sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 1 ~ meeting at night
Two hearts beating each to each!
“Do we know the measure of the encroachment? I’d hoped … ” Father rubbed at his temples as he dropped into his chair. His shoulders slumped in weary concern. “The devils we know have been plague enough, but this uncertainty …” An obsidian sphere weighted papers on his desk. He closed his hand around it, closed his eyes. “We must remedy this situation.”
“We should receive reports from the additional sentries tonight.” Vincent paced the chamber, from stair railing to chess table. “To change the passages and walls now might call attention to our presence … yet we must reinforce the entrances, create diversions, blind alleys. The fix will not be accomplished quickly.”
“What does Kanin say?”
He turned and crossed the room in long strides. “He’s giving the design his considerable expertise, but he is distracted and–” A message on the pipes interrupted his words. “He’s on his way now.”
“This is most inopportune.” Father said. “We need him desperately, and he needs time unencumbered by obligation to the community, time to reconnect with his family. I am loathe to contemplate how much effort this will require from him, in addition to his … debts … above.”
“It will take many of us from our loved ones for quite some time.” Vincent leaned on Father’s desk, his hands pressed flat, his arms stiffened, bearing his weight. “For once we begin, we cannot stop.”
Father pulled his glasses away and, folding them, laid them on the papers before him – lists, Vincent knew, a dozen of them: inventories of equipment and personnel, objectives, evaluations, alternatives, if-then contingencies worried through in the middle of the night – and picked up the obsidian sphere.
“I regret this for you, Vincent. I do.”
There was no response to this last, just a silent, shared dejection amped by urgency. He had no choice. He would tell Catherine tonight, and although he knew she would understand, that she would never complain – that she would offer her help – he dreaded making a reality of that which he had earlier intimated to her. Too far a distance from their chambers to return at night, it might take weeks of camp-living for the lot of them to reconstruct the entrances in the northern tunnels.
He would miss her so. And this time, it would be his world – his life – separating them. With a quiet, controlled sigh, he pushed away from the tabletop.
“Ironic, is it not, that this was once John’s?” Father palmed the jet-black orb hand to hand. “Given obsidian’s purported properties – the power to cleanse one’s spirit of greed and resentment.” For a moment, long-faced, he stared into the mirroring volcanic glass. “There was a time …” Father resumed, “after Devin … when I thought I might lose you, too … to the northern tunnels, to the … ease … you seemed to find on your visits. You would not have been the first to … appreciate … the construct … of the community there, decide to move away. Later, I wondered if I should have encouraged you … Perhaps …”
Perhaps I’d have never loved Lisa? Or suffered such sundering anguish for love’s sake?
And why was Father bringing then into now, into this? Current concerns left no room …
Father studied the orb centered in his cupped hand. “You’ve not been north in a while, Vincent,” he said without looking up.
“It’s true. I have not.”
“I’ve not packed all the maps, if you think you might need–”
“I will remember,” he said, so quickly, perhaps so huskily emphatic Father’s gaze snapped up, held his, a carefulness in Father’s expression, the crease of trepidation at the corners of his eyes.
“Well,” Father said, after more than one ahem. “You’ll be … efficient. And effective. I know you want to be here, after all. I mean … Catherine … Catherine has just … This is your home. Your roots are here, your future. The community’s future.”
Catherine had just moved – mostly – below … but that last tether rankled; it had, it would.
Father looked up with such bleak need in his eyes, need for his pledge, for his commitment to matters other than those on the table. And that rankled as well, the choosing he seemed to have no right to.
A soundless moment unfolded, but in it, a surprising cascade of memories, a curious, fleeting elation brushed the strings of his heart. A welling … and something more. Something more than willingness to attend to what was forced to hand. Something more than duty.
And he softened, his preoccupied ambivalence – sharp concern for the pressing tasks and blue dismay at their cost, the requisite leave-taking – tempering with thanksgiving. The paths he’d taken and not taken – whether by choice, fate, discipline, or schooling – before, long before, after, always – had led him to an empyrean happiness formed of pure fire, pure light – to Catherine.
Yes, he must go, and yes, he would return.
But the home that drew him back … was wherever she was.
He smiled for the first time since morning, since seeing Catherine off to work above.“Narcissa swears the stone shields against negative thought, can transform fears into happy anticipation. Reason enough to keep it close, Father.”
“Perhaps you should take it.”
His hand closed on his rose in its leather pouch on its leather string around his neck. Talisman enough. He smiled again and shook his head.
Father’s bearing lightened. “You do know, don’t you, that I want to go with you? I loathe what the years have taken from me.”
