The sixth category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Celebrity Romance. I'm a bit late in posting this story due to travel and illness.
As I've explained previously, I figured I'd liven up my promotion of the challenge by writing a mini-story for each bingo square, using a historic setting and tying them all up loosely in a single overall story. Those who recognized the mention of famous (or notorious?) opera singer and swordswoman Julie d'Aubigny, Mademoiselle de Maupin in the previous story might have correctly guessed that she would be the celebrity in question. The current installment looks at the line between love and obsession, between loyalty and desire. And for those who might worry about Marie and Lisette's future, I'll point out that the very last bingo category of the bingo challenge is "second chance romance". It will be a good opportunity for wrapping up stories into their happy endings, if it hasn't happened before that.
As a reminder, my book Daughter of Mystery was one of the featured book suggestions for the fantasy category, but my work fits in a lot of different categories on the bingo card. For those who might be visiting here for the fiction and brainstorming for ideas for their bingo squares, here's a brief rundown of what categories the Alpennia books and my self-published novelette fit into.
As you can tell, my goal of writing "mini" stories is slipping badly. I've kept three of the stories under 2000 words, but the others have been 2300, 3600, and now 4000. Ah well, a story wants to be what it wants to be.
Family is Something You Do (Lesbian Book Bingo: Celebrity Romance)
I didn’t dare look out past the footlights to see if Marie were watching until the opera was finished and La Maupin and the others were basking in the applause. I was in the second row of dancers, so there were that many bodies to peer past out into the rows of boxes. I knew where Madame de Murat’s box was and I knew that Marie had said she would be waiting on her tonight, but I could only have faith that she’d seen me in my stage debut.
Then the curtain fell and the stage turned into chaos as singers and dancers scattered toward the dressing rooms. I caught La Maupin’s hand as she passed and kissed it, saying, “Thank you, Mademoiselle! Thank you! I can never repay you!”
She stopped, looking bemused as if she didn’t remember that it had been entirely because she’d put in a word that I’d been allowed to rise from dresser to opera dancer. Not merely to fill out the ranks during rehearsals when one of the regular dancers was missing, but to take my place on the stage and dream of something more. It wasn’t impossible that even a black girl like me might make her name with the right friends, the right patron. And no one could be a better friend right now than Mademoiselle Julie d’Aubigny, known throughout Paris as La Maupin. If it weren’t for the thought of Marie, I’d be wildly in love with her. Everyone was—the gallants whose billets doux we all laughed over in the dressing rooms, the ladies who swooned when she played the gallant for them in turn, escorting them about town in a cavalier’s garb with a sword at her side.
La Maupin smiled at me—oh that smile!—and kissed the air by my cheek so as not to smudge our powder and rouge. “Lisette, ma chérie, you were marvelous. I knew you would be. Now come, let’s see who brings me flowers tonight.”
I was still her dresser, after all, so I scrambled out of the wide panniers of my costume and into a plainer gown to be ready to attend on her when the admirers arrived. There was no point to trying to slip out to catch a word with Marie because she’d be following after Madame de Murat, side by side with her brother Charles in their matching scarlet coats and golden turbans, to carry madame’s little spaniel or to open doors or whatever else a page was expected to do. I’d steal a moment with Marie soon enough. For now, I added to my dreams of opera success the goal of catching a rich patron so that I could set up an apartment of my own with Marie at my side. We’d talked about it so often but always as an idle fancy.
The singers’ dressing room was crowded as always, but the prima donnas like La Maupin had a corner screened off for themselves where there was already a small crowd of men in satin and velvet coats eyeing each other like jealous cockerels.
“François!” she cried, “you have remembered my favorites!”
She took the bouquet of lilies from his hand and passed them smoothly over her shoulder to me as she allowed the young vicomte to kiss her hand then clasp her just a little too familiarly about the waist. I slipped the flowers into the place of honor in a waiting vase.
“But fie on you, Henri,” she continued, snatching the proffered flowers from the next man. “How can you be so tedious.”
