In the dimming light, though, Passepartout caught sight of Monsieur Fogg, turned to him, and was surprised to see a look of wry amusement on his face. It was, Passepartout realised, the first time he had seen anything other than serene indifference or vague interest in his master’s expression. It made him bold.

“Sir,” Passepartout said, straightening his back, “I asked a perfectly reasonable question.”

“And I,” the thug-revolutionary replied, mouth twisting into a grin, “Gave you a perfectly reasonable answer.”

He pushed Passepartout hard enough that he fell to his knees. Icy mud slid sickeningly between his fingers where he’d reached out to prevent himself landing on his face. His trousers, Passepartout lamented, were quite ruined. It was a strange thing. Despite the pull across his shoulders and the sting in his knees Passepartout found himself puzzling over how, without baggage or money, he might be able to replace his suit. Still, it was better to think on his wardrobe than to remember how familiar this was; the cold, the mud, the brutality. It was too close to the War.

Dazed, somewhere nearby Passepartout could hear Monsieur Fogg protesting, “That was uncalled for.” Passepartout focused on his master’s voice rather than the way his thuggish friend dragged him to his feet by the neck just so he could shove him to the ground again. Monsieur Fogg’s voice was commanding, sure of himself in a way Passepartout had never been.

This was a universe away from the quiet, respectable life he had envisioned for himself when he had chosen the path of a gentleman’s man. This was a universe away from the smoky, laughter-filled dining car of the train they had been travelling on just hours before. The ever-present rhythmic chuffing of the engines, the pristine white tablecloths, the thick carpet underfoot; these things all seemed like an impossible dream somewhere between the grey Paris of his childhood and the present thick hand tightening around his throat.

Air, Passepartout realised, was suddenly in very short supply.

Passepartout twisted, kicked out, scratched. He had survived worse than this. He would not die in a field in front of his master on an Englishman's wager.

Then, just as his vision was starting to dim at the edges and everything had turned too hot, the grip around his throat was gone. Passepartout gulped down air until the back of his throat was so dry and cold it hurt and blinked his eyes until he could see again and leaned his hands on his knees until he could stand again.

Monsieur Fogg stood in front of him, not so close that he crowded Passepartout but not so far that Passepartout could not hear him when he asked in a low voice, "Can you walk, my man?"

There was an argument going on behind them, the thug being chastised for strangling guests. Passepartout took Monsieur Fogg's meaning.

"I can, Monsieur," he nodded, not entirely sure he could but inclined to try. From the creeping heat across his skin Passepartout was certain there would soon be impressive bruises around his neck. He would rather not gain any more.

Passepartout straightened and Monsieur Fogg looked at him. Appraising, Passepartout thought. His master did not look entirely satisfied with what he saw, but he tipped his head to the west and turned his attention towards the horizon. Passepartout supposed he had been deemed sufficiently upright.

Monsieur Fogg rolled his shoulders. His collar was askew and his hair tangled, yet still he managed to look every bit the gentleman. Passepartout balled his fits and kept his eyes on his master. When Monsieur Fogg moved, Passepartout followed.

They ran.

**

Never one for the sea, much less sea creatures, the scene before Passepartout what like something out of a nightmare. The mariners did not seem much overkeen either. They wielded long, ancient-looking spears and fishing nets that Passepartout thought rather optimistic, given the size of the thing.

The ship’s sergeant had shouted at them to go below, but Passepartout would much rather look death in the face than let it find him cowering in the cramped, dark dankness of the ship’s interior.

And this death had enormous liquid black eyes that seemed to stare down at them with such accusation. It’s oily skin glistened in the rain, reminding Passepartout of polished silverware. The smell of it was the worst; making Passepartout think of burial pits after a battle.

“I have never seen such a large specimen,” Monsieur Fogg said with an awe that belied the horror of it, the fact that said specimen was currently tipping the old ship from side to side like a child’s plaything. The boards creaked ominously underfoot.

