by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ)
illustrated by quaedam
There was a rumour all throughout the palace that the Chevalier D’Argent was secretly a woman.
It was impressive that the Chevalier had so quickly become the target of rumour. The first son of a little-known family, Phillipe Gustave Adrien de Bellevoir had risen to prominence in the army, fighting in the siege of Fort Saint Phillip in the Mediterranean. He had only been at court for a month, and already his name was familiar enough to Gabrielle that the discussion around her now came as no surprise.
“They say her father was desperate for a son,” exclaimed a young Princess of the Blood enthusiastically. “She was raised as a boy from infancy, and the doctor and the whole household sworn to secrecy.”
The First Lady of the Bedchamber sighed and shook her head. “That sounds like a fairy story. I find it hard to believe anyone would think of such a scheme, let alone carry it out.”
“Besides, why would such a woman join the army?” asked a particularly pretty Duchesse. “Her secret would be discovered the moment she was injured.”
“And if she were never injured?” replied the lady next to her, smoothly.
The pretty Duchesse made a face. “Surely you don’t believe this nonsense?”
“I think it is a charming story, whether true or false.”
Gabrielle shook her head with a smile. “But how could I hope to guess? I’ve never met the Chevalier. ”
“Then you shall.”
A sort of awed hush fell over all the youngest ladies, as it did whenever the Queen spoke.
“I’ll have Saint-Georges bring him when he comes to call tomorrow, and we shall see for ourselves.”
Immediately, she turned back to the game of whist she had been playing with the Duchesse du Polignac, and the hush was broken.
“Well, I hope he’s a man,” said a lady whose title Gabrielle could not recall, “he’s said to be quite handsome!” She grinned wolfishly, and the ladies around her erupted into laughter.
The Princess of the Blood did not laugh. “But it’s possible, isn’t it?” she asked quietly. “A woman knight?” Her expression was wistful, the look of a girl who might still secretly believe in fairy stories. “I think so.”
“Certainly, it’s possible,” answered Gabrielle, as the laughter around them continued. Behind her fan, she smiled to herself. After all, if the illegitimate black daughter of the Comte du Fay could become a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of France, she was willing to believe that many things were possible.
The next day after Mass, just as Her Majesty had announced it, the two men were brought before them in the Room of the Nobles.
“Announcing Les Chevaliers de Saint-Georges et D’Argent, Your Majesty.”
Both men bowed deeply. They were dressed well, in velvet waistcoats with rich embroidery and fine lace jabots, but any similarity ended there. The Chevalier Saint-Georges, like Gabrielle, was the child of a black mother and white father. His face was handsome and proud, and he cut a dashing figure. D’Argent was slightly shorter than him, with a pale face and expressive blue eyes – not so handsome, perhaps, but with a liveliness to him that drew the gaze.
“My Queen,” said Saint-Georges, gesturing to D’Argent, “may I introduce Phillipe Gustave Adrien de Bellevoir, recently returned from Minorca.”
In response, D’Argent removed his hat and made a perfect, sweeping bow. “It is a great honour, Your Majesty.”
The Queen was seated in an armchair in the centre of the room, with the ladies spread out behind her on either side. She graced each man with a smile and nod. “You may rise, Monsieur.” He did so. “I have heard that you fought bravely in the invasion.”
“I fought only to stay alive, Your Majesty,” responded D’Argent, lowering his eyes. “And to keep my fellow soldiers alive, when I could. It was not an easy thing, but I was glad to be of service to my country.”
Taken aback by his frankness, the Queen was silent. She could never remain serious for too long, though, and a mischievous smile spread across her face as a new train of thought occurred to her. “And after so long among your fellow soldiers, does it feel strange to be in the company of women?”
The Chevalier’s smile was charmingly shy. “Perhaps a little, Your Majesty, but it makes me very happy. It is a strange thing, too, to be surrounded by only men.”
Sweetly, the Queen asked “Then do you think that women should join the army, and serve in battle?”
Clearly she meant it in jest, but the Chevalier gave it some thought before responding. “I wish that no-one needed to do so, man or woman. I will say that if a woman were to serve, I have no doubt she would prove as brave and capable a soldier as any.”
“I see,” responded the Queen, arching an eyebrow. “An interesting idea, to be sure. And what would she wear, this lady soldier? I hardly think a hooped skirt appropriate for the battlefield.”
D’Argent seemed to finally realize that he was being teased, and his face flushed. “Forgive me if I have spoken too freely, Your Majesty. As you heard from Saint-Georges, I am new to the court, and not very good at the elegant conversation you are surely used to.”
“Not at all, Monsieur,” replied the Queen with a smile, clearly taking pity on him. “Indeed, I find your candour most refreshing.” She turned her gaze from him to the other man in the room. “By the way, Saint-Georges, I have been practicing my part for the violin sonata which you gave to me at my last lesson, and I feel I could do with something new. Have you anything written for me?”
Saint-Georges, although he had won his renown at court through his great skill at fencing and high-profile love affairs, was first and foremost an extraordinary musical talent, and the Queen’s personal pianoforte instructor. Prepared as always, he drew from his coat pocket a sheaf of sheet music in his own hand. “Indeed I have, your Majesty! Here is a set of dances, and a new air in French which I have just finished writing down this morning, as well as a reduction of the Overture from–”
“A song? Let’s hear it, then!” The Queen turned in her chair to survey the assembled ladies, and found Gabrielle standing towards the back. “Ah, Mademoiselle du Fay! Why don’t you sing it for us.”
It was far from the first time Gabrielle had been chosen for this kind of command performance, and she was calm as she stepped forward through the crowd. “If it pleases Her Majesty.”
“It pleases me very much,” responded the Queen with a laugh.
“Mademoiselle du Fay,” said the Chevalier, passing her some pages from his hands. “A pleasure, as always. Here is the piece – I am sure it will be no trouble for you.”
Gabrielle smiled. “You do me great credit, Monsieur.” They didn’t have a great deal of opportunities to speak, but she had always felt that, as outsiders in a sea of white faces, a certain understanding lay between them.
She looked over the air quickly as Saint-Georges seated himself at the fortepiano. The piece did look relatively easy to sing – a slow-moving air, with a romantic text, in the pastoral style – and suited her range well. Fortunately, Saint-Georges’s manuscripts were always neat, the text and notes perfectly legible.
As soon as she felt she could sing it through without any noticeable errors, she nodded in his direction, and he began to play the brief introduction.
It was a lovely song, and between the two of them, a successful performance. Saint-Georges was an expert accompanist, and she trusted him to match her tempo – she knew they worked well together, and she was comfortable enough to lose herself in the joy of singing, the audience disappearing as she navigated the technical and dramatic demands of the piece.
When they were finished, the Queen applauded and the rest of the audience quickly followed suit. The loudest among them was the Chevalier D’Argent.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, eyes shining, “Your voice is very beautiful. Thank you for singing to us.”
“You are most welcome, Monsieur,” responded Gabrielle, with a shallow curtsey, and returned to her place at the back of the assembly. If she were to talk to the Chevalier, it must be later.
The Queen seemed pleased. “I’ll learn that, I think,” she commented to Saint-Georges. “If you play the melody on the violin, we can perform it along with the sonata the next time I have a musical gathering.”
“It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty,” said the Chevalier with an easy smile.
The Queen kept the Chevaliers for a few minutes longer, talking with Saint-Georges of his plans for a new opera as D’Argent stood quietly by. Soon enough, though, she nodded her dismissal, and the two knights took their leave.
“He must be a man,” said a Comtesse decisively, as soon as the door had closed behind them. “His hands are too big for a woman’s.”
“Your hands are nearly that big,” answered the young Princess who had been so enthusiastic about the whole thing. “She’s a woman. Only a woman would say that women should serve in battle. I’m certain of it!”
The pretty Duchesse shook her head. “On the contrary,” she said, “a woman would know better than to argue her own case, knowing it might lead to suspicion, and discovery. Only a man would feel free to say such things.”
Gabrielle said nothing. She had assumed that if anything, the idea of the Chevalier being a woman in disguise was slander spread by his enemies at Court, but meeting the man in person had made her reconsider. He was perfectly masculine in appearance, and she judged him a tenor – it made sense that he should be a man, but something she could not define told her otherwise. Somehow, she found it more than possible that the rumour could be true.
Gabrielle had never expected a position at court. She was the daughter of the Comte du Fay and his mistress, a freedwoman who died when Gabrielle was too young to remember her. Her father had brought her into his household and raised her as a lady. It had been an unusual thing, but not quite a scandal – her impression in hindsight was that her father had been seen as a highly eccentric but harmless man who simply desired to raise a daughter of his own blood, regardless of her colour.
