The chill of winter frosted the barren trees beyond the window, leaving their branches like twinkling charred fingers under the dark sky and the scant fire light that flickered from the other side of the window. Inside, a pair of figures sat on a plush couch, drinking wine in front of a lit fireplace of a lushly decorated bedroom as they spoke to one another, neither paying any mind to the snow falling like dust beyond their warm pocket of the world. They were dressed in their evening garments, relaxing before they would have to part ways and don their sleeping attire, the woman needing to return to her room to rest in her own bed, as staying the evening in her gentleman’s room would likely cause scandalous gossip.
They laughed politely at each other’s words, though the politeness was more from practice than discomfort. It was clear that both were extremely comfortable with each other, as their joyous smiles and genuine attention proved that they were close friends.
The couple was impeccably dressed, a handsome young man enjoying the company of a lovely young woman. The man was dressed well in his evening finery of blue satin with gold embroidered detailing on his waistcoat, though he had unbuttoned the waistcoat as he relaxed into his couch. The woman beside him wore a ravishing red evening gown that shined in the fire light that danced against its satin and lace, her body relaxed comfortably on the couch as she contemplated the wine in her glass while the man next to her spoke vividly.
“Of course I apologized afterward,” he said as he finished the story he was telling the woman next to him. He seemed to glow as the light of the fireplace made his pale hair shimmer like starlight, giving the handsome young man a halo that would have stunned any ordinary maiden who happened to see him. “One does not hit an adorable pet and not apologize for such an aggression, non? So I apologized promptly thereafter and he said nothing, which was when I remembered, ‘Ah, yes, he is a mute!’ As soon as I had done the deed, I was horrified. I gasped and told myself to watch out for the little dog next time, yet there has not been a next time. Even with how random this game is, I have not encountered the lad and his dog again.”
“Certainly he understood,” the woman said as she waved a hand dismissively. “It is simply the nature of the game.”
“It is, but he has such a sweet face and demeanor,” the man lamented, “and it pained me to know that I had done such a deed to his loyal four-legged companion!”
“You have never felt such guilt with the other animals involved in this game,” the woman hummed. “Why is a dog different?”
“That wild boar is such a dirty thing,” the man sneered, “as is that owl. Wild animals are not meant to be a person’s pet, but a dog? My queen, a dog is a pure-hearted beast that we spent thousands of years training to be our friend. An owl could easily fly back to the forest. A boar could do much the same on its little hooves. A dog, though, my dear Mary! A dog is a loyal and trustworthy ally!”
Mary laughed, nodding, “Yes, dogs are such sweet and divine creatures. It is as though God Himself willed them into this world for us to claim them as friends and companions. Before the circumstances that brought me here, I had many dogs as my loyal and loving companions, from pugs to papillons!”
The man lifted an eyebrow as though only now hearing this information from the woman beside him. “Then you must also feel terrible at the thought of hitting that little dog, non?”
“The thought to hit the creature has never crossed my mind, Joseph,” Mary said as though being accused of the most dastardly act known to mankind. “Only a true monster would see that darling little dog doing his very best and think to strike him down! You and I are both hunters, yes, but I am glad that we both have morals. Such cruelty to an innocent creature is loathsome to me!”
It was Joseph’s turn to laugh, reaching to pour more wine into his empty glass, “I’m certain there are other hunters who would hear us say such things and be absolutely dismayed! I cannot fathom what twisted person would consciously strike down such a sweet creature. What I did today to that poor little dog was purely on accident and I felt so terrible after doing so that I thought to prostrate myself before God and have Him strike me down instantly! Oh, the agonizing sound that little dog made when I hit him! Surely it will haunt my dreams for weeks!”
“That young man treats his dog so well, too,” Mary mused, switching her wine glass to a different hand as she spoke, “and his face is quite pleasing. I would be surprised if the survivors do not try their hand at catching his affection. He would be such a gentle lover, though quiet given his inability to speak.”