“Nor I, sir,” Passepartout replied faintly. Then, more resolutely, “Should I fetch us a harpoon?”

He looked around the deck, packed with half-drowned sailors and long, grey flexing tentacles, and realised that he would be lucky to find a club let alone a harpoon.

The ship lurched and Passepartout found himself grabbing hold of Monsieur Fogg.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, and Monsieur Fogg nodded but said nothing. Passepartout did not let go.

The rain was turning to hail, stinging the exposed skin of Passepartout’s face and hands. His master’s suit was quite ruined. Passepartout imaged that they would be swimming to the next harbour if the ship took on any more water.

A tentacle was creeping closer, ripping up rigging and deck as it moved, sweeping men aside as though they were made of paper. But there was keen intelligence in the way it methodically, carefully took the ship apart. They were sinking, but slowly, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. This was an octopus unlike anything Passepartout had ever seen. There had been tales but Passepartout had never believed them to be true. He wondered if he would live to tell such stories of his own.

There was a scream and Passepartout looked up to see the ship’s sergeant tightly in one of the creature’s limbs. His face was blue; the life being squeezed out of him.

There was chaos.

The mariners ran here and there, unsteady, grasping at the ropes, trying to fend off the creature with weapons that must have felt like toothpicks to such a giant.

From behind them, the captain appeared at Monsieur Fogg’s arm. “We must escape,” he hissed. It seemed wrong, somehow, for the captain to abandon his crew and his ship like this. And yet, Passepartout could understand it. At the stern, the cracking of rifles had caught the monster’s attention and it threw out its arms, dashing the marines into the foaming sea.

They followed to the captain’s jolly boat where his officers were quietly, gently, lowering the raft down. It was a matter of moments before the boat was brought alongside, the men scurrying over the side and aboard. The ship heaved and groaned as the creature crawled further across her decks. The cries of the men were desperate. Anguished. Passepartout helped Monsieur Fogg over the side of the ship and just as he was about to descend, the captain turned and said, “Your man cannot come.”

Despite the rain and the hail and the icy seawater, the captain’s words left Passepartout feeling colder than he ever had before. It was a death sentence. He should be glad, he knew, for his master at least would be saved. And yet, it was not a kind thing to know your end.

“He can, sir,” Monsieur Fogg said then. “And he will.”

Monsieur Fogg stared hard at the captain. There was no question there. No argument. The captain grit his teeth and nodded. It was with the oddest mix of fear and elation and gratitude that Passepartout followed his master into the boat. He had saved his life. They were leaving so many to die.

They pulled away, rowing slowly, evenly, watching as the great creature reached deep into the ship, pulling and pulling. The engines fell silent and in the quiet the cries of the men still aboard were loud and clear.

They pulled further away and watched as a great plume of smoke bellowed up from the bow of the ship.

They rowed until the ship, the creature spread all about it, was nothing but a dark blot rising up from the horizon. There were no cries now.

No one spoke for a long time.

**

There was a festival.

The air was heavy with smoke and the smell of liquor. There was no closing the doors on it for the heat would be unbearable and the noise would have found its way into the room anyway. There were drums and shrill-sounding flutes, frenetic and wild and drawing closer.

Passepartout poured steaming tea into Monsieur Fogg’s empty cup and resettled himself to polishing his master’s boots. For himself he would rather have a cup of ice. A long drink. A cold bath.

Monsieur Fogg turned the page of his newspaper, the crinkle of paper loud in their tiny room despite the music and the cheers and the popping and fizzing of firecrackers. It was long in to the night and the room was lit up in red and gold as fireworks burst into great trails of stars outside. There would be no sleep for them tonight. Yet, despite the weight of the days and weeks of travel behind them Passepartout felt at peace in this quiet, noisy place. For just this night there was no hurry; nowhere to be and nothing to plan and no need to find cash or barter for a bed for the night. The festival was everything tonight and there was no work to be done and no way out of the city. It was a relief. Even Monsieur Fogg, Passepartout was sure, was not so restless as to despair at the chance to stand, just for a while, and live in a different land.

