“We’re getting close. I can feel it,” said René, and Armand, in that moment, hated him more than he hated anyone ever.
He hated René more than he hated his late father. He hated René more than he hated his late stepmothers. He hated René more than he hated the late Louis XVI. More than he hated the late Marie Antoinette. More than he hated the late Jean-Paul Marat. More than he hated the late Charlotte Corday. More than he hated the living Maximilien Robespierre. All were individual mountains in a range, blocking his path to happiness, one after the other.
“You don’t even know where we’re going,” he snapped.
René was walking ahead as if he were leading their two-person expedition, as if he were the one whose mother lived in Bazeilles, a small town near the border of the Austrian Netherlands. Armand knew that René had never been to Bazeilles, or even its larger neighbor, Sedan. Furthermore, René had the cheek to march along as if he were hardly tired at all. True, he was taller and broader than Armand, but René had been the pampered paramour who lived like a nobleman while Armand was the trained soldier who had marched for years. René had even been in prison longer, and yet had seemingly recovered faster.
“Do you need to rest?” René asked, twirling around, his long black hair flipping over his shoulder. He was smirking, the royalist asshole.
“It’s not my fault the guards of La Force treated a baron’s lover better than a soldier,” said Armand. He put a hand against the stitch in his heaving side, still surprised at how prominent his ribs were. “God knows what you did to get extra bread.”
“You really think they treated me better? And anyway, you’re one to talk.”
Armand kicked a pebble, but it promptly bounced off a tuft of grass. René rolled his eyes.
“Let’s stop over there,” René suggested, nodding towards a copse.
Armand wanted to refuse out of pride, but silently relented. The shade of the trees felt like heaven after the mid-afternoon April sun. Both men were relieved to find a small stream running nearby, probably a tributary from the Meuse River. If so, they were definitely getting close.
Armand quickly stripped off his hated, borrowed clothes: a stained white shirt and the rough, brown pantalons of the revolutionary sans-culottes. When they had escaped La Force, they ran to a friend of René’s who scrounged up disguises, food, and a little money before rushing them out at night, terrified of being caught harboring fugitives.
To the pile of dirty clothes on the grass, he added his tattered stockings, the only pieces of his own clothing he had kept.
“So you have energy after all,” said René suggestively.
“I’m only going to wash these rags. Don’t get ideas.”
Still, after both men washed their clothes and then themselves, they ended up in each other’s arms in the privacy of the copse.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Armand said as his fingers tangled in René’s hair.
He had said something to that effect almost every time they’d had sex since their escape—excepting the first time, when overwhelmed with being out of that house of death, dazed with adrenaline and endorphins, they wildly copulated in an alley.
“According to all those pamphlets,” replied René, pausing to kiss a trail up Armand’s neck, “the queen and the Princesse de Lamballe enjoyed themselves. So why not you, citoyen?”
“And where are the Widow Capet and Madame de Lamballe now?”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” said Armand said after, when they were stretched side-by-side on the grass.
“Mm?” asked René, who was almost dozing.
“Our ‘sin,’” said Armand. “What does it matter? Even if it is a sin worthy of hell, what’s happening now is hell anyways.”
“We’ve escaped hell. Hell is far behind us. Besides, you told me you’re an atheist.”
“And it’s not just France,” Armand continued, his voice quickening and tightening. “It’s everywhere. The whole world is losing its mind. This must be the most unmoored time in history.”
It was clearly Armand’s turn to be overwhelmed. A few nights previously, in an abandoned barn outside Reims, it had been René’s. On that night, it had struck René all at once that everything was really happening: no one was truly in charge but chaos, war was everywhere, heads were falling from guillotines by the hundreds, and no one was stopping it. René had felt then that there would never be a remedy, that the world would only get worse and worse. Armand had held him until he had finally succumbed to sleep. Then in the morning, René woke up and the frantic despair was gone, replaced by calm determination. The act of fleeing to escape the murderous machine France had turned into became ordinary again: just something that had to be done, something one did.
