Wednesday, 6 November 2013

NaNoWriMo Day 6 Word count 1876

It had never been her intention to instruct the boys. The first few days they had involved her in their discussions she had sat quietly; wary of the reactions she might elicit after Mary's warnings and her neighbours' less than subtle hints. After trying to subtly divert their attention towards one suggestion or another, she had snapped (her temper was still short after the trials of her illness) and told them flat out what she expected them to do, and how she anticipated it would come to fruition.

In this way she led them through the preparation for their big adventure and they gradually looked to her authority more and more. When their first foray was completed successfully in every instance except for the fact that their man had been transferred a week before they left for France, the boys were unanimous in ascribing their success to their own bravery and her brains.

They drank to their success boisterously at their favourite club and the next day, Melissa met the man who changed everything for her.

They were in the midst of an unexpected cold snap, and there was frost settling on the park railings as she left for the park. She had been dressed in a dark green domino and went to Vauxhall Gardens with the sole intention of dancing and flirting as the cold made the idea of raising her petticoats utterly unbearable. She had arrived and merged smoothly with the crowd. As she walked towards the lake, hoping to get a good view of the dancers, she became aware of a presence shortly behind her.

In the world she was from, the lights were permanent and observation was almost continuous. As a result the need for self defence was practically non-existant. However, there were very stringent requirements for every child to complete several hours of physical activity in honour of the routines established by the Emperor Bonaparte for the success of the Empire and its armies. Of the designated sports events, Melissa had no affinity for team competition and the dance groups were made of those people who would volunteer extra hours. She had a minor talent and musicality, but no dedication and rapidly fell behind. Her parents were instructed to enrol her in a martial art group at the earliest opportunity.

Melissa had begum resentfully – she had enjoyed dance – but the ability to let loose her childish, and later adolescent, rages in a controlled manner rapidly appealed to her and she adapted the fluidity of the muscle motions she had learned for dancing into smooth transitions between stances and ease of recovery when she had to retreat or compensate for a missed target. As an adult she had continued experimenting with the various styles of fighting available to her.

Now, for the first time in her life, she felt a threat. As with all her other recent firsts, her initial response was a terrified overreaction, but then her decade and a half of experience kicked in and she mentally whirred through an assessment of the situation. She had been to these events enough to know that cries were common – through surprise, passion or joy and possibly, she realised with a fleeting shiver, fear. No one would notice the addition of hers. Even if they did, she was a woman alone – a reprehensible thing in this society and she would be ignored in the same way the doctors had dismissed the plight of the girls Mary had tried to help. She carried no weapons, she was hampered by the folds pf the domino, her skirts weighed her down and made fleeing by land or water impractical. If her aggressor carried any form of weapon, she was utterly at his mercy. Otherwise, she had to improve the odds in her favour. The pathways were, almost entirely, gravelled walkways which were nice and dry to walk on, but practically impossible to walk at any speed in the heeled shoes she was wearing.

Her only option was to gather both the domino and skirts of her dress in her hands, so that when he made his move, she would be able to kick his knees or ankles, hopefully disabling him for long enough to allow her to gain sufficient distance from him to make herself safe.

Her hands, hidden from view beneath the domino, began to twist into the fabric of her skirts. She surreptitiously shook her legs as she walked, ensuring the skirt fabric fell away from the leg, instead of catching on the wool of her stockings as it had an irritating tendency to do. She also turned her footsteps towards the dance floor – it had the benefit of a flat, smooth surface and she might be able to weave through the dancers to safety.

As she reached the dance floor, she felt herself relax infinitesimally. It didn't last long. A male figure swept past her, turned a few steps in front of her, bowed, and requested the dance. She was utterly startled.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Forgive my impertinence, madam, but you appear to be without a partner. I observed you as you moved towards the floor and wished to offer my services for the duration of the dance.”

