I Cannot Get Out, Said The Starling
Genre: Drama, Non-Magic AU
Word Count: ~3500
Summary: His Lord is bright and shining, and leads the hordes to war.
Author's Note: Thank you again to my betas, eeyore9990 and angela_snape. This was, admittedly, an unusual story. And you both weathered my eccentricities and problems wonderfully. Thank you. The title is taken from a poem by Vladimir Nabakov, from Lolita.
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
After years of practice, his delicate fingers held steady.
His father had taught him of stillness and patience. Degare smiled slightly as he thought of his father. He'd served L'Empereur Napoléon well, going so far as to go to war in his name. He could see, so clearly in his mind, his father Lucien with silver hair streaming, riding valiantly against the Russian hordes. In Degare's mind, he leaned out over his horse and extended his sword, staining the white uniforms of the Russians a glorious French black. Black with blood.
Degare's smile fell as he recalled that his father was part of the administrative command, and would likely never see battle.
He pulled his mind back to the task in front of him, and delicately lowered the tiny gear that he held into place. It made a soft chink as it slid down the shaft and clicked into position. He leaned back and, squinting, reached for the next cog.
There was a knock at the door, and his hand froze mid-motion. Grateful that the knock had not come at a more delicate moment and resenting greatly the interruption, he straightened in his seat and waited. The room was silent, but he knew that his manservant - and it could only be he, for he allowed no one else to knock at his door - had entered through the well-oiled door and was arranging himself into a suitably subservient position.
Degare stood slowly and turned, gazing coldly on his servant. The man had served him since he had turned sixteen, and that had been, oh, four years ago now, yet he still couldn't remember the man's name. Frankly, he didn't want to. His manservant was a hideous creature - all pockmarks and nervous, clammy hands. Degare would much rather have let him go years ago, but father said that he was loyal, and should be kept close, so here the man was.
He allowed a small sneer to slip across his face as he stared at the nearly prostrate man. "Yes? What is it?"
The creature bowed even lower - he could not have been human, to stretch so low - and began to speak in his nasal, nervous voice. "Monsieur Degarot--"
"Do not call me that!" he snapped. His parents were away. The servants had damned well better learn to address him with more respect. He was a child no longer, and they had no right to use childhood nicknames with him.
"Of-of course, Monsieur." He bowed lower as he spoke, but Degare had the feeling that he was being mocked. He pushed off the desk and began walking slowly towards the small man. Hearing the thud of Degare's heels on the wooden floor, the servant hurried to finish speaking.
"My Lord, M-Monsieur and Madame Parkinson have arrived!"
Degare stopped his advance. No need to intimidate the man to tears. Last time he had done that, father had not been pleased. He glanced towards the window, and the sun that hung high above, forgetting all about the contemptible little man.
So, Monsieur and Madame had finally arrived. He had been expecting them for weeks, and become distracted just recently by his hobbies. Damn. That meant that he still needed to get ready.
He turned and let his gaze fall back onto his manservant.
"Show them to their rooms, and then bring them to the parlour." That should give him enough time to straighten himself up before seeing them.
"They are already in the p-parlour, Monsieur."
Damn. He hissed in aggravation at the man before speaking.
"Fine. Tell them that I will be with them momentarily. Oh, and don't do it yourself. Send another servant."
The creature bowed several more times, whined out some sort of obeisance, and left. Degare practically ran to the mirror as soon as the door clicked shut.
He blanched at what he saw there. His collar was limp and his was cravat crooked. And he still he had to get his dress coat, which was several rooms away in his bedchamber.
He undid his cravat completely and retied it, carefully wrapping it to keep his collar straight and high. It didn't matter at all that the Parkinsons were notoriously devoid of social status. He must look his best.
His hair, so beautifully silver and golden, hung limp around his pointed face. He should have curled it the night before, so that it hung in soft, fashionable waves, but he had been so absorbed in his tinkering that he had forgotten.
He cast an annoyed glance at the tiny metal bird on his desk, glinting gears and cogs scattered around it.
He snatched the key to the room from his desk, and left, locking the door behind him. It certainly wouldn't do for that creature of a manservant to get into his things. After looking to be sure no servants were lingering in the halls - as they damn well shouldn't; this was the private wing and no servants should be setting foot here without a damn good reason - he rushed down the hall.