Now, naked in the grass, René turned on his side and wrapped his arms around Armand’s slim body. Armand let himself be settled so that his head restedon René’s chest, the other man’s coarse chest hair tickling his cheek. He gazed into the branches of a neighboring tree, where a magpie perched. Its black eyes seemed to be evaluating and planning, and Armand felt a stab of unease at being watched, even though a bird could hardly report them.
“This can’t be hell,” René said while running a hand down Armand’s back, only partly distracting him from the bird’s stare. “It’s a beautiful April day, there’s an extremely handsome young man holding you in his arms, and a breeze is gliding over our bodies while our clothes dry in the sun. Tonight, maybe, we’ll get to your mother’s house, and then it’s on to the Austrian Netherlands, and then to Germany, where we’ll be safe.”
After the arrest of the royal family, the baron René lived with had sent his wife out of the country while he stayed to safeguard ownership of his lands. The Baroness settled in Coblenz with other nobles, waiting for word that she could return. But now the Baron was dead, and the chateau was the property of the state. René had been disowned by his own family long ago, so going to the Baroness in Germany was all that made sense. How to get there was another matter. While wistfully planning in prison, René and Armand hadn’t truly thought they would get the chance to need to work out the specifics.
“What will we do in Germany?” asked Armand. He was still looking at the magpie, which tilted its head to one side, and then other, and then flew off.
“We’ll sleep in Germany?”
“We’ll sleep now. We’ll figure out what to do in Germany when we get there.”
They woke to a slight chill—the sun was low in the sky. Evening was near.
Armand quickly pulled on his white shirt and handed the red shirt to René. As the other man stepped into old striped trousers, Armand thought of one of the outfits René had worn in prison: silk stockings, light blue breeches, a linen shirt. But despite the expensive materials, René had understandably been in some disarray in La Force. Armand had never seen René’s long black hair curled and powdered, only hanging loose and wild like it was now. He thought of the outfits the Baron had dressed René in, which René had described in their hours of tedium: waistcoats embroidered with flowers, a lavender satin jacket, a habit of blue velvet. He wondered what he would have thought if he had seen René at his most dolled up and polished. Was that what René would look like when they got to Coblenz? And would a man like that want anything to do with a simple soldier?
“What are you staring at?” asked René.
“I’m just thinking of how much you must hate those clothes. Obviously they’re not what you’re accustomed to.”
René only shrugged.
“They would not be my first choice. The Baron certainly wouldn’t have approved. But a shirt’s a shirt, right?”
They gathered their bags and continued walking.
“What is the Baroness like?” asked Armand after a while. “You’re sure she’ll help us?”
“I think so. She’s not as friendly as the portrait by Madame Le Brun makes her look, but she’s not mean. A bit haughty, but what noble isn’t?”
“She wasn’t jealous of you?”
René laughed mirthlessly.
“I should hope not. The Baron is—was—not always a kind man. The less she had to do with him, the better. Really, she owes me for bearing the brunt of him.”
Armand felt his stomach clench. “Was he cruel to you?”
René remained silent for a few moments, looking at the ground instead of Armand.
“He took me in when I was just seventeen. He was very generous, but…it doesn’t matter. He’s gone now. The Baroness and I were never especially close, but she certainly likes me more than she liked her husband.”
“But what can she do for us? Her husband’s fortune is gone. You said she was staying with friends, right? What makes you think they’ll want to take us in? Especially me—I’m the enemy!”
“But you were suspected of being a royalist.”
“Only because of my idiot father!”
“We’ll just tell them you actually are a royalist. How can they not be charitable to a royalist whose royalist father was executed, and who was nearly executed himself? They’ll hang on your every word.”
Armand scowled at the idea of presenting himself to simpering nobles as the bereft, loyal son of a martyred merchant who had stood resolutely for the monarchy. What would he say? That he had loved being kicked in the dirt by those above him? Armand was a bastard—his mother had been a maid in his father’s house. Once Armand was weaned, his mother was sent back to relatives in Bazeilles, but Armand was kept, as his father’s wife had been barren. His father’s wife hated him. Then that wife died, and Armand’s father got a new wife who also hated him. That wife soon bore a son, and Armand, no longer needed to one day take over his father’s business, had been sent into the army.
Armand had only rarely seen his father after that. When he visited, his stepmother glared at him, and his far younger brother pranced around in fancy clothes.