He was a kind man and a good father, but often away on business in England, and the manor was lonely without him. Her older half-brothers were married and had their own households, in which she was not particularly welcome. The Comtesse was always polite to her, but distant, and the servants mostly followed her example. Gabrielle learned to be discreet, to fade into the background whenever possible, simply to avoid staring eyes and too-formal conversation.
At least she had tutors for company: a seemingly endless string of men and women teaching her etiquette, penmanship, embroidery, dancing, and music. Some treated her disdainfully, some with kindness, but they were her primary form of human interaction, and she worked dutifully to meet their standards.
It seemed clear to all but the most prejudiced of music teachers where her particular talent lay. Her voice was a warm, flexible soprano, and once she had learned to read music, she could memorize and perform almost anything put in front of her. Music came easily to her, and she loved it – performing seemed to take her into another world, where the rest of her life fell aside, forgotten. Even when she had an audience, she felt alone, and perfectly happy to be so.
What she had thought to be a rather useless talent turned out to be the thing that changed the course of her life. Somehow, news of her musical talent must have reached the Royal Family and not been quickly forgotten, because when she was first presented at Court the Queen herself had asked her to sing.
“Your Majesty,” she said, trying to hide her nervousness, “I don’t know what I should sing.”
“Anything you like,” said the Queen. “A children’s song, if you wish.”
So, unable to think of anything else, she opened her mouth and started to sing “Frere Jacques” in the sight of the whole court.
“What a lovely voice you have!” said the Queen, when she had finished. “You must come and sing for me again, when you are more prepared.”
The next week, a courier arrived with notice that she was to be given her own chambers at Versailles. Within the month, she had met with the First Lady of the Bedchamber and been informed she was to have the honour of taking part in Her Majesty’s toilette.
She had never been entirely sure how much of the Queen’s interest in her derived from her musical talent, and how much from the novelty of a black lady in waiting. Whatever the reason, she occupied a peripheral but significant spot in the Queen’s retinue. They were not close – the Queen would never talk of personal matters with Gabrielle as she did with the Duchesse du Polignac – but when Her Majesty attended a ball or retired to her private manor, Gabrielle was one of the ladies more likely than not to accompany her.
Her father was pleased, and she was given the best he could afford – the services of a hairdresser and a chamber maid, cosmetics blended specially to flatter the colour of her skin, an appropriate selection of gowns, and even feathers so she could dress her hats with them in the style the Queen preferred. Her room at Versailles was tiny and noisy, but she soon gathered that this was the case for all but the most well-connected of courtiers.
From the first, her race made her an easy mark for gossip and intrigue. When she became a lady-in-waiting of the Queen, some of the insults she had heard or heard of had been so cruel that they nearly reduced her to tears. To compensate, she tried to keep a low profile at court: if any attention could turn to scorn and shame, she would rather remain unnoticed as much as possible. Her musical skill stood out, but she sang only at the Queen’s request, and primarily in private. The rest of the time she took care to be quiet. In time, those who had mocked her turned their attentions to more exciting figures at court, and Gabrielle became simply another member of the Queen’s retinue.
At twenty-one, she was by far the oldest unmarried woman among the ladies in waiting. This was really a matter of course, since no white man was likely to ask for her hand, and she and the Chevalier Saint-Georges seemed to share the view that he should not marry her simply for lack of other socially acceptable options.
If anyone at court spared her situation a thought, no doubt they would have found it sad, but Gabrielle herself was perfectly happy to be an old maid. Even the most charming of men held no real interest for her.
More difficult to deal with was the sense of isolation she sometimes felt from the ladies around her, and her lack of a companion among them. She knew that entanglements were not unusual among women at court – indeed, there were rumours about the Queen herself, and her relationship with the Duchesse du Polignac. Gabrielle, if she were perfectly honest, longed for such a relationship, but her feelings for other women seemed always to be unrequited, and in any case she had few opportunities to act on them.
Still, a mostly solitary life at court was much better than the shadow of a life she had experienced at the Chateau du Fay. Versailles held many joys for her: the Palace gardens with their gorgeous flower beds and grand sculptures, the music she could listen to every day, at the Opera or the Royal Supper or in the Queen’s chambers, the conversations among the ladies-in-waiting, in which she was a quiet but respected participant.
Her life was not perfect, but no one’s was, and overall she would have called herself satisfied.
The next time she met the Chevalier D’Argent was at a masquerade ball held in the Grand Gallery. Gabrielle never wore elaborate costumes for such events. As the only lady of her colour at court, she did not have the option of anonymity, and preferred to dress in a plain half-mask and everyday dress to avoid undue attention.
She had just entered the room when she saw Saint-Georges, engaged in conversation with a figure she assumed must be the Chevalier. Making use of the hall’s towering mirrors, she approached them slowly, exchanging pleasantries with the masked figures she encountered, all the while judging the best way to bring their paths to converge.
“Ah, Monsieurs,” she said upon reaching her destination, as casually as if she had just happened to notice them.
Both men removed their hats and bowed deeply to her. “Mademoiselle du Fay!” said D’Argent, with a wide smile. He was dressed in staid grey, but his mask was embellished with pale blue flowers. “It is wonderful to see you again.”
“And you, Monsieur.” She gave a shallow curtsey. “I hope you are adjusting to life at court.”
“I am trying, Mademoiselle,” replied D’Argent earnestly. “I have a good instructor, but I fear I’m a terrible student. As you’ve already seen.”
Saint-Georges, dressed as Mars in a red cape and helmet-like mask, snorted. “He’s stubborn, this one,” he said, clapping D’Argent on the back. “I admire your honesty, Adrien, but if you insist on saying everything you think in this place, you’ll find yourself in deeper trouble than your charm can get you out of.”
“The Queen did seem to find him charming.” She offered D’Argent a smile from under her plain half-mask. “I assure you Her Majesty was not offended. She simply…”
“…likes to make sport of people sometimes for her own entertainment,” finished Saint-Georges, not so loudly as to be heard by anyone around them.
Gabrielle gave a nod of agreement and quickly changed the subject. “I must admit, I’m curious – how did you two come to know one another?”
“Joseph is my fencing teacher as well as my etiquette instructor,” replied D’Argent. “A soldier uses his sword very differently from a sportsman, and my technique grew rusty while I was the army.” His voice had grown sombre, but now it brightened. “It’s a great relief to use a sword in a friendly match, instead of in battle, and he has been kind enough to serve as my partner.”
Saint-Georges chuckled. “I would hardly say you’re rusty. On occasion, you’ve even come close to beating me, and that’s no mean feat. It’s true that you’ve lost some confidence, and maybe some finesse, but your fundamentals are good.”
“You flatter me,” protested D’Argent, but he said it with a laugh.
Gabrielle shook her head. “Saint-Georges is by far the best fencer at court. If he says you are talented, I have no doubt he is right.”
“Thank you for your confidence, Mademoiselle.” The orchestra began to play another minuet, and the crowd broke into pairs around them. D’Argent raised his hand, eagerly. “Oh! Would you do me the honour?”
“It would be a pleasure,” she replied with a smile, and pressed her palm to his, and they began to dance.
The Grand Gallery, while more than big enough to hold all the dancers, was slightly too narrow for complete freedom of movement, and Gabrielle had to be careful to keep enough distance between them and nearby couples. She noticed that the Chevalier, unlike most of the men she had danced with in her life, watched her and carefully matched her movements, rather than expecting her to follow him.
When she commented on this, he seemed startled, as though it was perfectly natural. “I thought that since I am so new to these courtly dances, and Mademoiselle clearly has more experience…”
“Monsieur is learning very quickly,” replied Gabrielle cheerfully. Indeed, by following her lead, the Chevalier was growing more graceful with every step.
D’Argent flushed. “You are most kind.”
They danced several dances together. When Gabrielle felt ready to stop, they retired from the floor to a side room, leaving Saint-Georges locked in close conversation with a fair-haired lady Gabrielle thought she recognized as a newly married Duchesse.
The room was dominated by a long table piled high with refreshments. A servant offered Gabrielle a glass of champagne, but she declined in favour of a glass of water, and D’Argent did the same.
Looking over the banquet table and choosing a cream-filled pastry from a variety of sweets, Gabrielle turned to him with a smile. “I can’t help but think how strange this must all be to you.”
