“So.” Batemann had been the first to leave the table, ably supported by Claudette, and it had been very obvious what they were going to do. There had been giggling and squeaking from the room since they left ever since. Then Pablo had simply nodded to the elder woman and they had left together in silence, descending the stairs. Whatever they were up to made little noise that could be heard in the upstairs kitchen but the embarrassed smile of Eponine told William that it would be little different to the activities ongoing in the nearby bedroom. “I don’t speak any Aixlenean.”
“<Have you eaten enough too?>”
William stared for a moment at the girl’s hopeful face. “I don’t know what Pablo was saying either. But I have eaten rather well.” He reached over to his jacket and dislodged the letter that Pablo had given him. Both of them watched it fall, it landed close to Eponine’s foot.
“<Your letter, sir, I…>” Picking it up from the floor, with William’s steadfast gaze fixed on her, she paused and then, with a quick look at his face, she opened it. “<I can read Merkavian a little, sir. With your permission…?>”
Failing to snatch it back, and catching her hopeful tone, William shrugged and sat back heavily. “It’s not like you can understand a word of it. I’d sooner you were doing something like that rather than… well, whatever else we’re supposed to get up to.” As she bent her head to look at it more closely, William shifted uncomfortably and looked anywhere but at her, as if by not seeing her do the deed he could ignore the breaking of Pablo’s trust.
Something about delivering food for a night of sex seemed rather tawdry and not a little unfair. Unbidden, he remembered his mother and sisters, and shuddered at the thought of any of them being so hungry and alone that they would agree to such an exchange. Whatever romance there had been vanished from the room and he just felt cold and wet and tired, huddled in a towel with illicit food roiling in his stomach. Battles had been fought with less concern and worry. She was still studying the letter, who knew what she was scrying, and he watched her expression grow shocked, a hand over her mouth, and then enormously sad. Most likely she had read into the unfamiliar language whatever she wanted to find, whatever would make the situation most palatable.
Presently she looked at him again with concern in her eyes and the look of something else that William couldn’t quite place. She put the folded letter carefully back on the table and, without meeting her eyes, William snatched it back. Too late, he knew, but simply leaving it there seemed worse than doing nothing.
Throughout the night he had caught her looking at him, as a young girl would look at passing soldiers, with a mix of wonder and awe; so that, he felt, if he so much as bared his teeth she would either laugh at the gaiety or else take fright and fall dead on the spot. Now that look of awe had changed but he would be hard-pressed to offer any guesses as to what it had become.
“<You have known loss on all sides.>” She spoke very slowly, enunciating clearly, trying desperately to make him understand something, “<I think that you are different from the others. I think that, if there was no war and we had met I would like to get to know you better. And now, sir, I do not know what to do next for you. For we shall not meet again, however much I wish it.>”
Her hand grasped his and held it, softly and warmly, while she fixed him with her eyes. William did not know how to respond, nor could he understand what was being said, but it sounded important enough to keep listening.
“<I… Should I undress? Would that make it easier for you, Willy?>”
The way she said his name alerted him to something else going on, he still couldn’t place it, but he found himself responding physically. This was like nothing he had ever felt, even with Jerry, and his heart began to race with the prospect of the unknown and dangerous. It reminded him of the moments before being called to attack in the trenches but without the certainty of leaving things to fate and trusting in his own place in things; this was worse. “Call me William.”
“<Will-yam,>” repeated Eponine with a giggle, “<It is better than Willy, Will-yam,>” standing, but not letting go of his hand, she pointed to a room at the opposite end of the room in which they had been eating, “<Shall we?>”
Wordlessly, he stood and followed after her, something had occurred and he wasn’t sure what it was but the beating of his heart propelled him forward. As she stepped across the threshold she turned to face him and took both of his hands. Awkwardly he took them, letting the towel fall from his shoulders. His mouth was dry and he could feel the cold sweat beginning, everything in him was screaming to flee but, at the same time, he was simply transfixed. “How… How old are you?” he tried, “Age? Years?”
A frown before realisation dawned on a face now lit only by the dim moon through the window. He had to admit that it was a lovely face. “<Twenty-nine,>” she answered, then, seeing that he had no idea what she had just said, held up both hands with fingers outstretched twice, then just one hand. She smiled. “Et tu?”
Jerkily, and keenly aware that he was only wearing his underwear, William signalled that he was thirty. “Twenty-three,” he added, as if by adding it he could shrug off the obvious lie. It was not her face or body that had him drawing breath though, but whatever it was remained tantalisingly out of reach, like the one thing that one forgets to check before going into battle.
Slowly, she backed away, her face flushing and her movements more spasmodic than seductive. She was trying too hard to impress him, part of him supplied, she was trying to move like he had seen far more practiced women doing in the dingier parts of Alnwix on the way to the show. Whereas they had been slinky and even quite adept she was uncomfortable and very much out of her depth. All at once she caught sight of his expression, “<This does not excite you?>” There was no mistaking the twin themes of disappointment and relief in her voice.
“Just…” Breathe, you idiot, breathe, “Just stop. Eponine. I… Eponine.”