She tossed a nearly identical cluster of lilies over her shoulder with a laugh. I knew my part and caught them before they could fall then laid them on the dressing table. La Maupin might make light of the gifts, but it would never do to insult the gentlemen without need.
“Ah, and who have we here?”
I knew most of those who clustered around La Maupin like bees around the flowers they offered—we laughed and teased about them afterward, even the ones she chose to favor. But this was a new face. The girl was young, so newly come to court that she didn’t know it wasn’t done for an innocent maiden to join the libertine crowd in the back-stage. La Maupin’s female admirers invited her more discreetly to their parlors.
I could tell she was well born, not simply a fancy dressed whore, not only by the quality of her gown but by her manner that spoke of a terrified boldness. Her chestnut hair was pinned up in a puff with a simple bit of lace and she had only the faintest trace of rouge on cheeks that needed no powder. Looking at her, I touched my own cheek enviously. There was nothing to be done for being brown as a berry, but I wished I could powder away the freckles that flocked across my nose like a flight of starlings. It wasn’t fair for her to be pretty as well as rich.
La Maupin gazed at her like she might at a dainty jewel. “Ma chère—Mademoiselle de Laval is it not? And what have you brought me?”
Hélène de Laval—I knew who she was now. She must have slipped her leash and no doubt someone would come hunting her in the instant. Her marriage prospects were the talk of Paris, even in the streets and taverns. Seeing the hungry way her eyes fastened on La Maupin I wondered if there would ever be a marriage. Some girls aren’t made for men, though not all of us get to choose.
“I…I loved to hear you sing,” she began. “Your voice pierces me to the soul. I want—”
And then a harsh voice was calling, “Hélène! What are you doing, child?”
Mademoiselle de Laval looked wildly over her shoulder, then plucked the nosegay of violets out of the corsage of her gown and held it out wordlessly to La Maupin.
La Maupin took it with a smile that would melt any woman’s knees and buried her nose in the delicate purple flowers. “So kind.”
“I must see you,” Mademoiselle de Laval said in a low, urgent voice as a tall, angry woman pushed her way through the dressing room crowd toward us. And then there was no more time and the girl bowed her head meekly to a scolding and let herself be led away.
La Maupin watched her go with a far-off look in her eyes. I’d seen that look before, but this time it could mean trouble. She glanced down at the violets still clutched in her hand, then tucked them into her own bosom, resting between the swell of her breasts. “Enough! Enough!” She waved dismissively at the rest of her suitors and turned to sit before her mirror. “Lisette, where is my dressing gown?”
I draped the gown around her shoulders and began to work out the pins in her hair as the gentlemen scattered from their dismissal. “And will you see Mademoiselle de Laval again?” I asked.
“But of course! Isn’t she an angel? Tomorrow no doubt she will be at Madame d’Aulnoy’s salon. And if not there, we shall meet somewhere. Paris is not so large a place—not the parts that matter.”
* * *
They must have met again, though not in the backstage of the opera house. That was not at all suitable for an unmarried girl. But La Maupin had that distracted air she got when she had a fresh suitor, and if the new lover had been a man he would have strutted around the dressing room after each performance like a cockerel, letting all know whose hen-yard they were in.
Then one afternoon when the dancers had finished our rehearsal, one of the porters called me aside and said, “There’s a lady says she must speak to La Maupin and won’t take no for an answer from me. Perhaps she’ll listen to you.”
I followed him out to the little office by the back doors and wasn’t at all surprised at who waited there. I gave her my best curtsey and said, “Mademoiselle, she is not here. We only rehearse the dances today.”
She lifted the lacy veil from her face. It wouldn’t have done a thing to keep her from being recognized, but one played these games. “You are La Maupin’s servant, yes?”
There wasn’t any point to correcting her.
“Yesterday—she promised she would see me and she did not come. You must tell her…I cannot survive longer without a sign, a token. I must know that she loves me. I could bear it all if I know her heart is mine.”