D’Argent took the same kind of pastry. “I must admit I feel like I’m dreaming sometimes. And I often wonder if I really belong here.” He took a bite, chewing and swallowing before he continued. “But if I am dreaming, it’s a good dream. There are things about Versailles I like very much. The gardens, for instance. And of course, the music!” With this, he looked into Gabrielle’s eyes.
“Yes,” replied Gabrielle, deflecting the compliment out of habit, “the orchestra is playing excellently tonight.”
The Chevalier laughed. “Joseph was complaining about them earlier. Apparently, he’s in a fight with the clarinetist. Do you know who composed that last dance?”
“Piccini, I believe – it may have been a selection from one of his operas…”
They conversed for a while about little things: the various styles of music played at court, the more elaborate costumes at the ball, the variety of food on the table. After a while, though, D’Argent grew quiet. “Can I ask you something, Mademoiselle?”
D’Argent began to speak, rather haltingly. “Saint-Georges told me that he thinks highly of you. He said… that if he thought you would accept, he might ask for your hand. I couldn’t help but wonder what made him think…” Immediately, he shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t… This is far too personal.”
Gabrielle laughed, gently, and touched his arm to show that she took no offense. “Not at all, Monsieur! The answer is simple enough. I’m afraid I am far too set in my ways.”
“Mademoiselle?” said D’Argent, sounding confused.
“The Chevalier de Saint-Georges is an exceptional man, and he has been a good friend to me here at court. But I am too used now to the life of a single woman to be a man’s wife. To be an old maid in the company of my fellow women will suit me best, I think.”
It surprised her immediately how easily she had said those words. There were any number of explanations she could have given, all of them true to some degree, which would have sufficed. Her response to D’Argent was the closest she had ever come to telling anyone of her preference for women.
A strange look came into the Chevalier’s eyes. His mask made it difficult to tell, but she thought that he was sad.
“I am sure you will be very happy,” he said, after a long pause. “It sounds like a life very much to be wished for.” Stepping away, he bowed to her. “I’m afraid I must take my leave for this evening. I hope to see you again soon, Mademoiselle du Fay.”
“And you, Monsieur,” replied Gabrielle, a bit regretfully. The Chevalier was charming, and Gabrielle was growing fond of him – or of her.
More than ever, she wanted to know if the rumours were true.
Gabrielle determined that her next step must be to seek him out alone. For a man and woman to be alone together was, of course, to invite gossip and possible scandal, which she always hoped to avoid. She wanted their meeting to be by chance, and so she set forth to arrange that chance.
Discretely, she learned of the Chevalier’s routine. Much like the other courtiers in the palace, his life revolved around that of the King. He stood and observed, as did she, when the King and Queen gave court, when they ate their meals, when they went to Mass.
At these times, at least, she could observe him. D’Argent had none of the arrogance that even the most considerate of men seemed to possess, the certainty that they were the masters of their own fate, that the world belonged to their kind. He walked and talked like a man, seemingly not because he had never realized there was any other choice, but because that was the role he was expected to play. She grew more and more certain he could very well be a woman.
There were a few times that they managed to exchange greetings, but that was all. It was more than a little frustrating, and Gabrielle began to envy the more daring ladies-in-waiting, who seemed to have no trouble arranging encounters with their lovers and suitors.
After all of her attempts to bring them together, it finally happened by chance – or perhaps it was fate, although Gabrielle wouldn’t usually think such a thing. She found him, alone, while walking through the Palace Gardens one night.
The Queen was out at the opera, but she had gone alone, and Gabrielle was finding her chamber unbearably hot and stifling. It was a clear night, and the moonlight shone on the neat rows of flowers and tidy lawns. The Chevalier was standing in front of the Basin of Apollo, gazing out over the water with an air of melancholy.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, a little startled, as she approached him. As always, he removed his hat and gave her a respectful bow.
“Monsieur,” she responded, with a gentle curtsey. “It is a lovely night.”
D’Argent nodded. “I became used to warm nights in the Mediterranean.”
“You seem sad, somehow.” Gabrielle was a little shocked at her own boldness, but she continued. “Are you thinking of the war?”
“It weighs on my mind sometimes,” admitted the Chevalier, with a nod. “I try to forget what it was like, and usually I can, but… when you see men die, when you kill… I suppose these things will always be with me. Still,” he continued, brightening his expression, “you must not think me unhappy! After all, I am alive, and well, and here. If I sometimes say too much, maybe it’s because I feel lucky.”
“I admire that,” replied Gabrielle. “Your honesty. And I would very much like to speak honestly with you.”
D’Argent looked bewildered. “Mademoiselle?”
She steeled herself. “I mean you no insult when I say this,” she started, with only the slightest hesitation. “I would never think to share with the world anything you should say to me here. I know that we don’t know each other very well, but you have been on my mind a great deal, and there is something that I wish to know. You don’t have to answer me at all, if you feel you cannot, but… are you a woman?”
The Chevalier D’Argent stared at her for a long while. Then he laughed, humourlessly, not meeting Gabrielle’s eyes.
“I am afraid you misunderstand, Mademoiselle.” He gestured to himself grandly from head to toe. “I have heard the rumours myself – that I was raised as a man because my father needed a son… but no, they are only rumours. The day I was born, the doctor pronounced me a healthy baby boy. My body is like any man’s.”
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. Had she really been so wrong? She thought back over all she had observed, the subtle patterns of behavior which had led her to this conclusion. She simply could not see the Chevalier as a man.
If she was not wrong, perhaps she was not looking at the matter in the correct light. Slowly, she found herself coming to a new conclusion.
“Is it merely a question of the body, then, to be a man or a woman?” She was thinking aloud more than anything, now. “If I were suddenly to wake up in the shape of a man, would I then consider myself one? I can’t imagine it. I know who I am. And even if I had been born in the shape of a man, perhaps I would still have known it. Perhaps the body can be one way, and the mind – the heart – another.”
“Such a thing would be difficult to believe,” said D’Argent, very carefully.
“I believe it.” She stared into the Chevalier’s eyes, unblinking. “Unless you tell me I am wrong.”
The Chevalier laughed, again, but it was altogether a different laugh from before: there was a sense of relief, and of sadness. “No. I wouldn’t say that.” She took a deep breath. “It is true that I have realized, over time, that I am not who the world thinks I am. There are… parts of me, which, if it were in my power to change…” She nodded once, decisively. “Yes, you are right. In my heart, I feel myself to be a woman.” She returned Gabrielle’s gaze with a look of defiance, as if expecting Gabrielle to laugh at her. “There is my honest answer.”
“Mademoiselle La Chevaliere D’Argent,” said Gabrielle, investing the words with all the tenderness and all the sincerity she could. “It has a beautiful sound to it, I think. It suits you well.”
For a moment, D’Argent was speechless. Then a smile slowly spread across her face. “You are a remarkable person, Mademoiselle. And you may call me Adrien.” She averted her gaze for a moment, then looked at Gabrielle once more. “Or… Adrienne. If you wish.”
Gabrielle smiled in response. “Adrienne, then. And you may call me Gabrielle.”
They sat together on a bench beside the basin and talked for a long time. Adrienne talked about her childhood, and the gradual realization that she was different from the boys around her.
“I loved my father dearly, but it was my mother I wanted to become. I would sneak into her jewelry box and wear her necklaces.” She laughed, not particularly happily. “I thought I would grow up to be a woman: that I would grow breasts, and that– ” She flushed, but continued, “that my member would retreat into my body. When I realized I was wrong… it was painful. For a while, I tried to believe it was just a childhood fancy, but eventually I came to accept that I will always feel this way.”
“It sounds…” said Gabrielle, haltingly, “very lonely. Have you ever talked with anyone about this?”
Adrienne shook her head. “Not plainly, no. I was friends with a neighbour’s daughter, growing up, and she would let me wear her clothes sometimes. I acted as though it was a game, but I think she knew the truth. And once, when I was drunk, I did talk with another soldier about how I wished I had been born a girl. Other than that…” She gestured to Gabrielle. “Only you, Mademoiselle.”
“Thank you,” replied Gabrielle, with as much feeling as she could. “I’m sure it’s not easy to share this with me… To be a woman in your heart, but have the world see you as a man… I can’t imagine how it must feel.”
Adrienne said nothing, her brow furrowed in thought. “The man I mentioned just now,” she said at last, haltingly, “had lost his arm in battle two years before we met. He said that sometimes, he felt as though his arm was there after all, and yet he would look down and see only an empty sleeve. I feel something like that. Parts of my body are… I feel them to be one way — sometimes with such certainty that I know they must be so — and then…” she paused, and when she continued, her voice had a tremble in it. “I am confronted with evidence that they are not.”