He slipped into his room and hurried to his wardrobe. He threw the doors open and glanced at his coats. He pulled out a modest dress coat that would suit the occasion - casual but still stylish. It was a deep green, almost black really, and did not make him appear a ghost as some of his blackest coats did.
He checked the inside pocket, ensuring his gloves were laid flat, and slipped the coat on. It fit perfectly as he buttoned the front - uniformly fitted, but still comfortable.
Degare glanced once more into the mirror and paused, all anxiety leaving him. He looked very good, in his own opinion. His hair could be better, but... He grimaced at it. He pulled a bottle of hair wax from a drawer and spread some into his hair, slicking it partly back and to the side. Better, yes.
Finished with his appearance, Degare wiped his hands on a flannel, which he tossed into a corner, and then proceeded to the parlour.
As Degare walked through the manor, servants scurried like little rats out of his path. They hid in niches and behind statuary, and generally did everything possible to stay out of sight. The young Lord's temper was legendary.
When he reached the doors to the parlour, he paused and a servant rushed forward to open them for him. He pasted on a smile as he walked inside, and the occupants' attention turned to him.
Degare smiled at the family, so fashionably dressed and immaculately trimmed. They seemed the very model of French fashion, though they were anything but French. The Parkinson family was British. Monsieur and Madame had become mired in France before the Revolution, and when they had their daughter, they had made the decision to stay in France.
They had become, in social standing, nearly a wealthy French family. But never nobility. The old families would never accept such a slight - foreigners of little social standing and scant background being awarded a noble title.
No. It was uncultured enough that Degare allowed the family to stay on noble lands - on his family's estate. It was only the dubitable boon of the Mal Foi family holding a barony that allowed the families to associate. Degare often reflected that, had his family's noble status been any higher, their acquaintance would have been impossible.
Degare smiled, pushed melancholy thoughts from his head, and walked forward.
"Monsieur Parkinson." He reached forward and took the man's hand, bowing just slightly.
"Degarot," the older man said. Degare's smile stiffened, but he said nothing. He did so hate being demeaned with that name. But he liked the older man, and so let the slight slide.
He turned slightly, his smile becoming more natural. "Madame," he said softly, and bowed over her outstretched hand.
Madame Parkinson was a middle-aged woman, and just beginning to go to fat as her husband had long since. Despite her declining appearance, her wits were sharp, and Degare enjoyed her company in small doses.
As Degare hovered over her hand for a moment, he noticed that her glove was fastened over the elbow. Relieved, he finished the bow and stood. He had no wish to stare at the older woman's arm in the course of niceties.
He turned to the last member of the Parkinson family and paused before bending over her hand. His smile fell away. Pensée. Named for a spring flower, so delicate and sweet. Her French name an expression of her parents' love for their adopted country.
Her hair fell in short dark curls around her face. She smiled down at him, her short nose wrinkling. She was beautiful, and she took his breath away each time he laid eyes on her.
"Pensée," he said softly, savouring the sweet syllables. Her smile broadened.
"It is good to see you again, Degare."
"It has been far too long."
Still smiling, they all settled onto the sofas, and Degare signalled a servant to bring them something to eat and drink. Hopefully they would get fruit - though that was up to chance, given that Degare had been given no time to prepare anything. It was an unseasonably warm day, and he would prefer something cool. But Degare couldn't bring himself to care about the food. Not really.
He couldn't take his eyes from Pensée. Her muslin gown was diaphanous, spreading around her body like a cloud. Her Indian shawl fell artfully from her shoulders, its extraordinarily subtle paisley visible only where the sunlight hit it. Her hands so slim and delicate, with their white gloves gathered into a wrinkled cuff at the wrist. The fabric of her gown was gathered just under her breasts, which rose and fell with each breath. Degare's eyes fell to them every time he looked at her, and finally he was forced to tear his eyes away.
She was, in all ways, exquisite.
Her father's voice broke into Degare's thoughts as he reached for a slice of persimmon, desperately gluing his eyes to it.
"Monsieur and Madame Mal Foi have sent no word of their return? They are, then, still with L'Empereur?"
Degare nodded, and swallowed his fruit delicately. He took the time to dab his fingers with a cloth napkin before answering.
"Yes, I'm afraid that father and mother will be aiding L'Empereur for some time yet."