The old rattan chair Monsieur Fogg sat in creaked as he shifted to face Passepartout. He lowered his paper and announced, “A walk, I think, Passepartout.” A pause. A raised eyebrow. “If you are quite done with my shoes.”

There had been mud. A lot of mud. Passepartout had made sure it was expunged; that the shoes were pristine. Any valet would have done the same. He placed the shoes on the floor.

There was a fine woven rug covering cool tile underfoot that had seen better days, much like the hotel itself. But they had been lucky to find anywhere at all.

“A walk then, Monsieur,” Passepartout agreed, and ignored any commentary related to his diligence in performance of his duties.

Before, in those first few days and weeks of service, Passepartout would have said his master was not one to show such humour. But now, after so many hours packed together in close quarters and thrust about in shipping containers and hiding, shivering and quite lost in the waste lands of Russia, Passepartout had learned to see it. He had learned to seek it out. There was something of a smile on his master’s face but it would not do to comment.

Passepartout did not lock the door to their room as they left; the ancient lock was rusted and warped enough was he suspected if he did they would never be able to unlock it again. Besides, they had nothing left of value to steal.

Leading the way, Passepartout stepped cautiously onto the stairs, the wooden steps creaking ominously underfoot. Behind him, Monsieur Fogg tisked and said, “At this rate we shall not get as far as the front door before sunrise.”

Frowning, Passepartout hurried himself the rest of the way down into the courtyard. Of all the things he might call himself, cowardly was not one, but he had become cautious in a way he had never been before. More than once he had caught himself watching their surroundings - watching his master - with a focus bordering on paranoia. He could not imagine what was wrong with him.

It was a relief to push open the doors and step out onto the street. No more frightening stairs, Passepartout thought wryly. But out here there was something of a breeze. The air was filled with sounds that reminded Passepartout of carnival. It would have been familiar if not for the stolid figure of Monsieur Fogg beside him.

Unlike his master, Passepartout had never been one for introspection but here, walking the narrow streets of a city so foreign he could not pronounce its name, Passepartout wondered at how he had come to be here. There was such difference between them that Passepartout could not understand how Monsieur Fogg had employed him in the first place, let alone come so far. Yet their silence was companionable – not just here but always - and Passepartout was certain he could walk like this all night if Monsieur Fogg wished it. He would welcome it.

The further they went, following dusty, uneven paths, the more revellers they came upon. They hung from the windows singing, and drank from great cups, and danced and laughed. They kissed passionately and indiscriminately in the shadows or for all to see on street corners and Passepartout chanced a glance at his master's face.

He was not surprised to find that Monsieur Fogg’s expression gave nothing away. Passepartout could not imagine what he made of it all.

They steered clear of the lovers, Passepartout careful to deter any would-be amorousness with a stern look and a turned back. It was not surprising that others would be so drawn. His master was an attractive man, perfectly turned out (and that was, in no small part, Passepartout’s doing). He would be an excellent proposition for any man or woman with an ounce of taste. Or eyes.

He was certain Monsieur Fogg noticed the misdirection but he did not remark on it.

It was late now, the moon high, but still the music and the drums and the calls grew louder and faster.

They kept their slow pace. Tomorrow they would take an early steamship from the harbour and it would be all haste and frenetic voyaging again and this strange, slow time between would be gone. But in that moment Passepartout followed the colourful lines of lamps strung about the streets, and drank in the sweet smell of wine (for it would not do to actually drink any), and watched his master, and did not want for anything more.

