Corner of the Sky
Winter came again, blowing cold and hard. It was not until the winds began to temper in March that Feuilly realised he had been back with Babet for a year. It had been too simple, he thought. His conscience continued to prick him, but he promised himself that he would quit before the age of twenty, assuming he was sixteen when he began. Since he had lost his mother at an early age, he had no recollection of when his birthday was and only a vague idea of how old he might be. He was believed to be seventeen now, so he assumed everyone else knew better than he did.
It was late in February, a night too wet to risk working, that he found himself once again in the company of Babet and Brujon at the tavern. It was late, and conversation had been meaningless, but it was warm and Feuilly had company. He hated spending wet nights alone in the dampness of his room, and in spite of arguments and insults, a certain camaraderie held the three of them together. Guelemer was set to be released in the autumn, and at that point, a fourth would be added to their party.
“I still don’t see what your point is,” Babet argued half-heartedly.
“Simply this: we can do whatever we like as long as no one knows we are doing it. So would you please be more careful when I’m not with you? Letting Mercier teach me lockpicking while you went about the organisation was all well and good, but you’ve already learned I won’t be here forever, and god only knows what happened to Mercier.”
“Your idea of careful seems to be not doing anything.”
“My idea of being careful is not leaving any tracks and being selective as to what you take. The longer things go unnoticed, the more time we have to get a good deal. Jacquemont isn’t giving me the best price. I know because I waited a few months and then took some stuff uptown. I got an excellent price on the jewelry from a real jeweler. It’s more profitable to be selective. Besides, you have other trades that take care of you on the side, or can if you choose to exercise them. I don’t. So kindly don’t get yourself arrested because then I might be forced back to the mill.”
Babet’s ill-tempered rejoinder was cut off by Mireille’s sudden, and sodden, appearance. “What are you doing here, bitch?”
“Shut your trap, I’m not here for you. I came looking for you, honey,” she said to Feuilly.
“Is something wrong?” he asked worriedly.
“Nothing wrong at all,” she smiled. “It’s time you had yourself a girl. And I’ve found you one. A good girl for a good boy.”
“Mireille, I am hardly in any condition, or in the mood, for any initiation or whatever it is you’ve decided I need.” He pushed his hair out of his face and willed his curls to stay out of his eyes. Eventually, it would be long enough to pull back again, but for the moment, it was an awkward length, and Feuilly was starting to be convinced that it was more trouble than it was worth.
“You haven’t seen her yet.”
“I don’t need to see her to know that she looks like you,” Feuilly muttered as Mireille left to get the girl. Mireille was not a small woman, nor was she a “girl” anymore. He just knew he was about to be trained in how to handle a woman rather than be made love to.
Until Mireille returned, and Feuilly saw why she was drenched - her shawl was covering the girl she brought forward. Mireille fussed over her as she took back her wet shawl. “This is Lydie,” she announced, as if she were a proud mother.
Lydie was barely more than a girl, no older than Feuilly and perhaps a bit younger. She was thin and pale, and for the moment, she looked only at the ground, trying not to shiver. Her gown was silk, but long out of fashion, with an extremely high waist and extremely low neckline exposing nearly the all of the small rise of her bosom. Her skin was clean; her dark hair was neat. When Feuilly stood and bowed to her, she finally looked up, with a small smile, showing her extremely wide dark eyes and high cheekbones. She was small: the top of her head just reached his shoulder, and her bare arms were delicate.
“Well, well, well, mummy’s brought you a toy. Better use her well, boy, so mummy doesn’t think you’re ungrateful.”
The girl drew back inside herself, and all Feuilly could do was glare at Babet. Mireille had to take matters into her own hands. “Just shut your trap, Babet. You know what? Get out of here. Go find someone else to pick on.”
“Yes, let’s go somewhere else. Since he wouldn’t know what to do with a slut even if someone showed him, there isn’t going to be much of a show here. You’ll see what comes of giving him a china doll instead of a woman.” The two children might well have been a pair china dolls, with their perfect features, pale skin, and unworldly delicacy.
“Get out of here. You too, Brujon.”
“We’re going,” the bigger man said lazily. “Good luck with her, Feuilly. You’re going to need it.” He laughed silently as Mireille chased them away, leaving the children alone in the corner.
Feuilly finally found his tongue. He bowed to her again, his hair falling back into his eyes. “It is a pleasure to meet you, mademoiselle. I’m called Feuilly.”
She flushed slightly, but made a brief curtsey to him. “I’m Lydie. Lydie Vincent.”
“I didn’t expect someone so pretty.”
“I didn’t either.”
“Here.” Feuilly picked up his overcoat. “It should be big enough to cover both of us, if we wear it as a cape.” The girl shied away from him as he tried to put it over her shoulders. “What’s wrong? Are you afraid of me?” he asked gently.
“I didn’t know you were friends with - with Babet,” she said softly.
“You’re afraid of him.” She nodded. “I’m not like him, I promise.” He bent down so he was looking up at her. “I won’t hurt you. We don’t even have to do this if you don’t want.”
Her dark eyes seemed much too big for her face, and in spite of her profession, there was a childlike innocence as she gently touched his cheek. “No, I want to.”
“It’s not too far. We can make it both under the coat, I think.” He stood up, and this time she let him arrange the coat over them both. Outside, the rain had settled into a slow, soaking drizzle that seemed prepared to continue for days. Feuilly set his hat on her head, to keep her as dry as possible, and she laughed, sounding for all the world as if they were no more than children playing dress-up.
