The Wilting Roses of Paris

Continuing in showing you some of the writing I do as a hobby, here is the background for a character I have not had the fortune to play for some time. I had, to be honest, entirely forgotten about this story – and was delighted to find it and read it again.

Now of course I want to run round a field in a tailcoat with a duelling sword. But in lieu of that, meet Rosalia.

Looking down, she watched the cobbled streets disappear beneath a river of blood as the rain carried it down from the Place de la Revolution. It occurred to Rosalia that she had no idea whose it was; at first it had been mostly aristocrats, or true traitors to France – now it could have been anyone’s, if they had the misfortune to have displeased the Committee. The marbled liquid parted at the toe of her boots, and she fought back the urge to vomit.

The roar of the crowds was beginning to reach her hiding place – it was time to move on. Gone were the days of camaraderie, of drinking and singing, of great speeches and of honourable intent. Now she was a ghost, no longer a mouthpiece for equality and liberty, struggling to remain hidden in a city which demanded to know the hearts of those within it. Hers, she was certain, would not prove pure through the eyes of glasses tinted by blood.

With one hand resting on the hilt of her sword, another holding her cowl close, Rosalia made her way through the increasingly empty streets of Paris. Home was too strong a word for her destination – an attic hidden above a boarding house was her shelter these days, a safe nook known not even to the other residents of the house. There was a low-branched tree near the windows, which she would climb to the second floor. Often it was closed, especially in this bleak and bitter winter, and she threw up prayers to the Shrouded Lady that it would not be this night.

The moon, though obscured by bloody red clouds, smiled upon her. Rosalia made her way silently to the top of the house, careful to avoid the boards that she knew would creak and give her away. At the height of the stairs, she climbed onto the banister and reached up to uncover the concealed entrance to the attic. She was so hungry that there was hardly any strength left in her arms, but with a grunt of effort she pulled herself into the safety of her shelter.

A cool touch at the back of her neck made her relax, and slender arms reached past her to recover the hatch. The tension that had been clutched within Rosalia’s shoulders faded in a rush of exhalation, and she leant back against the soft embrace of her true home.

“You cannot go on like this,” Constance whispered as they clustered together for warmth some time later. “It is destroying you.”

She was right, Rosalia knew – but that did not make it possible to change how things were. It was almost impossible to get out of Paris without a passport, impossible to get a passport without questions being asked. They were stuck in a city that had turned upon them even as they tried to save it.

“There’s nothing to be done about it,” she sighed, reaching up to run her fingers through Constance’s stubby hair. She had shorn it off weeks ago in a futile attempt to rid the attic of lice – they both had. “This is how it is.”

The faintest of smiles crossed Constance’s lips. “What if I told you,” she said, “that I had found a way out?”

Rosalia snorted. “Then I would say you are dreaming.”

But there was something in Constance’s eyes, a gleam, the fervour of hope that had guttered and died in slow retreat since the night they had stormed the Bastille. It caused a flutter in the pit of Rosalia’s stomach even as she felt stubbornly certain that she was right.

“I know a man,” Constance began, taking Rosalia’s scarred hands in her own. “He can get people out of the city. There’s a fee, but he’s real. He got Georgette and Yannick out. Here – this is the letter she sent me.”

Her wife passed her a small scroll, and Rosalia unrolled it, her eyes darting quickly over the hastily penned script. “This is real,” she whispered, so astonished that her voice came out in an almost inaudible croak. “But this…this is so much money. Where would we get this much money?”

Constance’s cheeks flushed with colour and her eyes darkened. She looked away, as if seeking sanctuary from Rosalia’s gaze. There was a catch. Of course there was a catch.

“Tell me,” Rosalia said, letting the letter fall to the boards between them.

“I have money saved up. I…I thought, at first, that we could get somewhere to live. Somewhere where we could stand up, somewhere with windows, where…I thought we could find somewhere safe. But you were so afraid of being found, I didn’t want to tell you.”

