Amidst the din of loud music and the shouts of drunks, Mrs Maxine stood in the corner of the ballroom, her head half-empty.
Such is the thing about banquets. At the beginning there is a bustle of activity that sets the soles of your feet on fire, but as time goes on and the dignitaries get a little too drunk, it quiets down.
The drunken and rowdy were subdued by sturdy valets, while the waiters sent by the restaurant helped to bring the drinks, and the maidservant herself had to observe and monitor the situation.
It was bad enough when the drunken lads started making advances on the maids, but tonight, with naked dancers making up a significant proportion of Katarina’s raucous party, fewer than usual were paying attention to the maids.
“Denise, vomit on the stairs to the right.”
“Denise, watch your expression.”
If someone vomited, she’d send the maids to clean it up.
Anyway, so there she was, Mrs Maxine, keeping an eye on the ballroom, her eyeballs rolling busily.
“M… Mrs Maxine.”
It was shortly thereafter that a pale-faced Georges approached, his hands shaking.
“I, ma’am, Amelie…”
“Amelie? Amelie what?”
Seeing her good eyes distorted in pain, Mrs Maxine was horrified and yanked Georges’s hand away.
Leading him into a corner, she searched his face until his tears stopped rolling down his cheeks.
“One of the masters took Amelie…”
Madame Maxine’s face turned bright blue. She stopped pushing Georges and looked quickly up and down the ballroom.
One by one, she identified the lowest-quality bastards she knew, but they were all tangled up with the dancers or clinging to noblewomen.
“Who? Did you see who it was?”
“O, Duke Olivier Dampierre, who gave me money to… borrow Amélie Gagnier, for the whole night.”
“My God, Georges.”
Mrs Maxine’s eyes grew so wide they threatened to pop out. Madame Maxine stood speechless for a moment, like a person frozen in despair, and then she ruffled her hair again.
“Georges, when is that? What time is it? Huh?”
“It was actually…”
Tears fell from Georges’ guilty eyes.
“About two and a half hours ago…”
“Jesus Christ, Georges Erdel. You bastard.”
Dejected, Maxine stumbled. Two and a half hours. Time for something big to happen.
“You fucking asshole!”
Denise, who had just returned from cleaning up the vomit, overheard the words as she lunged at Georges through gritted teeth.
Her fingers clenched so hard her knuckles turned white. Georges, who was much taller than Denise, staggered back.
“I’m sorry… He gave me money, too much money…”
Unable to look Denise in the eye, Georges closed his eyes, sobbing.
“Money, he gave you money, you?”
Denise cried out in disbelief.
“You should have stalled for time by saying you didn’t know where she was, and if you couldn’t do that, you should have come and told me right when you got the money. Two and a half hours? What did you do for two and a half hours, huh?”
She raised her voice in agitation, and a few heads turned. Alain, the butler, who was standing on the other side of the room, had also noticed something strange and quickly walked over.
“Children, first of all, be quiet.”
Mrs Maxine gasped and held out her hand.
“Let’s move to a less crowded area.”
The three of them slipped out into the corridor outside the ballroom. Alain, the butler, shuffled out after them.
“What’s going on?”
“The Duke has taken Amelie, and he paid this bastard to do it!”
Denise shouted, tears streaming down her cheeks. This time, Alain’s face fell.
“So, where is Amélie?”
Mrs Maxine asked absentmindedly. If he had already decided to take Amelie and gone, he might not have known that he would get into big trouble if he interfered with that time.
This is the Duke of Dampierre, after all. Not even the Count of Biché would be able to stop him.
Georges sobbed again.
“I don’t know…”
Denise raised her hand, as if she were going to punch him now. But before she could, lightning flashed across Georges’s cheeks.
The lanky Georges went flying and landed in a corner of the hallway. Mrs Maxine was the first to slap him.
“You should have told me, Georges. You should have come to me at once and told me! Don’t you know what it means for a master to drag a maid away, Georges? She’s your friend, you!”
“I must have been mad, madame…”
Georges burst into tears. Shoving his hands into his pockets, Georges pulled out a wad of bills that he could barely hold in one hand.
