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A Brace of Snakes

Chapter Text

She doesn’t like the Duc d’Orléans. 


That’s the one thing she knows when Hébert drags her into the little building that, on the surface, doesn’t look any different from the hundreds of others that jut out into the Paris streets.


Not that she liked him before, at his party. He’d been just one more aristocrat then, enjoying himself, dancing and eating and drinking while Paris was racked with hunger pangs. (God, if she never saw one more piece of cake, it would be too soon. That was why she’d given it all away. She didn’t want it, anyway.) 


For a second, she’d almost thought he would help. 


When she was back on the street, bag filled with cake that was more icing than anything meant to fill a howling stomach, she’d turned and caught him watching her from the balcony, the night air faint and chilled between them. 


Pale moonlight spilled over them, catching onto his silver coat as they looked at one another, analyzing, observing, waiting. She half expected him to order her out again, but instead his hand slid against the marble rails while dozens of dancers floated and fell on the other side of the window, all of them bathed in gold and shimmering from the light of the crystal chandeliers that hung down from the walls. 


For a second, they were the only living things there, in the world, and she’d wondered. Hell, even if he wouldn’t help, if he at least wanted what most aristocratic men wanted when they looked at women like her. 


Then, he’d turned his back, the door clicked shut again, and one more golden figure joined the others. 


A hundred people in a ballroom, and not a single conscience to be found. A lot of bodies, each more gleaming than the last, with L'Autrichienne outshining all of them, but not a single soul to be found. 


At the printing shop, it’s different. Brilliant chandeliers that drip diamonds from golden arms are replaced by dimmed lanterns and papers, the ink still wet, hung onto lines to dry. The large glass door is replaced with one of a cheap wood that could use a bit of oil. The heavy perfumes of hundreds of courtiers all trying to outdo one another is replaced by the subtler smell of freshly printed ink and grease and tallow wax. The Duc’s white wig has been changed for his natural hair, which hangs down his back, long and dark, laying somewhere between brown and black. (It’s better, she thinks, not so artificial. Not so neat and clean.)


But, no matter what, he still acts like a king, gesturing grandly as they come in, a broad smile on his face as if they’re guests that he’s been waiting for all day. As soon as he does, Hébert shifts. The little attempts to touch her, the “slips” where his hand went from her lower shoulder to her waist, they all disappear, all his attention locked on the man who stands on top of the stairwell.


For the first time in her life, she’s grateful to see the smug bastard. He’s good for getting Hébert off her tail, at least.  


“Ah, Hébert, I see that you’re back. And this is…”

Margrid steps forward and opens her mouth, ready to remind him who he’d brushed aside as one more face in the crowd, but he fills it in himself, raising a finger, dark eyes, warm on the surface but with something sharp beneath them, something she can’t place, looking into hers. “Margrid Arnaud, is it? We’ve met before. At my ball on June...7, I believe it was.” 


She’s able to speak through her shock. “You wanted to throw me out.” 


“A necessity, unfortunately, given the company of the time. My apologies.” 


It isn’t a real apology, she knows that. It’s a courtesy , the kind that come as easy to men like him as air, the kind that they’d taught her at convent school along with her prayers and her letters (of the three of them, only the last one remained.) But it’s better than nothing, she guesses. It’s better than a glass of champagne that’s all bubbles with nothing to quench her parched mouth. It’s better than stolen bread and a bayonet pointed at her back for the effort. 


“Hébert said something about a job.” 


He smiles, and she knows that he’s playing with her, teasing the real answer out. “You’ll have to be more specific. There are a number of jobs I’m hiring for at any period of time.” 


For her part, she has no time for games. 


“For L'Autrichienne .”    


“That depends entirely on the material in question, of course.” 

Hébert nudges the red book towards him and he takes it. His eyes scan over the handwriting, with all its loops and flourishes, and Hébert fidgets in place. At one part, a laugh springs to the Duc’s mouth. “Well done.” And then all his attention is on Margrid again. “And your part?” 


“I can put them to music and sing them in the streets,” Margrid says.


“She’s very good.” She doesn’t know why Hébert bothers to add it; Orléans doesn’t spare a glance his way. 


“And in exchange?”


“Two Louis d’eor per pamphlet, with me taking half the cut.” 


Hébert makes a sort of muffled scream. “Careful not-” 


Orléans raises a brow, voice raising slightly in disbelief. “Per pamphlet?” 