“I’ve heard rumor that he’s not mute,” the gentleman said, lifting his drink to his lips now that his glass had been refilled, “but that appears to be rumor so far. I’m grateful that he is not deaf, especially given the nature of the game we’re all playing. Deafness would complicate things more than my misgivings at having to engage so harshly with a blind girl. At least a mute man is still aware of his surroundings.” The wine found its way to his lips and slid down to his stomach.
“I know well that you engage in the Italian vice,” the woman said, having yet to drink more than a few sips of her wine, being content to simply hold the glass in her hand, “and I wonder if you are thinking to lead that young postman to your bed some evening.”
“Only if he wishes to join me,” Joseph sighed, taking his free hand to idly twirl a lock of hair around his finger. It was an old habit of his that he never let go of, though it was a very sedate habit to have. “He is definitely my type. Soft, gentle features like an angel fallen from heaven... His face is beautiful, just as the cherubic features of that acrobat. However, the rest of him is less than desirable. He looks too skinny and his hair is unruly, but I do daydream of placing a kiss to his lips. Only a light kiss. That little smile he wears all the time is so adorable that it begs for a kiss.” He laughed lightly, smiling a bit, “However, I think I would rather woo the acrobat than the mute postman. Imagine the things an acrobat could do in bed! The postman seems... nervous. He reminds me of my dear friend the embalmer, and I have no interest in such fragile men as that.”
“The embalmer is also not handsome enough for your measurements,” Mary giggled, placing a hand over her lips as she laughed.
“Alas, you are correct,” Joseph said as he let free an exaggerated sigh, freeing his hair from his twirling finger to add hand gestures to his exaggerated vocalizations. “I had hoped that something beautiful was hidden behind that mask he wears, but instead I was treated to an ordinary man of ordinary looks. It was quite a shame after I had spent so much time eagerly wanting to know what was kept behind that mask. Is it something beautiful or something tragic? That was what I wondered at the time, but when it was revealed that he was simply average in looks, I wilted inside. I still value his friendship, as he is one of the few survivors who sees me as someone he can confide in, but the mystery of his appearance ended poorly.”
“Yet you pursued him anyway?” the woman asked, daring to take a sip of her wine only to pull the glass away the moment it touched her lips.
The man shook his head, “His affection lies elsewhere and it has for some time. He lacks courage to tell the one he loves that he’s utterly infatuated, but that is his problem and not mine. I never force others into my bed, contrary to how some may think on the survivor side. Lovemaking is always at its best when the participants are all willing. That’s the beauty of love, non?”
“Ah,” Mary said with a nod, “that explains much. Though you enjoy the Italian vice, it seems that you have not indulged in it for a while.”
“Sadly, I have yet to bed anyone since coming here,” Joseph frowned before taking another drink from his glass.
For all the gossip within the manor since she had arrived, Mary had assumed that the man next to her had pursued and slept with nearly everyone within the manor, yet it seemed that the gossip was truly only gossip. It felt odd to her that such a handsome and refined gentleman had yet to woo anyone into his bedroom, other than herself. Even then, though she currently sat in Joseph’s room, she had not felt that she had been courted fully by him. Instead, she found herself intrigued by him as a person above all else. Joseph had about him a strange and intoxicating aura of loneliness, sadness, and decay that she simply had no choice but to learn why someone so handsome and well bred was filled with so much melancholy.
“Does this bother you?” she asked quietly. “Does having an empty bed at night leave you feeling unfulfilled in some way?”
The man thought on this for a moment touching a hand to his mouth and rubbing his lips with his fingers before he spoke evenly, “No. Truthfully, there are few within this manor house who can reach the bar that I have set for myself when it comes to people who would be worthy of not just my interest but also my love. You, my queen, are one of those few.”
Mary laughed politely at this, shaking her head, “You cheeky man! You always flirt with me then never go further! It has been months since you started courting me, yet you still shy away from going further. It makes me wonder if I am not as worthy as you claim.”
“I simply fear that I am not good enough for you,” Joseph grinned charmingly. “You’re a queen, after all.”
The woman frowned, looking at her barely touched glass of wine in dismay, “A former queen has no right to rule over anything. The title I have here of ‘queen’ feels almost like a mockery. A blade sliced cleanly through my neck and now I live here, neither alive nor dead. Participating in this game is not so much redemption but Hell on Earth.”
