Prologue: Duel to the Death
It was a misty morning in rural England, the fog thick and wet, clinging to everything, a veil over the world. Two figures faced each other across an expanse of wet grass. Their hands twitched at their sides, ready to grab at the pistols that hung there. The tension in the air was palatable.
A small group of people looked on. One of them, a young woman with her chestnut-colored hair bunched up under a powdered wig, stared anxiously at the man nearest to her. "Oh, Christopher, please do be careful," she whispered, twisting her handkerchief anxiously, tearing at the thin fabric with her nails. Isabella Couture bit her lip nervously as she watched her brother on the field. All of this was her fault. She should have never spoken to Julio at that ball. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have been lured outside by his offer of a walk in the moonlight. She wouldn't have found herself pressed up against a wall, trying to push him away, to free herself of his prying hands and greasy lips. And Christopher would not be here today, fighting to defend her reputation.
On the field, Christopher Couture stared across the expanse of dew-covered grass at his opponent. It was up to him to defend Isabella's honor. His hand twitched, eager to grab his pistol and just shoot the bastard who had insulted his sister. He longed to just do it now, to get it over with. It would be so easy to just pull out the gun now and kill that Spanish son of a bitch. He would never see it coming. But doing things like that wouldn't resolve anything.
"Seconds ready?" The two seconds nodded firmly to the referee, standing outside of the rectangle of ground that had been marked out by red silken flags at the corners. "Duelists ready?" Christopher and Julio nodded as well, both of them shifting their weight so they were prepared to move in an instant.
"Oh, Christopher, be careful!" Isabella called, taking several steps forward. The other witnesses threw out arms, holding her back. "Don't get hurt!" She clasped her hands together, her handkerchief fluttering to the ground, forgotten. She raised her joint hands to her lips, eyes closing briefly as her lips moved in prayer. "Please be careful," she whispered again, opening her eyes so she could watch her brother.
Christopher didn't reply to his sister's calls. She meant the world to him, but he couldn't respond. He had to stay focused on the impending duel. It would be his death if he didn't.
"One…two…three…draw!" The referee of the duel tossed a handkerchief into the air. It began to fall…and the pistols were whipped out. There were two sharp cracks that echoed in the cold air as they were fired and discarded all in one movement. On the sidelines, Isabella cried out and turned her head away, closing her eyes and burying her face in the sleeve of her uncle.
Christopher heard the bullet whistle past his ear, felt its head scald his face. But there was no time to reflect. The young man grabbed the saber at his side and charged. He already knew it was too late. Swordplay wasn't his strong point, but it was Julio's. The Spanish nobleman had spent his life training with a saber; Christopher had only picked it up recently. Before he had another moment to think, the two were locked in combat.
Metal clanged. Steel flashed. The sabers twined together, the combatants locked in a deadly dance that seemed to be almost choreographed for the moment. The steps threw the dew up into the air, leaving behind plain emerald grass, the diamonds that had studded it gone. To the spectators, the duelists seemed evenly matched, but both Julio and Christopher knew that the latter had already lost. Julio's saber swung up in an arc, back down in the second part of the movement, and then thrust forward. Christopher saw it coming as if time had slowed. His arm was too low; he couldn't bring it up in time to block the blow. There was a lancing pain in his chest as Julio's saber pierced it. He gasped in pain, feeling the blade hit his heart…and the world flickered rapidly in front of his eyes, and he drew a deep breath and let it out, feeling blood bubble on his lips. His vision changed rapidly, scenes from his life flashing before his eyes, stained a crimson color. His hard reached up, gripped the blade, and pulled it from his chest. Hot blood poured down his white shirt, staining it irrepairably, and he dimly saw steam swirling upwards...and his world went black.
Christopher Couture had a lovely funeral, with an engraved coffin and a sermon and a eulogy saying how he died defending his sister's honor. Christopher spent the entire time sitting on the coffin, in the middle of the flowers that covered it, and listening, not understanding what was going on. He wasn't dead. He couldn't be. After all, he was here, wasn't he? If he was here, he obviously wasn't dead. This was probably something Isabella had come up with to celebrate him surviving the duel. She'd always had an odd sense of humor. However, the atmosphere really did seem rather subdued, and he couldn't remember anything leading up to the funeral. It was a rather odd sensation.
"All right, you can stop now," he said loudly, climbing off the coffin. He blinked in surprise as he felt the grass beneath his feet. Why on earth wasn't he wearing shoes on such a cold, damp morning? Perhaps he'd taken them off, for they often gave him blisters. His clothes, white trousers and a white lawn shirt, seemed impractical for the setting. They would be stained beyond repair if he happened to fall on the grass, and white was not a mourning color. He pondered his odd outfit for several moments before choosing to ignore it. Instead, he chose to go over to Isabella, intent on asking her what was going on.
She certainly did look upset; that was odd. If this was one of her pranks, then...He didn't know, honestly. He was beginning to doubt that this was one of her mad schemes. Her chocolate-brown eyes were red and puffy, brimming with tears, and there were tear streaks on her cheeks. Her hair had been cut short in mourning, and the locks were choppy, not sleek and professional; they looked as if she'd cut them herself with a pair of sewing scissors or a kitchen knife.
"Isabella, you don't need to cry. I'm here, everything's fine. Don't cry." Christopher reached out to embrace his sister…and fell through her. He pulled himself up, using a tree for support, and then stared at himself. What had just happened? "I'm dreaming," he said firmly. "That has to be it." It was the only explanation for this. He wasn't dead, so Isabella shouldn't be crying, and they shouldn't be as his "funeral".
A loud creaking sound caught his attention. He turned to see the coffin being lowered into a grave. Flowers flew through the air, forming a colorful blanket over the casket. Two men with shovels stepped forward and began scooping the dirt back into the hole. The crowd around the hole –no, not hole, grave- slowly turned and left. Only Isabella remained, watching the grave being filled, looking at it but not really seeing it, and she remained afterwards, too, tears running down her face. The sun began to sink below the horizon, painting the sky blood-red in color. It was eerie, looking at it, and remembering the blood that had poured down his chest when Julio had gotten in that blow with the sword.
Christopher slowly approached his sister, held out a hand for her to take. "Bella, you need to get inside. Come, we'll go home and have Cook make us a nice, hot supper..." He reached out to take Isabella's arm and guide her away from the grave. It had been completely filled by now, only a scattering of flower petals remaining on the churned mud that surrounded the site. His hand descended towards Isabella's arm, briefly rested on her skin...and then slid right through it. Christopher gasped in shock, yanking his hand back to his chest and staring at it in horror. His sister looked up, not at him, but through him, and touched her arm lightly as if she'd felt his hand. Her face paled, and she turned and ran towards the carriage that had been waiting all day for the young noblewoman to return to it.
Christopher ran after her, panicking. He had to catch her, figure out what was going on. She had always been good at running, and probably was wearing boots instead of slippers beneath her skirts like she always did, just so she could run. She also had a head start. But Christopher was gaining on her. "Isabella, wait!" he cried, reaching out. She didn't respond. She reached the carriage and scrambled in, shouting orders to the driver. The look of pure terror on her face stung to the bone. The coach took off. Christopher strained to run faster, even though it was useless. He couldn't catch a carriage on foot. Fates, he thought desperately. I need to go faster! As the thought faded, he realized that he was going faster. And, although he was still running, his feet weren't touching the ground. He was flying. Confused, Christopher looked about wildly, finally glancing behind him. He stared in shock. He had wings.