"Degarot, are you not worried?" Madame Parkinson asked, her voice high. "We spent a week in Paris on our way here, and there were all sorts of terrible rumours flying around."
"Rumours?" He frowned. He had heard nothing of the L'Empereur's war with Russia since the last letter from his parents - which had verbosely praised L'Empereur's glorious army and the victories won.
"Oh, yes," the older woman said as she leaned forward, giving Marius an uncomfortably clear view of the crevasse between her breasts. He determinedly fixed his eyes on her avid face. "It is understandable that you would not have heard - being so secluded out here is terrible if one wants the news. It is said that L'Empereur's war is a désastre! Everything is going wrong, they say. He will have to return to the capital soon."
Degare sat still, processing the news. L'Empereur's war was failing. It seemed incredible. He had grown up worshipping L'Empereur and his exploits. The idea that the man could fail seemed completely unreal to him.
The Parkinsons were fools for believing such rumours. They would never come true. He smiled faintly and spoke.
"I'm sure that this is only gossip. I don't believe that L'Empereur will fail."
He waved to the servant in the corner again. It was a bit early, but he felt that some liquor was needed.
He wouldn't be able to listen to this pathetic gossip without it.
"Ah!" Pensée cried out as Degare thrust into her. Her hands fisted into the sheets and she arched back. Her curls flew about, mussed and fraying, and her face shone with sweat.
Degare groaned at the tightness of her around him. The friction against him was delicious and he couldn't think. Faster and harder he thrust into her, quickly losing sense of everything but physical lust.
Suddenly she gasped, high, and her eyes flew wide open. Her muscles convulsed around Degare, and the cascade of sensations sent him quickly into orgasm, his vision fading further in the night-darkened room.
Breathing heavily, Degare pulled out of Pensée and fell to the bed next to her. He pulled her close, savouring the calm warmth of her now that he was sated. She murmured and burrowed close to him.
Slowly, his thoughts cleared, and moved to dark places.
He hated this - having to wait until Pensée could visit him to be together. He would much rather have married her and spent the rest of his days in carnal bliss, but it was not to be.
If the merest whisper of their relationship was exposed, his family would fall from grace spectacularly. They would lose everything - their wealth, their power, and the respect of L'Empereur.
Degare did not dare risk the exposure. He could only allow these few nights together, when there was no one around to hear. He struggled to stay relaxed and keep Pensée ignorant of his thoughts.
Remembering something, Degare was relieved. He had a surprise for Pensée - one that he knew she would treasure. He moved slowly, pulling away from her. She grunted and turned, her arm falling over her head as she stared at him.
"What is it? It isn't...morning already?" Her voice was sleepy and fearful, and he smiled to calm her.
"No, ma chérie. It is not even close."
"I have a surprise."
She froze, aggravation melting away to be replaced by happiness. Her face was radiant when she smiled - especially at times like these, when no one else was around. She leaned forward, watching intently as Degare picked up a candle and used it to look through the drawer of the table next to his bed.
Finally he seized upon it. The small metal bird that he had been working on earlier in his study. He had finished it this afternoon, spurred by his desire to present it to Pensée.
He held the bird gently in his hand, twisted a pinion, and watched as it came to life. The tiny metal bird shivered and crooked its legs, carefully standing on Degare's palm. Then it walked over to a finger and stood on it as it would a branch. Pensée gasped in delight. Degare glanced at her, and grinned at the sight of her amazed, wide-eyed face.
The bird shifted and flicked its wings out to the side. Its tiny beak opened and it sung a sweet, metallic melody. Pensée cried out "oh!" and reached towards it.
Degare drew back a bit. "You must be careful," he warned.
Enraptured, she nodded feverishly, and he handed the bird to her. She delicately cradled it in her hands, smiling softly as she watched it move. After a few moments, its movements began to slow. Degare leaned forward and showed her how to wind the creature - how it would never perish or fade.
"For you, mon amour," he whispered. "So that you always have something of mine."
When he entered the ball, gossip was already circulating. Degare raised an eyebrow at the groups of women that clustered near the front hall. He handed his frockcoat to a servant and took his time removing his gloves - loosening each finger before pulling them off completely. Carefully, he tucked them into the pocket of his dress coat and proceeded into the ballroom.