I wanted to tell her to forget La Maupin. That it was a game to her—a flirtation, nothing more. La Maupin was a blazing candle and they were all just moths to singe their wings. But it wasn’t a thing that could be spoken, not from me to her. So I only said, “Have you a message you want me to bring to La Maupin?”
“Monsieur gives a ball tomorrow night. I will be there. If she does not prove her love for me, I may do myself a harm.” She clutched at my wrist as if she were drowning in the Seine and I was the only one who could pull her out.
I gently twisted my arm free. “I will tell La Maupin,” I said.
* * *
If I’d thought La Maupin had tired of the girl, her reaction to the message set me right.
“La! Won’t that be an adventure! I will come as Hélène’s chevalier. Lisette, you must help me choose my clothes from the wardrobe. I will claim a kiss and a dance right under the eyes of the duc d’Orléans!” For that was the “monsieur” that de Laval meant, it wasn’t necessary to call him more than that.
When La Maupin went about town in men’s clothing, she usually wore her own, but that wasn’t sufficiently fine for a duc’s ball. And though the garments kept for the stage belonged to the singers who wore them, they could be generous about sharing if talked to sweetly. So we chose a fine green satin coat and breeches with a plumed hat to match.
“And you must come as my page, Lisette,” La Maupin said, holding up her own second-best coat. “It isn’t the sort of ball where I can arrive unattended!”
“Oh, no, mademoiselle, I can’t!” I protested. I would feel scandalous walking around in men’s breeches anywhere but the stage! La Maupin might think nothing of it, but La Maupin could fight duels with anyone who dared to call her a strumpet—fight duels and win. In the end I agreed, simply because she was La Maupin. I owed so much to her and there was nothing I wouldn’t do if she asked.
The glittering splendor of the ballroom would have rooted my feet to the floor if I’d never seen such a thing before, but I whispered to myself that it was just another opera house and I was simply playing another role. I watched La Maupin swagger through the ballroom doors and past the lackeys meant to announce the guests until she disappeared into the crowd. Even the rumor that King Louis himself was present failed to disturb her confidence.
I looked around in the gallery for a quiet corner away from the other attendants where I wouldn’t be noticed until she returned, but my heart leapt to see a scarlet-coated figure approaching.
“Lisette! Mon Dieu, what are you doing here like this?”
“Oh, Marie!” I threw my arms around her, nearly knocking my hat askew because I wasn’t used to wearing one. “I hadn’t hoped to see you here.”
“Madame de Murat has come, so of course Charles and I must follow after.” She nodded her head toward the far end of the gallery. “He’s off playing dice. The evening looked to be so tedious, but now you’re here. But why are you here?”
So I told her about La Maupin’s affair with Mademoiselle de Laval and the girl’s demand for an appearance. “It won’t go well, I fear,” I added. “For I think La Maupin has grown weary of her and only came out of daring. But what I wouldn’t give to see it play out!”
“But we can!” Marie said and seized me hand, drawing me toward a small doorway. “Up here—there’s a tiny balcony that overlooks the ballroom. No one uses it any more but it’s never locked.”
We climbed up a narrow, dark stair and Marie eased open the door at the top, peaking around to see if anyone else had thought to escape there. She placed a finger to her lips for we could hear the sounds of music and laughing drifting up and no doubt those in the ballroom might hear what went on above.
It took me a few minutes to find La Maupin among the crowd. There were at least five coats of the same green and though she was tall for a woman, she was not so tall as a man. Not that she was trying for disguise this time, except as much as people wouldn’t look past a coat and breeches.
“There,” I whispered to Marie and pointed. We watched La Maupin swagger around the edges of the wide room, nodding at those who seemed to recognize her and acting for all the world as if Monseiur had invited her himself. I saw her stiffen—not in fear, never that, but the way a hound might when it first sees something to chase. Then she worked her way easily to a small crowd that had formed around Mademoiselle de Laval. Though they were too far for us to hear a thing about the chatter, I could tell when de Laval had seen her by her sudden movement. And then La Maupin was bowing over her hand and leading her out into the dance.