Moonlight filled the space between them, there was a bed in the corner, everything seemed black and white now that the door was closed. In the distance there was the rumble of the war as far away from them as was the moon herself. If anything, space seemed nearer, blazing with starlight and pregnant with promise. And he found it difficult to breathe.
Moving to the bed, but keeping his distance, he sat down heavily. “Eponine.”
“<You seem… delicate,>” she chose her words carefully, but kept undressing: functionally rather than trying to make anything of it at all. “<A flower, no?>” She smiled sympathetically at him. Stood in her underwear by the window she did look beautiful. Forbidden. Out of reach. “<I think…>”
She was delicate, but strong, like a rose growing on a garden wall turned to the sun. The white rose that grew in the father’s flowerbeds, tough and wiry, flowers delicate like spider web but with thorns that would cut and tear flesh. There would be no rough treatment of this woman and no arguing with her if she got an idea in her head. He needed to say something. “Thank you,” and he meant it, “I have known few who would do for me what you have done. But it is not needed,” he shook his head, “It is not needed.”
“C’est la guerre?” As she sat down next to him he fought the urge to jump away, it would not have been polite, she caught his expression. “C’est la guerre.”
A wan smile met her remark, William had heard similar sentiments in Aixlenean before, enough to know what they meant. A nod. “It is hard.” There was nothing else to be said.
Her arm snaked round his shoulders and he did not mind, merely closed his eyes and let her do it as her free hand took is chin and rubbed along its smooth surface. For once he was glad that he shaved every day. “<You would look better in a dress, my friend, you were not born for war.>”
Grunted assent. He would have agreed with anything at that moment.
Looking at him, she seemed to grow in confidence, and he returned her look as best he could, lost in the feelings that ambushed him and beat him down with the flat of their spades. No shots were fired, no artillery barrage was required, he surrendered freely to a superior foe without ever knowing quite why he was doing so. Fate decreed that he do so and he had yet to argue with fate.
Pecking him on the cheek tenderly, she placed a finger over his lips and drew back, a smile greeting his confusion. She stood, placing the same finger on her own lips to cover the playfulness there, and walked back to where she had undressed, looking at him all the while as an artist would at a subject to be painted. There was a confidence in her that she had previously lacked, it oozed from her, and he could feel his own response to that awareness, to that aura of assuredness.
“Mon petite fleur,” her whisper was so low he had to strain his ears to hear her properly, “<My beautiful, delicate, little flower.>” She picked up her dress deliberately, let it fall from her hands whilst holding the shoulders and fussed with it until it fell straight and clean. “<Would you wear this for me?>”
Unable to understand her words, but following that something had been asked of him, something pure and deep that could not be denied, William nodded dumbly. He was rewarded with a broad shining of the sun from her face, bringing colour back to her body that was robbed by the silvery light from the window in his mind’s eye if not in reality.
She walked back to him deliberately, one foot in front of the other placed with precision and care on the wooden floorboards, not a sound seemed to be made. She bade him stand with her eyes, and he did so, then rolled the dress and indicated that he should raise his arms. Now William was simply unable to speak, unable to discern how it was he knew her instructions, unable to register anything beyond the room or Eponine. It didn’t exist.
Material at his fingertips. Passing. A breeze across all of him and the skirts fell about the floor. It shouldn’t have fit, but Eponine was already working at ties and buttons so that it seemed to expand to take him in, falling easily to the floor. Unbidden, his arms returned to his side as she walked behind him and pulled at various laces and clasps. He felt the bodice tighten around his chest and waist, hugging him tightly in a way that made him feel more relaxed and safe than he could remember feeling before.
He was home.
This was right.
Darkness was ending in light. Movement below.
Stillness behind, Eponine had finished her work. He felt, rather than saw or heard, her move back to inspect her handiwork. She said something, he did not catch anything, but twirled to face her, causing the skirts and petticoats of the dress to flare up and brush against his legs. An electric feeling.
Instinctively he looked down as he faced her, hands catching the flare of the dress and holding it from the floor. His mouth opened but no words came out.
“<The flower is opened. You are beautiful.>” Her hands were clasped in front of her and her smile was as a mother to a child. “Mon petite fleur.” A short, but only semi-mirthful, laugh. “Fleur, oui, <it is better than Will-yam,> Fleur <it is>.”
“William,” he corrected her instinctively.
She shushed him with a finger again, “Non,” she said, playfully but firmly, “Tu,” she pointed at him, “Fleur, oui?”
Pointing to himself, “Fleur?”
Nodding, “Oui, Fleur.”
He tried to shrug, but his body would not obey, instead he simply bent his knees and lifted the dress a little with his hands, that had re-clasped the dress. “Fleur.”
“Tres bien,” she clapped softly, without making any noise, “<Now, repeat after me:> je suis Fleur.”
“Zhe swee Fleur.”
“Bon!” She took one of his hands and kissed the back of it, “Je suis Eponine. Enchante. Je suis, por tu, madame. Oui? Madame.”
And that was when the screaming started.