Corner of the Sky
The walk did little to calm Feuilly’s nerves, though his aspect seemed flushed with exertion rather than anger. Evening closed in on him before he even considered returning home, and it was dark by the time he found his way through the labyrinth of streets in which he had been so determined to get lost.
As he rounded a corner, finally certain of his surroundings and only another turn away from the tavern, he heard the distinctive smack of hand against flesh followed by a whimper that could only have been female. He could barely make out the figures, but in the alley that cut behind the tavern, he saw a man and a woman, the woman small and cowering as the man hit her again.
“Hey!” Feuilly called. “Anything the matter here?”
“Nothing that’s any of your business,” the man called back. As Feuilly’s eyes adjusted, he could tell that the man was not much older than he was, and the woman was of comparable age.
He took a step towards the pair. “Are you all right?” he asked the woman gently.
“Ain’t none of your business,” she snapped, though the pain was obvious in her voice.
“What is she, your sister?” Feuilly asked the man, taking another step closer.
“Just some dumb pross, so beat it.”
Before he realised what was happening, he dealt the man a hard blow to the jaw, jerking his head back. About to punch him again, Feuilly’s own jaw exploded with the pain of a reciprocating blow.
Street instincts took over. Blows were thrown and blocked, but at far from regular intervals. A fist to the stomach was followed by a swift uppercut, and time and identity lost all dimension as Lydie’s face was all Feuilly could see in the woman who watched in horror, and he felt the dull thud of each blow the same as he fought to keep her father away from her.
Only dimly did he realise that the metallic taste in his mouth was his own blood, his mind was so fogged with other ideas. His opponent was bigger than he was, but he fought fair and did not yet descend to dropping him to the ground with a well placed pull of the ankle. Being the shorter of the two, Feuilly’s right eye had taken a hard hit, while the other man could still see out of both of his. Blood dripped from both mouths, however, and knuckles were equally bruised and torn against teeth.
Just as the bigger man decided to put his assailant in his place, a third hand pulled Feuilly away by the hair, preventing him from falling to the ground as his opponent tried to pull his legs from under him.
He kept swinging at the air, confused by rage and blinded by tears. “Let me go! He’s getting what he deserves, the filthy bastard! There’s no reason for him to treat her like that!”
A thick hand smacked him across his already bruised face. “What the fuck has gotten into you, boy? She’s a pross. I didn’t even think you knew her. Now stop making a scene before you attract too much more attention.”
Feuilly pulled away roughly, but he took a deep breath and looked up at his second assailant. “Brujon?”
“You’re lucky I’m the one who found you and not Babet.”
“He was beating her. How was I supposed to watch that happen?”
“You don’t if you can’t take it. But you leave instead of causing yourself problems. Jesus, I thought you had brains enough to keep yourself out of trouble.”
“He was hitting her for no reason.”
“So you hit him, and then he hit you, and Babet is checking out that biscuit tonight because it seems to be looking better. It’s ripening, and you get yourself beat to a pulp just before we try to go in.”
“He stopped hitting her.”
“And what are you going to do? Start a fight with everyone who hits a pross? I thought you weren’t keen on ending up dead. Fuck it. Come on, inside. I don’t like talking about this in public.”
“You don’t like talking in public,” Feuilly muttered as Brujon pulled him inside the tavern, where their entrance was noted but arroused not comments from the patrons.
Brujon pushed him into a chair in their usual corner and motioned Vivienne over. “We’ll find the money for something stronger than a glass of wine. He’s pretty shook up.”
“You? You were the one making all that fuss out there?” she asked Feuilly directly. “I expected better from you.”
“I’m sorry, Viv,” he muttered through his split lip. “Would it trouble you too much for a wet rag?”
“You’ll have to pay for it, as I’m not taking back anything that’s bloody!”
“We’ve got the money.” Feuilly looked up. “I am sorry I disappointed you, Viv.”
“I am, too. You know you’re better than that.” She swept off, leaving Brujon staring at him.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s hardly the first time I’ve been in a fight.”
“It’s the first time you’ve been involved in a fight as a man, and that changes everything. What happened to being better than Babet and me?”
“I’m not, and I never said I was.”
“Bullshit. You do think you’re better than us. You have no right to think it, but you think it all the same. Your books and your drawings and your constant attempts to be respectable. You think you’re better than us. You think you know better than us.”
“Maybe it’s because I do. Babet will do anything for a sous, even if it gets him in jail. You’re no better. Me, I prefer to live instead of die, and I know better than to think I would survive a stint in prison.”
“You would because you’re just like us at bottom.”
“No, I’m not. Babet beats prosses half to death, the sick bastard.”
“And he pays them more for the right to do it, so don’t assume they haven’t been properly taken care of.”
“They aren’t properly taken care of if you can beat the shit out of them for your own pleasure!”
“What brought this on? Someone else been playing with your doll?”
“She’s not a doll. She’s a woman.”
“You didn’t answer the question, but that’s answer enough. Jesus, what have you been told about getting attached?”
“I’m not attached.”
“Here,” Viv interrupted them, slamming a glass of brandy down in front of Feuilly and dropping a wet rag next to it. “Let me see your money.”
Brujon dug in his pocket and pulled out a few coins. “That enough?”
“It’ll do.” She swept up the coins and gave Feuilly a pointed look as she walked back to the kitchen.
“Clean yourself up, boy, and quick, because it looks like we got company.”
Feuilly grabbed the rag and started wiping the blood from his knuckles, but a shocked female voice distracted him from his task.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“He’s been fighting. Go ahead, boy, tell your mummy what you’ve done.”
“Hey, Mireille. I gave a guy what he deserved, that’s all.”
“He’s loaning himself out as a protector of whores.”
“I am not. But he deserved what he got.”
“That was you? Oh, honey. Everyone’s talking about it.” Mireille took the rag from him and started cleaning up his face. “You poor thing, you got as good as you gave, didn’t you?”
“Would have been worse if I hadn’t been there to stop him. Would have been worse if it had been Babet, I can tell you that.”
“Babet is never actually going to shiv me, no matter what you think.”
“Don’t be so sure. Ever hear of Legrou?”
“Associate of ours. Babet shivved him, dumped him in the river.”
“You don’t scare me.”
“Nothing scares you, does it?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Drink your brandy, let mummy clean you up, and hope people shut up about it. But Jesus, you may have cost us a job.”
“I don’t need anyone to clean me up!”
“Honey, is this about Lydie?”
“Do you know why she’s here, Mireille?”
“Of course. And you have to let it go, because no one here is her father. Look after her, but don’t do this to yourself over strangers.”
“Don’t encourage him.”
“He doesn’t need to be encouraged. He needs to be set straight.”
“Which is what I’m trying to do.”
“You’re not doing a very good job of it.”
“Just everybody shut up! I’m fine, I swear!” Feuilly grabbed the rag from Mireille’s hand so she would stop fussing over him and tossed off his brandy, choking on it. “I’m going home. Just let me be.” He pulled away, leaving Mireille and Brujon to continue the argument over how best to raise him. Very little of that mattered now that he was as good as a man, anyway.
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