“It’s only Hell if we believe it to be,” the man said quietly, setting his nearly full glass of wine on the table where the bottle sat.
The former queen sighed, taking a sip from her glass as though finally feeling resolute in her desire to taste it. As the liquid flowed down her throat, she turned her head to cough as though choking on her drink. Hastily, her fingers touched her neck. Red liquid leaked from the shoddily sutured wound at her neck, her fingers uselessly smearing the liquid. She pulled from her dress pocket a handkerchief and began to futilely dab at the liquid as it oozed from her neck, only to give up and allow it to trickle down and stain her red dress with even more red.
“My true fear,” Mary said quietly after clearing her throat, setting aside her wine glass and her stained handkerchief, “is that you will hate me if you knew who I was before I came here.”
“My queen,” the man said quickly, reaching a hand out to grasp gently at one of hers, holding it as though it were made of delicate glass, “I know who you are and what happened in my homeland was never your fault. What happened to my family had nothing to do with you. I’ve known your true identity since you arrived here, my beautiful queen, and I have never thought to hate you.”
This was not the first time that Joseph had held her hand, but it was the first time that Mary could feel warmth radiating from it. It was metaphorical warmth, as both of them were neither alive nor dead, but she could feel it pulsing from him like sunlight through leaves on a sunny summer day. His sincerity and sympathy bleed out of him and seeped out from his palm and into hers, racing through her like lightning from heaven, and she adored it.
She adored him.
“My handsome count,” she said with a gentle smile, “you are much too kind to me.”
He shook his head, mirroring her smile back to her, “My dear Mary, I am no more a count than you are a queen in this age. I offer you kindness because it is all I have ever received from you. The kindness I give you now is the kindness you deserved over a century ago. The Revolutionaries drove my family from our home and cursed us to death in this country. Through the actions of so-called ‘enlightened men’ you now suffer with that terrible wound on your neck. We would have lived so peacefully if the Americans hadn’t influenced the hearts of the common Frenchmen.”
It was clear that Joseph’s voice was becoming more strained and angry as he spoke, a hatred that Mary had never seen before bubbling out of him like spring water. She took up Joseph’s hand into both of hers, squeezing away the anger and soothing hatred out of him. “If history did not move as it had, then we would not have met here. Yes, I was made a scapegoat and a sacrifice for the monarchy, but my rebirth here has brought me to you. I feel there is merit in that.”
Joseph smiled sweetly down at their hands, sensing the kindness that he had given the woman next to him being driven back into him. He felt unworthy of this kindness, yet he nevertheless accepted it warmly. It was moments like this that reminded him of how much he adored this woman. “Your sacrifice meant that my family was spared the guillotine. Perhaps I should have thanked you long ago for that.”
“I accepted the fate I was given,” Mary said, reluctantly freeing Joseph’s hands. She placed her hands neatly in her lap, gazing gently to the man seated beside her.
The gentleman was quiet for a long moment, his sight drifting away from the queen to stare at her hands. He missed how gently they had wrapped around his own. “Did you love him?” Joseph asked softly, glancing back up to her.
Mary looked to him in confusion.
“The king,” he clarified. “Did you love him?”
“I cannot recall,” she lied, not wanting to think on that at all. “It was a lifetime ago. I want to be in love on my own terms now that I have been reborn here. You must understand that this life we have now gives us the freedom that the aristocracy denied us.”
Joseph shook his head, “I was a child when your life was snuffed out. I didn’t live the same privileged life here as I would have in France had the Revolution not happened. We fled the chaos of it, but at the cost of our funds and our title. I was so focused on the love I lost when my brother died that I never thought to love anyone else fully. My grief overtook me and I fell into emptiness and despair. I still feel that sadness acutely, but I think that I can eventually move on. I’m not the same person I was before. I was old and withered back then, yet here I’m youthful but shattered. Perhaps neither life is ideal, but I want to make the most of this chance I’ve been given. I can play this game while striving to become a different person. Perhaps not a better person, but a person who lives more freely without the weight of the past on his shoulders.”
