The library fire dwindled, embers stuttered, coals
shifted and Armand de la Vallière sighed. It was his favorite
room in the castle.
He sat in solitary contemplation, surrounded by
leather-bound books, heavy mahogany furniture and the ancient
French-damask curtains installed so many years ago by Tante Hortense,
a balm to his strained nerves. He peered through the mullioned
windows into the inky summer evening, vaguely aware of Penelope's
voice echoing through the Great Hall. Concentrating, he leaned
forward, staring once more at the packed shelves of books, eyes
narrowing. It would be a difficult search, one that would require
all his ability. The sheer physical impediment of having to climb
up to the highest shelves made it almost impossible to take a
good look at the books without attracting suspicion. He stared
into the dying flames, obliterating the haunting images that lurked
in his memory since childhood, replacing them instead with shining
scenes of glitz, glamour and glory. It was a technique he'd perfected
over the years, and infallibly it worked.
Now, as fleeting shadows played on the spines
of the ancient book covers and the darkened walls, he replaced
the packed shelves with visions of splendid jewels. They shimmered
in his imagination, and he sighed. The method acted as effectively
as any hallucinogen. Slowly his tense muscles relaxed and he breathed
easier, entranced, visualizing the catwalk, the agitated buzz,
models preparing to strut the runway, hairdressers, makeup artists
and seamstresses, all waiting for his final orders. His fingers
unclenched as he pictured himself directing operations, adding
the finishing touches with a master's skill. Finally he would
place each of Charlotte's exquisite pieces at precisely the right
angle before sending the model forth, waiting with bated breath
for the murmured hush of the crowd.
A frisson of satisfaction left him sighing. Nothing
less than perfection would do. And he had seen perfection in Charlotte's
work. He drew a cigarette from an antique silver cigarette case,
tapped it thoughtfully on the arm of the old leather chair, then
lit it. To have such amazing talent, yet be so oblivious. A quivering
pang of envy darted straight to his heart. Why was life so unfair?
Why did some have all the suffering, the toil, the trouble, while
others glided unwittingly into fame and fortune? Indeed, why did
life bestow talent on those who didn't give a damn, while denying
it to those for whom it meant the world?
He took a long drag and leaned back in the deep armchair, aware
there was little to be gained from such thoughts. It was too late
to acquire that which God had not given him.
Still, he decided with a grim little smile, it
might not be too late to redirect fate into avenues more suited
to his liking. After all, there was a reason for his presence
here, at this specific time.
Once more he inhaled deeply, then let the smoke
curl up toward the coffered oak ceiling and shut his eyes. He
was so close. So very close. And nothing would convince him otherwise.