Sunday used to be the best day of the week. A half day for the courtesans, or escort in Aria's case, and a lot of downtime for leisure. Sunday was the city day. She would go to the bakery with Philip in the early afternoon for tea and scones before wandering the calm, peaceful, perfect city.
This Sunday, one week after she struck a deal with Monsieur Andreu, was the worst. Philip vanished and the other stagehands didn't want to escort her to Mme. Vallieur's home for dresses. With special permission, Aria walked the four miles from the Moulin Rouge to Mme. Vallieur's home. For dresses.
And as she walked absorbing the warm sun through her face, Aria tried to think only pleasant thoughts. Tonight would be a special trip to see a play for the first time in her life. Not only that, but it was the first night Pierre Andreu would test her. She read the book on etiquette, as Pierre had recommended, but she was still nervous.
"You shouldn't be nervous about attending a play, Ariadne," Mme. Vallieur said over tea. "There's absolutely nothing to worry about. I'm sure he'll only expect you to listen to conversation, enjoy the play, and smile. That's it."
"Have you and Philip spoken yet? Does he know?"
“I haven’t spoken to him,” Aria said, “but he knows about the agreement.”
Mme. Vallieur sipped her tea. “I assure you, he’ll come to his senses soon, Ariadne. It’s difficult for him, but he’ll come around.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Aria whispered. Questions lingered at the back of her mind, but none more powerful than that one. Losing Philip as her friend forever was always too much; they knew each other for so many years.
“Grandmother Gigi!” Philip’s voice called through her store.
“He’s early,” Mme. Vallieur muttered before smiling at Aria’s confused expression. “Did you really think I would let this go on forever?”
“Back here, Philip,” Mme. Vallieur called.
When Philip stepped into the dining room and saw Ariadne sipping tea with his grandmother, he turned back.
“Don’t you dare take one step, Philip! Ariadne came here seeking my advice about how best to deal with you! Don’t you think you should talk about this? Don’t you think you both deserve to say what’s on your minds?”
Philip shook his head. “Grandmother Gigi, I know you’re trying to help, but I’m not a child anymore. If I wanted to say what was on my mind, I would have.”
Aria stood, squeezing Mme. Vallieur’s hand. “Thank you so much for tea. But I best be going now. I will ask Monsieur Andreu to send for what I can’t carry.”
“Aria,” Mme. Vallieur said at a loss for words, looking to Philip as if he could read her mind.
Aria could only carry one box, so she selected the one she knew Pierre would love the most. He would understand her side of the story, they would enjoy the play together and she would move on.
“Aria, wait,” Philip called from the front door. She had taken only a handful of steps. “I’ll walk with you.” She turned just in time to see Philip maneuvering a stack of the boxes through the doorway before Mme. Vallieur closed the door behind him.
“You don’t have to,” Aria said.
“We both know I do.”
With a shrug, Aria started down the street. She said nothing, enjoying the ambient sounds around them. For the first time in ages, a warm breeze blew through the valley, hinting at the spring to come. Their footsteps melded into the backdrop so completely, it felt—at least to Aria—as if nothing else existed here.
“Aria…I’m sorry,” Philip said.
Aria smiled and nodded. Philip knew her well enough to know she didn’t like apologies. Growing up in the Moulin Rouge, they often meant nothing. Aria loved speaking from the heart like in the few novels she’d been privy to.
Philip took a deep breath, blowing a tuft of hair from his eyes. “I shouldn’t have said you were taking the easy way out. I know that’s not true. But this whole thing is difficult for me.”
Aria stole a sidelong glance at Philip. “Why is that?”
“Because…when I look at you, I see the little girl who lost her first tooth because I elbowed her in the mouth wrestling. I see the little girl who held me on the roof for hours after my mother passed away. I see the maid sneaking into the courtesans’ rooms to exchange pots of tea with her eyes closed to preserve her innocence.”
Ah, yes, those old, modest days before she knew what life had in store for her. The days in which she could enjoy Sunday tea with Philip at the bakery without fuss. The days they could sneak away to the roof to indulge in the fantasies not even the courtesans could. She loved those days. If only they could go back.
“We have always been together—in some capacity—since you were born until just this past year and…” If Philip had an arm free, he’d have rubbed the back of his neck.
“And?” Aria said, encouraging whatever thought was next.
Aria stopped walking, watching Philip carry on a few more yards before stopping himself. He turned only enough to look back at her. “Why are you afraid?”
You know why…
“Does it matter?” Philip gestured with his head to continue. “Let’s keep walking. These boxes aren’t light.”
Aria frowned. “Will you tell me what you’re afraid of?”
“Spiders. Let’s go.”
“You know what I mean.”
“And you already know the answer. So, if you’re waiting for me to say it you’ll be out here a very long time.” Philip walked again.
Aria hurried to catch up, slowing only when they walked shoulder-to-shoulder again.
“Are you afraid we won’t be friends anymore?” Aria mumbled.
“No,” Philip said.
“Are you afraid I’ll leave you behind at the Moulin Rouge like others have?”
“No. I could leave if I wanted.”
“Then why don’t you?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him smile. “Where else would I go? Grandmother would never let me move far, carpentry work without a real apprenticeship is impossible to find, and I lack the funds to travel.”
“But you said—”
“I could if I wanted to. I’d be on the streets, or at Grandmother’s house, but I could. Technically.”
“So, then what are you afraid of?”
Philip shifted the boxes in his arms to flex his wrists, one at a time. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
They walked the rest of the four mile journey in relative silence. The ambiance Aria found charming when they left Mme. Vallieur’s home wore off a mile ago. She didn’t like the silence. It held the unspoken words Aria was unlikely to hear from Philip’s lips. Likewise, she supposed, there had been things on her mind she hadn’t bothered to tell him.