They danced together once, twice, and against all custom (and to the fury of de Laval’s other suitors) a third time. The evening was wearing on and I wondered if Mademoiselle de Laval was satisfied yet by La Maupin’s attentions. Perhaps La Maupin was uncertain as well, for when they had finished the reverence after the third dance, she swept off her plumed hat, took de Laval into her arms, and kissed her with a passion that would have drawn applause as the curtain came down.
But this wasn’t the opera house, and men that might have cheered La Maupin if she played the dashing lover on stage felt differently about a rival in the ballroom. I couldn’t hear the words that were said, but I could see the ripple of their effects spreading out through the room, like circles around a stone dropped in a pond. Then a circle cleared and I could see La Maupin standing between three young gallants of the court, with several gloves of challenge lying at her feet. In a moment’s hush I heard her carefree laugh.
“Marie, I need to go!” I didn’t know what would come of this, only that I had come as La Maupin’s attendant and must be at her side if she needed me. Marie was staring down at the ballroom with her mouth gaping open. I closed it with a quick kiss as a promise and then clattered down the narrow stairs.
I met La Maupin and the three courtiers as they crossed the gallery toward the doors.
“Ah, Lisette! Come, I’ll need you to hold my coat.”
I fell in beside her, looking warily at the three men. They were dandies, fops, with nothing of the soldier about them. But still… “Do you mean to fight all three?” I whispered urgently. “At the same time?”
“Of course,” she laughed. “The fight must be fair!”
“Julie!” My fear spilled out in my use of her given name. “Julie, dueling is against the king’s law! Everyone saw that challenge.”
“Oh, pooh! What can one do? I must defend the honor of Mademoiselle de Laval.”
It was more to defend her own pride, I knew, but that made no difference. She had made her name as a duelist long before her fame on the opera stage. To refuse to fight would have been unthinkable.
La Maupin’s challengers had called for link boys and when we had found a congenial place, they made a ring with the torches where the fight would take place. I helped La Maupin shrug off her satin coat then folded it carefully across my arm and stood back. I wished Marie was there so I’d have someone’s hand to squeeze tightly when the fighting began, but she must be ready at all times to attend on Madame de Murat. Mademoiselle de Laval had not followed us. No doubt her chaperone had taken her firmly in hand after that scene.
I wanted to look away. I wanted to see every movement. I was certain La Maupin would prevail. I feared for her life. She danced. The steel flashed and sparked. She spun. She drew them first one direction then the other, forcing the link boys to scramble out of the way. She ducked. One stumbled, swearing to his knees. A quick movement that I couldn’t see and another reeled back clutching his arm. Now there was only one man facing her. He backed away, moving the tip of his blade in small circles. La Maupin smiled and followed and with one swift stroke his blade clattered on the stones.
No deaths. Thank God there were no deaths, only blood. But blood might be enough. The men spoke no word as they gathered to hastily bind each others’ small wounds and then, with poisonous glances, left the square.
La Maupin cleaned her sword then let me help her back on with her coat and hat. But when I thought she would head in the direction of her lodgings, she turned instead back toward the palace.
“Mademoiselle!” I protested.
“But my dear Lisette, Mademoiselle de Laval asked for a sign of my devotion. How will she know what I’ve done for her unless I return?”
I shook my head silently. She was mad. But I had always known that and I loved her for it.
We paused at the entrance to the ballroom and silence fell as all heads turned. I hoped Hélène de Laval was still somewhere within the crowd to gain her reward but we could go no further as King Louis himself strode out to stand before us.
La Maupin swept into the deepest bow I had ever seen her make. I wasn’t sure whether to follow my clothes and bow or to follow my sex and curtsey and in the end I merely bobbled in place, but no one was paying any attention to me.
“You are the…opera singer, La Maupin.”