“I’m sorry,” said Gabrielle, gently. After a moment’s hesitation, she placed her hand over Adrienne’s, who favoured her with a smile in response.
They sat in silence for a while. Gabrielle knew that Adrienne had just placed a great trust in her, and she felt the need to reciprocate somehow. Although it wasn’t at all the same kind of disclosure, she shared a few stories of her life as a young girl at the Chateau du Fay, new to a world where no one except her father would look her in the eye or touch her for more than a cursory moment.
“And then I found music, and it was like a key to a new world. I could just… take refuge in song, and feel free.”
“You could forget your troubles,” added Adrienne, smiling. “I suppose I’ve always felt that way about fencing. When I fight, my body does what I want it to, but it’s more than that…”
“It’s that the rest of the world disappears. You can be alone with yourself.”
Adrienne nodded. “Of course,” she said, almost shyly, “It’s not good to be too much alone.” She looked down at Gabrielle’s hand, still resting over her own.
They talked for a while more, but eventually the night grew colder, and Gabrielle was forced to go back inside. Adrienne walked her to the palace, and they parted ways at the door to the Hall of Mirrors.
“I hope…” she said, suddenly unsure of herself. “I hope we can talk again soon.”
“I hope so too. Goodnight, Mademoiselle Gabrielle.”
“Goodnight, Mademoiselle Adrienne.”
It was the next morning, just as Gabrielle was planning a route to the Royal Chapel which would guarantee an accidental meeting with Adrienne, that the Queen decided to retire to Petit Trianon for the next two weeks. She was taking a group of her ladies-in-waiting with her, and Gabrielle was to be among them.
It wasn’t far at all from the palace, but it may as well have been on the moon. No-one invited to stay in the Queen’s private manor would ever think of declining, and once there, she tended to stay in place for as long as possible.
“Madame Bertin is bringing a new collection of fashion dolls to the palace tomorrow,” said a girl whose title Gabrielle could never remember. “We’re going to miss it!”
The pretty Duchesse shook her head. “If they’re really any good, she’ll bring them here first, to show Her Majesty. I’m more concerned about the Comte d’Artois’s masked ball.”
“But it’s so nice</i> to take time away from the palace, don’t you think?”
Gabrielle nodded her agreement, along with several other ladies. She too preferred the restrained elegance of Petit Trianon to the neverending noise and formality of the palace. The rooms were still beautiful, but less grand. Taking after the Queen, at Trianon the ladies went uncorseted, dressed in simple, layered muslin gowns of white or cream, tied at the waist with bright-coloured sashes. Even the food was simpler, and all the ladies, even the Queen, shared a common table for their meals.
Gabrielle’s room was decorated in pink and yellow, with a canopied bed and a large fireplace. From the window, she could see the roofs of the Queen’s Hamlet, a model farm where she went with her very closest companions to play at being milkmaids or shepherdesses.
Of course, their ideas of what a milkmaid or shepherdess did were picturesque nonsense, but Gabrielle could hardly condemn them for it. The little knowledge she had of peasant life came from discreet observation of her father’s tenant farmers, and the Queen had never been allowed such an opportunity.
While at Petit Trianon, the Queen and her ladies found various ways to amuse themselves. There were games, of course, particularly billiards and cards, and sometimes they would practice and stage dramas in the Queen’s Theatre. Mostly, though, they sat and talked, happy to be free from the public eye.
If not for the thought of Adrienne, Gabrielle too would have been perfectly happy.
Usually she took advantage of the privacy the place provided to engage more with the other ladies, but this time, she found that she simply couldn’t. She tried to throw herself into the spirit of the place, but Adrienne kept filling her head. At any given time of day, she found herself picturing where she must be, what she was doing. Even the other ladies seemed to notice that she was too distracted to be any fun, and largely left her by herself, which only added to her melancholy.
She told herself it was ridiculous. They didn’t know each other particularly well — they had only met a handful of times, and of those, only the last meeting had been in any way intimate. On the other hand, she supposed it was exactly that which made it so difficult to keep Adrienne from her mind. After such a dramatic turn in their acquaintance, to be separated like this was nearly intolerable.
Eventually, she put aside her pride and composed a short note, explaining her absence from the palace and expressing her wish to meet with Adrienne again when she returned. When Saint-Georges came to tutor the Queen one afternoon, she slipped the envelope into a stack of manuscript paper which the Queen had returned to him.
“I was hoping you could do a small thing for me, Monsieur,” she said, approaching him after the lesson, looking towards the paper.
Saint-Georges raised an eyebrow. “A rare circumstance.”
“It’s fine if you can’t –”
“Not at all.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, Mademoiselle. I’m happy to help you, and help myself as well. Adrien has been… distracted… these last few days, and his fencing has suffered for it. I can hardly afford to lose the only partner who gives me a worthwhile match.”
Gabrielle smiled. “…Thank you.”
Saint-Georges smiled back. “He’s an odd one, isn’t he? You know, some days he won’t take off his waistcoat when we fight.” He went on, talking almost as if to himself. “He says he’s shy, that he feels uncomfortable. We were practicing in the old Guard Room one day, and we’d attracted a bit of a crowd, and I asked him if he was really a woman in disguise – I believe that might be how the rumours started. Of course, I’ve seen him naked… but he never denied it.” He gave Gabrielle a meaningful look. “We all know that the best way to defuse a rumour is to ignore it. Strange, though, that Adrien should be aware of that, when he knows nothing else of life at court.”
“In any case, I’m glad you two met,” finished the Chevalier. “He’s a good man… Well. A good person, in any case.”
“Thank you,” she repeated, not knowing what else she could say.
Saint-Georges seemed to understand, and left with her envelope in his pocket.
It was a few days until he came back, but when he did, he brought with him the same envelope, opened and then resealed. Gabrielle went to her bedroom immediately to open it.
Mademoiselle, I wish you could know how happy your note has made me. I hold you in the highest regard, and after our conversation of the other night, I am eager to see you and talk to you again. I feel as though I have known you a long time. This place seems very empty knowing that you are not here.
Until we meet again.
It was unsigned, as hers had been. The paper smelled slightly of violets. Despite herself, Gabrielle felt a sudden pang of longing so strong that tears gathered at the corners of her eyes.
The wise thing would have been to burn it, but she wasn’t able to go through with it, although she held it up to a candle flame several times that day. She kept the letter, and that night she slept with it tucked under her sheets.
The next day, they had a picnic in a field beside the mill pond of the Queen’s Hamlet. Across from them, a shepherd sat tending a flock of sheep which had probably been brought to Versailles for aesthetic reasons alone.
Looking out over the rustic village, Gabrielle could easily see why Her Majesty was so enamoured with this approximation of peasant life. If she had the choice, she too would prefer a life far from court – a small house in the countryside, with her own garden, a place where she could live as she wished. She had no desire to be a dairy maid or a shepherdess, knowing how hard they worked, but perhaps she could oversee the running of a farm…
The Queen chose that moment to remark that she was thinking of returning to the palace earlier than previously planned. “I had an idea for an entertainment,” she said, putting down her fork and looking at Gabrielle. “A private recital, featuring the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s new works. Will you sing?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Of course, Your Majesty.” She had done performances like this several times — once even in the Queen’s Theatre, although the Queen had honoured her request to limit the audience as much as possible.
“Excellent. I shall have Madame Campan arrange it, then.” She paused for a moment, and smiled benevolently. “Of course, she will see to it that the Chevalier D’Argent is there.”
It took all her strength of will to stay composed. “Your Majesty,” she managed, looking down at the plate of cheese, as the other ladies on the picnic blanket giggled softly.
“I trust this would please you?”
Gabrielle briefly wondered if she should deny it, but it was probably no use. “Very much, Your Majesty.”
The Queen took a wedge of cheese from her plate and bit into it with an air of triumph.”Excellent! Oh, by the way,” she added, too innocently, “did you ever make up your mind about the rumours? Is the Chevalier truly a woman?”
“Your Majesty,” replied Gabrielle, as earnestly as she could manage, “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly say.”
The remaining days at Petit Trianon seemed to go as slowly as the week preceding them, but eventually, they came to an end, and Gabrielle returned to the palace with the rest of the Queen’s retinue. She had never been so pleased to come back to her tiny, stuffy room.