Armand had been quietly gleeful at his father’s outrage over the king’s imprisonment. After all, the monarchy and their rules were why he, a non-noble, had never been allowed to advance as an officer, despite his clear ability and early education. His proudest moment as a soldier was when he helped repel the royal family’s would-be rescuers at Valmy. His father disowned him in an angry letter, which made Armand laugh. He had been newly commissioned as a lieutenant—what did he need his father for? Burning the letter had been satisfying at the time, but he later regretted not having it as evidence.
His father and stepmother were arrested for sending money to émigrés. His father had bawled and begged for his adult son as a character witness, thinking the judges would be swayed to see he was the father of a soldier with Jacobin sympathies. Instead, with paranoia running rampant, doubt had somehow been cast on Armand as well. Armand suspected his stepmother was to blame—when she saw he would not defend them, she must have convinced someone he had been an accomplice.
If the great General Lafayette could be defamed as a traitor, what hope did a bastard lieutenant have? Both his father and stepmother had been executed while Armand awaited his own trial. He didn’t know what happened to his half-brother.
Armand was caught up in thought when René stopped him with an outstretched arm. He followed the other man’s gaze.
Up ahead of them, against a darkening green field and the lavender sky, a horse grazed.
That was striking for several reasons. The first was that the horse itself was eye-catching: it was a piebald, its coat composed of large splotches of black and white, like a map of seas and continents. The second was that the horse was saddled and bridled, even though no rider appeared nearby. The third was that, even though Armand tried to convince himself it was simply a fallen tree branch situated at an angle near the horse’s grazing head, the horse had a horn.
“It’s a unicorn,” whispered René.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Armand. “There is no such thing. A cruel prankster has glued something to the poor animal.”
The horse raised its horned head and looked at them. Then it let out a loud whinny.
“It’s seen us,” said René, pushing Armand behind him.
Armand had a moment to feel annoyed (true, he was smaller in build, but of the two of them, he was still the soldier) before the creature started trotting towards them. Suddenly, Armand could not be as sure as he had been that this was just a horse with an ornament attached to its forehead. Instead, he could picture the long horn skewering them both. After all, according to legend, only virgins could safely subdue unicorns, and neither he nor René qualified. He grabbed René’s arm and started to run.
“This way,” he ordered, pulling René in the direction of another cluster of trees in the distance.
They could climb a tree. Would that deter the unicorn from attacking them? How high could unicorns jump? Could unicorns fly? Armand hadn’t noticed any wings, but who knew what a real unicorn could do? No, he told himself. What was following them was not a real unicorn. It was a victim of young men’s humor. Honestly, a horse made to look like a unicorn sounded like something the idle nobility would demand for a party, assuming there were any still alive. But Armand heard the hoof beats and another frantic whinny and couldn’t convince himself to stop running.
When he risked a look over his shoulder, to his horror the unicorn was far closer than he thought possible. The beast had started to gallop, and was gaining quickly. Their human sprinting was no match for its stride. Reaching the trees in time was impossible. He shoved roughly at René’s shoulder.
“Keep going,” he shouted, and then turned to face the monster alone.
“What are you doing?”
“Just run, idiot,” gasped Armand, out of breath. “I’ll fight.”
“You’ll fight a unicorn?”
“I’ll delay it. Just get to the trees.”
To Armand’s absolute fury, rather than running off to safety and leaving Armand to die a hero’s death at the horn of the unicorn, René hefted him over his shoulder. Even with his upside-down vantage point and René’s ass in the way, Armand could see it was too late, anyway—the unicorn skidded to a stop beside them. Armand braced himself for death.
Instead, the unicorn knelt down on one knee, the tip of its horn resting against the earth.
René backed up in confusion, and Armand successfully launched himself off and staggered to his feet. For a few moments, the two men just stared at the creature, which seemed neither fully unicorn or fully horse.
Rather than being deer-like in stature and white in coat like the unicorns depicted in paintings and tapestries, the piebald unicorn was the size of a large cart horse. Unlike a cart horse, or any horse, its coat gleamed with a faint iridescent sheen, like the nacre of a seashell. The horn looked like a spiral of black and white marble.
