Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith

  Aurélie touched her head gently. Charlotte stiffened, her eyes widening in fear, but then she smiled, and laid her head on Aurélie’s leg. Aurélie stroked Charlotte’s hair gently, slowly, until the tears ceased, and the broken breathing eased into slumber.

  For an immeasurable time there was no sound but the rhythmic munching of the cow. A distant clang caused both Aurélie and Jaska to freeze, hands touching their weapons. A shot cracked, then silence.

  After a time, Jaska turned a page. He glanced up, found Aurélie looking at him, and said in a soft voice, “You were talking about Leibniz’s laws.” He lifted his book, a different one. “Have you read the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or the Opera Posthuma?”

  “No,” Aurélie whispered, and glanced down at Charlotte, whose breathing stayed deep and even, her face relaxed. “I thought we had everything by Leibniz, but I see I’m wrong.”

  “Those were written by Benedictus Spinoza. Some say that Leibniz was influenced by him.”

  “How’s that?” Aurélie asked.

  Jaska began to read a passage, but Aurélie raised her hand. “My Latin is that of a beginner,” she admitted.

  Jaska’s brows lifted, but he began translating.

  I don’t know how long they sat there talking philosophy in low voices, as Charlotte slept and the cow munched. Could have been five minutes or five hours. Mord reappeared, grinning in the firelight. “They won’t stop running until they reach Dieppe,” he said. “I believe we can sleep.”

  “As well.” Jaska almost smiled. “Look here, this candle is shortly to be mere memory.” It was guttering in a waxen ring about the thickness of a quarter.

  He nipped it out, and they slept.


  THE NEXT MORNING THEY WOKE and brushed the cotton off themselves. Aurélie looked tired and muttered to me, “I had very bad dreams.”

  Nothing marred the rest of their journey to Yvetot.

  When they reached the city, which was busy with repairs after revolutionary depredations, they stopped in a central square built around a well.

  Mord turned to Aurélie. “We all have tasks. If you wish to rejoin us, let’s meet here at this well when the bells strike—”

  A glance up at the cathedral tower, and he gave a short sigh, no doubt remembering that the bells had been melted down to be turned into cannon ten years ago. “At three, which would put the sun approximately there.” He pointed up at the sky. Then he turned away, before anyone could answer.

  Aurélie stared at him in surprise, then looked around. Charlotte had already started with her cow in the direction of the cathedral, which was bracketed by scaffolding as artisans repaired and rebuilt the defaced stonework.

  Aurélie stared after Charlotte, then fingered the mirror out of her pocket. She peered down into a sliver of it, her thumb pressed to the glass, and whispered, “Duppy Kim, she thinks I’m a young man. She doesn’t trust men. James was not evil. Do you think he didn’t love me the way I loved him? I will not cry over him tonight. I am more grieved for Charlotte.”

  She pushed the mirror back into her pocket without waiting for my answer and ran off in search of a cobbler’s shop. When she spotted the sign, she paused long enough to pull on her filthy stockings again, hiding the necklace. Then she marched inside and put the shoes on the counter.

  “Well, well, young fighting cock,” a grizzled cobbler said to her, with a laughing glance at her pistol and sword. “I trust you took these fine shoes off a damned aristo and before his feet were cold! Excellent leather. I can cut them down in a trice, and if you give me the scraps, I’ll shave that much off the price, hein?”

  “Done,” Aurélie said.

  “Then place your foot here, that I may take its measure.”

  The cobbler continued to gab about the scarcity of jobs building the First Consul’s little boats for the invasion of England. I recalled that Napoleon had put together a couple of invasion plans, then abandoned them. This seemed to be the first one.

  The cobbler confidently predicted another, and wouldn’t it be fun to serve out those aristo-loving roasbiffs in England, now that they’d done for aristos in France. He made it clear he’d taken part in at least some of the mob action of the Revolution, and thought he’d done a fine thing thereby. Yvetot, he felt sure, would prosper now that the evil d’Albon family was gone.

  He promised to have the shoes ready in two hours.

