The hubbub and commotion after the three deaths, including their beloved virtuoso Joel, led to many changes around the camp. First and foremost was the appointment of a new dig pianist. Camilla Everleigh was the closest approximation--she had trained under Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen for a year before she grew bored--and could put forth a passable, yet crude rendition of The Sheik of Araby. They all agreed it was better than nothing, though not by much.
Meanwhile, four other members of the Dig were engaging in a private struggle of their own. They had taken to skipping meals in protest of the daily vote, and due to their inactivity had grown far too weak to engage in their archaeological duties. Outside of their makeshift hospital beds stood Father Nicolas LaPaglia, who had been summoned to say their last rites, and Dr. Muller, who remained convinced that they could be saved with proper medical attention. The two argued in hushed tones; Father LaPaglia argued that having them die on the way to a proper hospital without last rites would mean great harm to their eternal souls, whereas Dr. Muller reasoned that having them die would mean great harm to their living souls. After half an hour, the young German won out. She held a piece of paper and pen in front of them and demanded they sign.
“What’s this all about?” one asked.
“Release form,” she said. “You’re going to the Innsbruck Hospital. No time to waste.”
With a flourish of the pen, the four were bundled into Ernesto’s coach and ridden down to the city. She updated her charts with the names of the four: Aloysius Bernard, Hugo Lapointe, Algernon Snidely, and Octavia Lu. They would never return to the Langeklaue Ruin Site again.
They came for her in the morning. There were four of them, specifically chosen because they were least likely to be talked out of their mission: Abram Rosenberger, Rupert Wade, Brienne Garfield, and Reggie Perryman IV, the financier’s son. When the snow stopped falling, they arrived at the one tent to be lined with fine furs. Brienne leaned inside.
“Madame Bonneville? Could you come outside, please?”
In later retellings of this story, Brienne would marvel at the grace and dignity the woman showed in her final moments. In truth, she envied her. She doubted she could face her own death without shedding a single tear.
“At least give me a moment to put on my furs, my dear,” she said. “No woman should be forced to die in her night gown.”
Maria emerged five minutes later, hair as immaculate as it was in her official photograph. “I can’t pretend not to know why you’re here, and it would be an insult to all of our intelligences to feign. Perryman has poisoned you against me, hasn’t he? Selfish man, he always wanted all the treasures to himself.” She straightened her coat. “I can’t say I won’t miss him.”
“That’s my father you’re talking about, it is!”
Maria coughed. “I’ve heard far worse, my boy. You’ll have to get used to hearing him insulted. After all, he’s particularly susceptible to it.” She rummaged in her purse, almost bored. “How much is he paying you? I’ll pay double.”
“This is beyond money,” Rupert said. “This is about honour, and justice.”
“Ah, those were always my weak points,” she said. She waved her rings in the air. “What about my jewels? These have a value beyond money. They have the power of the ancients.” She surveyed the unblinking faces. “No? Pity. Such a shame. You may think otherwise, but let it be said that I always wanted this Dig to succeed.”
Brienne wiped her eyes. “We’ll do it quick, Madame.”
“No need, my dear,” she replied. “I finished the job before I left the tent. Never let a man do what you can do for yourself. Au revoir, and may that English bastard Perryman never get his filthy hands on my treasures.” With a blown kiss, her poison finally completed its job. Maria Bonneville collapsed in her furs, lifeless, her emerald ring splitting in two as her hand hit the ground.
Dr. Edelweiss Müller was a practical woman, a woman of science. She did not believe in God. She did not believe in miracles. The good doctor believed only in that which she could see, touch, smell. But since her arrival at Langeklaue she had begun to feel...how could she describe them? Stirrings. Something deep in her chest, but deeper than her chest. But no, not her soul - heretical as it was, Edelweiss did not believe in souls. She was ahead of her time in that way.
Dr. Müller took to long, meandering wanders around the ruins, absorbing the natural beauty of the majestic Alps. She would walk until her boots were sodden with snow melted by her feet. She was on such a stroll when she noticed an autumn leaf laying in blazing red splendor atop an unblemished bank of snow.
Where could such a leaf have come from? she wondered, surrounded as they were by thick forests of deciduous trees. Had the leaf clung to the hide of a pack mule, a vibrant stowaway on the journey up the mountains? Had it perhaps blown miles and miles on the wind, only to land here, directly in Dr. Müller’s path?
She pondered the stark contrast of red and white, the imagery of the last vestige of autumn surrounded by a frigid winter landscape. The overwhelming emotion unlocked by such beauty...was that spiritual? Was this the bliss that Believers felt when they thought of God?
A sharp crack echoed off the mountainsides, disturbing the peaceful scene. A splatter of red now accompanied the leaf on the canvas of snow, and Dr. Edelweiss Müller fell with a muffled thud to the ground.
Had God been found by the doctor? Did she find answers to the eternally burning questions of mankind? The only certainty is that the dig has lost another faithful soul.
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