“No,” she answers, “a virgin.”
There were nights, back home, when Addie dreamed of pleasure, when she conjured the stranger beside her in the dark, felt his lips against her breasts, imagined her hand was his as it slipped between her legs.
“My love,” the stranger said, pressing her down into the bed, black curls tumbling into gem-green eyes.
“My love,” she breathed as he entered her, her body parting around his solid strength. He pushed deeper, and she gasped, biting her hand to keep from sighing too loud. Her mother would say that a woman’s pleasure was a mortal sin, but in those moments, Addie didn’t care. In those moments, there was only the longing and the want and the stranger, whispering against her skin as the tension deepened, the heat building like a storm in the bowl of her hips, and then in her mind, Adeline would pull his body down on hers, drawing him deeper and deeper until the storm broke, and thunder rolled through her.
But this is nothing like that.
There is no poetry to this unknown man’s grunts, no melody or harmony, save the steady noise of thrusting as he pushes himself against her. No rolling pleasure, only pressure, and pain, the tightness of one thing being forced inside another, and Addie looks up at the night sky so she won’t have to look at his body moving, and she feels the darkness looking back.
Then they are in the woods again, and his mouth is on hers, blood bubbling up on her lips as he whispers.
The man finishes with a final thrust, and slumps against her, leaden, and this cannot be it, this cannot be the life Addie traded everything for, this cannot be the future that erased her past. Panic grips her chest but this stranger doesn’t seem to care, or even notice. He simply straightens up, and tosses a handful of coins onto the cobbles at her feet. He trundles off and Addie sinks to her knees to collect her reward, and then empties her stomach into the Seine.
* * *
When asked about her first memories of Paris, those terrible few months, she will say it was a season of grief blurred into a fog. She will say she can’t remember.
But, of course, Addie remembers.
She remembers the stench of rotten food, and waste, the brackish waters of the Seine, the figures on the docks. Remembers moments of kindness erased by a doorway or a dawn, remembers mourning her home with its fresh bread and warm hearth, her family’s quiet melody, and Estele’s strong beat. The life she had, the one she gave up for the one she thought she wanted, stolen and replaced by this.
And yet, she remembers, too, how she marveled at the city, the way the light swept through in the mornings and evenings, the grandeur carved out between the unhewn blocks; how, despite all the grime, and grief, and disappointment, Paris was full of surprises. Beauty glimpsed through cracks.
Addie remembers the brief respite of that first fall, the brilliant turning of leaves over footpaths, going from green to gold like a jeweler’s showcase, before the short, sharp plunge into winter.
Remembers the cold that gnawed at her fingers and toes before swallowing them whole. Cold, and hunger. They had lean months in Villon, of course, when the cold snap stole the last of a harvest, or a late freeze ruined new growth—but this is a new kind of hunger. It rakes at her from the inside, drags its nails along her ribs. It wears her down, and while Addie knows it cannot kill her, the knowing does nothing to dull the urgent ache, the fear. She has not lost an ounce of flesh, but her stomach twists, gnawing on itself, and just as her feet refuse to callus, so her nerves refuse to learn. There is no numbing, none of the ease that comes with a habit. This pain is always fresh, brittle and bright, the feeling as sharp as her memory.
And she remembers the worst, too.
Remembers the sudden freeze, the brutal chill that stole upon the city, and the wave of sickness that blew in behind it like a late-fall breeze, scattering mounds of dead and dying leaves. The sound and sight of the carts rattling past, carrying grim cargo. Addie, turning her face away, trying not to look at the bony shapes piled carelessly in the back. She pulls a stolen coat close around her as she stumbles down the road, and dreams of summer heat, while the cold climbs down into her bones.
She does not think she will ever be warm again. Twice more she has gone to the docks, but the cold has forced the callers in, to the warm shelters of brothels, and around her, the cold snap has turned Paris cruel. The rich board themselves up inside their homes, cling to their hearth fires, while out in the streets, the poor are whittled down by winter. There is nowhere to hide from it—or rather, the only spots have all been claimed.
That first year, Addie is too tired to fight for space.
Too tired to search for shelter.
Another gust whips through, and Addie folds herself against it, eyes blurring. She shuffles sideways, onto a narrow street, just to escape the violent wind, and the sudden quiet, the breezeless peace, of the alley is like down, soft and warm. Her knees fold. She slumps into a corner against a set of steps, and watches her fingers turn blue, thinks she can see frost spreading over her skin, and marvels quietly, sleepily, at her own transformation. Her breath fogs the air in front of her, each exhale briefly blotting out the world beyond until the gray city fades to white, to white, to white. Strange, how it seems to linger now, a little more with every breath, as if she’s fogging up a pane of glass. She wonders how many breaths until the world is hidden. Erased, like her.
Perhaps it is her vision blurring.
She does not care.
She is tired.
She is so tired.
Addie cannot stay awake, and why should she try?
Sleep is such a mercy.
Perhaps she will wake again in spring, like the princess in one of her father’s stories, and find herself lying in the grassy bank along the Sarthe, Estele nudging her with a worn shoe and teasing her for dreaming again.
* * *
This is death.
At least, for an instant, Addie thinks it must be death.
The world is dark, the cold unable to hold back the reek of rot, and she cannot move. But then, she remembers, she cannot die. There is her stubborn pulse, fighting to beat, and her stubborn lungs, fighting to fill, and Addie realizes her limbs aren’t lifeless at all, but weighted down on every side. Heavy sacks above, below, and panic flutters through her, but her mind is still sluggish with sleep. She twists, and the sacks shift a little on top of her. The dark splits, and a sliver of gray light shines through.
Addie writhes and wriggles until she frees one arm and then the other, drawing them in against her body. She begins to push up through the sacks, and only then does she feel bones beneath the cloth, only then does her hand meet waxy skin, only then do her fingers tangle in the strands of someone else’s hair, and now she is awake, so awake, scrambling, tearing, desperate to get free.
She claws her way up, and out, hands splayed across the bony mound of a dead man’s back. Nearby, milky eyes stare up at her. A jaw hangs open, and Addie stumbles out of the cart and collapses to the ground, retching, sobbing, alive.
A horrible sound tears free from her chest, a harsh cough, something snagged halfway between a sob and a laugh.
Then, a scream, and it takes a moment for her to realize it is not coming from her own cracked lips. A ragged woman stands across the road, hands to her mouth in horror, and Addie cannot even blame her.
What a shock it must be, to see a corpse drag itself free from the cart.