  “Next, my clothes,” Aurélie said aloud, when she reached the street, barefoot again. “I do not think Jaska and Mord are evil. And I very much like making music, but I don’t want to carry that regal all the way to Paris. And I don’t know how many people would listen if I played alone. I wish I could sing!”

  She paused to look around the market crowd then glanced skyward. “There’s enough time for one more errand, I think. Duppy, I don’t dare to take the mirror out, but if you think I should go on alone, then you must poke my hand. I tell you honestly I’m a little afraid of traveling alone. Being a boy will not stop a gang like those ones yesterday, if they think I have anything they want.”

  And when I didn’t poke her—though I wasn’t sure about anything—she gave her little nod, the corner of her mouth lifted in a slight smile, and she said, “Then I shall find me a needle and thread, and mend these breeches so that I can stop holding them up.”

  This was the land of cotton, here in the north of France—cotton and excellent cheeses. Aurélie clearly enjoyed copying the local dialect as closely as she could as she bargained for not only a sturdy little sewing kit, but a goodly length of cloth, from which, she told the draper, she would make a shirt and a few neck cloths.

  “You sound like a southerner, I’m thinking,” the woman said. “Come up here to join the flotilla? Well, that’s over, though you might have better luck at Le Havre, I hear. My advice? Go for a soldier. My youngest went to Egypt, and though he ended up a prisoner of the English dammits, he said there’s loot for the taking, if you survive…” Dammits seemed as popular as roasbiffs as pejoratives for the English.

  Aurélie completed her purchases, which used up nearly all her coinage. She returned for the shoes, which were now sturdy and snugly fit her feet.

  Properly shod, she looked around carefully, then used the trellis on the side of a building to climb nimbly to the roof, where she wedged herself between the chimney and the overlapping roof slats. Here, she could look below at the square, specifically the well next to the ruined shrine, where the two would meet her—or not.

  She said, “I don’t want anyone to see me sewing and say I sew like a girl. I think it’s better to be René as long as I can.”

  She pulled off her breeches and set to work tailoring them. Years of needlework made her fast. She cut some fabric and made secret pockets inside the waistband. Before she put away the mirror she touched it to make certain I was still around. When she saw me, she smiled, stored the mirror in one of her new pockets, put on the breeches, which were still loose, but no longer falling off. She climbed down again, the sword catching on the trellis slates and the grape vine, and the pistol banging against her leg.

  She dropped the last of her centimes into the hands of a street vendor selling fresh bread and then sat down on a bench to eat as she watched the crowd cross and recross the town square. Presently, “Ah! Here is Mord! I must go.”

  When Mord saw her, he squinted to make certain it was her, then laughed. “And so I win our wager. Jaska thought you’d run off.”


  “I sense that whatever you have been doing did not include a bath.”

  “Nor did you,” Aurélie retorted.

  “True,” Mord said, flicking dust from the grime on his shirtsleeve. “In true republican fashion, I’m carrying half the soil of la belle France on my person. Well, then, here we are, a trio again. Musically, that’s a benefit. Let us join Jaska, who discovered us a friendly hostelry. They promised a small room if we bring in the custom, and it’s the barn if not. Almost always it ends up
being the barn, but I’ve discovered there are fewer lice that way. To business. Whose music have you been playing? Most of your airs I recognize, but not all.”

  “Some are mine.”

  “Ah, a prodigy is among us!”

  Mord led the way down a narrow, winding alley, to another, smaller square with a rambling inn, its swinging sign designating it La Republique.

  Mord ducked through the doorway. The hour being early for custom, the common room was largely empty, crowded with plain wooden tables and benches. Jaska sat on a stool against a wall, his brows lifting when he saw Aurélie with Mord.

  He said only, “They want republican songs here. Shall we work a few up?”

  It was the barn for them, which was a big relief for Aurélie.

  They departed the next day. The traffic along the river was reasonably heavy. They were attacked twice within as many days. The first was more of a standoff, as they rounded a corner to find themselves facing a gang of young guys, mostly carrying sharpened farm equipment, except for one ancient gun (an arquebus) and a rusty Renaissance-era sword.