“What? You want Madame Deficit exposed, I want to eat.” 


Hébert’s mouth hangs open, like one of the fish that hung out in the marketplace, shaking his head. “Monsieur de Duc, I’m sure that she doesn’t-” 


Orléans leans over on the table, a smile, not the broad smile from before, but something small and disbelieving, is barely held up by the muscles on his mouth, playing on his face, his voice deceptively soothing. “You’re in no position to be negotiating here.”

She mimics his motion, meeting him eye to eye across the table. She wonders how often people have tried it with him. Whether anyone’s ever thought to negotiate or just took whatever he offered. If nothing else, she’s going to give him a shock for once in his pampered aristocratic life. “And yet here I am.” 


He keeps the serene smile on his face. “2 écus.” 


“I’ll cut you some slack. One Louis d’eor.”  


The resulting chuckle is deep and full, not mocking, but one born from sheer surprise that a woman of the lower class has the audacity to have a spine (Didn’t they know? It was mandated by law that they had it removed by the age of ten). “You seem to be forgetting that I am hiring you .” He sobers, ”This is a good offer. There are a thousand more in the city who would take it in a second.” 


She finds herself smiling, feeling perfectly at home here, the rush of the bargain flowing through her. “And if you didn’t want me here, you would’ve told me to walk and hired one of them instead. You need me for something, and you’re willing to negotiate for it.” 


“Margrid, I think--” But whatever Hébert’s saying doesn’t matter, it’s just background noise, like the distant shouting of vendors outside the door or the barking of dogs. Something else has her focus now, and she’s going to be damn sure she gets it. 


It’s like they’re on the balcony again. Or they’re together in the ballroom again, but there’s no one else, no Marie Antoinette, no guards, no courtiers, no champagne, just the two of them going head against head and brain against brain. 


But this time, she’s not going to be leaving with an empty satchel. 


She’s spent a long time bargaining, begging, scrabbling for what she can get, fighting tooth and nail down to the denier if she had to. She knows money better than any aristocrat because she’s never had it. And she knows when someone needs her more than she needs him. A man like Orléans wouldn’t have kept her on for a minute more than necessary if he thought there wasn’t something to what she was saying. She has him, has had him for a while now, but it’s just how long he wants to draw it out.  


He spreads out his hands beatifically, as blamelessly and innocently as one of the marble saints that Agnés had made her memorize the names of years ago. “My natural sense of charity. I’ve always had a weakness in my heart for those who didn’t grow up with the advantages that I did, simply due to an accident of birth.” 


“I don’t need charity. I need a steady wage and food in my stomach, you want everyone to know what the old sow who calls herself a queen is. I know the streets and the people in them, you have the money. You hand it over and I’ll make sure that there’s no one in Paris who hasn’t heard of the latest pamphlet.” 


He doesn’t respond, so she adds, turning as if she intends to leave even as she doesn’t look away from him. “Unless it’s not important enough to you.” 


This time, his smile reaches his eyes, small lines appearing at the corners, and she thinks that there’s even a faint glimmer of pride there. “Very well, one Louis d’eor per pamphlet. Hébert,” he pats the man’s shoulder as he walks by, Hébert stock-still and wide-eyed, like a gargoyle in winter. “You could learn a few things from her.” 


The other workers quickly turn back to their work as he strides over to her, the picture of confidence, extending a jewelled hand as he gives a nod that slants as it goes downward. “Welcome. I look forward to seeing your results.”


She’s suddenly very aware of how much taller he is than her, feeling herself pulled into his gravity. She has to crane her head upwards to shake his hand. 


Her palm, calloused and broken before it had even stopped growing, meets and wraps around his own hand, impeccably smooth, not blemished by so much as a single day of hard work, and where they come in contact, there’s a burning that seems to move from the center of her palm down to her legs and toes. “I’m glad to be here.”


She still doesn’t like him, or at least that’s what she tells herself as the handshake goes first one second, then two, then three longer than usual before she remembers to pull herself away. But they’re on the same side now, and if she can break the L'Autrichienne ’s pride and fill her stomach while she’s at it, she can’t refuse. 


Later, she holds the first real bit of money in her hand that she’s ever held in 28 years of life, watching the gold gleam in the moonlight despite herself (too easy, there has to be something wrong), still feeling the lingering burn of his hand on hers. 