**

The dining room was filled with laughter and the sounds of glasses and plates clinking together. A piano played popular European songs softly. Waiters in sharp, white uniforms stroke purposefully, confidently through the aisles bearing plates laden with the finest of foods. It was luxury they had not known in weeks and Passepartout should be relieved. This was Monsieur Fogg’s world. This was where Passepartout could show Monsieur Fogg that he could iron and polish and press with the best of them.

Yet he was not relieved at all.

It was late, the moon high, and usually they would have hidden themselves in their room, pouring over maps and timetables and plans. But tonight, his master sat drinking champagne with a tall, suave English gentlemen who called himself Lord Alton.

Alton was leaning in close to Monsieur Fogg, saying conspiratorially, “I think your man is glaring at me again, Phileas,” and Passepartout bristled at the casual way this stranger called his master by his name.

Monsieur Fogg waved a hand dismissively. “He is a Frenchman.”

Passepartout chose to take that as a compliment.

It would not do to say that his master had drunk rather too much. Passepartout could only believe that Alton had spiked his champagne. He resolved to be the only one to pour Monsieur Fogg’s drinks from now on.

“It’s rather distracting,” Alton was saying.

Not once had Alton deigned to even look at Passepartout, as though he were not worth the attention. The feeling was, to Passepartout’s mind, quite mutual.

What was worse, for all that Alton was supposed to be a man of worth, he had no valet of his own. It was quite unnatural. Passepartout wished very much for this cruise to be over quickly. Perhaps later, when his master was safely in bed, Passepartout would go and speak to the engine room technicians. Perhaps there was some way to speed their arrival at the next harbour along. Monsieur Fogg would be pleased at that.

To Passepartout’s satisfaction Monsieur Fogg sat back in his chair and looked at Alton blankly. Over the past three days Passepartout had come to find Alton a tiresome bore and a letch and a man with terrible taste in wine. Somehow he always seemed to find them, despite Passepartout’s attempts to avoid him.

Monsieur Fogg took another sip of champagne and said, “You seem rather preoccupied with my valet.”

Alton pursed his lips. “Could you not dismiss him? So that we might talk alone?”

Monsieur Fogg raised an eyebrow. “I could not.”

If Alton was surprised he did not show it and Passepartout tried not to look too pleased with himself.

When Monsieur Fogg made to stand, Passepartout was there to pull out his chair and take his empty glass. “Well,” Monsieur Fogg announced, I believe I shall retire.” He nodded to Alton in farewell but did not wait for the gesture to be returned.

Passepartout followed as Monsieur Fogg wound his way out of the dining room, followed him down the narrow stairs that led to the lower decks where their cabin could be found. For someone who Passepartout had thought somewhat the worse for wear his master moved with surprising speed.

Inside their room, Monsieur Fogg went straight to the washstand, washing his face and scrubbing at his teeth. Passepartout turned down the sheets and laid out his master’s pyjamas.

“Ah, excellent, my good man,” Monsieur Fogg said, making his way over to the narrow cabin bed and changing onto his night clothes. Passepartout turned dutifully away.

Despite the diminutive size and lumpiness of the mattress it was a vast improvement on anything they had slept on in some days and Monsieur Fogg sighed as he lay down. “Tomorrow,” he said as Passepartout turned down the lamps, hung up his master’s jacket, “I should like to breakfast alone. On the front deck, perhaps.” It was a question, Passepartout realised.

“I think we can assure your solitude, sir.” Passepartout inclined his head. He would make sure of it.

“Very good, Passepartout.” Monsieur Fogg closed his eyes. “Tell the chef then we shall require a light breakfast.”

“Yes, Monsieur,” Passepartout said. Because solitude to Monsieur Fogg, Passepartout understood after all these weeks of adventures and escapes, meant the two of them.

**

Contorted around metal grating that bit into his skin and tube lines that were hot to the touch, Passepartout took a shallow breath, trying not to breathe in the poisoned steam filling the engine room. It was too much anyway, and he coughed. It hurt deep in his chest. There was no time to worry about it now.