  Our three had their pistols up in heartbeats.

  For a few seconds nothing happened, except for flies buzzing around both sides—the last bath for all combatants having been some time in the past. Then the gang’s leader, who was probably all of sixteen, said, “You’ve five shots. There are twelve of us.”

  “Who’s first?” Mord responded.

  The three at the rear of the gang edged away, then two more, and when the leader looked back, cursing violently at his disintegrating force, Mord took careful aim and shot the arquebus out of its wielder’s hand.

  The ambushers bolted, the arquebus guy having dropped his powder and shot, along with his ruined weapon.

  Mord picked it up. “You know what this means?”

  “Target practice,” Jaska said. “Let’s find a clearing.”

  Aurélie smiled sadly and murmured in English, “Oh, it reminds me of James.”

  She acquitted herself well.

  The second encounter might have been related, or might not, but it occurred the next day as the sunlight was fading, and the trio crossed a vineyard. They passed under a stone archway into what had been a village below a walled medieval manor—how jagged rubble on the hilltop above—and a gang closed in from either side.

  Mord, Jaska, and Aurélie looked around the small circle of buildings for aid, but shutters slammed. They were alone except for a few chickens and a dog who barked excitedly from a distance.

  No time to grab pistols. The guys were on them in seconds.

  Out came the swords.

  Aurélie did exactly what she’d been taught: Let the adults take the brunt of the attack, for they were used to fighting side by side. She took on stragglers who tried to flank them, one fast strike in knee or elbow, sending them staggering back. I don’t think the attackers were used to trained defenders, for they fled in disorder, limping and clutching at wounded limbs.

  That night Aurélie had nightmares.

  There were no more attacks. They were eyed from time to time, but that was it. Either word had spread, or else nobody wanted to mess with two tall, well-armed men who walked like veterans, even if one had a slight hitch in his giddyap. Aurélie mimicked their manner, looking like a pint-sized badass with her cross belt, her pistol and sword.

  And so they began to talk, subjects branching from Spinoza to Descartes, and from Descartes in general to the specific in comparing linguistic implications of Je pense, donc je suis and Cogito ego sum.

  “Sum, suis,” Aurélie said. “Cogito is not much like penser, but it is like the English ‘cogitate.’”

  “So you know English?” Jaska asked, as he peered down the road, always on the watch.

  “Yes.” Aurélie conscientiously peered around, hand on her pistol. “And our own language, in Jamaica. You can call it the Creole, a word that means many things. Will you read the Latin aloud? It has a fine sound when you do. We did not know how to read aloud. We were not always certain how the words should be pronounced.”

  “This is New Latin,” Jaska warned her, flashing his rare smile at the puffy white clouds overhead. “I don’t think anyone really knows what Classical Latin sounded like, though the graybeards all seem to think they have the right of it.”

  “New or old, it’s the same to me,” Aurélie said cheerfully.

  Jaska pulled the Spinoza from a deep pocket and began to read as they walked along. He stopped to translate sentence by sentence, then initiated her in the intricacies of Latin grammar as Aurélie listened closely.

  Mord walked largely in silence until he couldn’t resist correcting Jaska once or twice, after which they argued declensions the same way they argued points of philosophy, with the easygoing back-and-forth of long habit.

  It was exactly the same way that Aurélie had argued with Diana, and to a lesser extent with James. She clearly found the mode and tone of the interchange comfortable as they marched through a series of Placenames-sur-Seine. Twice they caught a wagon ride, but mostly they walked, for there were no horses to be had unless you were rich, the army having requisitioned every quadruped it could buy or bully out of the citizenry.

  Every so often either Mord or Jaska would separate off when they reached a village or passed a hill. In fact, if a road branched near a hill, they inevitably chose the climb.

  A few days later, Mord cast Jaska a glance, then took off up a narrow path to a rocky hillock, atop which sat the mossy remains of a medieval keep.