She wonders if it’s the same for him, if he’s sitting somewhere on a silk bed, his hand flexing around a touch that isn’t there, or if this is just what it feels like to make a deal with the Devil. 


Maybe she has, but if so, she doesn’t care. 


If Heaven’s not going to do anything, might as well see what the other side can do. She doesn’t care if that means that, when she reaches the afterlife and stretches her hands out to Saint Peter, all he’ll see is the Duc d’Orleans’ handprint burned against hers. 


Still, she blames that for why, that night, her last in the gutter before she can rent out a decent apartment, she dreams of glittering eyes and flames that burn but don’t engulf her. 


Chapter Text

She still doesn’t like him. Not really. 


She needs him, and more importantly the money that he gives out, but she doesn’t like him. The world needs cockroaches, rats, and dung beetles; it doesn’t mean she has to feel any warmth towards them for it (and God himself couldn’t save any cockroach that shows up in her house from the swift and steady wrath of her shoe, thrown with a precision she’s honed over the years.)


 He’s a smug, arrogant, self-important aristocrat who’s too smooth to be trusted farther than she can throw him. 


What was the word Agnés would have used for that?


 It’s been so long, she can’t remember. She tries to pull it out of her mind, sifting through years of memories that have been neatly packed away like puzzle-boxes that just require the right combination to let her in. 






Unctual? Is that it? That doesn’t sound right. 


(It doesn’t matter anyway, she’ll figure it out later, when she’s not looking for it. It’s how it usually is. Not that it matters anyway, not really. None of that does. She learned how to read and write, that was the most important thing she picked up from that time, and then she was kicked into the streets like a stray dog when she didn’t suit them, and that was her first lesson in charity . The rest is all smoke as far as she’s concerned.) 


Despite him being a bastard, there’s only one problem: The man’s pretty much the first person in years who she can have a halfway decent conversation with. 


“I believe it’s your move,” he says from across the makeshift chess board they’ve laid out in the printing shop. It’s long since deserted now, save for the two of them.


 Sometime in one of their little war talks, the conversation had turned to chess (one of the metaphors in Hébert’s poems or...something, she doesn’t really remember), that had turned into whether or not Margrid knew how to play, that had turned into her challenging him to a match to see for himself, that had led to a smile and an easy acceptance, that had led to a difficult but deeply satisfying victory for her, that had led to a rematch, that had led to another rematch.


The workers were smart, they’d hastily made their way out of there as soon as their time was up, leaving behind the heavy smell of stale ale in their absence that continues to linger in the air. Hébert tried to stay on for longer, watching the two of them suspiciously from the corner where he chose to sulk, the sharp scratch of a pen gliding across his notebook sometimes punctuating their early matches. (Hey, if he hated the two of them playing so much, he could have offered up a game. She could beat him as easily as anyone else.) Soon enough, though, he’d fallen asleep, his mouth falling open. From where she sits, Margrid thinks she can even make out a damp, dark spot on his coat.


 If she was a worse person than she is, she’d take advantage of it. 


Alright, that’s a lie: She is a worse person, and any other time, Hébert would be sporting a nice, new ink moustache, but she’s too distracted by the game to bother. 


Orléans has won the last two games and he’s getting overconfident, a lazy smirk that disguises itself as a light smile on his face as he slides a bishop to defend the king. If she loses this match, she’ll never be able to live it down. Even if he doesn’t say anything (because of course that would be ungracious , for such an important man), it will always be there, lingering. 


She’s always had a competitive streak, the nuns used to say it was one of her major flaws (her deadly sins , as they would say, wrath and pride, though she didn’t think herself much prouder than them, especially since she didn’t dictate their flaws to them), and it’s no different now than it was then. Maybe it’s even slightly worse now, given how often she’s been brushed aside, her victories all the dearer. 


“Unless, of course, you want to withdraw.” 


She wonders what’s going on in that mind of his, what he’s anticipating for her to do, what he’s going to do in return, trying to press through the easy smile and the amused light in his eyes to figure out what’s working beneath the surface.


She barely looks up to glare at him. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”  


He’s moved a pawn away from the queen. What does that give him? Orléans doesn’t make moves for nothing, even if it seems like he does. Everything’s building up to something, he’s thinking at least three steps ahead, so what does that move give him? He won’t move his king, his queen can’t do anything, but it leaves a spot wide open for his left bishop to try to pin her right knight.


  That’s what he’s doing.


