August 19th, 1867, Monday
En route to Nurnberg
0930 hrs, local time
Josephine cadged a cup of black coffee on her way through the dining car and kept on going to the rear of the train. Threading her way through the boxes and trunks in the baggage car, she wrestled the rear door open and stepped onto the tiny platform beyond. The sound of the wheels was loud here and the wind of their passage was brisk. It was chilly and she regretted the lack of her jacket. No matter. She had hot coffee and solitude, two of the three things she needed most. She shut the door after disengaging the lock and setting her cup at her feet, she pulled the necessary items from her pocket and lit a cigarette. Her initial drag was deep, the hit to her system immediate. Fatigue faded, whipped away by the wind and the nicotine, and retrieving her coffee, Josephine leant her arms on the rail and sipped, trying to marshal her impressions of the night before, smoking the while.
Rembecki was in Paris. Taking in a show. Whatever for? She had Selene. Helpless. Immobilized. Unable to resist. She had purpose in snatching her. Made a precipitous departure for the Continent. After all that haste, why linger in Paris? Was she waiting for someone? If so, who? If not, what was her plan?
The Moulin Rouge. Why leave Selene there, in plain sight? To establish an alibi, a cover story for ... whom? Selene? Why expose a kidnapping victim to the public at all? Why invite interference? She must have known we'd follow her. Did she send the gargoyle Ezekiel fought? If so, why? Again, why the public spectacle? Why not just slip away unseen, with no one suspecting, all the way back to your lair?
What of Ezekiel’s account of what the gargoyle said? 'She must not leave.' Who is 'she'? Flora? Or Selene? Or ... Rembecki? Or is this another woman we know nothing about?
Is this gargoyle the same one who menaced Flora earlier? Or a different one? How many animated gargoyles are there in Paris? Who controls them? What did Dionysius find when he went out? What is the Societe du Nord's connection with Rembecki? They are a political support society against the Prussian unification of the German properties. What dealings would they have with the Austro-Hungarians ... an alliance of mutual benefit against the Prussians? How would that work? Who would manage it? What would they need to defeat or thwart Prussian ambition? And what would the Dashwoods have that they'd want or need Selene? Are they planning an arcane maneuver against Prussian interests? Some sort of magical campaign?
Data. I need more data. Otherwise, I'm speculating in advance of the facts ...
Josephine dragged on her cigarette and found it burned down to a stub. She pulled a fresh one from the case and lit it off the first, then snuffed the spent cigarette on the sole of her shoe before sending it over the rail. The sway of the car and the clack of the wheels were soothing in a way her thoughts were not and the dissonance between outer and inner worlds did as much to keep her awake as the cigarettes and the caffeine. How long has it been since I've slept? Yesterday morning? Josephine pulled her father’s watch from her skirt pocket. It was silver and engraved and once opened, revealed itself to be of the skeleton type, all gears and springs behind the crystal. She noted the time and counted backward. 0945. 29 hours. 15 minutes. Not the worst stretch I’ve done.
She closed it carefully and stroked the case with her thumb. She could still recall the shock of finding it in her pack after he'd left. How she'd eagerly opened it hoping to find a note, an explanation, a clue to his abrupt departure. Over the years she'd pored over every blessed inch of that watch, traced every hair-thin line of its engraving. Was there a code hidden in the filigree? Was there any significance to the globe drawn thereon? The obverse was blazoned with the Western Hemisphere, the reverse the East. Josephine brushed a speck of cigarette ash from the silver and put the watch back in her pocket. There was no knowing what her father had intended when he'd secreted it amongst her things as she'd slept. She simply knew it was the only tangible object she had to remind her of him, a talisman of the man she loved, whom she’d tracked down across half a Continent before being abandoned.
Stop. He didn't abandon me. He left me in the care of people he trusted. There is a difference in that.
Josephine drank her coffee down to the dregs and shook the last drops over the side. Reminiscence was all well and good when writing one's memoirs but not terribly constructive during an investigation. Still, she couldn't help but wonder if her father's disappearance had any bearing on the puzzle she now faced. Eiger was one of the points on the triangle they pursued, though not their current destination. Josephine was struck by a sudden and irrational pull to her left as she turned for the door, an internal urge like a compass needle to the north. They'd pass Eiger later, she knew, as they made their way east. Perhaps, she thought bitterly, I shall look out the window and wave.