The afternoon of her return, she met with Saint-Georges in one of the parlours to plan their recital. When she arrived, she found him with Adrienne, deep in quiet conversation.
“Ah, Mademoiselle du Fay!” exclaimed Saint-Georges with a self-satisfied smile. ” I thought I might bring a guest. I hope you don’t object.”
“Not at all,” responded Gabrielle, smiling at Adrienne, who positively beamed back at her. “I’m delighted.”
Adrienne said nothing, but took a seat in a chair by the window, a little ways from the pianoforte. She listened with apparent pleasure as Gabrielle and Saint-George discussed their shared repertoire, and which of his songs were most suitable, and what other music they should add to round out the program. Gabrielle tried to keep her mind on the music, but Adrienne’s mere presence made it difficult to concentrate.
Saint-Georges had the grace not to comment, but they finished without running through every piece they had chosen. Instead, he bowed to Gabrielle and rose from the pianoforte. “An excellent program, I think, Mademoiselle du Fay. Now, I have some things to take care of this afternoon, but I know Adrien will probably be pleased to keep you company…”
“If he wishes to,” she replied, carefully not looking in Adrienne’s direction, “that would be most agreeable.”
Adrienne sat up in her chair. “Yes. Yes! Absolutely.”
“Well, then.” Saint-Georges was almost grinning. “Good day, my friends!”
When the door clicked shut, Adrienne rose to her feet. “Mademoiselle,” she said, approaching her hesitantly.
Gabrielle shook her head. “Adrienne,” she said, with a laugh, “I told you that you may call me by my name.”
“Of course.” Her cheeks pinkened. “Gabrielle. I know that it hasn’t been long at all, but I… it’s so good to see you again!”
“And you. I received your reply. I,” feeling a little shy, she paused to collect herself, then continued, “I wanted to see you again, too. I may sound cruel, but I am glad that you missed me while I wasn’t here.”
Adrienne shook her head. “No, I understand. I admit that when I got your letter, I was so happy you’d thought of me…” Her face flushed a deeper red.
“You really should see Petit Trianon some time, though,” said Gabrielle, “if you ever get the chance.”
“I’d like that very much! Everyone says it’s very beautiful.”
Gabrielle nodded. “It’s peaceful there. It’s meant be like the countryside. The gardens are lovely, of course, and there are,” she struggled to think of words to fill the expectant silence, “flocks of sheep in the spring and summer.”
“I like sheep,” said Adrienne, absurdly, stepping closer.
“Me too,” replied Gabrielle, doing likewise. They might have been saying anything.
They pulled back from one another the moment they heard footsteps in the hallway outside.
“It’s me,” called Saint-Georges from the other side of the door. He waited a moment before opening it and stepping inside. “Adrien, I just ran into the Duc du Montpensier, and I am to inform you that your presence is wanted as early as possible in front of the Labyrinth.” He gestured into the hallway. “He was looking for you just now. I told him you’d meet him there later.”
Adrienne nodded, seeming slightly displeased by the interruption, but not surprised. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“Apparently, his friend the Prince d’Etoile hadn’t heard that you were at the siege of Fort Saint Phillip. He’s hoping to hear some stories of your gallant exploits.”
Adrienne chuckled. “I’d better not disappoint him, I suppose. Thank you for letting me know. And for…” A flush came across her face. “Heading him off.”
“Not at all!” exclaimed Saint-Georges. “You’d do the same for me. And you may well have to, one of these days. Pardon me, Mademoiselle.” With a bow and something of a smirk, he left the room again, shutting the door behind him.
Gabrielle turned back to Adrienne. “The Duc du Montpensier?” She’d probably heard of the man, but couldn’t remember ever meeting him.
“The Duc commanded a legion of dragoons in the Seven Years’ War. He’s thrilled to have a new soldier at court to swap war stories with.” Adrienne gave her a small smile. “Honestly, I don’t mind it. He’s a good man, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to about these things…”
Gabrielle nodded. “Most of us here know little about military life.”
Adrienne gazed out the window towards the gardens, where the Duc was waiting. “It’s funny, really,” she said, with a laugh. “I always wanted to be a soldier. My father was proud of me because I loved to fence and play at battle. Of course, when I played, I imagined myself as an Amazon, or a shield maiden…”
Gabrielle thought back to their first meeting, and smiled fondly. “I remember when you told Her Majesty you thought women could fight as well as men. I think she was surprised that you weren’t joking.”
“I meant every word. If I could, I would be a soldier in a hoop skirt, shoulder to shoulder with my own troupe of Amazons. But if I had been given the choice, I would have lived as a woman, and lived my whole life without ever picking up a sword.”
Adrienne’s expression turned a little melancholy, and for a while, neither of them said anything.
“Listen. I have an idea.” Gabrielle lowered her voice, just in case anyone else should come by the room. “Have you ever… dressed as a woman? I mean, since you were a child?”
Adrienne nodded. “When I left for the army,” she said, “my friend from home gave me one of her dresses. She only had three or four.” Her expression grew distant, thinking of the past. “Sometimes I would go out in it, when I was sure no-one I knew would see me… I wore it to rags.”
“Well.” Gabrielle had been mulling over an idea since one of the ladies had mentioned the Comte d’Artois’s masked ball, and there would be no better time to discuss the subject with Adrienne. “I was thinking, if you wished…”
Gabrielle’s dressmaker was a former apprentice of Rose Bertin. Her work was excellent, and more importantly, she was quick. Gabrielle brought her the measurements the next day when she went to pick up her own gown, which had just been refreshed with a new lace trim on the sleeves and bodice.
“For my cousin,” she said, handing her the paper and turning her eyes to the samples of fabric laid out around the shop. “She meant to be in Paris herself, but she was delayed.”
The dressmaker nodded, quickly scanning the list. If she thought the “cousin’s” flat chest or broad shoulders unusual, she didn’t comment on it. “What did Mademoiselle have in mind?”
“A domino, I think.” She had entertained a brief notion of perhaps dressing Adrienne as Athena or Hippolyta, but such costumes would draw attention. The domino, a silk gown or robe with an attached hood, was a common enough sight at masked balls and promised the wearer the freedom of anonymity. “Do you have anything in silver?”
She thought for a moment, then went to the cupboard and brought out a swathe of silver damask in a subtle floral pattern. “Will this do?”
“Yes, that’s perfect.” Gabrielle nodded decisively. “Make the gown from that, please, and a dress to wear underneath… in this, I think.” She pointed to a simple blue-and-grey striped twill on the nearby table. “Oh, and I believe she needs a new chemise. And a petticoat.”
“Of course, Mademoiselle.”
In the days before the ball, Gabrielle and Adrienne worked out a plan. Gabrielle’s father had his own room at the palace, but he was away from court so much of the time that nobody remembered whose it was. They agreed that Gabrielle would have a chest filled with Adrienne’s clothes brought to the room, and then go there herself after dinner. Adrienne would come to meet her there just before the ball began.
As she waited in the room that night, she couldn’t help but wonder if Adrienne had changed her mind. She wouldn’t blame her — if she were recognized as the Chevalier D’Argent, the ensuing scandal could severely damage her fledgeling reputation at court, even if they treated her disguise as an elaborate joke.
At the appointed time, though, there was a faint knock at the door. Gabrielle opened it and quickly ushered Adrienne inside.
Her eyes went immediately to the chest beside the bed. “Is that…?”
“Everything we need,” replied Gabrielle, unlocking the chest.
She dressed Adrienne herself, thankful that her position as a lady in waiting had taught her to do well something few women of her rank needed to learn. First there was the long white chemise, which Adrienne pulled over her head, and Gabrielle tied the drawstring at the neckline. Then there was the cotton petticoat, and the dimity corset, which Gabrielle laced as loosely as she could. The striped twill dress buttoned at the back, and Gabrielle did up the buttons, she brought out the domino and helped Adrienne pull it on over the dress. Finally, she placed her simplest wig over Adrienne’s blonde hair and fastened it into place.
She stood back and looked Adrienne over. The colour of the gown flattered her, bringing out the blue of her eyes, and its voluminous shape hid the straight lines of her body, making her seem tall and slender rather than muscular.
“What do you think?”
“It’s strange,” said Adrienne, quietly. Her hands kept going to the skirt, her fingers running along the pattern woven into the damask. “It’s such a nuisance to move in, but I don’t…” Her voice trembled a little. “I feel free.”
“People may still recognize your voice,” said Gabrielle. “Can you alter it at all?”
“Like this, you mean?” The voice that answered her was not quite as high-pitched as those of the ladies at court, but it had a certain lilting quality that suggested femininity.