René took a step forward.
“Don’t,” hissed Armand.
“I’m going to touch it.”
“To see if the horn is glued on.”
René knelt down alongside the creature and stroked its neck. Nothing happened. Then he carefully touched the horn, grasped it, and tugged a little. Armand flinched, but the unicorn didn’t react.
“It’s a real horn,” said René. “And look, a pillion saddle, so two can ride.”
The idea that the unicorn had been prepared with them in mind alarmed Armand, and he suddenly remembered another legendary animal a fellow soldier had told them about around a campfire.
“It’s the Cheval Mallet!”
“The what?” asked René, looking up at him.
“The Cheval Mallet. A soldier from Vendée told me about it,” said Armand, the details flooding back to him. “It’s a black horse who comes to weary travelers at night. It’s saddled and bridled, and kneels down like this. The traveler mounts the horse, and it gallops off with him, never to be seen again.”
“And you believe that?”
“I didn’t until now, but it has to be that. Get away from it,” he urged, pulling René to his feet.
“This is a unicorn, though. Was the legend about a unicorn or a horse?”
“Does it matter? For all you know, this creature was sent by the devil himself.”
“Again, you’re an atheist, and why would the devil send us a piebald unicorn? Maybe it’s sent from heaven.”
“Why would heaven send us a piebald unicorn? And yes, I am usually an atheist, but look at it! Maybe our world has fallen so far, with so much depravity and bloodshed, that demons are rising to devour it.”
René regarded the unicorn for a moment, and then made the sign of the cross. The unicorn didn’t seem to care. Slowly, he circled the animal.
“It’s a mare,” he remarked.
“We should go,” said Armand.
“Should we tell someone about it?”
“We’re fugitives. Whom can we tell? Let’s get out of here.”
The two men continued on their way.
The unicorn followed.
At first, Armand said they should just ignore the creature. Eventually, he hoped, it would get bored and wander elsewhere, looking for other travelers to tempt and carry to their doom. When that didn’t work, Armand tried making shooing motions with his arms, and then ordered it sternly to stop. René tried orders in English and Italian, but the unicorn didn’t respond to that either.
Soon it was dark, they were nearing the road to Bazeilles, and the unicorn was still right behind them. As a last-ditch effort, René dared to touch the potentially cursed reins and looped them over the low branch of a tree. That worked. The unicorn stood patiently by the tree as René and Armand left.
They walked to the road, looking over their shoulders occasionally to see if the unicorn was following them. It was too dark to ascertain that it was still where they left it, but at least it wasn’t at their heels.
“It feels wrong to just leave her there,” said René.
“That strange beast is not our problem.”
Even though it was dark and Armand had only been able to visit his mother a handful of times in his life, he knew they were getting close to the bridge into Bazeilles. Then it was a short walk to the small stone house on the outskirts where his mother lived with her brother’s family. Every time he visited her, when she first saw him approach her face would light up as if she were witnessing a miracle. How would she look at him tonight, when the last she had heard of him was a smuggled letter months ago, telling her he had been arrested? His feet seemed to speed up of their own accord, and he felt something primal calling within his chest. After months of confinement and despair, he was headed to his mother’s arms. Any doubt he had about fleeing in this direction with René disappeared—he would be safe soon.
However, as they neared the bridge, he saw something he hadn’t expected: a light. He and René stopped for a moment, and then through mutual, silent agreement, crept slowly forward. From the light of the full moon and what turned out to be two lanterns, they could see two figures on the bridge. Were they guards, or just citizens chatting? Armand held a finger to his lips, then gestured for René to follow him. Slowly, carefully, they crept closer to the bridge, staying behind a row of bushes and trees.
Finally, they were close enough to hear the two men talking.
“I always hated that ornery goat anyway. If someone took it, good luck to them.”
“I doubt it’s been stolen. Who would want it? That old thing probably just ran off for greener pastures. It could have been the ‘unicorn’ Cassandra du Moulin claims she saw this morning.”
“Ha! Who knew the Moulin girl would turn out to be crazy? What a waste. But enough gossip; I should head home. Good luck with the watch. I haven’t seen any unicorns or Austrians tonight, and I doubt you will either.”