Below him, someone was shouting, panicked and frantic. The grinding cogs and chains around him were too loud for Passepartout to make out what they were saying.

It didn’t matter. He had to focus.

Passepartout was no Artificer, and he remembered only the basics of mechanics from school, but it would have to be enough.

Yesterday he would have laughed if anyone had asked him to help patch up the damaged engine of an airship, but today there was no one else left. Even Monsieur Fogg, who had stood upright and unmoved in the face of soldiers and stifling heat and hunger, had looked pallid and wilted when they had taken leave of each other. The air was thin, thick with smoke, and there was nowhere to escape it.

The fire was spreading.

With all the strength he could muster Passepartout tried to prise the valve nearest to him closed, trying to cut off the fuel. He could feel his skin burning where his elbows rested on hot metal, trying to find leverage. His eyes stung from the steam and his head hurt but none of this compared to the rising desperation; the space was too small; could he even get out; would he burn to death here, trapped in a crashing airship and with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his collar torn and what would Monsieur Fogg think if he saw him this way?

Even here, even now, as he grit his teeth against the heat, the burning, pushing himself on to the next valve, Passepartout found he could only think of his master. They had been through so much and Passepartout could not let this be it. He couldn’t let this be the end of them.

But then everything tipped sideways in that same way the world turned and your stomach flipped over on a fairground rollercoaster, except with fire licking at your back and nothing to stop you from falling. There was a terrible screeching of metal bending, then snapping, and all around him noise and screams and Passepartout felt himself hit something, hit something else. There was more surprise than pain.

He was going to die here, he thought. He didn’t want to. He’d sworn he wouldn’t. And still everything turned over and over.

As his vision turned to red, then grey, Passepartout could only hope Monsieur Fogg, at least, would survive.

His master was selfish. He was arrogant. And yet Passepartout could not stop wanting to stay at his side, to see him pressed and proud and to win. Even if Monsieur Fogg never looked at him like Passepartout might want to stay at his side was enough. Had to be enough.

When Passepartout had made peace with his end, when he had come to understand that he wanted for the impossible, everything stopped.

It was the sudden silence, the way the world was full of nothing but broad, unfocused brushes of colour, that made Passepartout certain, just for a moment, that he was dead.

Then everything hurt.

Acrid, sickening air suffocated him. He was engulfed in heat. Sound - furious, wretched, incomprehensible – assaulted him. And somewhere in all this was his name.

“Passepartout!”

He would recognise his master’s voice anywhere.

“Wake up,” it ordered. Then more insistently, “Dammit, man.”

Someone pulled forcefully on Passepartout’s arms. His back felt like it was being dragged over hot coals. He may have cried out because Monsieur Fogg was saying, “Not much further. Not much further.”

It went on and on, and Passepartout almost wished he were dead.

“There’s an open hatchway,” someone who was not Monsieur Fogg said, then paused. Coughed. Added, “Leave him. He won’t survive.”

Monsieur Fogg’s hands tightened around his wrists. “He will,” he said.

Passepartout could not disappoint his master so he held on to consciousness even as he was dragged and pulled and wrenched. His world had become Monsieur Fogg’s voice, and sometimes his face, close to Passepartout’s and telling him kind lies like they would be fine and they would win the bet and that he did not mean for this.

When they finally stopped and Passepartout could breathe again he realised it was clean air he was drawing desperately into his lungs. There was solid ground underneath him. They were outside. Somewhere.

There was a heavy hand on his arm too. It was all Passepartout could do to open his eyes; to focus.

Above him, beside him, Monsieur Fogg sat. He was smiling.

“I am glad to see you have decided to rejoin me,” he said. His eyes were red rimmed, face smeared with soot and grime. His suit jacket was long gone, his shirt torn and stained. He was the most glorious thing Passepartout had ever seen.

It was hard to speak, his throat impossibly dry, by Passepartout managed to say, “I never left.”

