“Georges, I don’t want a drink.”
“It’s the last one. For you and me.”
It was time to put a ‘last’ on everything. Desperate to soothe her, Georges led her to a shabby café on the corner of an alley. It served simple meals and alcohol.
“Absinthe. Two glasses.”
The waiter, half dozing at the grimy counter, brought two glasses of the green liquor.
“I told you I don’t drink.”
Amelie tilted her head and pushed the glass away, but Georges, as if waiting, lifted his glass and took a sip. Amelie raised her voice.
“You’re not that good a drinker, and we have to drive the carriage back later, are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’ve drunk more. I’ll be fine.”
Georges swirled his glass lazily as if the absinthe were wine and quenched his thirst, despite the fact that it was a cheap drink sold by the glass because his customers were on a tight budget. It was an uncharacteristically pretentious gesture that made her feel very uncomfortable.
“… I know. Georges.”
Amélie wondered if she should tell him to shut up. But as Georges said, it’s the last time…
Amélie picked up her fork with a bittersweet feeling and stabbed the dried bean sprouts.
She never thought she’d have to say goodbye to Georges, with whom she’d spent her childhood with, but somehow it felt like a beautiful parting.
Cheap alcohol gets you drunk fast, and after a few more shots, Georges’ face turned pink and he became bolder.
“Hey, Amélie Gagnier.”
Georges slammed his empty glass down, his voice raspy.
“You and I, we have a lot in common.”
“Well, you and I have the same standard of living,we both grew up in poverty…”
Amelie wanted to run away. She could feel the moment she’d been dreading approaching. Georges’ glassy eyes seemed to ask, ‘Isn’t that right?’, seeking Amélie’s approval.
A flushed Georges said aloud.
“The truth is, I’ve been meaning to ask you to marry me for a long time…”
“I’m sorry, Georges. I refuse.”
Amélie cut the words out of his mouth. As if she were slicing them off with a blade, not even giving him a moment’s pause.
There was an awkward silence.
“…What, you’re not even giving me a chance?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Georges laughed weakly like he had no idea. It was a shallow laugh that soon faded into nothingness. His gaze was lost in the bubbling absinthe as he mulled over her firm refusal.
Amélie spoke cautiously.
“Georges, I want us to remain friends, and above all, I have no intention of marrying you.”
“…I thought you’d would be fine with me.”
Amélie chewed her lip in silence. Calling the waiter back, Georges ordered another absinthe. This time, it came by the bottle.
Amélie watched uncomfortably as Georges poured one absinthe after another. By the end, the glass was slightly overflowing.
“That man seemed refined. I only heard it from others.”
“Anyway, it’s not like he’s the real deal…”
“You don’t look too bad standing next to him either. You look like a noble lady.”
“That’s ridiculous. It’s just a play. Only you and the maid know the truth…”
“I thought the Duke was serious…”
“No, Georges. No.”
Exasperated, Amélie threw up her hands in dismissal again and again. But Georges stubbornly repeated the same words.
“No, I’m serious. I can see it in the eyes as the same man.”
After picking on Georges for a while, Amelie couldn’t bear the burned feeling in her stomach and took a sip of absinthe.
The strong liquor passed hotly over her lips and her insides quickly heated up, causing her palms to sweat. Just like yesterday…
“Remember when we were kids, Georges?”
Amélie started the conversation. She wanted to shake off the thoughts that kept coming back.
They laughed as they forced themselves to piece together the bits and pieces of their childhoods, like the time when she ruined a pile of laundry or fell into a toilet while feeding the horse.
The absence of clumsy, uncomfortable courtships and tales of superiority made her feel more at ease. They stayed in the café until quite late.
* * *
Amélie and Georges walked through the night to the front of the shabby hotel.
Georges stumbled again and again, and Amélie had to hold on to his arm several times.
“Is this how you can drive a carriage?”
Amélie asked worriedly, but Georges shook his head repeatedly and shouted.
“I can do it myself!”
“Georges, but you can’t…”
“Really? You think I’m an idiot who can’t drive a carriage, and that’s why you won’t give me a chance?”
Suddenly, Georges was furious. He even grabbed her hand roughly. Amelie was startled. Georges’ glazed eyes were radiating a strange energy.
“Georges, come on. Let go.”
Georges’ drunken eyes fluttered in the dim streetlight. Amélie tried to pull her hand away, but his grip was tight.
“You know, Amelie, I’ve always wanted to hold your hand like this, too.”
Puhaha. Georges laughed, a raspy sound. Like he was laughing at himself. He swiped his other hand across his distorted face.
“You’re right, I can’t drive a carriage like this, you know, so let’s stay together.”
His eyes were dishevelled as he spoke. Frightened, Amélie hesitated, trying to pull her hand away.
“Georges. I think you should go to another hotel. I think it’s time to…”
“Why are you acting so expensive all of a sudden? Do you think you’re some kind of noble?”
Amélie’s face flushed bright red.
“Don’t refuse. Amélie Gagnier. There are only two people who know your proposal is a sham, Madame Maxine and I. Do you know what that means?”
Georges grimaced and tugged roughly on Amélie’s arm.
Her blood ran cold. A sense of betrayal washed over her. She never thought he would do this to her…
Amelie tried to pull her hand out with all her might, looking around in all directions.
She wanted to scream and call out for someone right now, but the dark alley was silent except for the cold glow of the gas lamps.
“Get off me!”
The scuffle between the two people was getting louder. At the end of the dark alley, she saw someone stomping down the street.
Judging by the shadow, the man was much more physically imposing than Georges. Should she ask him for help? What if he’s dangerous?
As Amélie hesitated, struggling to let go of Georges’ hand, the shadow lunged forward and grabbed Georges roughly by the throat.
Georges was thrown straight to the ground. He curled up into a ball and groaned.
“This son of a bitch is for real.”
A sharp voice cut through the air, and Amelie’s eyes widened.
Why is he here.
As soon as she realised the man’s identity, Amélie instinctively took a few steps back. Olivier looked down at Georges coldly, and without hesitation, crushed his fingers with his heel.
Georges’ long scream echoed through the alley.
“That, that’s enough, Duke…”
Panicked, Amélie pulled away from Olivier, but he scowled at her, unable to contain his anger.
“You filthy little bastard.”
Crouched on the cold floor, Georges sobbed into his hands, still not daring to look up into his face.
“That bastard, I knew it.”
Amélie looked up at Olivier, her eyes filled with fear.
She wondered why he was here, why he was treating Georges so harshly, as if he knew him well…
At that moment, the Duke turned to her. Amélie’s body stiffened under his fierce gaze.
“Pick your friends, Amélie Gagnier.”
Olivier spat out irritably as he insensitively wiped his palm on the fallen Georges’ body.
“She’s my fiancée, and I sent out a servant in a fancy carriage to pick her up, but she already left.”
“Well, Duke, that promise…”
“I didn’t realise you were here sharing a moment of communion with your valet.”
“Because the young master told me to leave Ezon. I just want to leave quickly…”
“Hey, Amélie Gagnier.”
He interrupted sharply.
“But if you go around gallivanting with Biché’s valet, wouldn’t people become suspicious? Leaving behind the man who proposed to you today?”
Amélie, about to protest, clamped her mouth shut. She was relieved to be out of Georges’ sight, but another wave of panic washed over her. Why had the Duke come all this way?
As if to answer that question, the Duke spoke out of nowhere.
“Spend the night with me.”