Through Fire – Snippet 29

Alexis stepped heavily across the beach, still moving fast, still without giving the impression of being winded. The doctor’s wife ran alongside him, to keep up with the pace.

The beach was hardly that. There was a semi-circular space of soft sand and, at the end of it, a bit into the sea as though enclosing the space, stood a ring of tall, dark stones. From a certain regularity about them, I guessed they were not real stones, but poured, black dimatough.

In other words, we were in a private cove, probably the private beach of some property, where the owners could have disported in safety and privacy. The waves broke, passing through the tight space left open between the ring of stones. The water in the cove rose and fell with the effect of something breathing deeply. I could easily see it as a place for children to learn to swim, or for a family to enjoy the sea without being watched by strangers.

Now, as Alexis got to the edge of the water and continued into it, splashing up to his knees into the ocean, a shadow detached from the deeper shadow around the rocks. It revealed itself as it approached as a little boat, the kind of craft children will motor in around safe areas. And like a children’s toy, it made no sound, save the buzz of an electric motor.

There was no sound either, as Alexis nodded to the one man in the craft and then carefully, delicately, deposited the doctor in the little boat. The boatman nodded.

And then… and then the little craft grew a dome of transparent… ceramite or dimatough, I’d guess. And silently it submerged.

We waited in silence while I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. I’d guess that the little craft was a submarine’s lifeboat. Its retractable, transparent dome had halved, retracting down to take in the doctor. Then it had closed again to take him to… a submarine waiting beyond the black rocks, I guessed.

The little craft came back silently, and Alexis turned to Madame Dufort and said, almost soundlessly, “Madame.” She had stepped up to stand beside him, the sea wetting half of her very proper skirt, but she turned back, to where Corin and I had stopped at the edge of the sea, “Corin?” she said. “Son?”

Corin shook his head. “Apres vous, Maman,” he said. But I knew that voice, that stubborn tone, and I had a feeling that he had no intention of going, before or after her.

She seemed to know that too. By the light of the moon, her expression was exasperated, a mother’s annoyance. “Corin,” she said.

“No,” he said. “This is my place, enfin. You and Papa must go. I don’t have a need to. No one knows me. And there is… a man must make sure that no innocents are harmed– Surely you understand?”

She shook her head and said, “Take care,” and to Alexis, “Look after him.” Then she stepped into the craft. The dome closed and the craft went under again.

I expected Alexis to turn and come out of the sea. Then we would have time to talk. At least I hoped so, because I had a lot to say to him.

But he remained very still, and I thought he was waiting for the craft and then… would get into it and go with the doctor. Of course, perhaps he needed to go with the doctor and his wife, to arrange their stay wherever it was they needed to be.

On the other hand, perhaps he meant to run away, abandon the isle after setting whatever plans he’d got started.

The craft came back, the man in it sitting, immobile and impassive, a slight man with dark brown hair. And Alexis turned to me, “Madame,” he said. “If you will.”

“What? No.” I was outraged. “I have come here for a purpose, and I have not fulfilled that purpose.”

Alexis’ homely countenance looked like he was counting backward from three thousand. Slowly. Possibly in Chinese. “Madame,” he said. He turned and advanced out of the sea towards me. “You have to go.”

“No.” I stepped backward up the sand and half hoped he would try to force me, because I was more than willing to show him that I was not his to command. “I came here to save the Good Man and I–”

“The Good Man,” he sneered, his countenance turned ugly. “If you think that the Good Man should be saved by you, you are–”

That was when the voice called out from up on the beach. “Alexis Brisbois. Mailys Bonheur. Doctor Dufort. Madame Dufort. You are under arrest by orders of the Protector of the Republic.”

“Merde,” Alexis said. “Zen, now, please, I beg of you.”

I shook my head.

At the head of the stairs, a man appeared, standing in the full moonlight. He was short, with a haircut that made each of his hairs fall into the exact position to delineate an elegant cranium. Except for the balding up front. And the unmistakable rabbit-quality of his features.