Before Vincent could offer – again – his reassurances of the community’s massed skills, of the loop Father would be kept within, that all would be well, that all would return to the wondrous balance Father believed in, needed, had all but willed into existence, booted footsteps thudded in the corridor.
“Ah,” Father exclaimed, rising, returning the ball to its brass stand. “Here’s Kanin. And Cullen and Mouse! On time, Mouse, thank you. And Dominic! Wonderful. We will have the benefit of your experience.”
A bundle of rolled plans and maps under his arm, Kanin hustled down the steps. Dominic followed, thick-leaded carpenter’s pencils clutched in his fist, yellow papers fanning from his clipboard. It was time to decide. Six worried heads bent over the drawings spread across Father’s library table.
* * *
He met her at the portal in her basement.
The bags he took from her were heavy with treasure. Day by day, she was transforming his private chambers – those he’d believed would forever echo only with dreams – into their home together. Mouse had organized tunnel dwellers and helpers into teams, and one after another, they had trekked to the warehouse where the furniture and keepsakes from her father’s house were stored. Now the round cherry desk held center court upstairs in the rooms she claimed along the gallery, and the soft leather sofa replaced the solitary chair in the downstairs library.
She had been right about the sofa. They needed a place to sit together, and there was little more precious to him than the private moments when he could embrace her, hold her while he read to her … or when she would read to him. There, in that in-between place, he floated on the song of her voice, melted into her sweet warmth. Eased by her storytelling, his defenses mellowed, and his differences, his fears, faded from his own consciousness, freeing him to be simply a man in love.
It was a perfect place.
These days, these weeks to come, would feel strange. He’d be far from her measured in the miles of his world and working to keep her world out. She would fill her time, he knew, with her work and friends and with occupations he so wished he could share. A thin shiver traveled his spine, delivering a scornful suggestion that with so much time and space between them, she might remember all she must forgo for him.
He shook his mane of hair – once, twice – banishing the hiss of words to a faraway vault. He imagined shoving his shoulder hard against it, hearing the click of the lock in that heavy door that barred the narrowing corridor …
The song of her voice ...
She tugged on his sleeve. “You’re … elsewhere, Vincent. Is something wrong?”
“We met today,” he said, careful to keep his chin high and his pace steady, “with Kanin, Cullen, Mouse and Dominic … to plan the northern tunnel changes.”
“You heard more from Stewart and Noah.”
“We did. Early this morning. I’d just left you, just started home, when Pascal relayed Noah’s message. I walked out halfway to meet him.”
She stepped in front of him, stopping him with her palm to his chest, waiting as he set the bags at his feet, until he straightened. “Will it be dangerous for you? Don’t try to spare me! What did he say?”
“They’ve found more evidence that others are entering and exploring our upper tunnels, but there’s been no deep encroachment. The intruders are still at levels that reveal nothing of where and how we live. We’ve sent out advance sentries and their reports will tell us if it’s outsiders from Above or if it is migration from Below.”
“Which would be worse?”
“The northern tunnels are somewhat wild and what lies outside the perimeter is still a mystery. The community declared it the boundary of our world years ago. There are those who live beyond it, we know, and beyond our laws. Their knowledge of us could prove … problematic.” As her hand closed around his rose in its leather pouch, he felt a tug on the strap at his neck … at his heart. “Try not to worry, Catherine. The boundaries have held all these years, and we’ve devised plans now, strong ones, that will work, I’m sure. It will just take a great deal of time, and I’ll be so far away.”
“When will you leave?”
“Tomorrow?” Her single word stuttered in the air. “How … how long?”
“Too long, if it were only one hour.” He pulled her close, turned his cheek to her hair. “But it will be weeks … several weeks.”
“I’ll need to see you.” She leaned away, searching his face. “An entrance? One close to camp?”
Wherever that is, she didn’t add, though the reasonable half-complaint sounded in his mind, albeit in his own mutter. He’d shown her so many places special to him, ranging far and deep, but never north. And while he’d not refused Liz’s Winterfest invitation to holiday there with his lifelong friends (Friends you have slighted, sidestepped, his conscience jabbed), he’d not named the time. Catherine had not asked why, not yet, and now there wasn’t time – to either explain or explore the oversight.
“We’ll be moving place to place,” he told her. ”Working long hours. Until we can assess the danger, I can’t risk you near.”
“Has Noah’s family left? Has Wren?”
He shook his head … sighed.
“Vincent,” she begged. “An entrance. Tell me.”