Her hand moves between several pieces, knights, bishop, queens, and pawns alike as she pretends to agonize over it more, even if she’s resisting the urge to grin. Oh, he’s going to lose that smirk soon. Finally, taking her left knight, she develops off to the side. “Your move.” 


He almost gives a pitying shrug when he moves into the pin, and there’s that gleam in his eye, the one that she’s learned so well. “What, and deprive myself of an entertaining match?”


In return, she moves her rook’s pawn to counter it as soon as his hand’s off the board, the movement coming so quickly that her palm skims the top of his hand, and she jolts away at the shock. It’s like the feeling that sometimes comes from touching a piece of metal, particularly in the winter months, that sudden spark that connects at the tips of her fingers, lingering afterwards. She brushes it off as a part of the energy of the match. She’d moved quickly, he’d moved quickly, they were both tightly wound. Her hands are just reacting to the unexpected as best as they can.


 It doesn’t mean anything. 


He can try to capture her knight, but he’s going to lose the bishop one way or another. He’s gone from pinning her down to being caught in a pin himself, and he’s going to have to think about where he wants to go now, what he’s willing to risk. 


He pulls back several squares, and she allows herself to echo his smirk from earlier, sliding the knight he was going to pin to take a pawn, proudly holding the small piece in her hand before letting it join the small pile off to the side, almost an exact replica of the pile that Orléans has. He doesn’t hesitate to make the move to take her queen, probably galled by his recent small loss. 


 “A strange move,” he says, raising his eyes so that they’re level with hers, “You saved a knight, but lost your queen.” 




She pretends to consider the next part, biting her lip as she catches his glance, her eyes flicking between him and the board. 


“I’ve never cared much for queens.” 


She moves her bishop into the space diagonal to the king. 




He chuckles, but then as he looks onto the board, he sobers as he realizes that, between the bishop and the knight, any move he makes will ensure a checkmate. She only has three white pieces on his side of the board, but she has the game nonetheless. He moves his king up a square, the only move he has left, but as he does so, there’s none of the confidence from before. He leans back in the chair, palms folded against where one leg crosses over the other. 


He knows that he’s lost, he’s just curious about what she’s going to do next, how she’s going to seal her victory. 


Her other knight comes up from behind, the two knights side by side on the board, perfectly in a position to checkmate. Now, there really is no move that he can make. 




He claps his hands, and there’s no sign of bitterness in it. “Well done.” She’s surprised at how proud she is. 


It isn’t the compliment, she tells herself, or knowing that she’s impressed him. She doesn’t need that from him. She doesn’t need anyone’s approval, much less his. It’s knowing that he knows she can beat him. That beggar that crawled into his party once, the one he tried to pass off as charity can beat him at his own game.


She finds herself resetting the board, already imagining what he might try next time around, how she can meet and match him, her mind swimming with possibilities that she can’t wait to work out. “Another round?” 


He shakes his head, chuckling as he raises a hand, the fading light of the lamps catching on the rings that hang off his finger, particularly the one with the large black stone in the center. 


She’s found herself eyeing them, in the past. Some days, her mind scrambles to calculate how much each ring would bring her if she pawned them, how much bread, how many scraps of cloth to cover herself in the winter a little gold and a few stones could bring her. How easily he’s able to wear them regardless. 


Some days, she thinks of the contrast between how casual he is here, where he can freely extend that hand to her and pretend they have a common goal, how easily he can use those same fingers to end someone’s life regardless. One gesture, that’s all it would take, a few scratches of a quill. 


Some days, she wonders what it would be like to have that kind of power herself, to not be subject to anyone, to be respected and feared just because of who her parents are and because of who their parents were. What it would be like to not be someone to be abandoned and ignored and kicked at by everyone but those who needed her. (It’s been nice, now that she’s singing Hébert’s songs in the street. People recognize her, even those who she’s never stuck her neck out for. People listen to her.)


Some days...she doesn’t want to think about it. No time. No point.


 “Unfortunately, it’s late, I’ll have to be going.”

She’s surprised to realize that she’s disappointed. She really had been enjoying trouncing him. 


Confused, she looks outside, only to see that it’s pitch black outside. She hadn’t realized that it’d gotten so late; it hadn’t seemed like it. One minute, they’d started it, and it was still broad daylight outside, with all the sounds of Paris to accompany them, the next, it’s total darkness, the distant sounds of the church bells indicating that it’s well past midnight. How’d they even pass the time? 