**

They camped that night.

It was too dangerous, their guide said, to travel the roads past sunset. There were sheer drops and thieves and blind corners. The drivers secured the automobiles with chains and the porters walked the perimeter of the camp with long rifles and Passepartout tried not to appear as uneasy as he felt.

He had a revolver he had acquired in Bogota and he tucked it into his belt. His hands were still wrapped in bandages but he kept them hidden in gloves and no one need know how much it still hurt just to bend his fingers; to hold something. He was stiff and sore too from the day’s long drive, his arms cramped, but still he helped put up the tents and start the campfires and cooked thick gruel and soup to eat that sat uncomfortably in his stomach.

When, at last, they bedded down for the night Passepartout wrapped himself and the revolver in blankets against the cold, semi-desert night and determined to stay awake and alert, even if his eyes were heavy and swollen with weariness. The hard ground against his still-healing back hurt anyway, he reasoned. There would be no sleep for him tonight.

The tent was tiny and beside him Monsieur Fogg lay close, breath steady but body tense. His master was awake too.

Outside, the porters talked in low voices, too quiet to make out what they were saying. A fire crackled and spat.

Into the small space between them Monsieur Fogg said, “You must rest, Passepartout.”

“Yes, Monsieur,” Passepartout agreed. He would not. He could not. They both knew it. Yet still Monsieur Fogg sighed heavily, mumbled unhappily, “Stubbourn Frenchman.”

Passepartout could not disagree with that. Was too tired to anyway.

They lay in silence for a long while and Passepartout wished he could see his master’s face so that he might be able to discern some understanding of his thoughts. But even in the light of day his master was nothing if not inscrutable and Passepartout knew it was hopeless. They would travel with all haste and without stopping to consider the places they passed through. They would win this wager and nothing else mattered. Except sometimes, in these times in between, Passepartout wondered. The silence had been simpler before, but he could not wish for the past.

Then, “I will take the revolver,” Monsieur Fogg announced. “You will sleep and I will hear no argument about it.”

His master’s hands found Passepartout’s arm and his touch was impossibly gentle and, oh, but it ached. It had been like this since the airship; his master reaching out as though he needed to be certain Passepartout was still there and Passepartout craving the exquisiteness of it.

“I will take the revolver,” Monsieur Fogg said again. “I assure you I am quite capable of keeping us alive for the night.”

Remembering the way his master had carried him to the nearest town, remembering the way he had yelled for a doctor like a man possessed and did not stop until he had found help, Passepartout said, “I don’t doubt it, Monsieur.”

“Then sleep, man.” Monsieur Fogg gripped his arm more tightly and in this darkness, close enough that Passepartout could feel his master’s breath on his neck, Passepartout wondered if maybe, somehow, he could. Monsieur Fogg said, “We’ll still be here in the morning.”

Unfolding himself from his blankets, Passepartout pushed the revolver towards his master, Monsieur Fogg’s hand closing over his on the butt of the gun. Like this Passepartout could suppose they were more than gentleman and valet. That they were friends.

“It’s settled, then.” Monsieur Fogg pulled the revolver from his hand, tucked the sheets back around Passepartout and it was the strangest feeling to be treated with such consideration. All those weeks ago, back in London and two days in Monsieur Fogg’s service, Passepartout would never have believed it was possible to see all he had seen and do all he had done and to have survived. He would never have believed Monsieur Fogg capable of such patience, of knowing to re-wrap his bandages every morning, of moving closer.

Even in his darkest, most private thoughts, Passepartout would never have believed Monsieur Fogg would ever press their mouths together, just for a moment, as though an apology and a question all at once. But there was no world in which Passepartout would not kiss him back. There was nothing to apologise for. It was all worth it. Every moment. And as Passepartout tasted madeira and sand and stale bread on Monsieur Fogg’s lips there was no other answer he could give but, “Yes, Monsieur.”

End