“Look, this much money…”
Stunned, the three men were speechless. Mrs Maxine buried her face in her palm, unable to hold back the tears that burst out.
* * *
Olivier’s hand reached out lightly. Amélie, stiff as a board, looked down to see his hand grasp her wrist, so effortlessly. The texture of his thin, leather glove tickled her arm.
As if to prove his point, Olivier moved very carefully. Still, he gently grasped Amelie’s wrist and lifted it, resting it lightly on her wrist as an escort.
“Come on, Amélie.”
Gently leading her away, Olivier sat her down on a wooden bench in front of the lake.
“I’ll wait until you’re ready. I’m not doing anything. Just holding your hand.”
A hand slowly rose from his wrist and squeezed Amélie’s lightly. There was enough human warmth to see through the thin leather. Amelie’s face coloured with embarrassment.
As if to reassure her, Olivier repeated. As if she convinced herself over and over again that nothing would happen.
“I promise not to touch anything of yours, not even a single hair. But…”
Amelie’s shoulders slumped again, as his once gentle gaze took on an oddly coercive glint.
“You’re being paid to do this, too, so you’re going to make sure it all feels natural, alright?”
The sensation of her fingers in his hand, stiff and rigid, faded away.
The two of them sat side by side in the moonlight. If anyone saw them, they would surely think they were having a private moment.
Minutes passed, but Amélie’s hand was still trapped in the man’s large one. Her throat burned with tension. She worried that her sweaty hands would stain his gloves.
The Duke tilted his head towards Amelie.
Amelie’s shoulders jerked back in surprise as the low, soft voice brushed against her ear.
“Again, it has to be natural. I don’t expect a great performance, but at the very least, you need to meet my eyes without hesitation.”
Amelie replied stiffly. She kept choking up. Holding hands, sitting side by side, it was just too hard.
“So stop shaking and look me in the eye.”
Olivier whispered in her ear again.
Amélie slowly turned her head to the side. Green eyes locked with hers, looking deeply into her.
“Tomorrow, immediately, you will repay your father’s debt.”
Amélie nodded slowly, fumbling with the front hem of her apron with her other hand. Glancing nervously down at the pocket where she’d put the cheque, she asked cautiously.
“Can I… uh, check it with my eyes?”
Olivier nodded, letting go of her hand for a moment and biting down a little.
Taking a deep breath, Amélie pulled the cheque from her pocket. Carefully unfolding the paper with her fingertips, she held her breath for a long moment, as if in a reverent ritual, and then looked at the cheque.
Olivier’s maths was clear. 1,700 francs to pay off his father’s debts, and 300 francs in consolation for leaving Ezon for a year. A total of 2,000 francs was in Amélie’s hands.
Two thousand francs.
A sum she had never seen, never dreamed of, never touched in her life. The thin paper danced in her trembling fingertips.
One night. Just one night. He can hold her hand through the night, then leave the mansion at first light. That way she wouldn’t have to go to jail.
But in the end, something hot bubbled up inside her. She hadn’t been paid to sleep with him, she hadn’t been forced to do anything to him, and yet an unbearable emotion surged through her, breaking her heart.
“I, I can’t, I’m so nervous, I need to breathe…”
Blinking back tears, Amelie clutched the cheque tightly. Olivier, who had been watching her squirm, shrugged.
“As you wish. The night is long, Amélie.”
* * *
Amélie sat for a long time.
Olivier sat with his arms crossed, observing Amelie’s constantly changing expressions. He didn’t know what she was thinking, but it seemed like she needed time.
She said she would do it without hesitation, but she kept hesitating like she was looking at something he couldn’t see, touching the cheque several times, her face turning tearful and then indecisive again. She repeated this several times, agonizing over the decision.
Her eyebrows furrowed, then the ends dropped, as if she was thinking of something sad, and then her lashes fluttered as if she was suddenly overcome with anger.
“How long are you going to stare at that cheque like that?”
“I need to prepare my mind.”
It was an unusual conceit.
Anyway, he felt better now that the underlying issue was resolved. Olivier decided to be patient and wait for Amélie.
“Okay, then. Let’s see.”