It wasn’t a question and I wondered what other description he had considered giving her.
“Do you not know that I have forbidden men to duel on pain of death?”
A second man in equally splendid clothing came up beside him and whispered in his ear. Marie had pointed him out earlier: Monseur le duc d’Orléans, the king’s brother, the host of the ball. Whatever he said brought an amused smile to the king’s lips.
“Monsieur, my brother, has reminded me that you are not a man. Perhaps my law does not apply to you. But I think it would be wise if you were not found in Paris by the morning. Indeed, I think that France may be an uncomfortable home for you for a time.”
He turned away without another word and La Maupin bowed again before we withdrew.
If I had expected her to be distraught I would have been mistaken. La Maupin seemed no more dismayed than she ever was.
“Mademoiselle, what will you do? Where will you go?”
She grinned at me but I could see the relief underneath the bravado. “A friend has urged me to perform in Brussels.”
“But what about Mademoiselle de Laval?”
“It’s for the best. She will forget me.”
I wasn’t so certain about that. Who could love La Maupin and then forget her? But perhaps it was for the best.
La Maupin seized my hand, though not with the flourish she had used with Mademoiselle de Laval. “Do you have a mind for travel? I’d dearly love to have a faithful friend with me. No one has been more faithful than you, Lisette. I will see that you become a famous dancer.”
My heart leapt. I could see it in my mind: the great Maupin and I, taking the stage by storm side by side in Brussels. To think that she would want me there, but…
“Marie,” I whispered.
“Tell her to come with us.” She made the offer lightly, as if we were taking a promenade in the gardens.
She knew about Marie and me, of course. She was the only person I could tell about our dream of sharing our lives some day. And Marie had been talking about how she and her brother were grown too old to be pages much longer.
“I think she’s still waiting on Madame de Murat back at the ball. I could—”
“I need to take these clothes back to the opera house,” La Maupin said. “Go talk to her then meet me there.”
* * *
I found Marie and Charles still in the gallery with the other waiting attendants. A red-haired lackey in a coachman’s coat stopped me and said, “Hey, you—you were with that jade Maupin. What can you tell us?”
I shook free of him with a scornful glance. How dared he speak of the great Maupin that way? I pulled Marie off to one side away from the others and explained the offer in a low hurried voice.
“She’s leaving for Brussels before the morning. She…I…come with us? Oh, Marie! She says she’ll make me a famous dancer. It’s what I’ve always wanted. Come with us! You said you’d be leaving de Murat’s employ soon.”
“Lisette…” Marie sounded dismayed, and no wonder with it all happening so fast. She looked over her shoulder to where her brother waited. “Lisette, I can’t leave Charles—”
“He’ll do well enough. Haven’t you always said that?”
“And Tante Jeanne. How can I leave her?”
I was nearly boiling with impatience. She hadn’t talked about these doubts when we’d dreamed about my rich patron and having an apartment on the Rue de la Marche. “And what about me? What about us? This is our chance to see the world together. To make our fortune. And you told me that Tante Jeanne isn’t even really your aunt. And Charles—”
But Marie shook her head. “Oh Lisette, can’t you understand? Family isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Blood doesn’t matter. They’re my family and I need to take care of them.”
I wanted to shake her and to ask what about me? But I did understand. I didn’t have a Tante Jeanne, but I had La Maupin and she’d become the sister I’d always dreamed of having. “And La Maupin needs me to take care of her,” I said. “For now, at least. Oh Marie!”
I threw my arms around her and held her without caring who might see.
“I love you so much, Lisette. But—”
I stopped her words with a kiss. I was certain in my heart it wouldn’t be the last kiss we shared. “We’ll come back. Sooner than you think. They’ll be begging La Maupin to return to the Paris Opera and the king will relent. Wait for me?”
Marie nodded and I tore myself away before I could start crying. La Maupin would be waiting for me at the opera house. I had my own few things to pack and the dawn would come before we knew it.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)