Taking a final drag on her cigarette, she blew the smoke over the side and sent the stub after it. The wind had finally chilled her to the bone and there was no point in torturing herself any further. Josephine put her hand to the latch and stepped inside.
Ezekiel had come looking for some peace. His own car currently was in the possession of Monsieurs Bertram and Beignet. While he respected both men, neither was religious. Or quiet, for that matter. And he needed the quiet right now to talk to the Host.
He slid the door of the baggage car behind him as he entered, scanning the open floor between piles of boxes, trunks, and suitcases. There. Off to the middle of the car, there was some open space off the main pathway through the car. Surrounded by several large trunks, he would not be easily viewed from the main door into the car and would not be in the way of anyone else looking to enter. He made his way over and once there, slowly dropped to his knees, using his cane as support. He closed his eyes and began to ask for forgiveness.
The wind and the wheels roared once and the door shut them out. Josephine paused on the threshold, her extremities tingling in the relative warmth of the car as she waited for her eyes to adjust.
Ezekiel sighed softly as he heard a door open. So much for peace and quiet. But at least he could just wait it out - the new person in the car would probably pass by him, being unlikely to turn around and see the man in prayer on the floor of the baggage car. But he then realized it was the rear door rather than the front door. That meant whoever it was could not miss him. He sighed again as he took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration. He stood up, and as he turned around was surprised to see that it was Josephine standing there. He, perhaps, shouldn't have been surprised. She was the most likely person on the train (other than the staff) to be in the baggage car.
"Josephine," he said quietly, opting for the casual name out of the sight of others. "What brings you to the baggage car?"
She heard a scrape and a rustle and turning, she recognized Ezekiel standing amongst the boxes and bags. A quick sweep of him head to toe told her he'd been kneeling on the floor, yet it cannot have been to search for his glasses. They were securely on his nose and his palms were free of dust and grit, unlike his trousered knees. It hit her instantly what he'd been doing and she ducked her head in apology, even as her ears caught his use of her Christian name.
"I was just getting some air." She set her footsteps for the far door and as she drew even with him, her feelings flared up from their background smolder and she couldn't help but look his way. He was rumpled and weary from the breakneck pace they'd kept through the night, his expression troubled, and she wanted nothing more than to smooth the frown from his brow with her hands. She fisted them around her coffee cup and resolutely turned for the door. "Pray don't let me keep you."
He gave her a tired smile. "The Host will not go anywhere. Are you holding up well from the events of the last day?" He could see that she was nervous...or perhaps uncertain around him. That needed to stop if they were to make any progress in their mission. Josephine was their leader in many respects, and if she did not know how to interact with him, there was bound to be trouble. So he would try and put a stop to it now. He would certainly prefer to get back to his moment of quiet. But if a casual conversation with Josephine could put them right, a delay in his conversation with the Host would be a small price to pay.
“Well enough.” Until I saw you. Her heart lurched from an old heartache to a new one and for a searing second she longed for men she couldn’t have. Father. Ezekiel. Clearly there is something wrong with me. She sighed and changed her course for her trunk. She needed to do something with her hands, lest she be tempted to incaution with him. Her trunk would provide sufficient occupation until the urge passed. She still wore the garments the Embassy had loaned her and she wanted out of them. Josephine firmly stopped the thought before it could go any further and crossed the car to her trunk. It stood several inches taller than she did in her women’s heels and Josephine set aside her cup to remove the ropes tying it shut. Working her fingers into the hemp, she kept her back to Ezekiel and asked, “You?”
As long as he was being casual, she wouldn’t add to the awkwardness by insisting on formalities but speak plainly as if he were any other member of her troupe—William’s troupe, she corrected herself. You’re not with them anymore. She was on her own, the putative leader of a mission for the Crown and, she suspected, failing miserably at it. She grit her teeth and dug her nails into the knot and pried it open, flung it free with an angry flick of her wrist, and bent to the next knot lower down.
