Tender the Storm(4)

By: Elizabeth Thornton


When Mademoiselle did not appear for breakfast the following morning, Zoë's habitual serenity suffered a fracture. Her thoughts lacked coherence. Her conversation became disjointed. The girls scarcely spared her a glance until Zoë herself became the focus of attention.

Without warning, during morning assembly, and before Madame had the opportunity of explaining Mademoiselle's absence, a deputy arrived at the school demanding to see the papers of one Fleur Guery. With an unquiet heart, Zoë filed past silent girls and went to the dormitory to fetch her documents.

When she returned, the deputy was ensconced with Madame in her study. Zoë's legs seemed to have turned to water as she handed over her forged papers.

As the deputy studied them, Zoë's eyes wandered over him. She judged him to be in his late twenties. Though his dress was meticulous, it was restrained, and of the sort gentlemen once reserved for the country. His long, cut away coat embraced broad shoulders and flared at the back over tight-fitting, white duck pantaloons. His spurred boots, a la hussarde, were spotless. His knotted cravat, beneath his white waistcoat, boasted no lace, nor even a frill. The hilt of his short- sword gleamed brightly at the loop on his waistband.

His turnout was immaculate. There was only one incongruous note. On top of his crop of dark blond hair, he was wearing the red cap of the Revolution, originally the badge of the sans-culottes, and now worn by those who were fanatically loyal to Robespierre and Jacobin principles. That one article of clothing changed the young man's pleasantly handsome appearance into something more sinister.

"You are Fleur Guery?"

Gray eyes, cold and indifferent, gazed dispassionately at Zoë. She nodded in affirmation.

"You're to come with me. Fetch your belongings."

The words froze Zoë's blood in her veins. She looked helplessly at Madame.

If Madame was frightened, she did not show it. Her manner was everything that was gracious, as she interposed her own considerable bulk between Zoë and the young deputy.

"There must be some mistake, surely," she began pleasantly. "I have known Fleur's family these many years past. I can vouch for the girl's identity."

"Her identity is not in question," said the deputy. Zoë found his voice as cold as his eyes. "Fetch your belongings," he instructed curtly, his gaze resting on Zoë's bowed head. His voice warmed slightly when he added, "Child, the Revolution does not make war on schoolgirls."

It was far from the truth as Zoë well knew, but somehow she found the words comforting. She chanced a quick look at the deputy and thought she detected a softening in him. Without the red cap, he might even appear human, she decided. The thought emboldened her to appeal to his better nature.

"Monsieur" she began, and got no farther.

The deputy's hand slammed on the flat of Madame's desk. Zoë fell back. "There are no ladies and gentlemen in modern France," he yelled. "You will address me as 'citizen,' do you understand, citqyenne?"

Zoë did. These new forms of address were adopted to promote equality among all France's citizens. In public, everyone paid lip service to this latest directive. In private, and among friends, people adhered to the old ways. She had made a blunder and quaked at her folly.

'Where are you taking her?" asked Madame, diverting the deputy's attention to herself.

"Commissioner Duhet wishes to question her," was the short answer.

At the mention of Duhet's name, Madame seemed to regain some of her composure. "I'll help you pack," she said, and without waiting for permission, swept Zoë from the room.

In point of fact, there was very little to pack, only a change of clothes and nothing of any value or anything which could betray Zoë's real identity. It took only a moment or two to place everything that Zoë owned in the world into a worn grip.

"Everything will be fine, you'll see," said Madame as she personally tied the strings of Zoë's bonnet under her chin. She patted Zoë consolingly on the shoulder. "I had hoped to have a few words with you in private to explain . . ."

The door opened, and Madame's voice faded as the young deputy entered the dormitory. He lounged against the door, saying nothing, but his very presence was intimidating. Zoë had not realized the man was so tall. She was conscious of his scrutiny, and her heartbeat accelerated in alarm.

"W-won't I be returning?" asked Zoë, appealing to Madame.

It was the deputy who answered. "That depends on the commissioner. It's more than likely"

"There, there, child. Don't fret," said Madame. She darted Zoë a significant look. "I'll be sure to let Citoyonne Michelet know what has become of you." Michelet was the name by which Claire was passing herself off.

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