Dearest Shu Lien,
This is a day that shall be featured in the gossip of the aristocracy for years to come.
It began much as any party does. Titles and names are tossed about with every arrival. Suits and gowns are held together with the finest cloth and jewels and the energy of the people flow into the are to create a truly jovial tone. As hosts, Dear Leon and I were not too far from the main entrance and I, with my mask, greeted everyone who passed.
And then enters Therese, a true belle de la societe. She enters the event in the same fashion as the women around her with her youth adding to her appeal.
“Presenting,” Albert says, gaining the attention of all, “Mademoiselle de Begarde.”
She is accepted with thunderous applause, mine included. From then on the party dissects in certain section. Gambling, dancing, feasting, and enjoyment are abound and many are swept away in the controlled chaos. Madame Begarde, recently returned, takes me into a friendly hug.
“I cannot thank you enough,” she tells me.
I beam at her excitement.
“Invite me to her wedding, that is thanks enough.”
I excuse myself only to be showered in praise over my home, my attire, my hair, anything involving me.
And then there is Therese.
She guides me away from the many small chatting groups that have come together. I can tell by the way she is moving and by the downcast look of her eye that she is not right. We end up in her room when I question her.
“What is wrong, girl?”
“Madame,” she stumbles her words, “I have a confession to make.
I feign surprise.
“Confess? Confess what Therese? You could do me no wrong.”
She shakes her head savagely.
“I can, I… I have. I had been having an affair with Monsieur Gaboury.”
I am struck dumb by her rather frank response. She must confuse this for my person being distraught. She falls to her knees and wraps around my legs.
“Madame, forgive me. Please! I knew not of what a kind and gentle soul you were. If I had…”
“Stand, Therese.” I say sternly.
She does and I take her hands.
“How long?” I demand softly.
“Since before I came into your estate, during Mother’s gathering. But we have ended it. We have not met in weeks.”
That explains why he returned to me. He must have felt the same guilt as her.
“You came into my home,” I say slowly, “And did this to me?”
“Madame,” she says, voice trembling, “I am late. I have been since I first was with Monsieur Gaboury.”
It takes all of my being to refrain myself from strangling her. Within myself I wish to erupt, to break through and release everything I have held in.
“Late,” I mutter.
“Madame I am begging you. Tell me how to make it right.”
I no longer have any desire to wear any mask around her. I speak as I truly wish to.
“There is nothing you can do. One day, I may forgive this betrayal. But for you to have this child, when he has given me none, has forever stained my honor.”
I push her hands away and begin to leave. She grabs onto me once again and continues to beg for forgiveness.
She is now only hanging on by my ankles, but I force myself away. Before I leave, I look down at her and say the end to this conversation.
“Clean yourself up. Your performance shall begin soon.”
Time passes. I have successfully avoided both Dear Leon and Therese and enjoy the event that I have worked so hard to make a reality. As it s now cooler with the evening, most everyone is now outside, enjoying the tame weather. I myself am partaking a rather sour cake when Madame Begarde makes an announcement.
“Dearest friends and family, my daughter wishes to grace us with a poem that she herself hand wrote.”
As she leaves to fetch her, hopefully, now calm daughter, Monsieur Fontaine steps in her place. His mere mute presence attracts attention far better than any I have seen.
“Greetings everyone. Before Mademoiselle Begarde thrills us with her performance, I would like a chance to give to you my own hand written sonnet.”
Many murmurs begin to break out amongst the crowd, but dies down under his penetrating gaze.
“This is by no means an attempt to steal her moment, far from it, but I must correct you all before any misconceptions can be made.”
The Marquise then indulges us with his poem. He speaks most eloquently and clearly, making this narrative quite clear. He speaks of a foolish girl who is more an idiot that she is a beauty. This girl has foolishly fallen in love with a man who has done nothing but pity and use her when there was no one better to spend the night with.
The subject matter is enough to get a chuckle out of a few people, but the show truly begins when Therese is in front us, the lions in their den.
She gives us a tale of a girl and her love. In fact, the poem is more of a declaration of her feelings than anything else. She speaks sincerely of the man who has treated her so tenderly and held her with such love.