“When I know it’s safe, I’ll get word to you. But for now …”
“We’ll be apart,” she said, a brave smile framing her words.
“We will be apart,” he echoed, forlorn.
He deposited her bags in the middle of his old bed, mindful of her penchant for delicate objects of art, and turned to her. Her face was a sad mirror of his as she fell into his arms.
“How can I help?” She spoke into his cloak and shirt.
“First,” he said and she looked up, “you must let me kiss you, and then you must let me tell you how deeply I love you.”
“And after that? After I let you kiss me, and after you tell me you love me?”
“I’ll show you our maps and plans so you’ll know what and how and where, and then we’ll welcome a new baby, have our supper together.” He met her lips with a promise of still another after.
“Did Kanin tell you the baby’s name?” She reached deep into one bag, lifting out a gift wrapped in pink paper and topped with a mass of curling, silver ribbons. With a flourish, she placed it in his hands.
“He’s said nothing at all, and Olivia seems worried about tonight. We’d all hoped for a seamless reconnection, but I fear it is less than that.”
“He must be miserable. He’s just home. To have to leave his family again …” Shaking her head, she sank into his big chair to change her shoes.
“To find that Luke has lost his memories of him. And the baby …” Vincent continued. “He’s missed her birth, missed bonding with her. Olivia has had to rely on others. It’s all very sad now, but in time, they’ll find each other again.”
“I still feel terrible. I wish every day I’d had no part of it.”
“You’ve helped him, Catherine, in ways no one else could. Know that. His spirit will mend.”
As they passed the corridor to the dining hall, the scent of brownies wafted sweet on the air. “Chocolate to welcome girl babies,” Catherine said, leaning into his arm. “You’ll have something rich to take with you tomorrow.”
A vision of the dessert table drifted into his thoughts. “It will not make up for what I leave behind,” Vincent replied.
* * *
The pipes were strangely silent with so many – even Pascal – in attendance, but the chamber bristled with an electric energy. Celebrants crowded the room in tight knots of conversation and the younger children, giddy with speculation, rounded the table piled high with gifts. The spiral stair allowed only a slow current of movement from floor to balcony, where feet and legs dangled over the edge and eager faces pressed between the railings. Mary and Sarah stood watch in the outer corridor, their arms folded, turning and turning from the festivities to the passage … to each other.
“There’s Dominic,” Catherine said. “I want to talk to him.” Soon, their heads were bent close, Catherine nodding, Dominic scribbling on his yellow pad. Materials, supplies, food … whatever they – we – need. He tore the paper away and folded it, handed it to her. She opened it to read the address. I’ll be there, first thing. She’d meet him at his shop Monday morning and put on account there enough money to ensure they would not have to make do, that this work would secure their world – their freedom – Below. Whatever was necessary she would do … to prevent Vincent’s having to act alone again.
Olivia appeared, at last, in the high arching entry, the baby nestled in a sling and Luke in hand, his eyes wide at the sight of presents, determined to pull from her grasp. The chatter quieted on a slow receding wave. Even the children stilled. Olivia stood, struggling with Luke … and for words. Mary stepped close, reached out, touched her arm, but without speaking, Olivia turned and fled.
Vincent’s nod was message enough. He edged the crowd, and with a last sorrowful smile for her, disappeared down a far corridor. Catherine hurried after Olivia, trailing Luke’s heartbroken sobs.
* * *
He stepped onto the ledge at the falls. The rush of water, launched from a high, secret gorge, was veiled in a silvery mist, and, bleak against it, staring into the distance, Kanin sat at the scarp. When Vincent settled at his side, he curled away and dropped his head in his hands. A stony silence stacked between them.
“What do you want me to say, Vincent?” Kanin sputtered at last. “I’m back? Let’s forget what I did, who I am? Let’s all just pretend I wasn’t in prison? I’m supposed to, what, walk up to Olivia, drop my stuff on the table and say Hi, honey. Oh, yeah … where were we?”
“This estrangement you feel, Kanin, will be dispelled with your presence alone. Your arms around your wife, the touch of your hand to your daughter. A smile for Luke. They need you–”
“They don’t need me,” Kanin interrupted him. “That’s a fact. Luke doesn’t remember me. He asks for Robert. He asks for Damien. He asks for you.” Kanin glowered at Vincent, a wildfire of anger in his eyes.
“Olivia had help from everyone. As you wanted, as you were promised. You knew she would be safe.”
“Is it my baby?”
“Kanin. Stop. It’s not even a question.”
“She doesn’t know me.”
“Babies know when they’re loved.”
“Olivia should have told me about her.”