Gabrielle nodded delightedly. “Exactly like that. How did you…?”
Adrienne flushed. “…I’ve practiced.”
“It suits you,” replied Gabrielle, wholeheartedly. Then, turning back to the task at hand, she went back to the chest and brought out the mask: a silver face with lips and cheeks tinted pink, and sparkling stars across the brow. “I don’t know if you’ll like it,” she said, feeling a little silly for putting so much thought into her choice, “but it will hide your face, and… I thought it suited you.”
“It’s very beautiful,” said Adrienne, taking the mask and gazing at it for a long moment. Carefully, she placed the mask over her face and held it there as Gabrielle tied the strings around the back of her head.
There was a small mirror in the room, and Gabrielle led Adrienne to look at her reflection. “Perfect,” she said, her satisfaction clear even with the mask hiding her face. Gabrielle agreed: she looked lovely, and most of all, she was unrecognizable as the Chevalier D’Argent.
“Shall we, then?” asked Adrienne, offering Gabrielle her arm.
“Yes,” said Gabrielle, taking it after putting on her own plain mask.
At first, Adrienne seemed to have some trouble with her new clothes, her wide skirt scraping the wall as they walked. She adjusted quickly, though, and by the time they reached the King’s Chambers, she looked every inch a court lady.
That night’s masked ball was held in the Room of Hercules. Adrienne had apparently never been there before, so as soon as they arrived, Gabrielle touched her arm and pointed up at the ceiling. “Look.”
The painting covering the ceiling, depicting Hercules as he ascended to become a god, was what gave the room its name. It was a spectacular work, almost dizzying in scope and detail. Gabrielle had been stunned when she had first seen it, and she was pleased Adrienne seemed to be as impressed as she had been. Her face was hidden by the mask, but her eyes shone. “It’s incredible!”
“I know,” breathed Gabrielle.
They stood together in the entranceway of the room, enjoying the moment, until Gabrielle realized they were blocking the way and gently pulled Adrienne to one side of the door.
“Just a moment…” Gabrielle scanned the room for Saint-Georges. When she found him, she directed Adrienne’s gaze in his direction. “Would you like for us to go to greet him? Or would you rather we avoided him for the evening?”
Adrienne paused in thought for a few moments. “Let’s go say hello,” she said at last, and started off in his direction, with Gabrielle following behind.
For this ball, the Chevalier was dressed as a lion, with a flowing golden mane in place of a powdered wig. “Ah, Mademoiselle du Fay!” he called out, as they approached. “And who is this charming young lady — ” His eyes met Adrienne’s, and he stopped short. For a moment, surprise was written plainly on his face — but it was only a moment, and then he smiled. “Pardon me, Mademoiselle,” he said, and bent down to kiss her hand.
“Not at all,” replied Adrienne, sounding a little strangled, as though she was trying to keep from laughing, or crying.
Saint-Georges accompanied them as they made their way through the crowded room. The Comte d’Artois was His Majesty’s younger brother, and some of the most esteemed members of the court were present. Among them was the Duc du Montpensier, a stout man in conservative dress whom Gabrielle recognized as the uncle of a lady in waiting.
“Mademoiselles,” he said as they passed, bowing deeply.
“Monseuir le Duc,” responded Adrienne politely, mimicking the shallow curtsey Gabrielle had just offered him. At the sound of her voice, the Duc looked somewhat puzzled, but the expression was gone again before they passed out of his sight.
“I can’t believe this,” whispered Adrienne. She seemed almost giddy. The players began a gavotte, and she turned to Gabrielle with a kind of rapture.
“Gabrielle,” she said, and Gabrielle could hear the grin behind the mask, “will you dance with me?”
“Of course,” replied Gabrielle immediately, with a smile of her own. Two women dancing together at a ball was unusual, but not unheard-of – and, in any case, Gabrielle was more concerned with what Adrienne wanted than with what people thought of her tonight.
Together, they performed the steps of the gavotte, holding hands. Apparently Adrienne had no trouble adjusting her movements to account for her heavy skirts. In fact, her steps seemed more confident than before, and she followed Gabrielle with an ease and grace that was almost dazzling.
“Who was it that said she was new to courtly dances…?” asked Gabrielle, stopping for a moment to catch her breath.
Adrienne laughed. “Ah, but I learn quickly.”
They spent most of the night dancing. Occasionally, they made their way to a side room so that Gabrielle could have something to eat – Adrienne was unable to remove her mask, and could only tip water carefully into her mouth through the small opening of the mouth. When Gabrielle apologized for not thinking of this, she laughed.
“There’s no need to apologize!”
“Please,” said Adrienne, and her voice became solemn with gratitude. “Don’t apologize after putting everything together… You’ve done so much for me, I can hardly believe it! I don’t know how to thank you enough…”
Gabrielle wasn’t used to such sincere thanks, and she only laughed and averted her eyes.
They were among the last to leave the ball, a little while before dawn. Gabrielle went first through the halls, beckoning Adrienne her to follow only when she saw that the way was clear of people.
As soon as they had slipped unnoticed into Gabrielle’s father’s room, Adrienne pulled the domino over her head and let it fall to the floor. “It’s funny,” she said, untying the strings of her mask, “but I’m not at all tired! Although this dress feels as though it’s made of lead. Would you unbutton it, please?”
“Of course,” replied Gabrielle with a laugh, and obliged her.
Adrienne stepped out of the dress with a look of relief. “It is very beautiful,” she said, smoothing down the fabric of her chemise, “but frankly, this is much more comfortable. No wonder Her Majesty prefers those muslin gowns.”
Gabrielle nodded her agreement. “I’ll have my dressmaker sew one for you, if –”
“Gabrielle…” Adrienne stepped closer to her. “Thank you for tonight.”
“Of course,” she replied, sounding a bit breathless even to herself. “I mean, you’re welcome…”
Very slowly, Adrienne reached out and cupped Gabrielle’s face, tilting her head gently upwards. Gabrielle, in response, leaned in and brought their lips together in a tender, perfect kiss.
“Gabrielle,” said Adrienne again, shyly, when they pulled apart. Then, more intensely, “Gabrielle,” and she leaned forward for another kiss, this time pressing her tongue just far forward enough that it touched Gabrielle’s lips. With pleasure, Gabrielle opened her mouth, and let Adrienne bring her tongue hesitantly to her own.
With a strange, uncustomary boldness, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her, drawing them close together. For a moment Adrienne returned the embrace: Gabrielle could feel the warmth of her body, the thrilling, solid presence of it under the thin chemise. She kissed her again, pressing herself even closer, bringing Adrienne’s almost-bare thighs flush against her skirt…
Suddenly Adrienne went stiff in her arms, as though the contact had become physically painful.
Gabrielle drew back immediately. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry,” said Adrienne, in a dismayed half-whisper. Her hands went to the skirt of her chemise, covering her lap. “I’m so sorry. I’m not used to being… touched, and sometimes I just can’t…” She sighed, deeply, with frustration. “I become so aware that my body isn’t what I want it to be, that… I just can’t enjoy being… close. I want to be with you like that, but… I’m scared. You’ve done so much for me, and… I’m scared that if something bad happens now… that will be all we remember of tonight.” She shook her head. “I know it makes no sense.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No,” she said, unable to hide her disappointment, “I… I think I understand.”
“I’m sorry,” repeated Adrienne.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” said Gabrielle, quickly. “I don’t want to cause you pain, or make you unhappy in any way… If you don’t want, or if you can’t… it’s all right.”
With a wistful expression, Adrienne pulled her chemise over her head, holding the garment in her arms for a moment before putting in aside. Then, with a military precision, she picked up and put on her shirt, trousers, and waistcoat.
“It’s been a wonderful night,” she said with a little smile, tying her jabot at her throat.
“We’ll do this again some time,” said Gabrielle. “Now that you have the clothes.”
The smile became a little wider. “Thank you, again,” said Adrienne. “From the bottom of my heart.”
“I…” she started, but the right words wouldn’t come. She wanted to say something beautiful and meaningful, something that would make the evening perfect, and at the one time she really needed them, her most elegant turns of phrase deserted her.
Adrienne approached her. “Just… please don’t think it was because I don’t like you,” she said, simply, looking into her eyes with passionate intensity. “I like you very much.”