She never finishes. Her words incite snickering, which grows into harsh laughter that consumes every guest. Therese is now the focus of the society’s belittling and scorn. It is all too much for her, and she flees to the estate, her cries of embarrassment dulling the people’s laughter. Her moment to shine has reduced her to a laughing stock of the aristocracy.
The laughter quiets down to gossip and chatter, with Therese as the main subject. I take my exit, entering my home, but I do not make it far through the doorframe before Dear Leon joins me.
“My love,” he says to me, “we must talk.”
“Later Leon,” I assure him, “Right now I must find Therese. The poor girl needs comfort.”
He moves in front of me so that I trapped.
“It cannot wait.”
I sigh, as if frustrated.
“Very well. Proceed.”
Much like Therese before him, Dear Leon confesses his wrong doings to me, looking more like a shell of a man than the actual body. When he finishes I take him further from our guests and address what has been said to me.
I know Leon. I have known for some time.”
His eyes widen in shock and I take much joy in saying this.
“I am not a fool. I have seen how you looked at her and how you reacted when the Marquise did the same. You touched her, desired her, and, under our own roof, loved her. This knowledge was the reason I was so ill most of these weeks.”
“But why,” Dear Leon asks, “Why have her stay here with us?”
“I wanted revenge on you,” I admit, “I wanted you to not only feel the jealousy that I felt, but to also live with the guilt of betraying me.”
He does not meet my eyes.
“Then you were successful.”
“Good,” I surprise him with a chaste kiss, “I hate being so cruel.”
I pull his head down to my height and whisper into his ear.
“Go up to our room. Strip yourself and dowse the light. I will arrive shortly after.”
“I do not deserve you,” he whispers back.
I pull away so he can see my smile, and then I watch him ascend the staircase.
Then I wait. I wait for the cold to force the party back inside the estate. I wait to see the marquise catch my eye before I lead us both into the same parlor where Therese had worked so hard on her poem. We are alone, just as I am sure he intended.
“Did I perform my part well, Madame?”
That feral grin, always the calculating one.
“Exceptionally,” I comment, “Your finest work yet.”
His hand makes a move to caress my cheek and I let it.
“I believe,” his eyes drift to my bust, “that I have earned my reward.
“That’s right,” I drawl, “We have an agreement. As a… proper woman, I will uphold my deal.”
That grin is savage.
I remove his hand and let it linger in my own.
“Go up to my chambers. Strip yourself, and wait for me in bed. The lights should be dead.”
With a final kiss on my hand he leaves. Maryse is waiting outside the door, as the two of us planned, and makes sure there is space between then before following.
Once again I wait. I make small talk with Madame Begarde, her own jovial mask in place, and several other ladies when Maryse’s scream reaches us. I, as well as most of the guess, hurry to the source.
This is how all of society found the Count Gaboury and the Marquise Fontaine naked and almost in bed with one another.
Naturally I play the part of the distraught wife who flees at such a sight. I can hear Madame Begarde keeping others away from me, saying that I need air and not to be bothered. When I do reach the bottom floor, I find it hard to keep myself from laughing at the faces of my husband and so-called ally. Oh Dear Leon, you do not deserve anything less than what I have done to Therese.
I am so busy with my internal thoughts that I do not register Albert tapping upon my shoulder.
“Madame, Mademoiselle Begarde has asked for your presence. It seems as if she has been stricken with something.
I do not know why I answer her. My business with this child has come to an end, and yet I find myself needing to see her. Knowing Therese, I find her in her guest room, clad in her nightclothes and lying on the bed.
I do not speak to her right away. I am far too busy staring at her fine clothing from this evening. It is laid out in a pile, but I can still see the large amount of blood; I can see that it is located at the waist.
“You have miscarried.”
She nods, fresh tears forming in large masses.
“I had to, Madame. After today I have lost any respect that I may have had. My family’s name is shamed. I was so angry, so, so angry. I began to hit things. First the bed, then the wall, and then I moved on to myself.”
“You beat your own stomach?” I am aghast at such actions, “Why Therese?”
She props herself up with her forearms and speaks to me.