“How was she to do that, Kanin? You made the rules.You gave her no option save to wait. So she waited, out of love for you. It wasn’t deception.”
Kanin flung out an arm, a fierce quick gesture. “Go ahead. Tell me I’m a hypocrite to accuse Olivia of … of anything.”
“I have no intention of saying that.”
“No, you’ll just think it,” Kanin said, flinching as Vincent gripped his shoulder.
He willed back frustration, impatience … “Kanin, please,” he said instead. “Open your heart. Love her. Name her.”
* * *
The baby had taken up her brother’s wail and while Olivia crooned to the two of them, while she rocked the spindled cradle with her foot, Luke snuffled his despair into her shoulder. Soon exhausted, their tears fell to whimpers, then into deep, slow breaths of sleep.
“I’m so sorry he has to leave tomorrow,” Catherine whispered. “It’s terrible timing.”
“He’s glad to go,” Olivia said, her chin resting on Luke’s crown. “Maybe he’ll never really come back. Maybe he’ll move back up top, take a job … find a new life.”
“That’s not going to happen. The thought of getting back to you kept him sane last year.”
“I should have told him about the baby.”
“How can you know? It might have been worse for him, just as you thought. He needs more time and this … project will help him. He’ll see how important he is to us, that he’s needed.”
“My daughter needs her name.” Olivia blinked back fresh tears. “I can’t … I don’t want to do that by myself.” She rose to carry Luke to his bed. “I shouldn’t have to.”
Catherine watched Olivia cross the room – her back strong and straight under her son’s weight, against the gravity of her disappointment. At his side, Olivia knelt and tucked the covers around him, loosened the damp curls from his forehead, kissed his nose … whispered a dream to his pearl-shelled ear. The baby stirred and Catherine, bending close at the cradle, brushed a finger to the baby’s downy cheek. Her tiny rosebud lips pursed as if for a kiss.
Rebecca stood in the doorway, her arms held wide. Olivia hurried to her, sagging into her embrace. Catherine looked at her hands and found them suddenly empty. An ache both sweet and sharp seized her heart.
On her way to the small dining alcove, through a sea of Luke’s toys, skirting baskets of laundry, Catherine stopped to close the doors of a massive oak wedding armoire. The ornamentations – the acanthus leaves, the rosettes and scrolls, the two lovebirds – were intricate and dark with age, deeply carved to last the years … the centuries. A single shirt lay folded on the highest shelf. The soft grey and black plaid flannel, faded, patched – Kanin’s – was one Olivia had worn herself as she grew large with child.
In the cupboard, she found a tin box layered with paper packages, flat-folded and tied with string, scented with anise and caraway, lemon and ginger. The coals in the old copper brazier had died to embers, but beside it, a bin was stacked with the trimmings of grapevine and rose canes. She added the still-moist branches to the smoldering chips and soon a tangy incense filled the air. Steam whistled from the spout of the teakettle.
Lin was here for a visit, she thought. These are her gifts. I wish I’d seen her. Lin would have her own baby soon. For a moment, she allowed herself to dream.
Knee-to-knee, their hands clasped, Olivia and Rebecca sat in two overstuffed chairs pulled close. They spoke in a soft melody, in half-sentences rich in history and smooth with familiarity. The ache inching from her heart to her throat, Catherine pulled a tray from a shelf, set it with a bone china teapot, with two silver spoons, with two delicate, flowered cups. And though they looked up in protest, though they begged her to stay, she smiled and shook her head. Before she turned into the corridor, she heard them talking again, intimate, in sisterly turns.
The passageway was quiet. Their world was in waiting – anxious for Olivia and Kanin and concerned with the threat from beyond the northern tunnels. She pulled her jacket close and hurried her step, but a sadness seeped in, a sadness not just for Kanin, for Olivia … and not entirely due to Vincent’s impending absence. She was lonely – lonely for a girlfriend with whom she could share her happiness, with whom she could speak openly of her life … lonely because she held secret the most important, the most precious …
Because I’m not going to be … alone, she’d admitted that terrible night.
And Jenny had accepted. Well, what am I doing here?
But lately, between them, the mystery forged a chasm – fracturing, threatening to crumble. Jenny wanted to know who. She’d tease for information, yet Catherine could see it on her face – the hurt – in her wrinkled brow, in the line of her lips pressed against the unspoken words.
Why can’t you tell me, Cathy? Why?