Gabrielle knew then that it didn’t matter. “I like you very much, too,” she replied, meeting Adrienne’s gaze. “Very, very much. Maybe…”
“Maybe another night,” said Adrienne. She took Gabrielle’s hand and pressed it against her chest, and Gabrielle could feel that their hearts were beating in time. “I would like that very much… Until your recital, Gabrielle.”
The recital was two days later, in the early evening. Gabrielle wore her best gown: a pale green silk with a low square neckline, trimmed with pink ribbons bunched to look like roses. A small audience, Her Majesty among them, came to hear her – some had been sent invitations, but others had likely heard that the Queen was attending and wished to be seen at the event.
She performed Saint-Georges’s pastoral air, as well as a set of three of his other pieces, and five more pieces by other composers who were popular at court. The Chevalier accompanied her on the fortepiano, as well as playing a toccata before she sang.
Between pieces, she realized that there was something different about her singing. Music had always been a private thing for her, even in front of an audience — her mind had been devoted entirely to expressing the text, on travelling to wherever the piece took her, with the accompaniment as her only companion. Now, though, she felt tethered to reality by one person in particular.
Adrienne was in the front of the audience. It was she who clapped the loudest, and when they had finished their bows and approached the crowd, she greeted Gabrielle and the Chevalier with a deep, almost reverent bow. “That was beautiful! I don’t know what I can say. It was… you are both so talented.”
“If you like,” said Saint-Georges with a grin, “I can try to teach you music.”
Adrienne shook her head. “You can try,” she said, “but I don’t think I have the talent for it. I’ll stay in the audience, I think.”
Gabrielle accompanied Saint-Georges as he mingled with the audience, and Adrienne followed quietly behind them. Gabrielle was pleased to see that the majority were fans of the Chevalier, and enthused over the works and their composer rather than the singer.
When anyone did speak to Gabrielle, it was mostly to compliment her, and she responded politely and briefly.
“What a lovely surprise!” A smug-looking man whom she believed to be a Marquis stepped forward from the crowd to address Gabrielle. He touched his hat to her, but did not remove it.
“I had not yet had the pleasure of hearing Mademoiselle du Fay in concert. It was as though a crow sang with the voice of a nightingale.”
Gabrielle was too used to these jabs to respond with anything but a frosty smile, and Saint-Georges took his cue from her, but Adrienne stepped forward with barely controlled anger. “If you mean to insult Mademoiselle du Fay by comparing her to a crow — ”
“God forbid!” exclaimed the Marquis, with a laugh. “But now that I think on it, yes, a crow is quite the wrong comparison. Perhaps a different sort of animal, a jungle animal — ”
Before Gabrielle could say something to end the conversation, Adrienne’s hand went to the hilt of her sword. “No more. You must apologize to the Mademoiselle on your hands and knees, Monsieur, or I must demand satisfaction.”
“I…” The Marquis hesitated for a moment, and Gabrielle could only assume his pride was at war with his knowledge of Adrienne’s military history. In the end, though, pride won out. “…Accept your challenge. Tomorrow?”
“Yes. Joseph.” She turned to the Chevalier. “I know you are a far better fencer than I am, but will you do me the honour of acting as my second?”
The gaze Saint-Georges directed towards the Marquis was poisonous. “Nothing would please me more, my friend.”
“Good.” Adrienne turned back towards the Marquis. “Tomorrow morning at nine, in front of the North Basin.”
Adrienne watched him walk away, and the anger slowly drained from her posture. When she turned again to face Gabrielle, her face was flushed with embarrassment, not rage.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I should have asked your leave, first. I just… I couldn’t just stand here and stay silent, while…”
If it had been anyone else, even Saint-Georges, Gabrielle might have been at least a little angry. It was a sign of how deeply she was growing to care for Adrienne that she felt somewhat touched instead.
“It’s all right,” she said, with a sigh of acceptance. “I am used to such remarks, but… I can’t say they have no effect on me. Perhaps this is for the best. The next time someone thinks to insult me, they’ll take a lesson from the Marquis’s defeat.” She smiled at Adrienne. “You will defeat him, of course.”
The smile Adrienne gave her in return was breathtaking. “Of course.”
The word spread in no time. Gabrielle knew no one believed the legally necessary fiction that this was a friendly fencing match, but neither did anyone seemed willing to compromise the excitement of a duel on the palace grounds, so it looked as though the fight would go ahead as scheduled.
The younger ladies were all very impressed. Gabrielle, who had hardly registered to most of them, suddenly became a figure of romance, and had to recount the reason for the challenge several times.
Gabrielle herself was alternately calm and nervous. The Marquis had never seen a battlefield, and she had no doubt Adrienne would win the fight, but duels were dangerously unpredictable. An inexperienced opponent could mean trouble. The rest of the day went by in a strange, removed blur, and night came before she could convince herself that Adrienne would be all right.
“Tell me,” whispered the young Princess of the Blood, approaching her on the way to her chamber, “it’s true, isn’t it? The Chevalier, he — she… the two of you are…” Her face was slightly flushed, and she trailed off.
Even in her worried state, Gabrielle almost smiled, before remembering herself. Instead, she put a finger to her lips.
“You mustn’t speak of such things,” she replied, with a carefully impassive expression.
The look on the Princess’s face warmed her heart. “Not a word, Mademoiselle,” she responded, and mirrored Gabrielle’s gesture.
The next morning when she came down to the gardens, a sizeable crowd had already gathered around Adrienne and Saint-Georges on the lawn in front of the Basin du Nord. The pretty Duchesse and her friend were there, standing together on the edge of the crowd. The Duc du Montpensier stood closer to the front, looking solemn but somewhat excited.
Someone noticed Gabrielle, and within an instant, whispers began to spread out through the crowd like ripples.
Gabrielle was surprised to find she didn’t care at all. She had spent such a long time avoiding exactly this kind of attention, but now that she was at its centre, the courtiers seemed as distant from her as her audience always did when she was singing. Maybe she had finally found a way to ignore the opinion of the court: there was simply something she cared about far more, now. She strode across the grass to where Adrienne was standing, as fast as her hooped skirts would allow.
“For you,” she said quickly, quietly, and thrust out her hands.
It was a necklace: a choker made from powder-blue ribbon edged with white lace, with an opal fastened to the centre in a silver setting. It was one of her favourites. She had been planning to give it to Adrienne in private, but she wanted her to have it before the duel.
Adrienne’s eyes grew wide. “Thank you,” she said, and tucked it into her pocket. Then, impulsively, she dropped to one knee and took Gabrielle’s hand, and kissed it reverently.
The Marquis came forward through the ever-growing crowd, his second beside him. “Are you ready, Monsieur?”
“I am,” replied Adrienne easily. She stood up, putting her hand to the hilt of her sword. “And you?”
Gabrielle stepped back. Saint-Georges, beside her, gave her a reassuring smile. “Adrien is excellent,” he said to her, quietly. “This will be over soon.”
Both duellists removed their waistcoats. Adrienne’s undershirt was white linen, and from this close it was obvious that her chest was flat.
“Well.” The Marquis was smirking. “I must admit, I had wondered. But I suppose you’re a man after all.”
Adrienne said nothing. Gabrielle gritted her teeth.
As Saint-Georges had predicted, the duel itself was very short. The Marquis came at Adrienne, slashing at her torso; she dodged the attack and thrust her sword towards the man’s throat. When she stopped short of the kill, he sprang back and tried a few times to get past her defense, but it was useless. The last time she held the sword to his throat once again. A drop of blood fell onto his jabot, and he stammered out a surrender.
“And now, will you apologize to Mademoiselle du Fay?”
The Marquis nodded, and dropped to his hands and knees on the grass. “My sincerest apologies, Mademoiselle,” he said quickly. It sounded more scared than sincere, but at least he had said the words.
With a smile, Adrienne turned to her. “Are you satisfied, Mademoiselle?”
Gabrielle smiled back. “Quite.”
“Then all is as it should be.”
The Marquis, in his haste to leave, dropped his sword on the lawn. His second scooped it up and followed after him, scattering the crowd as he came through.
It was a lovely piece of theatre, and Gabrielle was close to laughter until she noticed a red stain spreading across Adrienne’s undershirt.
“Adrienne,” she said, quietly, “you are wounded.”
Adrienne gave her a tight-lipped nod. “Yes. It’s not too bad, I think, but I do need a doctor. As soon as possible.”
The Chevalier Saint-Georges stepped forward, gesturing into the crowd. “I arranged for one,” he said, briskly, and took Adrienne’s hand. “Not because I thought you would lose, of course! I was worried about the Marquis. But these things happen. Come, let’s get you treated.”