“I may have lost this child, but your honor is now intact. Our friendship can now continue.”
There is no joy. There is no sorrow. No warmth, no cold. I am numb. All I do is sit next to her, remove my comb from my head, and run it through her hair. She leans into my touch as she gently sobs away her pain. She eventually quiets, which is when I speak.
“I told you when I was married away, I gave up my name.”
For the first time in so many years, I say it to another.
“My name was Shu Lien.”
She turns to see me and I place my comb in her hand and close her fingers around it.
“Do you remember I told you about being a woman?”
“A woman’s only care,” she says, “is to herself.”
“Whatever you choose in this life, “make sure it is true to your interests.”
I leave her there, and hurry to end the day. However, I must first confront my final target. Luckily the Marquise finds me first.
He grips my arm roughly and drags me away to his room. I am pushed in as he shuts the door behind us.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demands.
Looking at him I laugh far truer than I have ever don before. His shirt is buttoned incorrectly and he has forgotten his wig. It is as if he was in a hurry to dress, though I cannot imagine why.
“Meaning of what, Dear Edward? I agreed to give you a place in my bed. It is not my fault who you chose to be a partner.”
This fuels his fire and he moves to me in an almost drunken matter.
“You know what it is I mean.”
“Edward,” I shake my head, “You of all people should know that what is said and what context it is held with are two different subjects.”
Triumph within me forms a smirk, one that I am too happy to share.
“Tell me, did you feel anything for Therese? Did you love her, or just what she let you do to her?”
“Ah yes,” he spits in disgust, “Therese. Your rival in all things, whose destruction drove you so passionately.”
“You are wrong, Edward,” I calmly lean back against the desk. “She is far from my rival. It is not her humiliation that drove me, but yours.”
He does not expect this. I gladly open his mind.
“In my home country, we speak of the elephant and how it never forgets.” I begin to step slowly, closer to him. “I too rarely forget. I remember, years ago, when I first arrived here. You treated me as filth. How you led many members of the society against me due to my sex and race. I was the slant-eyed bitch who dared stain your perfect courts. You whispered and ridiculed me from afar, and laughed so loudly when I fumbled. When you openly mocked me at my wedding vows, I decided to ruin you, as you no doubted tried to ruin me. To avenge my people for your intolerance.”
“You think you can get away with this?” he asks.
“Well when you compare our reputations, I am by far the more reliable character.”
“I will tell them,” He threatens me, “They will know the truth.”
“Go on them,” I say.
He makes to leave and act on his words, but I halt him.
“You tell them. Tell them how you were beaten at your own game by a woman. And not just any woman, the same slant-eyed bitch that you ridiculed all those years ago.”
His hand clenches in frustration, but relaxes. He turns back to me smiling. It is not the feral, but something all together different. It is admiration.
“You’ve really had it all figured out,” he says.
“From the moment I spoke to you.”
“You are a true lady then.”
“Hmm,” I move past him, “I suggest you take the back exit. Goodbye, Edward.”
That night I am alone again. Dear Leon insists that I should not be burdened with his presence. I am again staring at my mirror, new and unbroken. In this mirror an old friend stares back me.
It is you, Shu Lien, the person I once was, glaring at Madame Gaboury. Two halves of a whole, a past and a present, together and meeting for the first time. Am I mad? Am I so wrong to desire more pleasant hallucinations? You are sickened at what I have become and what I have done to suppress you, what I have told you can only fuel the disgust for Madame Gaboury.
Do not judge me! Who are you to look at me so scathingly? I have survived when you have fallen. I am far greater than you ever were. Do not judge me!
DON’T YOU DARE JUDGE ME!
For the first time in my life as a countess, I cry. They are not forced, but true, uncontrollable torrents of wretchedness. Without my makeup, my gowns, and all my rich layers I am nothing, just a husk, doomed to move with the society’s flow.
My hands are now caressing my stomach, cradling the life that I tasked with protecting. I too am late. Therese’s loss is my gain. In the morning I will tell Leon. He will be so happy to finally have a child of his own.
There is no joy. There is no sorrow. No warmth, no cold.
I am numb.