He watched her struggle with her trunk knots, frustration evident in her every movement. "Clearly, you are not 'well enough', Josephine. I would give you nothing less than honesty. I expect the same from you," he admonished her. Society and its bevy of polite fictions kept people from defaulting to truth, he thought. Too easy to give in to a lie here and a lie there. But it was important that the members of this team feel they could be honest with one another. And that responsibility started with him. Now.
Stung by the implicit accusation, Josephine pulled the last knot apart and cast it aside, then rose to face him. His expression nearly took her breath away but indignation allowed her to keep her tongue and her wits. Barely. She steeled her tone along with her spine and said, "Honesty is not the same as discretion, sir, and at the moment, they are mutually exclusive. I can offer you the one but I dare not indulge in the other."
She turned back to her trunk and threw the locks. "I'll just get my things and get out of your way."
Ezekiel's eyes narrowed as she turned away from him. If this was the way she chose to handle it, then so be it, he thought. He had already failed the mission once in the last twenty-four hours and he refused to let Josephine's stubborness taint their mission going forward.
Her response dictated his next one. No different from a fencing duel, except his weapon now must be forged from the mind and wielded by the wit.
"So instead, because of what you feel for me, you will just avoid me instead."
Draw your weapon and declare.
"Our lack of communication will cause us to misstep one day and perhaps cause the entire mission to fail."
Step into position.
"It is completely…" He paused for effect before putting his emphasis on the next word... "unprofessional of you."
A quick blow to the left to draw her attention.
“I told you I would always be honest with you.” He stared quietly at her, as she stood there unmoving at her trunk. “And I honestly expected better of you, Josephine.”
And the finishing blow.
Ezekiel placed his words like knives and Josephine keenly felt each one go in … and at the word unprofessional, he gave each of them a wicked twist. The attraction that had her desperate to leave flashed into anger in an instant and she spun around to face him.
“Unprofessional?” she snarled, incensed. “Do you have any idea just how unprofessional my thoughts are when I’m alone with you? I thought I’d made myself clear in Katherine’s drawing room but I see I shall have to be blunt. I’m not talking about a starry-eyed schoolgirl’s crush, Ezekiel. You’re not an incorruptible knight in shining armor and I’m not the lily white princess waiting for him." She pushed off her trunk, eyes narrowed and voice steely. "I’m not ignorant of the physical pleasure between men and women, nor am I unaware how powerful a drive it can be. That is what I want to avoid, however much my body screams for it. Need I remind you what would happen if I gave in to it? Do you think I'm that stupid? Do you think Katherine wouldn't know? That she doesn't already know how I feel? Do you think that I would trade my self-respect, or yours, or hers, for a moment's pleasure, when I know you are not free to give it?" She got right up in his face and practically growled at him. "Unprofessional barely suffices to describe it."
Damn you to hell, Ezekiel Drake.
There, he thought, finally out in the light of day where it could be dealt with. "I believe the very definition of professional means you must act like one, even when you have every reason not to." She talked to him as if he was some sort of innocent, a babe in the wood with no knowledge of anything other than frippery and parties. He could not deny that most of the gentry were found not far from that description. But not him.
"And if you," Ezekiel said, pointing his cane at her, "think so little of me, think me so weak as to be torn away from Katherine by a single lustful look from you, then it saddens me to consider how little you must think of yourself."
"Did I even once say you would initiate anything?" Oh, that tore it! Her hands flew up of their own volition and slammed flat against his chest. "Or even accept an overture of mine? You insufferable arrogant prig! It's not about you! It's--," she faltered, realized she had a fistful of his jacket in both her hands and was ready to pound him. Or kiss him. She let go as if he were made of fire and strode aside.
"When it's combat, when we're on-task, it's different. It's ... quiet. Gone." Josephine crossed her arms to keep her hands in check and turned around to keep an eye on him. Combat indeed. "But here? Now? If I weren't so furious, I'd be lashing my tongue in a vastly different manner."