The gossipy women parted before him, sending interested glances his way. He smiled to himself. Even the ladies of Paris thought him attractive, it seemed. As this was his first ball in Paris in months, he had taken special care with his appearance tonight. His dress coat was straight black and immaculately tailored, with a sealskin collar. His shirt was pressed and its collar stood high, brightened by contrast with the high collar of his royal blue waistcoat. He had had a servant tie his cravat tonight, to make sure that all was perfect.
He was glad that he had made the effort. It seemed that much of la noblesse d'Empire was at this ball. He saw Mademoiselle Durfort dancing in a nearly scandalous dress, which was short enough to reveal some of her calves. Her red hair flew wildly about, too-long and loose. Degare smirked at further evidence of her family's gaucheness.
Across the room, he caught the uncanny green eyes of Henri-Jaques Pauver watching him. The boy may have been the son of a duc, but Degare had always found him to be the rudest and oddest of all the nobility, simultaneously.
Degare looked away, and after a moment saw Pensée. He watched her until she looked away from her conversation and saw him. He was about to smile at her when she quickly looked away again. Degare frowned at her coldness. Even if they could not talk at such balls, she was usually glad enough to give him a smile. He would have to find her later - much later. Then they could talk.
There was a hand at his elbow. Degare turned and froze, surprised. It was the duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, one of the highest peers of the empire. The man was small and had his graying hair waxed and combed high on his head. He smiled jovially at Degare.
"Monsieur le duc," Degare managed to stutter out, before le duc took his arm and began escorting him towards where the musicians were playing. His girth pressed against Degare's side, who struggled to not push away from the man
"Monsieur le Mal Foi, I wish to congratulate you."
Degare looked down at the man, surprised. "About what, Monsieur?"
"Why, about L'Empereur. He has lost the war and is to be exiled."
Degare was so shocked by the news that he stopped. Le duc walked a few more steps and then turned, his face a comedy of surprise. "Why, you hadn't heard at all!" he exclaimed, a smile crossing his face. "How absolutely charming."
He reached out and tugged on Degare's arm, drawing him closer. "Don't worry about your parents, Monsieur le Mal Foi, they are fine. They aided the Marshals in deposing L'Empe- I'm sorry, Napoléon." His smile was mocking, and it rankled. Degare wanted to run from this horrible little man, but manners demanded that he stay.
He stared at the short man, and tried to think through what he had just been told. He was chilled by the thought that his parents, whom he had always held as models for himself, were traitors. They had betrayed Napoléon, their Lord. Degare's heart froze at the thought. He belonged to a family of traitors
A moment later, le duc spoke again. "I am quite sure that your family will receive a promotion for their services. Perhaps, dare I say, a county? Perhaps, my dear boy, you will come to one of my salons? They are quite fashionable, and only the brightest of the realm attend." He laughed a bitter laugh and retrieved two glasses of champagne from a waiter. He handed one to Degare. "Well, in any case, you must let me know. Now celebrate, my dear boy! The joy of social elevation will not come to you often, I am afraid."
He laughed as he walked away, leaving Degare alone in the whirl of the dance floor.
Degare turned to look for Pensée, but could not find her. He knew now why she had looked away from him. She must have heard the gossip.
And if his family was raised from baron to count, there was no hope for the two of them. Their respective statuses would not allow them to see each other again. They were doomed.
Degare realized in that moment that le duc had managed to take his entire life, and all he held dear, from him - all in a moment's conversation. His family had been promoted in status, depriving him utterly of Pensée. And to gain this 'honour', his family had betrayed their ideals - everything that they had raised Degare to honour. They had betrayed L'Empereur.
Degare clutched his champagne flute. He wanted to toss the damned thing into the crowd, heedless of who it hit. He wanted to throw his dress coat off and lash out, hitting someone, anyone, with his fists. Hate coiled and throbbed in the pit of his stomach and he fought it.
He could not lose control now. Not when doing so would bring shame to him and anything that was left to him.
Desperately, he sipped the champagne that le duc had given him, but it only made him ill. Realizing that he was standing amidst the dancers - who were sending him nasty looks-, he moved back to the edge of the ball, bowing and asking pardon from all the dancers he pushed through.
For the rest of the night he hovered, trying desperately to reclaim the insouciance of manner that he so treasured.
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