One man left with his lantern, leaving the other standing guard with his own. René and Armand retreated until they were far enough away to whisper safely.
“What can we do now?” fumed Armand.
“We can go farther along the river and swim.”
“I can’t swim. You can?”
René nodded. “The Baron’s chateau had its own lake. I’ll help you across.”
“Are you crazy? I’ll pull you under.”
The two contemplated the situation for a few moments.
“You know,” said René, “We do happen to have access to a mount.”
“That’s an even worse idea.”
The unicorn was where they left it, and made a soft, seemingly happy whicker when they approached.
René patted the animal’s shoulder and took up the reins. Once again it lowered itself to the ground, waiting for them to get on, but René pulled it up and started walking. The unicorn walked calmly at his shoulder.
Armand followed on high alert at first, keeping one hand tucked into René’s waistband in case the creature tried to drag him to lands unknown, but eventually his mind wandered. It had been a long, strange day after many long, strange months, and Armand was eager to get to the house. Soon he would see his mother. She would embrace him. He and René would be fed a real meal and sleep on a real bed.
A bed. That thought gave him pause. He and René had slept together every night since their escape. They had slept in a hayloft, bushes, grasses, a chicken coop, a shed. In all of these places they had slept intertwined, but they had never slept on an actual mattress together. As guests, they would be given his youngest cousins’ bed, and there they would rest side-by-side, warm under a quilt. Although he reminded himself that their pairing was one of convenience, the thought made his heart beat a bit faster.
Of course, then René said something that annoyed him.
“I think we should name her.”
“Oh? And I suppose you have a name already?”
“I was thinking of Orinda.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“She was a British poet. A royalist,” René said, turning so Armand could see his smirk.
“What an appropriate name for a beast from hell.”
They walked away from Bazeilles, far from the bridge, and found a calm, secluded place to cross the Meuse.
“All right,” said René. “Let’s take off our clothes and shoes and put them in the bags. You’ll be alongside Orinda with one arm around her neck and the other holding our bags above the water.”
That was their plan, and it had seemed an acceptable way to avoid actually riding the unicorn and risk being carried off to an uncertain fate, but now looking at the dark water, Armand was frightened.
“Come on,” René urged, stripping his own clothes off for the second time that day.
Armand reluctantly undressed, and soon they were both naked in the moonlight, their feet bare on the ground.
“If this unicorn is anything like a regular horse,” said René as they walked down the bank, “only her head will be above water, so you’ll have to hold her neck very high up. This would be easier if you would just sit on her.”
Armand shook his head. Even though he had sneered at the Vendeean soldier’s story of Cheval Mallet disappearing with its riders, he couldn’t get the image out of his mind. Why else would this mount be waiting for them with tack, tempting them? What they were trying was foolish enough.
They started wading into the cold water, René holding the reins on the unicorn’s left and Armand just behind him, one hand on the unicorn’s withers. The water reached their knees, then their hips. Armand felt a spike of panic. He had never purposefully gone into deep water like this.
René kept glancing over his shoulder every few steps, checking Armand’s progress.
“You’re doing well. It gets deeper up here. Get your arm around Orinda’s neck.”
Now that the moment was close, Armand couldn’t picture himself successfully keeping his head above water with only one arm holding him up.
“Wait!” he cried.
“What is it?”
Armand knew his face was beet red, and he was glad René couldn’t see that. He hated asking for help. “Can you take the bags?”
“I’m holding the reins.”
“I can’t…I need both arms,” Armand stammered, his voice weaker than he wished.
René assessed the situation, then agreed and took the bags, giving Armand the reins to hold.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll come back to help you across.”
Armand held the reins as lightly as possible and watched René kick across the river in the moonlight, more or less keeping the bags out of the water. How did he make it look so easy, like swimming was something humans should know how to do naturally? It was too dark to see the opposite riverbank, but soon René swam back and took up the reins again.
“Ready?” he asked.
Armand nodded, but his heart was pounding. They started moving forward once more.