He had not, in fact, said that he would initiate anything. The intensity of her feelings for him startled him somewhat. He had thought them to be...well, if not a crush, perhaps more ephemeral than what Josephine seemed to be experiencing. Ezekiel had not thought it in the plans of the Host to have one woman in his lifetime attracted to him. Now he had twice that amount. Let no one say that the angels do not ring with laughter as they look down upon us.
"England needs you as much outside of combat as she needs you with a gun in your hand, Josephine. Your brain is as deadly, if not more deadly to the cause of our enemies. And you know that already." His expression softened slightly as he thought of the position Josephine had somehow fallen into. She deserved someone as much as he did. Host, find your way to give Josephine what she needs, even if you cannot give her what she wants.
"I am sorry, Josephine, that I cannot be what you want me to be." He pulled his face back to a fully professional calm mode. "If it is really too much to bear, then I will make sure to absent myself from your presence anytime when we are not on mission."
She knew he meant well. Truly she did. But even though she knew he'd only meant to be kind, his last statement made her see red.
"Let me make this clear--I know you can't be what I want. I don't want what I want. I just want it to be gone. Absenting yourself isn't the answer because the cause of my trouble doesn't lie with you. Can you not see it? I ...." She gusted a sigh, dragging it all the way up from her toes. "Look. We will work together. We will spend time as associates when we're not working together. This will pass. Trust me, it's not as if I haven’t suffered it before. It's only been five days, Ezekiel. In another five, I shall be better. In a fortnight, it will not be so ... painful. If I have your leave to beg anything of you after what I've said to you here, I beg your patience. Time is the only remedy I know for what ails me and I do not know how to ask it of you in any other way. I'm sorry."
Host help him, she frustrated him to no end. Nothing he did seemed to be acceptable. His mere presence seemed to cause a problem. In frustration, he waved a hand at her and nodded curtly. "Do what you must. I will wait. Now if I am through apologizing to you, I must now return to my apology to the Host and to Michael." He turned back towards his makeshift prayer station.
"No." Josephine closed the distance between them and putting a hand to his elbow, spun him around. "Finish what you start, Ezekiel. You began this conversation and it's not over."
He yanked his elbow away from her and stumbled backwards slightly. As he did, he could feel his left leg start to tingle, an almost sure sign that he would lose feeling in it shortly. Not now, for heaven's sake.
Putting his weight on his cane, Ezekiel quickly maneuvered himself to a nearby box and sat down, trying hard to appear as if it were a choice and not forced by his disease. He looked up at her, his voice rising in frustration. "What do you want from me, Josephine? I attempt to make sure we can work together and you ask me to have patience. I agree to that and you tell me that we're not done. I am used to following the Host's orders, so just tell me what it is that I am to do and I will do my best to perform that duty."
“You say you have granted me your patience.” Josephine took a deep breath and settled on a crate across from him. “Could you also grant me your attention? Did I or did I not just now say absenting yourself was an invalid solution because the root of my trouble is not your presence? Furthermore, you have the gall to take me to task for avoiding you and yet now you're avoiding me? As long as we're being honest here, Ezekiel, have the honor to admit it.”
Had she really accused him of a lack of honor? "To begin, I am not a student whose hand is to be slapped with the ruler regarding a matter of honor." He could feel his left leg starting to go numb, the lack of feeling creeping up his leg, chasing after the tingling that had already reached his knee. "I heard what you said clearly, although I am not sure I agree since it seems to be my presence that precipitates these issues. Furthermore, I was just returning to my interrupted apology to the heavens, not avoiding you. I had thought the conversation was finished, since we had come to a clear conclusion what each of us must do. "
That’s it, then. Fine. Be that way.
Josephine rose, smoothing her hands down her skirt to keep from fisting them. She stepped clear of Ezekiel and knowing it ruined a decisive exit, she nevertheless went back to her trunk and gathered what she needed. Her valise sufficed to transport it discreetly and she knew she could beg some privacy to change in Katherine’s compartment. Under no circumstances would she think of doing it here. She closed up her trunk, set the locks, and retied the ropes with knots she’d recognize later. She retrieved her coffee cup and looked back at the man who so compelled and frustrated her.
“If I might offer you some advice, Ezekiel,” she said softly. “For when you are married. Never consider yourself done until the lady has been satisfied.”