Soon enough, too soon, the question would be voiced. Again, she tried to imagine the telling. At times, Catherine wanted nothing more than to grasp her friend’s hand and lead her down, promising with every step the fulfillment of a most exquisite fantasy and the answers to all her queries. In her mind, she approached the falls through the maze of candle-lit tunnels, Jenny in tow, knowing he’d be there – magnificent, golden – the majestic cascade a backdrop of music and magic. He’d say Jenny’s name … in that voice … and …
And there her daydream would falter … and fade. The mists would rise and she’d be left standing at an incontestable wall, her face turned from the truth of why …
As if it were a scene painted on a folding fan, she closed the vision away. She would not dwell in this melancholy, would not feed her yearning with if onlys. She would not let him leave worried for her.
But she couldn’t deny it. She wanted to take someone with her across the river …
* * *
He was not in his old chamber, and he was not beyond the stained glass in their private rooms. She readied herself for bed and then waited for him – prowling, restless – returning to their bedchamber where she stood before the long table, before the little shrine of gifts for granted wishes.1
The music box, wound and open – the Pathétique, the adagio …
The worn leather volume, its gold gilt edges shining, a tuft of the bluebird’s feather marking the place …
The shard of reflective metal in which she’d first beheld his face … a fluted crystal candleholder, begging for light … the camphor-wood chest of treasures … 2
And the sculpture …3
She let her fingers play within its hollows, across the faceted amethyst pyramids and spires, along the fired, impassioned bronzed lovers’ limbs …
“Catherine.” He called to her from the doorway. “I’ve kept you waiting.”
She turned to him, surprised but not startled at his silent approach. These weeks would prove interminable if the last hour were any indication of how much she would miss him. He crossed the room in a few a quick steps and surrounded her with his strength and his warmth, his deep knowledge of her. It was enough.
It was everything.
* * *
He sat on the side of their great bed as he removed his boots, watching her, though his face was downturned and waving hair obscured his eyes. She lingered at the shrine, lingered in her dreams and wishes, until his soundless call for her surely stirred her heart. She helped him with his vest and pulled open the ruffled collar ties, and kneeling, pressed kisses to his chest as she unbuttoned his shirt.
He did love it when she unbuttoned his shirt.
So new, this freedom … to admit his want … to touch … to have …
Still slow to start into lovemaking, he wanted to look at her, to travel the curves and shadows of her body. He loved just to pull her close and feel her pressed against his length. She thrilled at his quickening breath and at his warring desires, and he felt her thrill in a Mobius loop with his own, one twisting ribbon of sensation without end. She could bring his heart almost to a stop with the brief trail of her fingertips along the inside of his thigh … and when she would grasp his hips and beg him closer, he would obey, but nearly faint. If she were atop him, taking him … he would watch her face in the candlelight, wreathed in pleasure, in pleasures he gave her. She was all that mattered to him – her happiness, her delight, her completion.
With her, he was complete.
Yet always, he quelled a sense of pressing, almost menacing imperative. His desire for her was so deep, so clamant, it might easily overwhelm him, and he harbored the fear that he might lose himself in his fervor, that he might frighten her – or worse. Still, everything she said to him, all she showed him, gave him, allowed him to take, told him she was not afraid, and with her hands, with her kisses, she led him further toward the shining light, into the fire of himself, illuminated as only she saw him.
She wanted to take him with her into that light. Not content to leave him on the shore of it, she coaxed him, assured him … believed it would free him.
But she did not truly know.
A current of wildness eddied through his under-self, as black and swirling as the nameless river far below these chambers. Even he was unsure of what swam in its depths. He might always hold back, might never know the joy of losing himself in her.
It was enough … what he allowed himself to savor.
Yet she called him with her body, called his primal nature from its self-imposed isolation. He raged to keep it back but gave up a bit more ground each time she loved him. She reached so far into his being … reached nearly to the edge of his darkness …
What would she find …
There was an answer in her whisper, in her voice at his ear, on her lips at his throat, traveling his pulse – and in her pledge – with her hands on his arms and on his back, with her sweet breasts offered to his mouth … yours … and with her legs wrapped ’round his waist, claiming him … hers.
Listen … you can hear it if you try. He had only to believe her.
He loved to fall asleep with her cradled in his arms, her breath warm across his chest, her hand measuring the beat of his heart. But now, though she slept and slept soundly, he dreaded his own slumber, for the few hours left of this night would be their last together for too long a while, and in the morning he would necessarily part from her. She carried his heart, all of it, and it was all for her.
It was everything.
Title Quotation: Robert Browning. Meeting at Night, Parting at Morning. 1849.
1. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 14: See Me.
2. The Only Gift.
3. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 7: Love-Throb in the Heart.
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