Chapter 30

Charles paced from one end of the study and back again. Over and over. Beads of sweat trickled down his face despite the gentle snowfall outside the window. He paused and stared toward the open door. One step carried him closer, then another.

Christine laid a hand on his shoulder and shook her head. "No. You will jeopardize everything."

"He's been down there for over an hour!"

"Yes." She guided him away from the door. "If there is anything I have learned, over the years with your father, it's that a good negotiation takes time. Signor Chantelli has come all this way in response to Erik's calling card. This is a delicate situation given your father's current reputation. He's looked upon better, but it's still a risk for Chantelli."

Charles shrugged out her grasp. "To hell with reputations! This isn't about grown men grousing over words. This is about a relationship!"

"I know. And he knows. Charles, please. This step must be taken by him alone."

"Damn it, Mother! I'm a man, not a child!"

She held her finger to her lips. "Keep your voice down."

He growled and was about to reply when the front door closed. Footsteps carried up the stairs.

Charles rushed toward the door and nearly collided with Erik. "Well? Well? What happened?"

Erik paused long enough to press an envelope into Charles's hand before passing him.

As his shaking hands opened the letter, Christine moved to his side and put her hands on his arm waiting to see. Charles pulled out the letter and devoured every word before letting out a cry of delight.

He embraced his mother and kissed her. "It's done! Official, and in writing! Our families are allied and Simonetta is promised to me."

Holding the letter aloft, he danced around the room even taking his mother's gloved hands and twirling her around as she laughed. "Patience, Charles, you must wait a few more years."

"Of course the ceremony will have to wait. But now we need not fear. Oh, I am going to be with the one I love. You will sing and of course Father will play. Isn't this wonderful?" He released her with a smile and looked around. The smile faded. "Father?"

Christine dashed to the closed bed chamber door. "Erik?"

No reply. But she had left the door open earlier.

"Erik, dear?" She tried to open the door and found it locked. "Erik please, answer me."

Her fingers drifted off the door. She turned her worried gaze to Charles.

He held the letter and read it one more time. "Something is very wrong." He traced the scroll of Erik's name on the document. Instead of the pristine loops they were infused with a tremble. "Mother. What is wrong with him?"

She shook her head. "I'm unsure. He's been taciturn lately. I knew he was preoccupied, and so I didn't press." She tugged Charles from the door. "We certainly shouldn't now. Come. We'll need to find answers elsewhere and I think I have an idea of how."

Days later, Damrosch sat behind his desk with both Christine and Charles across from him.

"Good heavens, Christine. You mean to tell me he hasn't spoken in days?"

Charles answered, "I've glimpsed him in two places. In bed. Or at the bottom of a wine bottle before the study's hearth. I preferred it when he was angry and storming the mansion to … whatever this is."

"And no one knows why?"

"This isn't his usual moodiness." She grasped the edges of her cloak. "You know Erik well enough. This … this is something different. I'm worried. What if there's another … "

Damrosch leaned forward. "No. We're not going to even consider that."

The door opened, Nadir rushed in and fumbled to shut it behind him. "He sold her!"

They all stared at him in confusion. "Sold what?"

"He sold her. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen the auction listing myself." Nadir shook his head and leaned on the desk. "I should have guessed it earlier. What else could have fetched such a high price."

Christine sat up a little straighter. "What auction? Nadir, what are you talking about?"

He caught his breath and pulled out the listing dated just over a week ago. "Erik held an auction where he sold a number of items." His finger stabbed at one of the listings.

Her face blanched.

Charles stood up to get a closer look. "His Stradivarius!"

"No. Erik never would have parted with her. She's been with him too long. He loves her move than me."

Nadir held a hand out. "Have you seen her in the study? In the music room? No. The case is usually beside the piano. But it's missing."

Damrosch reached for the paper and studied it. "Who won it?"

"The man I spoke with, a Mr. Stirling, refused to tell me. He said it was confidential."

He rubbed his chin. "We need to get that violin back at all costs."

Charles sighed. "Look at the starting bid. I don't know about you, Damrosch, but very few people I know have that kind of money."

He tucked the listing in his pocket and reached across the desk to pat Christine's hand. "This may take a while. But I assure you, I will find some way to get Erik his soul back. The poor man has lost so much, he deserves his life-long companion."

The fire crackled in the hearth. Erik's dry eyes stared into the flames, unblinking. The neck of a half-drunk bottle of wine hung from his loose fingers. At his feet, a random assortment of empty bottles lay discarded, forgotten. He didn't care what kind they were. The numbing effect was the same whether white or red, sweet or dry. Hell, he didn't even taste any of it.

Silence. That was all he heard. They were gone. They had tired of their nagging little questions. Tired of asking if he was alright? Hungry? Wanted to do something?

Erik scowled. What was there to do anymore? What did it matter? Sure, he could go out on the street now. Society once more found value in him. In his bank book. The wine sloshed as he took a long gulp.

He hadn't done a damn bit of any of that for himself. What did his life matter anyway? It was Charles. The way the boy spoke of his love for her. The way she had risked being seen with him, breaking etiquette. They had true love. That was more important than anything in the world.

His eyes drifted to the empty space beside the piano. He snapped his gaze away and pried himself from the couch.

The world sloshed like the wine bottle. With staggered steps, he made his way toward the shelves and brushed his hand over the back of the little nightingale automaton. A flick of his finger beneath the beak set the bird in motion.

That one would have fetched a high price at the auction. But no. He couldn't part with it. No one would have known what the duet meant to him, the sweet melody written for Christine. There was no price for love. None … except sacrifice.

His clumsy hand shifted a book on the deep shelf. He cocked his head. Odd. Pulling out the book, he discovered a small jar concealed there. Out in the light, he turned it in his hand beholding the tumor soaking in fluids.

"This is all your fault," he slurred. "If it had not been for you then none of this shit would have happened. You ruined everything! My sanity! My life! My family! Stole my music!"

His hand gripped the side of his head.

"The music is gone! It's all gone! All gone! I am nothing, just a shell! Because of you!"

He slammed the jar back on the shelf and rammed the book back in place. "Stay there, you … you … yeah."

His feet shuffled across the floor on a wayward path to the piano. He almost made if before he stumbled and crumpled to the floor over the bottle. His hand stretched out to touch where she had always been. The space that was vacant now.

"I betrayed you," he whispered. "You gave me everything. And I … I … I am so sorry. Forgive me. I betrayed you."

He wept into his hands.

The final notes of the automaton rang in the air to cease when the rose opened her bloom. Outside the window sleet rattled against the panes.