"Wait." Ezekiel held up his hand to try and halt her departure. He was certain that he would not be able to stand even if he wanted to try and keep her from leaving. "I do not wish to leave this as it stands. I feel I have failed here." He was becoming very familiar with failure. "Assume that I am an idiot child and explain to me what you expect from me. I promise I will listen."
Another ruined exit. Josephine sighed and her father's voice whispered back from memory. Finish what you start, Jo.
"All right," she answered, wryly aware of responding to both men at once. She parked her valise and cup on a convenient crate near the door and resumed her seat at Ezekiel's side. "We are neither of us idiots, but perhaps our emotions have us turned around and talking past each other. I will state this as plainly as possible to avoid misunderstanding on either side. I've confessed my feelings for you. I've acknowledged they are inappropriate and have assured you they are temporary. It is unfortunate that they are as painful as they are strong but I have also promised I will not allow them to compel me to indiscretion. I have my own methods to reinforce my resolve and I beg you not to perceive them as insult or a wish to snub you. As I've said, in matters of combat or mission task, I am able to put aside my feelings and work beside you without discomfort. It is only when we're alone, like this, that it becomes ... difficult."
Josephine keenly watched his face, hoping to find some sign he understood.
"Ezekiel, I ...," she faltered, wondering what she could say convince him. "I swear to you that you shall go to Katherine on your wedding night with a clear conscience on this matter. I will accept no other outcome. If at times I seem distant, I am simply doing what needs to be done to ensure that outcome. Can we at least come to an understanding about that, without any misconceptions or hard feelings between us?" Josephine bit her lip and glanced down, then up again. "Because, truly, I don't think I could bear it if by doing so I've alienated myself from your friendship permanently. And neither could Katherine. She looks up to me—God knows why—and I am as reluctant to disappoint her as I am you."
Ezekiel waited patiently for Josephine to finish. It must have been hard, laying her emotions out so clearly for him to see. His initial concern when the conversation had started had been allayed and now what remained was to convince Josephine of that.
"I never doubted your intent or your honor, Josephine. I must make that clear. My concern was that for the sake of our mission, the lines of communication must remain open. And you have convinced me that they will, at least in regards to our service to England."
He looked her straight in the eyes. "I will trust in your judgment in this."
“I have never hesitated to communicate anything mission-pertinent to you or any other. There was never any danger of that, because that is business and my feelings do not apply. This?” Josephine said, waving a finger back and forth between them. “This is personal and as such, it’s harder. If you wish to keep this line of communication open as well, I will. Just keep in mind that I may not be as my old self about it, at least for the nonce. Will that suit?”
She stuck out her hand for a gentleman’s shake. It was a calculated move on her part, but she wanted to forestall any further waffling.
He leaned forward and shook her hand firmly. "It is a deal. I would hope that you might still talk to me as a friend, but if that becomes impossible, I understand that as well."
His grip was brisk and she returned it, glad that her palm tingled only from the contact than from irrational need.
"Tell me something," she said, releasing his hand. "If I were a gentleman friend, would you take my reticence as anything but a temporary need for privacy, as in the manner between men?"
He answered forthrightly. "It would depend on if it was part of a larger pattern of behavior. And besides, Josephine, as an agent of the crown, you should know that all information must be dealt with in context." Ezekiel was more than a little upset by her question. Josephine still felt he could be not trusted to treat her as something other than a flighty accessory. "Would you care to ask me, perhaps, if I feel you should find hobby and husband to keep you occupied? The intent would not be far off the one you just asked of me."
Stung, Josephine drew breath to respond and paused, seeing they've cross-purposed again. But how to draw attention to it?
He reached up to remove his glasses, needing a moment to contain the headache slowly building between his eyes. But as he removed them, they slipped from his grasp, scattering on the ground below. "The heavens burn me as useless!" he cursed, forgetting his manners in his frustration. He took a moment for a deep breath and realized that with the current state of his leg, his glasses were so far out of his reach as to have been left back in Paris.
"Would you mind me handing me my glasses, Josephine?" Rather than waiting, he plowed onward with the response to her question. "Your question implied that I was treating you differently because of your gender, despite my attempts to do otherwise."