“Philip?” She said.
“Yes?” Philip stopped walking when Aria stopped again. They could see the Moulin Rouge in the distance.
“I’m sorry.” Aria sighed. “I guess, when I made this arrangement, I didn’t want you to think less of me. Maybe some part of me thought I could regard this as my first real relationship instead of…instead of what it really is.”
They walked again towards the Moulin Rouge, navigating its winding corridors as naturally as breathing. “I could never think little of you. And, for what it’s worth, I would never think of you as just some night walker. That’s why it’s so hard to see you getting fancy dresses from Grandmother Gigi.” Philip set the boxes on her bed. The box Aria carried joined them. “To me, you will always be Aria, my childhood friend.”
Philip shifted his weight. “May I ask where you're...escorting him tonight? Or would that be improper?”
“I don’t mind. But,” Aria hesitated before adding, “wouldn’t that bother you?”
Philip didn’t answer immediately. His eyes fell to the floor contemplating his response. “It might. But I don’t care.”
For a moment, Aria and Philip shared a look as they waded into the new unknown. Even when they first learned what would be in store for Aria, they hadn’t known what to expect. Would she take new clients each night? Would she become a Mistress instead? Or would something else happen entirely? No sooner had they gained their bearings than they were lost again.
“We’re going to a play,” Aria said. “I don’t know what we’ll see, though; he’s only told me it’s Shakespearean.”
“I’ll bet something classier than what Zidler likes to show.”
Monsieur Zidler, in his quest to find more stable income for his business, was wont to have the women adapt many wonderful works to the brothel stage. It was from these plays that Aria learned of William Shakespeare’s works. And not just the plays, but the sonnets, too. She hadn’t been allowed to see the plays since, usually, they made up poorly written excuses for the women to undress, but that was part of the fun. How could they make Hamlet a love story instead of a tragedy? It’d become rather infamous, which drew others in. Aria had been introduced to Shakespeare when one of the writers of the show gifted her with Twelfth Night for her birthday.
“I hope so.” As Aria removed the first dress from its box to hang in the armoire, she said, “I know you’ll be working late and fairly early tomorrow morning, but would you like to meet on the roof tonight? I want to tell you about the play. You don’t—”
“I’d love to. So long as we’re not out too long; I don’t want you catching a cold.”
“I would appreciate that,” a man’s voice interrupted their conversation.
Aria and Philip both looked for the source standing in the doorway with a smile on his face. Philip, for a moment, looked as if he shouldn’t have spoken at all; like it wasn’t his place. Aria, for a moment, looked as if she shouldn’t be in her room alone with another man. But that moment passed when Pierre Andreu crossed the room and held his hand for Philip to shake.
“I apologize for interrupting. Pierre Andreu. You must be Philip. Aria’s told me about you.”
Philip shook Pierre’s hand. “Yes, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you as well.” Pierre seemed pleased, yet taken aback, by Philip’s manners. Not surprising to those born in the Moulin Rouge, for so many thought them ruffians, incapable of civility. Pierre crossed the last few steps toward Aria, kissing her cheek with a smile. “I’m glad you’re back safely. I started worrying when I first came by and you were gone.”
“When did you come by?” Aria said.
“Not too long ago, maybe two hours. I heard from Simone you’d gone to Madame Vallieur for your dresses.” Pierre reached a hand up to brush a stray lock from her face. “I would have arranged for them to be delivered.”
Aria smiled. “I know. But it gave us—Philip and I—a chance to talk. We needed it.”
For a moment, Pierre said nothing. He only gazed down at Aria until he slowly nodded. “Then I’m glad you could reconcile things.” He turned to Philip. “Thank you for being with her. I know the women aren’t always treated respectfully when they’re in the city.”
Philip nodded. “I know that better than anyone, Monsieur.” Aria and Philip shared a look for hardly a second before Philip spoke again. “It was nice to walk with you today,” he said. “Enjoy the play.”
Aria’s eyes followed her friend’s back until he was out of sight.
Pierre shut the door as Aria hung the first dress in the armoire. Mme Vallieur had impeccable taste when it came to fashion, which is what granted her so much business.
This first dress was satin periwinkle. When Mme Vallieur first put the fabric against her skin, Aria had been very insecure in the pairing. But the gentle color brought out the rich, vibrant hue of her sapphire eyes. The second dress reminded Aria of milk chocolate candies on Christmas morning. To Aria, it felt warm and luxurious and flawlessly flowed with her every step. It was her favorite dress, but it wasn’t the dress she thought Pierre would enjoy the most. The one she chose for this evening, the first real public outing with Pierre, shined in the light as it unfurled from its container. Regal, royal blue satin with a neckline she never envisioned wearing before. The modesty she relished within the Moulin Rouge would largely be dismissed tonight.
Pierre’s arms wrapped around Aria’s waist, bringing her away from the dress and back to the room. The kiss he planted on her neck made her breath hitch. A chuckle danced across her skin, sending a shiver down her spine.
“The dresses are beautiful, don’t you agree?” Pierre whispered.
“I do. Madame Vallieur is wonderful.” Aria whispered back as her eyes closed. Somehow, this closeness felt different, and she wasn’t sure why; Pierre always had such habits.
“Which one will you wear tonight?”
“This one,” Aria held the blue one a little higher, stepping out of his grasp. “Let me dress or we’ll be late. That wouldn’t do.” Aria disappeared behind her dressing screen.
“That wouldn’t do at all,” Pierre agreed.