“Alexis,” he said. “Surrender. You know she has a tenderness for you. It won’t go badly for you.”

Alexis’ face did something. I wasn’t sure what exactly, but for just that moment, as his facial muscles contorted and his heavy eyebrows came down over his dark eyes, I wouldn’t at all have been surprised should he have grown enormous fangs or turned into a werewolf. At any rate, he looked as though he’d very much like to acquire a more murderous shape. “I’d like to beat you,” he told me in a vicious whisper. “If I weren’t sure you’d manage to get into even greater trouble, I’d knock you unconscious and stick you in that craft.” Then he moved, just so slightly. I realized he was moving to hide view of the craft from the beach, and he turned towards the figure up on the sea wall, by the stairs, “Jean!” he said. “Are you now her errand boy? Did she threaten to burn your frocks?”

The man took a step back, shook his head. “Don’t play the fool, Alexis. I have ten guards with me. This is no time to be an idiot. Rose said to bring you, and that you had nothing to fear. We understand you were caught on the Good Man’s side, and you had no chance to escape. We understand your natural sympathies are with us.”

I saw Alexis’ hand go back to the back of his pants. I figured he had a burner hidden there, where the fullness of his doublet-like coat hid a multitude of sins. Still in a whisper, he said, “Run. Left. There’s a path out. Keep the children safe.”

I had no idea who he meant by the children, and then I perceived that the girl who had guarded the cove for us was knitting herself with the wall, hoping, I was sure, to pass unnoticed. And she was a child, probably well under twenty. And Corin, too, was a child in a way.

I grabbed at his arm. He seemed to resist briefly, but as Alexis said, “My dear Dechausse, you have no idea where my sympathies are or why!”

And then, lightning fast, so fast I could barely follow it, Alexis drew a burner and fired at the man on the wall. And shockingly, unbelievably, the man returned fire. Even as he fired back, I realized he was too intent on Alexis to see us. I ran, holding Corin’s arm, to flatten against the wall. Then, pulling at the young woman, I led them both at a fast sort of slide, in the direction Alexis had indicated. As I did, I realized that I’d have been killed by Alexis first shot. And I was faster than normal people. But then perhaps Dechausse knew Alexis very well and knew what he was likely to do.

My heart hammered in my chest, pushing the blood past my ears with a sound much like the sea. I was trying to move as fast as possible, but not so fast that two normal young people couldn’t follow me. To their credit, neither of them protested. They obeyed my pull in silence, even the young woman who knew nothing of me. Corin was the one having trouble keeping up with the speed, stumbling occasionally as I tried to rush him along.

In the confusion, intent on getting the young people to a safe place, I didn’t pay attention to Alexis’ fight, except for keeping an eye out on the beach, in case the man atop the wall or the men he had with him should come after us.

Alexis seemed to be firing with both hands, and some other men had joined the fight from above the wall — or at least burner rays were coming from multiple places in the retaining wall, lending credit to Dechausse’s claim that he had many men with him.

We hit water, and walked sideways into it, trying not to splash or make too much noise, even though I was sure that we couldn’t be heard above the zap of the burners. But it also seemed to me that, in the light of the firing weapons, we were fully visible, no matter how closely we knitted ourselves against the wall.

Then, suddenly, something blew up. I couldn’t tell where, precisely, but it seemed to me in recollecting the images before the explosion that Alexis Brisbois had taken a grenade from one of his pockets, and pulled the pin.

There was a fountain of sand, a lot of screams and a lot of imprecations. And I realized from some of them that the men from the wall had to be on the beach, having somehow crept there without my seeing them. I grabbed Corin and half threw him into the deep water. Then I threw the young woman. I screamed as they tried to come up again, “Dive, dive, dive.”

And then I dove after them, in the dark water, with the pale moonlight filtering through, my lungs bursting with lack of air.

Alexis had said there was a passage here, but I couldn’t see one above water, between the dark, artificial rocks, and the retaining wall. So the passage must be under water.

I dove deeper, looking for it.