Josephine retrieved his spectacles and put them in his hand, then closed her fingers over both before he could draw away.
“That was my intention, yes, because I needed to be certain of yours. Now that I am, the matter’s settled.” She gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and released him.
"How often must I be tested?" he asked quietly, both to the woman in front of him and to the heavens listening above.
“Sh-hh!” Josephine rose and dared put a finger to his lips. “You never know who you might be tempting.”
As he put his spectacles back on, Ezekiel sighed a little and straightened up. He had given his life over to the Host many years ago. No purpose in complaining about being tested, either by the heavens or by the mortal realm. He waited for Josephine to remove her finger before replying, "Of course, you are correct. As always, I will endure. All things to their purpose and place. Thank you for your understanding."
“I may not always understand,” Josephine said, reclaiming her finger as he straightened. She stood and gave her skirt a settling twitch. “But I promise to always try.”
And that was all he could ask for. He nodded briefly. "Now, I believe I have neglected that apology to Michael and the Host long enough." Hopefully, she would not ask him to help her to carry anything back to her room. But if she did, he would explain and endure that as well.
Josephine stirred to go but something made her stop and take a closer look at the man.
"Ezekiel, are you ...," she paused, hoping to spare his pride. She had not been kind to it this past half hour but something in his bearing made her persist, despite. "Are you well?"
"I am experiencing symptoms from my disease. I cannot move my leg at the moment." A lift and drop of the limp weight that was his left leg as a demonstration. He shook her concern away with a wave of his hand. "It will go away."
When it would go away was of course a different concern. And the pain associated with the return of feeling would not be pleasant. But as he had said earlier, he would endure. He would not turn his own words into untruth by complaining about the burdens he had been given.
"Can I get you anything? Or would you rather I left you to your prayers?"
After all, you've upset him enough.
"If I have not returned to my car in the next few hours, I would ask you to come back and check upon me." If he had not gained feeling back in his leg by then, he would need assistance walking back. Episodes did not usually last that long, but every one was unique.
"As you wish," Josephine said and gave him a nod. She had the trick of it now--comrade, soldier, fellow trouper. So long as she could interact with him on those terms, it mattered not what she felt for him otherwise. The compulsion retreated. It hovered in the background as always, but its force was lessened. Manageable. Just like David. She pulled out her father's watch and checked the time. She looked up, brow raised in query. "Say, a quarter past noon?"
He pulled out his own watch, running his finger across the silver filigree as he did. His father had loved this watch. He had never understood Ezekiel's mindset and devotion to the Host. And it was a struggle for his father to deal with Ezekiel's occasional physical weaknesses. But when his will had been read, his father had left the watch he loved to Ezekiel.
When he needed to be reminded of the time, he was also reminded of his father. And right now, that memory gave him comfort and strength in a moment of weakness. He looked at the watch face - a quarter past noon would give him two hours. More than enough. He nodded to her. "Thank you, Josephine."
“You’re welcome, Ezekiel.” Josephine tucked her watch away, noting Ezekiel’s own taste in timepiece, and gave him another nod. “If you fail to show, I shall be back in two.”
That said, Josephine didn’t linger but gathered her things and left the man to his prayers. She felt wrung out, as if she’d been practicing her sword routine or pitching the main tent instead of merely talking. To say that our conversation was merely talking would be like saying the Atlantic was merely a puddle.
"Two hours," she affirmed, her hand on the door. Then she turned and walked through it. If she hurried, she could steal an hour or so going through the Dashwood book. She might find more information about Selene and her family connections, information that could help them on their mission. She gave the galley staff a curt nod and eeled her way forward to Katherine's compartment, there to knock and beg a place to change.
Ezekiel let loose a deep breath of relief when Josephine left. She had a way sometimes of confusing him that left him feeling like the small child he had once been, not the adult he had grown into. Not intentional on her part, he thought, but that did not make it any more pleasant.
He poked at his still numb leg. While he should be on his knees, the Host would have to forgive him, because if he got down, it was unlikely he would get back up. And conveniently for him, he had many things to ask forgiveness for. He could just add this to the pile. His eyes closed as he began his apology.
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