He looked down at her and she felt the stirrings of attraction. His skin had the pallor of a wealthy man in the lamp light, which contrasted sharply with the darkness of his hair and the stubble creeping down his neck. His mask hid his facial structure and even the eye holes simply showed as two black slits, because of the poor lighting. The mystery intrigued her, but there was something about the man himself that appealed to her. He was taller than her, even in her heeled shoes and his shoulders were straight and strong. Her experience of Andy's new circle informed her he was not the largest or most muscular of men, but he carried an assurance and air of solidity that the boys lacked. She was sure he was more mature than they.

She took in the bulk of him, shrouded beneath his own domino and felt the thrill of excitement intensify.

His next words killed it.

“If you have no wish to dance, might I suggest we speak privately in the booth to the side of the floor? I have an interest in hearing of your French adventures.”

She was grateful for the shade of her mask as his bowed and smoothly presented her his arm. As he moved to guide her to the booth she pressed his arm and murmured a denial. “We shall parade until I am certain of your meaning.”

As declarations went, she felt it was well issued and was mildly proud of herself.

As they paraded he revealed that a conversation between the boys the previous night had been overheard which had led to one or two questions from certain authorities in the morning. The boys had proudly announced their adventures and their determination to continue to rescue Andy's friend. They had been questioned individually and the three locals had kept her name out of it but Andy had been unaware of the politics of the situation and had blithely announced her participation and leadership of the group.

What, he now wanted to know, was the reason they were so keen to rescue this one man.

Melissa thought rapidly. The most she could do on such short notice was tell the truth as closely as possible. “The man the French have is a scientist and researcher into the development of musketry. In French hands, the weapons he creates could severely impact on the British forces. The man himself is not French. He is creative and intelligent and he enjoys experimenting with new ideas. Beyond that, I cannot say what he may or may not do. But I believe he will create the weapons the French desire – not necessarily out of a choice. I did not wish to consult with any offiial parties for two reasons: in the first part I am anewcomer to the country and have little knowledge of who to consult in this circumstance and for the second part... I have no proof that this man is acting against his own will. I do not desire him to be executed if he is serving the Frnech willingly. Extrication is the only option available to me at this time, but it is not one I believe I can convince others of the necessity for."

“You are not English, madam?”

“I was born in the Cotswolds area, and have lived within the bounds of that county for the first ten years of my life. Why do you ask?”

“Your language structure is unusual. It owes more to the Romantic languages than the Germanic. But you do not say: are you English?”

“Let me say rather that English is not my only language. My parents spoke both English and French; I was raised with a confusion of correct grammar. I learned more recently the stricter rules of the English language structure.”

“And you now send the sons of English noblemen into France to rescue a mysterious individual who may be a Bonapartist.”

“That is roughly correct. Inaccurate, but correct.”

“You are a woman of some intelligence and strength of character, based on the opinions of your young team. I trust you can understand that such a questionable collection of loyalties will not be well received at a time of war.”

“I have no intention of harming the British Empire. I also have no intention of aiding the French. Once the scientist is liberated from the French, I will no longer participate in these activities. I have enough to occupy my time within the borders of English life.”

“Do you have a prospective husband in mind?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“A woman's role is with her family. Your parents are in the Americas, I understand, which leaves you the optional roles of wife and mother, for which you need a husband. Do you have a prospect of such?”

Melissa felt her jaw drop. Bewildered, she managed to form a sentence: “You are a man of some intellect by all appearances. Look around the world you are in and tell me that all women are wives and mothers. Tell me that they all have a responsible, reliable man to care for them in a harsh world. And then tell me that there is no need for an independent woman of means to care for those who need it. I question your loyalties also, if you can disregard so much suffering on the basis that it is not your own.”

He stiffened and looked down upon her. “You are arrogant and disrespectful. Might I suggest you leave the work of men to those better qualified than yourself?”

“You might, and probably shall do, several times. I trust you will understand that I intend to ignore such a ridiculous suggestion each time it is proffered.”

There was silence. The gentleman positioned at her shoulder had become rigid during her most recent speech and now stared off into the darkness.

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