The moment Armand’s feet no longer felt the mud and rocks beneath them was one of terror. He turned towards the unicorn, wrapping both arms tightly around her neck, glad he had made René take the bags. Then the riverbed disappeared from beneath the unicorn’s hooves as well. Her legs started churning, and suddenly the water was up to his chin. Some splashed in his mouth, making him cough.
“I’m drowning!” he cried.
“You’re all right,” René insisted over the splashing. “We’re halfway there.”
Armand couldn’t judge if René was telling the truth or not. All he could see was the unicorn’s neck, darkness, and splashes of white. Then he and the beast bobbed down and his whole face was submerged.
Cold water poured up into his nose, burning. His eyes opened, but he could see nothing. Automatically, his arms started thrashing, letting go of the unicorn’s neck. With nothing anchoring him, the current began to drag him away. He tried to scream, but more water flooded his throat. He reached out his hands but found nothing to grasp. He couldn’t hear anything except a low roar. He didn’t know which way was up. His lungs were going to burst.
He wanted his mother. She was so close, closer than she had been for so long, and yet he could not call for her. He was going to disappear, a corpse carried far along the Meuse, and his mother would never know.
Something struck his arm. He twisted his wrist to grab it, and found something slender but solid in his palm. Was it a branch, an oar, a shepherd’s rod? His other hand reached the lifeline, and he clutched it tighter than he had gripped anything in his life. Before he could even start pulling himself up, he was being lifted.
He gasped as he re-entered the cold night air, coughing up water. What he was grasping was the unicorn’s horn. The strain must have been enormous, but she was holding him up. René appeared and grabbed him by the waist, saying something he couldn’t understand, and then his soles started brushing mud and rocks again. It had never felt so vital to have ground under his feet.
René helped Armand up to the safety of the riverbank, where he collapsed, still coughing. His nasal cavities, throat, and lungs all burned, but he was freezing and trembling. Then he was being held tightly in René’s strong arms, pressed against René’s broad chest, and the man was murmuring softly to him. He could feel the soft nose of the unicorn nuzzling at his shoulder, warming his skin with her hot exhales.
“That was stupid idea,” he said when he finally got his voice back.
“But we made it,” René said.
Then Orinda shook like a wet dog, splattering water over them again, making René laugh and Armand swear.
“Thank you, Citoyenne Orinda,” Armand said, wiping his face.
Soon they were dressed, and René was once again hitching Orinda to a tree.
“It feels even worse to leave her this time,” he said, stroking the shimmering neck. “We’re just going to let the townspeople find her in the morning?”
“I’m sure she can take care of herself,” said Armand. “She must have that horn for a reason.”
However, he had to give the creature a pat as well. He still wasn’t completely convinced she wasn’t the Cheval Mallet, but she had saved his life.
They walked through the darkness, Armand leading the way. He wanted to cry out when they reached the small house where his family lived, but as to not attract undue attention, Armand knocked quietly.
He had to try a few more rounds of knocking, but the door finally opened, and there stood his uncle with a candlestick. The man stared at Armand for a few moments in confusion, then pulled him inside.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed, shutting the door behind René. “Have you been released?”
Directly through the door was the family’s cramped main living area and kitchen. The dark house was mostly lit by a fire in the fireplace. Armand’s aunt and his cousin sat at a rough table, their faces illuminated by another candle.
“Armand,” his aunt said, rising.
She sounded stricken, confused.
“Your hair is wet,” said his uncle. “Did you swim across the Meuse?”
“Forgive me. I know this is a surprise,” said Armand. “My friend and I are on our way out of the country, and we hoped to stay here for the night. Where is my mother?”
There was a long silence, and he could see the answer on his family’s faces, but he didn’t want it to be true. He told himself the low light altered their expressions.
“Armand,” his aunt repeated hesitantly, “we weren’t expecting you.”
“Where is she?” he asked. “Is she asleep?”
René must have figured it out too, and lay a hand on Armand’s arm. Armand angrily shook it off. His mother must be in the small room she shared with his eldest cousin. He stepped towards the hallway that led to the home’s three bedrooms, but his uncle took his arm.
“Armand, I’m sorry,” the man said gravely. “We thought you were to be executed soon and did not want to tell you.”