The pain of betrayal thrummed through Rosalia’s already aching heart. “How?”

“You know how,” murmured Constance, and she turned away. “I would do it again, in a heartbeat. I would take all the shame and the disgust and the bruises. I would do it forever if it meant we could be safe, together.”

Anger lit up in Rosalia’s veins like fire – not at Constance, never at her gentleness and grace, but at the world about them. At their leaders, for failing them. At their fellows, for abandoning them, for turning on them like cattle. At herself, for having taken them into this mess, for having kept them in Paris when they should have fled. She clenched her hands into fists and tensed with the longing to lash out.

Constance reached over and placed her small hands on Rosalia’s, as if to try and absorb some of the raging emotion within her. “There’s more,” Constance said, her fingertips moving in soothing strokes. “Georgette said that we must go within the week, or not at all. They are tightening the controls on the borders again, for fear that more traitors shall escape.”

“Fine,” Rosalia managed to snarl through gritted teeth. “Then we go now. This moment. Where is this man?”

But Constance did not move, did not take her hands away; only raised her head to look up with plaintive apology. “I only have enough money for one of us.”

If the initial news had erupted in her like a fire, this struck her like a solid blow to the gut, causing her eyes to burn with tears. The thick pain of realisation remained within her chest like a dead weight, threatening to pull her down into despair.

“Don’t you dare,” Rosalia hissed, as Constance opened her mouth to speak. “Don’t you dare try and leave me. We made a promise to each other.”

This time Constance winced as if she, too, had taken a blow. “I won’t let you go without a fight,” she said, voice still soft. “But it is better that one of us escapes Hell than we endure it together.”

“You don’t get to decide that alone!” snapped Rosalia, her voice raising. With a look of terror, Constance clapped her hand over her wife’s mouth, silencing her and drawing a look of fury. Within moments, however, Rosalia slumped in resignation, and Constance’s arms moved to encircle her instead.

“I have already booked and paid for you,” she said, and the last of the fight left Rosalia. “They have a passport for you. You go just before dawn. They will take you from here.”

“And you?”

“They will hide me in the luggage. It is risky, but we will be passing through the border at the end of the guards’ shift. They will be tired, and want to get home. It should be safe enough.”

Rosalia wanted to argue, to protest, but found that she could not. “I hope,” she murmured, “that you are right.”

Constance was not wrong; but neither was she right.

She was lying.

But by the time Rosalia realised it, she was too late – the smugglers had locked her into the carriage, her sword was strapped to the luggage, and all she could do was scream and pummel her surroundings in a futile attempt to escape. At the edge of the road, Constance turned in a flurry of tears and fled, unable to look as her betrayal reached completion.

The smugglers told the guards at the border that they were transporting their sister, a sad and deranged child, to a hospice on the coast. Within the carriage the tired guards found only a desperate, whimpering mess, who could do nothing but murmur a woman’s name over and over. The poor child, they lamented, to be so lost and confused. Was it her mother she asked for? A sister? It was no trouble at all to let them go through, and they wished the smugglers and their mad sister well.

When they arrived at their destination, many hours from the city, Rosalia pretended to be entirely pliant. She allowed them to lift her from the carriage, and as they went to take her to their camp, quietly asked for something from her luggage. Certain that this shell of a woman could be of no threat to them, they nodded and allowed her to turn back. But it was not the clasp of her trunk that Rosalia reached for; it was the hilt of her sword, which rang with the herald of steel as she drew it and gave the guard next to her enough time to realise his doom before she skewered him upon her blade.

Against the others she did not have the benefit of surprise, and two against one in a battle of swords was odds that she did not like; but Rosalia poured all of her anger and rage into the fight, and though she lost her finesse it was the hot blaze of her pain that gave her the edge over the men, who fell to the ground with dull thuds.

Looking down, she saw their blood running towards her in rivulets that trailed through the carriage’s tracks. It was as if she had never left Paris.

But Paris had left her.