Gabrielle followed them as far as she could, but when the doctor took Adrienne into a side-chamber to be examined, she had to stay at the door.
It wasn’t long before Saint-Georges emerged with news. “It should be fine,” he said, quickly. “It’s not bad at all — I’m sure he’s had worse in the army. The doctor’s just dressing it now. He’ll need to rest, though. You’d better wait until later to see him.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I will.”
That night, she put on a plain muslin gown and dark-coloured cloak and paid her chambermaid to help her. The woman led her through the maze of servant’s passages to Adrienne’s rooms.
Put together, they were smaller than her own room, with a tiny antechamber and a bedroom dominated by a plain but spacious bed. The only light was the flicker of Gabrielle’s candle.
Stepping lightly, she came to stand beside the bed and looked down over Adrienne. Her wig had been removed, and her blonde hair was spread across her pillow, silver in the moonlight. It was hard to tell if she was asleep or just resting.
“Adrienne?” she whispered, prepared to go if she received no answer.
But Adrienne’s eyes flew open. “Gabrielle?”
“Yes,” she replied, gently, and set her candle down on the bedside table. “Yes, it’s me. How are you feeling?”
“Not… perfect, but not that bad!” Wincing slightly, Adrienne sat up in the bed, propping herself up against her pillow. “It was a shallow cut.”
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, directing her gaze to the bandages wrapped around her abdomen. “Not so shallow, I think.”
“No,” said Adrienne with a sigh, “No, you’re right. Honestly, it hurt like hell, and it’s still not feeling great. But it was clean, and the doctor bandaged it neatly. It might leave a scar, but it will heal.”
Gabrielle paused for a moment. “Do you… do you still have the necklace I gave you?” she asked, hesitantly.
“Of course!” Adrienne pulled herself up further and brought her arm out from beneath the covers — the choker was in her hand. “Thank you, again… It’s a great honour. I’ll keep it with me always.”
“I’m glad,” said Gabrielle. “You can do anything you like with it, of course. But I thought that… if you wanted to wear it, the colour would look very pretty on you.”
Adrienne’s smile was brilliant. “I would love to wear it,” she said. “Would you put it on for me, please?”
Carefully, Gabrielle pulled Adrienne’s hair to one side and fastened the choker at the back of her neck. She was glad to see she had judged well – Adrienne’s neck was thicker than hers, but she had stitched a bit of lace to each end of the ribbon, and the choker fit perfectly.
When she had finished, she sat down on the bed and looked over Adrienne with satisfaction. “I was right,” she said, smiling. “It suits you.”
“Thank you,” responded Adrienne with a smile, bringing her hand up to touch it. “This is…” She choked slightly, and her voice trailed off. “Thank you so much.”
“Will you move over?” asked Gabrielle, quietly.
Adrienne complied at once. “Of course!”
Gabrielle pulled back the bedsheet, and climbed up onto the bed, and lay down beside her. She could feel Adrienne’s heartbeat quicken. Slowly, she brought her hand up to rest lightly on the bare skin of Adrienne’s collar bone.
“I,” said Adrienne.
Gabrielle’s heart felt full to bursting. “I know,” she said, as gently as she could. “I know. We don’t have to do anything. And if it doesn’t feel right, or you can’t bear to be touched, we’ll stop right away. But I love you, and I want to touch you. May I touch you, Adrienne?”
Adrienne paused for a long while. “I don’t know,” she said, haltingly, “if — ” Suddenly she stopped, shaking her head. “But I want to try. I want to be with you. I want…” She flushed, and and undid the buttons of her trousers with almost-steady fingers. Her member was flushed red and half-hard, surrounded by blonde curls.
“It’s beautiful,” said Gabrielle, “like you,” and she touched her fingers to the length of it, stroking very lightly.
“Gabrielle,” gasped Adrienne, and her hands tightened into fists, grasping the sheets as though to keep from being lifted off the bed.
Not entirely sure if the reaction was from pain or pleasure, Gabrielle stopped. “I don’t want to hurt you, or… if… if your wound is, or if it doesn’t feel right…”
Adrienne laughed, a beautiful, musical sound. “No,” she said, shaking her head vigorously, “no, it’s not that, it feels good. You don’t have to stop. I want you to keep… to keep going.”
Gabrielle proceeded to run her hands across Adrienne’s body, slowly and gently, committing the feel of it to memory. Her form was lean, but muscular, her skin soft in one place and rough in another. She seemed to relax as she grew accustomed to Gabrielle’s touch, and gradually, Gabrielle grew bolder. Avoiding the bandaged area, she reached up and brushed Adrienne’s nipples lightly, until they stiffened and Adrienne gave a little shiver.
“Oh, that’s –” she said, with a kind of shocked delight. “I’ve never…”
Gabrielle smiled. Gradually, she brought her hands back down Adrienne’s body, between her muscular thighs. She stroked the length of her shaft, finding a rhythm. “Is it… is this good?”
“Yes,” replied Adrienne, fisting her hands in the sheets. “Yes, it’s good… please…”
The knowledge of Adrienne’s pleasure increased her own, and she shuddered at the spark of desire in her own body. Her hand moved faster, and Adrienne’s member grew wet at the tip.
“Gabrielle,” she cried, hoarsely, reaching out as if to pull her hand away, “I’m almost…”
Immediately, Gabrielle stopped. “You don’t want to finish?”
Adrienne flushed, averting her eyes. “No, I do, just…” She gestured down her body, to where Gabrielle’s hand was wrapped around her. “If you don’t want to, to get it on your hand…”
“Oh, Adrienne… is that all?” Feeling a rush of tenderness, she resumed her touch. “I don’t care about that. I have a handkerchief.”
Adrienne gasped, her hips jerking upward. “Oh.” Her voice was half-raw, her eyelids fluttering. “Oh…” Then her whole body spasmed, and she spent herself in Gabrielle’s hand.
As she’d said, Gabrielle had thought to bring a handkerchief, and she wiped the fluid from her hand. When she had finished, she lay back in the bed, contented. For a short while, Adrienne lay still beside her, but after a time she brought her hand hesitantly to rest on Gabrielle’s thigh. “May I…?”
“Of course,” replied Gabrielle. She pulled up her skirts, shivering as Adrienne’s hand slipped between her legs.
Her touch was tentative, as though handling something delicate and precious. Her fingers were callused from holding a sword, and the feeling as they touched the most intimate part of Gabrielle’s body was excitingly unfamiliar, sending a thrill up her spine.
She moaned, wanted to make sure Adrienne knew the effect her touch was having. “Adrienne… oh…”
In response, Adrienne seemed to become more confident. As her fingers moved, finding the place that made Gabrielle’s thighs clench with need, she bent her down to kiss her on the forehead. “Tell me how you want me to do it,” she whispered, tenderly.
“Just… just like you are now,” she replied, feeling a rush from the sound of Adrienne saying such a thing. “If you just… I’ll…”
The waves of pleasure she felt from Adrienne’s fingers against her left her speechless, and she moaned. She was surprised to find herself already so close to the edge. It was more than just the physical sensation — the knowledge that it was Adrienne touching her, Adrienne, who was strong and sweet and honest, and who made her heart ache with love…
It was too much. With a shudder, she pressed herself into Adrienne’s touch and let herself be overcome.
Afterwards, she nestled into the crook of Adrienne’s neck, breathing heavily. It was impossible to do anything else. Adrienne’s arm settled around her, a comforting warmth.
Gradually, her senses returned to her, but she remained still. She knew she should think about returning to her own room for the night, but it felt so right to lie in bed next to Adrienne, their bodies pressed against each other, that she decided it would be fine to stay until morning. Even if someone noticed her, it wouldn’t be the first time a lady had been seen leaving someone else’s chambers early in the morning.
“Do you need to go back?”
“Mmm… no, I think it’s all right. If you don’t mind me staying, that is.”
Adrienne beamed so brightly it almost seemed to light up the room. “No, of course not!” She found Gabrielle’s hand under the sheets, and grasped it tightly. “I wish you never had to leave.”
“…Then maybe I never will.”
Feeling perfectly contented with the world, Gabrielle drifted off to sleep.
In her dreams, she and Adrienne lived together in a little house in the countryside, and owned a flock of sheep and a herd of cows. Sometimes Adrienne was wearing a waistcoat and trousers, sometimes a dress, always the choker Gabrielle had given to her. They had a fortepiano, and she would play haltingly while Gabrielle sang.
It was like something out of a fairy story, but even when she awoke, Gabrielle believed it was possible.
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