Mary moved closer to Joseph, her deathly pale hand cupping the man’s cheek gently. She rubbed her thumb against his flesh, wiping away the layers of makeup caked on his lovely face. Beneath it revealed skin like cracked porcelain, the fractures bleeding darkness from them. Peering into those cracks was like falling into an abyss filled of hopelessness that no one could crawl out of. Joseph’s body was like a cracked egg of melancholy and despair condensed into a single humanoid form. Mary had no thoughts to that dark abyss or the melancholic despair that leaked from those black cracks within his smooth porcelain skin. Instead, she effortlessly leaned her face to his and kissed that broken skin, her lips as cold as the shattered skin they had just touched.
“We are beautiful monsters,” she said as she pulled away, a strange smile set at her lips. It was both hauntingly beautiful and enchantingly sad. “Queer creatures not meant for society anymore. However, when I see your sad and beautiful eyes, I never think of you as a monster. I see you for who you truly are and find you to be more human than anyone else here. You, my handsome count, are more human than even the survivors we pursue each day. You have suffered. You have grieved. You have lost. All your pain is etched on your skin like scars.”
She pulled away and grabbed her handkerchief, lifting it to rub at Joseph’s face. His blue eyes bore deep into her, like an endless sea from some fantastic land. His face was placid as his shattered white skin and its abyssal cracks gazed beyond the blurred edges of his smudged makeup. Mary feared that he would stop her as she closed the distance between the handkerchief and his skin, but he made no movement to do so. Instead, he closed his eyes and allowed her to wipe away the human features he had painted on his skin that morning, revealing his monstrous form to her. When she had finished, she drew back to look at him properly, smiling at him as she delighted in his true form behind the painted façade.
Joseph slowly opened his eyes once he felt that the handkerchief had left his skin, finding a beautiful smile waiting for him once he did so. He returned the smile, leaning down to kiss her cheek as gently as she had kissed his, taking in her odd scent. She smelled of death and wine, yet also of the floral perfume she had sprayed on her neck to keep away the scent of decay there. Joseph found himself enjoying the odor.
“We’re still monsters,” he whispered, his still face close to hers, “despite how beautiful we are. We are dead things disguised as humans.”
“Monsters can still experience love,” Mary replied, settling a hand on Joseph’s knee, feeling the fine satin that his breeches were crafted from. “Do you love me, Joseph?”
“I do,” the man said without any hesitation.
The small gap between them vanished as he trapped Mary’s lips within his own. It lasted for a moment before Mary pulled away, coughing into the back of her hand and smiling apologetically. Joseph smiled for her, and their lips met again, hungrier this time. As their kiss deepened, Joseph could taste wine and old blood in her mouth yet the taste of it left him undeterred in giving Mary the affection he had hoped to give her since her first arrival to the manor. Mary thrilled at this, feeling Joseph’s arms wrapped firmly around her waist and enjoying the man’s aroma. He smelled as delicious as a rose garden, and soon her hands found themselves crawling up the man’s chest, tugging at his fine garments as impediments for further intimacy. Joseph understood the cue and with time, they both moved to his bed, taking their time to undress and continuing their lighthearted banter from earlier, laughing and chatting playfully before they rested naked on the bed. They made love sweetly, each admitting that it had been quite a long time since either had engaged in the activity, and as they found their footing, remembering how everything worked, they enjoyed themselves completely.
They stayed together all evening, and when the weak winter sun glinted blindingly against the snow that had fallen overnight, they awoke and kissed each other as though seeing each other anew. They bathed together, the stench of death having returned to their undead forms as they wrapped each other in affection that night. Mary borrowed some of Joseph’s perfume, finding the scent of it quite lovely in comparison to her own and asked him for the seller’s name so she could order a bottle of her own. Even after getting dressed for the day, they continued to enjoy each other’s company, drinking wine on the couch as they chatted about nothing in particular, just as they had the evening before. Though outwardly it seemed that their dynamic was the same, they each knew that it had changed, albeit only slightly. In that, they found comfort. They were already deeply in love, and now they had solidified that love. Truly nothing had changed, yet everything still felt new and exciting for them both.