Addie is too overwhelmed to notice any of it.
She skirts the edge of a square, watching as men dismantle market stalls, and kick out at the ragged children who duck and weave between them, searching for scraps. As she walks, her hand slips into the hem pocket of her skirts, past the little wooden bird to the four copper sols she found in the lining of the stolen coat. Four sols, to make a life.
It is getting late, and threatening to rain, and she must find a place to sleep. It should be easy enough—there is, it seems, a lodging house on every street—but she is hardly across the threshold of the first when she is turned away.
“This is no brothel,” chides the owner, glaring down his nose.
“And I’m no whore,” she answers, but he only sneers, and flicks his fingers as if casting off some unwanted residue.
The second house is full, the third too costly, the fourth harbors only men. By the time she steps through the doors of the fifth the sun has set, and her spirits with it, and she is already braced for the rebuke, some excuse as to why she is unfit to stay beneath the roof.
But she isn’t turned away.
An older woman meets her in the entry, thin, and stiff, with a long nose and the small, sharp eyes of a hawk. She takes one look at Addie and leads her down the hall. The rooms are small, and dingy, but they have walls and doors, a window and a bed.
“A week’s pay,” demands the woman, “in advance.”
Addie’s heart sinks. A week seems an impossible stretch when memories only seem to last a moment, an hour, a day.
“Well?” snaps the woman.
Addie’s hand closes around the copper coins. She is careful to draw out only three, and the woman snatches them as fast as a crow stealing crusts of bread. They vanish into the pouch at her waist.
“Can you give me a bill?” asks Addie. “Some proof, to show I’ve paid?”
The woman scowls, clearly insulted. “I run an honest house.”
“I’m sure you do,” fumbles Addie, “but you have so many rooms to keep. It would be easy to forget which ones have—”
“Thirty-four years I’ve run this lodge,” she cuts in, “and never yet forgotten a face.”
It is a cruel joke, thinks Addie, as the woman turns and shuffles away, leaving her to her rented room.
A week she paid for, but she knows that she will be lucky to have a day. Knows that in the morning she will be evicted, the matron three crowns richer, while she herself will be out on the street.
A little bronze key rests in the lock, and Addie turns it, relishes the solid sound, like a stone dropped into a stream. She has nothing to unpack, no change of clothes; she casts off the traveling coat, draws the little wooden bird from her skirts and sets it on the windowsill. A talisman against the dark.
She looks out, expecting to see Paris’s grand rooftops and dazzling buildings, the tall spires, or at least the Seine. But she has walked too far from the river, and the little window looks out only onto a narrow alleyway, and the stone wall of another house that could be anywhere.
Addie’s father told her so many stories of Paris. Made it sound like a place of glamour and gold, rich with magic and dreams waiting to be uncovered. Now she wonders if he ever saw it, or if the city was nothing but a name, an easy backdrop for princes and knights, adventurers and queens.
They have bled together in her mind, those stories, become less a picture than a palette, a tone. Perhaps the city was less splendid. Perhaps there were shadows mixed in with the light.
It is a gray and humid night, the sounds of merchants and horse-carts muted by the soft rain beginning to fall, and Addie curls up on the narrow bed and tries to sleep.
She thought at least she’d have the night, but the rain hasn’t even stopped, the darkness barely settled when the woman bangs upon her door, and a key is thrust into the lock, and the tiny room is plunged into noise. Rough hands haul Addie from the bed. A man grips her arm as the woman sneers and says, “Who let you in?”
Addie fights to wipe away the dregs of sleep.
“You did,” she says, wishing the woman had only swallowed her pride and given a receipt, but all Addie has is the key, and before she can show it, the woman’s bony hand cuts hard across her cheek.
“Don’t lie, girl,” she says, sucking her teeth. “This isn’t a charity house.”
“I paid,” says Addie, cupping her face, but it is no use. The three sols in the pouch at the woman’s waist will not serve as proof. “We spoke, you and I. Thirty-four years you said you’ve run this house—”
For an instant, uncertainty flashes across the woman’s face. But it is too brief, too fleeting. Addie will one day learn to ask for secrets, details only a friend or intimate would know, but even then it will not always gain their favor. She will be called a trickster, a witch, a spirit, and a madwoman. Will be cast out for a dozen different reasons, when in truth, there is only one.
They don’t remember.
“Out,” orders the woman, and Addie barely has time to grab her coat before she’s forced from the room. Halfway down the hall, she remembers the wooden bird still resting on the windowsill, and tries to twist free, to go back for it, but the man’s grip is firm.
She’s cast out onto the street, shaking from the sudden violence of it all, the only consolation that before the door swings shut, the little wooden bird is tossed out, too. It lands on the stones beside her, one wing cracking with the force.
Though this time, the bird doesn’t mend itself.
It lies there, beside her, a sliver of wood chipped off like a fallen feather as the woman vanishes back inside the house. And Addie stifles the horrible urge to laugh, not at the humor but the madness of it, the absurd, inevitable ending to her night.
It is very late, or very early, the city quieted and the sky a cloudy, rain-slicked gray, but she knows the dark is watching as she scoops up the carving, buries it in her pocket with the last copper coin. Gets to her feet, drawing the coat tight around her shoulders, the hem of her skirts already damp.
Exhausted, Addie makes her way down the narrow street and takes shelter beneath the wooden lip of an awning, sinking down into the stone crook between buildings to wait for dawn.
She slips into a feverish almost-sleep, and feels her mother’s hand against her brow, the faint rise and fall of her voice as she hums, smoothing a blanket over Addie’s shoulders. And she knows she must be ill; that is the only time she saw her mother gentle. Addie lingers there, holding fast to the memory even as it fades, the harsh clop of hooves and strain of wooden carts encroaching on her mother’s whispering song, burying it note by note until she jerks forward out of the haze.
Her skirts are stiff with grime, stained and wrinkled from the brief but restless sleep.
The rain has stopped, but the city looks just as dirty as it did on her arrival.
Back home, a good storm would wash the world clean, leave it smelling crisp and new.
But it seems nothing can rinse the grime from the streets of Paris.
If anything, that storm has only made things worse, the world wet and dull, puddles brown with mud and filth.
And then, amid the muck, she smells something sweet.
She follows the scent until she finds a market in full swing, the vendors shouting prices from tables and stalls, chickens still squawking as they’re hauled off the backs of carts.