“No,” he said, pulling his arm away.
“She fell ill a month ago. The doctor said it was an infection from a bad tooth. He pulled it out, but it was too late.”
His family members only looked at him with anxious, uncomfortable faces, so René guided him to a chair near the fireplace and knelt at his feet, holding his hand.
“She was trying to save money to go to Paris,” said his cousin Adele, belatedly hurrying over from the table to offer comfort. She was the eldest girl, nineteen, herself an unwed mother of two boys who were presumably sleeping in the children’s room. “She wanted to go speak on your behalf. She knew you were innocent.”
Armand stared blankly into the fire and imagined his mother—a slight, illiterate woman who worked in a cloth factory—setting aside her few coins to try to save her son from the guillotine.
“And who are you, sir?” his uncle asked René.
“A friend of Armand’s.”
Armand heard the suspicion in his uncle’s voice. Because of his father, he assumed, his uncle had never been fond of him.
“You can’t stay here, you know,” his uncle continued gruffly. “If you’re found, it’s the guillotine for all of us.”
“Papa,” Adele cried, “he has only just learned about his mother, and they’ve come all this way. And what about the monster that was seen nearby?”
“There’s no monster, Adele,” scolded her father. “Cassandra is a liar.”
“Your father is right. You want your children to be orphans too?” her mother asked. “Did anyone see you come in?”
“No,” René said, rising and standing between Armand and his aunt and uncle. “We were incredibly careful. No one has seen us. Please, if you would just let him stay the night. He’s had such a shock, and nearly drowned crossing the river. I’ll take care of him. We’ll leave tomorrow night, under cover of darkness.”
“Listen to the way you talk,” said the uncle, regarding René carefully. “Like Armand did back when he was living with that rich father of his. You’re no worker. You probably stole those clothes off a laundry pile somewhere. What are you? A marquis?”
“I served in a nobleman’s house,” said René, “but I am not a nobleman.”
“That won’t matter to the Committee of Public Safety,” said the uncle, “especially if you fled prison. I am sorry about your mother, Armand, but you must leave at once. I won’t have my family executed for this.”
“At least let him warm up,” begged René.
But his uncle had become adamant that they must leave immediately. With the unspoken threat that he would report them himself, there was nothing Armand and René could do but acquiesce. René led his nearly catatonic companion to the door.
“Wait,” said Adele.
She grabbed a candlestick and hurried off down the little hallway. Soon she reappeared holding a green, wool cloak. Armand recognized it immediately. Using his small soldier’s salary, he had bought it for his mother for Christmas a few years back. How happy it had made her. When Adele handed it to him, he held it wordlessly to his chest.
“It was his mother’s,” Adele explained.
“Thank you,” René said.
Defeated, the two men walked back towards where they had left Orinda. René kept his arm around Armand’s shoulders.
“What do we do now?” Armand finally asked.
“We can still go to Germany,” said René.
“Is that really where you want to go?”
René did not answer.
Orinda came into view, and although she was still otherworldly with her glittering black and pearlescent white coat, Armand was struck by how familiar she seemed already. The sharp horn he had imagined skewering him only hours earlier had since been used to save him.
The mare greeted them with a soft whicker and René patted her neck. Armand stared at her piebald markings, imagining if they really were a map to lands and oceans unknown.
“I wonder if it’s true—that if we mount her, she’ll take us far away from here and we’ll never be seen again,” said Armand.
“Do you want to try?” asked René. “Maybe we can go anywhere.”
He secured his mother’s cloak around his shoulders while René latched their bags onto the saddle. Sensing her moment had at last come, Orinda knelt down as she had when they first met her.
“Ready?” René asked.
René boosted him onto the saddle, and then Armand scooted back onto the pillion so that the better rider could sit up front. As René settled into the saddle, Armand wrapped his arms around his waist and focused on how the heat of the other man’s body warmed him where they touched. He focused on the weight of his mother’s cloak on his shoulders and remembered how it had felt to be held by her. He looked up at the bright full moon, the numerous stars. If I’m about to die, he told himself, let these be my last thoughts.
Then the mare began to rise to her feet, and he closed his eyes, resting his forehead against his lover’s shoulder.