Walking was slow, and Feuilly had to hold her close in order to keep them both as warm and dry as possible. She was warm in the crook of his arm and the contact was not unpleasant. He regretted the moment they stepped inside and the need for such close and yet innocent contact no longer existed.
Lydie seemed to find his attempts at gentlemanly behaviour amusing. Feuilly found himself blushing when she laughed as he offered his arm to help her up the stairs. Had she been a woman, as he expected Mireille to bring him, he would never have thought about proper behaviour. With this girl, he thought only of behaving as he believed a gentleman should.
Once inside his tiny room, he lit a single candle, already burned past the half-way mark, and with his back to her, quickly tried to dry his wet hair with the piece of sacking that served as his towel. “It’s not much, is it?” he asked softly, his voice shaking a little as he hated to break the silence, uncomfortable though it was.
“It’s not dripping,” she answered, looking around.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here.”
“Mireille told me. It doesn’t matter. As long as you don’t hit me, you can’t hurt me.”
Feuilly sat down in his only chair, resting his elbows on his knees. “You shouldn’t be here. You’re too young for this.”
“I was never too young to be daddy’s pretty pet, so how can I be too young for strangers?” she asked, a trace of bitterness seeping into her warm voice. She knelt in front of him. “Neither one of us is too good for this, so why don’t we do what we’re here for?” She started to pull his boots off, and he did not protest. “You wear gentleman’s boots!” she said in surprise. “They’re so soft.”
“I’m sure that’s what the gentleman thought who bought them in the first place. Maybe I should feel some sympathy for whatever servant has been chastised for losing them, but it isn’t my fault people don’t bolt their doors,” he grinned.
“Always the best?”
He slowly reached out to touch the girl’s face. Her skin was soft and smooth, and she leaned into his touch. “Always,” he answered softly. He helped her to stand, and she slid his coat off his shoulders, standing on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek in the process. There was little he could do but help her, as her hands were already on his neckcloth. Only when he found himself standing in his shirtsleeves did he dare start to fumble for the fastenings of her dress.
“Shhh. Just relax.”
He took a deep breath and gently touched her hair, grounding himself in a safe gesture before returning to uncharted waters. This time he went slowly, finally unhooking her dress almost in surprise that he had found the tiny hooks at all. Her hands never left his body, and her lips never left his face.
The thin silk of her dress fell away from her delicate shoulders, and she pulled away in order to divest herself of the now encumbering garment. The shift she wore underneath was patched and worn, her stays mended in various ways, but she matched Feuilly for carefully covered shabbiness. The cuffs of his shirt had reached the point they could no longer be turned, one sleeve had begun to separate from the shoulder, and his waistcoat was necessary to hold his shirt together as all but one button had long ago disappeared.
“Wait.” Lydie pulled back. “I’m supposed to do this right, not as if it was paid for.” She quickly turned away in order to take her hair out of its careful bun, setting aside the hairpins so as not to lose them. “There,” she said, shaking out her hair and turning back to him. “Better?”
Feuilly smiled. “Better.” Her hair was soft, and it felt nice through his fingers. She had to unbutton the straps of her stays herself and then direct him to feel for the cord that held them together.
She helped him pull his shirt off, his damp curls bouncing with the static, before pulling her own shift over her head. On his own instinct, he pulled her naked body close to his, relishing the warmth of her skin. He softly kissed her on the lips, a little shyly at first, but on the second try, she let him linger for some time. Slowly, she moved him towards the bed and only then did she unbutton his pants.
At that point, he met her eyes with a nervous expression.
“I’ll guide you,” she whispered. “It doesn’t matter. I’m to teach you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
He was nervous, but not terrified. As she gently guided him, he began to relax a little, but he could not help his solicitous nature. Lydie teased him with her eyes, but even to his inexperience it was obvious she enjoyed his gentle ministrations.
When they were through, Feuilly pulled her close to him under the blankets, more in awe of the fact that something so beautiful and delicate lay in his protective embrace than of what he had just done. “Will you stay the night?” he asked, gently brushing her hair out of her face.
She did not look at him. “Why do you want me to?”
He felt himself flush. “Because I like the feel of you in my arms.” It was true, though it sounded strange to him even as he said it.
Lydie turned over, and in the dim candlelight, he could see that her large eyes were wet with tears. “No one has been that gentle with me in so long.” She curled closer to him. “You’ll keep me safe for tonight?”
Feuilly pushed his own hair out of his face and settled down next to her. “I swear it.”
In the morning, it was difficult to pretend nothing had happened, and watching Lydie dress was awkward, but there was no way to hide in the tiny room. “You know I can’t pay, don’t you?”
“Of course. Mireille said you couldn’t. It was sort of a favour, like.”
“If you ever want to come again, you know the way. I can’t pay, but if you ever need to feel safe . . .” He trailed off.
“You’ll always be here?”
Lydie approached him as he still lay in bed, softly pushing his curls out of his eyes. “I’ll come if you want me to.”
“I want you to come if you want to come.”
She smiled and gently kissed him on the lips. “I’ll see you around, Feuilly.” Before he could recover from the kiss, she was gone.
He lay in bed for a long time, stroking the warm place where she had spent the night. Mireille wasn’t a fool, he thought. There are women worth holding all night. He rolled over and went back to sleep, his dreams full of soft skinned, dark haired beauties.
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