  Jaska was playing his jaw harp again, so Aurélie used the opportunity to make a pit stop. When she was done, she nipped her mirror out. “We seem to toil up every hill, even if the road goes around most sensibly. Why can this be?” She peered under her hand against the strong spring sunlight, but the thick foliage hid Mord from view.

  I got an idea. “Climb the tree?”

  She flashed her merry, crooked grin. “Capital! Why didn’t I think of that?”

  A minute later, she peered out from a sturdy treetop, mirror clasped in one hand. Mord stood in the lee of a fallen stone wall, one foot propped on the wall, his elbow on his knee to steady the field glass in his hand. He was gazing at a distant light, glimmering in the hazy sunlight. No, that was not the glimmer of nature, it was winking in a pattern. “He’s watching the semaphore,” I said.

  “Semaphore?” she repeated, and then gave a short nod. “I recollect! James explained how they use it to flash news by light across great distances. It is very, very fast, so much faster than a galloper, but you must have hills and the codes.” She cast a doubtful look over her shoulder. “Do you think Mord and Jaska are…are spies?”

  I considered that. Spies in these strange days, with rapid change in the French government ringing outward, sometimes violently, could hardly be defined so simply as ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Meanwhile, I knew the broad outlines of what was to come, even if I didn’t know all the regional details. Yet she was waiting for me to answer, so I said, “Perhaps the question is better put, are they dangerous to you? So far they have been civil.”

  “Yes,” Aurélie agreed with an emphatic nod. “And I do like playing music. And learning Latin. But it must end, for they think me a boy.” I could tell from her tone that she didn’t want it to end. She liked traveling with them, and who could blame her, after the horror of her initial experience in Dieppe?

  So I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to risk losing her trust again, especially as I still had to get her to Dobrenica. And how were we supposed to save the country? No clue.

  She put the mirror away and slipped back down to the road.

  Mord rejoined them a short time later, saying nothing as Jaska went right on with the Latin lesson. But as they approached another village, and Aurélie wandered a little ways off to peer at some lovely deep red climbing roses at the side of a cottage, Mord looked around. Again, he seemed to stare right at me before he said in German, “Something’s going on. I counted ten signals in
three minutes.”

  Jaska’s answer was in French as he pointed out the sign of a local inn. “Shall we try this place? I don’t like the looks of the sky.”

  The thunder held off for a few days, then crashed over them in a spectacular storm late one afternoon. The trio got a gig at a prosperous inn directly on the riverside, where it caught some of the Seine traffic. Everything started well, if you didn’t count Mord’s silence all day. They had developed a standard list of tunes, including some of Aurélie’s fae songs. But as the daylight faded beyond the low-pressing clouds, Mord, who left the singing to Jaska, began drinking heavily. He’d never done that before.

  Aurélie’s gaze followed the journey of pale liquid from glass to lip, over and over. Mord played with his eyes closed, his profile severe; as usual, some of the young women in the gathering watched him, though he seldom responded past a quick smile and a flippant answer. The light was low enough to mask the grime and shabby, patched clothes. He made a romantic contrast against the fire, his sharp-etched, mournful face so pale, framed by his tangled dark hair.

  Jaska, too, was watching Mord, but his expression was wary.

  Finally Mord set the cup down with exquisite care, as if its placement was a matter of cosmic importance, then he stood up, grabbed his violin and bow, and left.

  Jaska gave Aurélie a rueful smile, and the two of them launched into a popular dance tune. Promptly the young paired up and began romping their way through the Monaco.

  It seemed that Aurélie and Jaska would cover Mord’s inexplicable absence, but then the innkeeper’s wife said during the lull after a dance, “Alors, citizens! You must see this. I have never witnessed the like!”

  Jaska cursed under his breath as many of the customers ran to the windows, then threw them open. Rain dripped from the eaves, but the storm had lifted, leaving a sky full of racing dark clouds. In the west, the sun rested on a bluff, the sky above like melted gold shading upwards to the cobalt blue of sunset, departing ragged purple clouds edged with fire.

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