Trying to shrug it off, succeeding for the most part, Margrid looks around, at Hébert still laying in the corner, loud snores erupting from his chest while, discarded at his side, his journal, pen, and inkwell sit harmlessly. 


Seeing a golden opportunity, she looks around before creeping over, dipping her finger in the cool, black ink. Orléans watches, but says nothing. What? It’s not like she’s going to miss a chance like this.


 Who did he think she was


An ear to ear grin spreads across her face as she runs the ink-dipped finger along from his mouth to his cheek, making sure to add a dramatic swirl at the end. 


Hébert shifts, murmuring something unintelligible. It’s all she can do not to swear. Of course, it’s her luck that he’s going to wake up now . Regardless of how loud she and Orléans were the entire time they were playing chess, he has to wake up when she needs him not to. They could have had an entire choir in there, belting out as loudly as they could in hopes that it might reach God, and it wouldn’t have made a difference, so long as she didn’t need him to stay asleep. 


She freezes, looking to Orléans, who’s still standing there, perfectly at ease. He only gives an amused shrug, causing her to glare in response. He only smiles benignly. Then, Hébert stills again, giving her all the opportunity she needs to run a matching line down the other side, complete with swirl. 


She steps back to admire her masterpiece. 


“What do you think?” She nudges Orléans.


A deep chuckle before he leans next to her. “If I’m asked about this, I knew absolutely nothing.” 


“Of course; you left about an hour ago. I was just tidying up the place.”


He pats her shoulder lightly, and she doesn’t throw him off. It’s a thing she’s noticed with him, the touching. Never hard, never something that would get someone else punched, shoved, kicked, or bitten, never pressing, but there, at her back or her shoulders whenever he wants to make a point. “Good work.”


“I think it still needs something, though.” Pretending to be deep in thought, she touches her finger to her chin, watching for Orlèans’ response. 


It’s probably risking too much, too soon, but she’s never gotten anything by holding back demurely, either. And she likes having him on his toes, likes watching his face as he tries to figure out what she’s planning next beneath that nonchalant veneer. It’s not chess, but it’s fun anyway. 


Maybe that’s why he likes to seem so innocent and unassuming, now that she thinks about it. It keeps people guessing. 




She walks over to Hébert, still keeping eye contact with Orléans, who’s watching her. He’s all confidence as always, but underneath, there’s some hesitation as he waits for what she’s going to do. You run into a ballroom and toss champagne on the Queen’s face one time, and then that’s all people think about. 


Then, she dips a second finger into the inkwell and draws two fingers down Hébert’s chin, turning to Orléans to see his reaction as he strokes his own goatee. 


“I would almost think that you were mocking me.” 


“Mocking you? Why would I do that? I keep all that for L’Autrichienne .” 


“Hm, and I suppose that I pay you so that you can perform arias in the street.”  


“Didn’t you know? It’s all the people want to hear these days.” She holds a hand across her heart, “Don’t forget adding recipes to Pére Duchesne for all the poor mothers who don’t know what to feed their children.” 


His hand snakes along her shoulder again. “Your devotion is, as always, admirable.” Then, he leans down, “Most people would give a second or third thought to mocking their employer to his face.”


She crosses her arms over her chest, leaning closer to him, so that they’re at matching angles to each other. “I’ve made it this long without you getting rid of me, haven’t I?”

He gives a brief chuckle and makes to leave, grabbing his cane, which is laying up against the table, the raven’s head glowing golden in the candelight. 


She doesn’t know what inspires her to speak up again. Maybe the night’s loosened her inhibitions like an old wine, maybe her recent victories have gotten the better of her, maybe she knows that he’s in a good enough mood despite his losses to tell her, maybe it’s the ghost of his hand across her shoulder. But, well, who dares wins. It’s been a motto of hers for years now. ( Qui audet adipiscitur , one of the only bits of Latin that she remembers after all these years, though she’s not sure that Agnés would be proud of her for that phrase to be the one to survive of all the rest.) 


“Tell me one thing.” 




“Why did you take me on, anyway? You had to know what you were getting.” 


He stills, and for a long time, he says nothing. No little touches, no flattery. Just stillness and silence and a pair of eyes that she’d never taken the time to notice were blue before, piercing into hers.




He taps the cane against his hand as he looks at her. “I thought that someone willing to toss a glass of champagne at the Queen of France would be well worth knowing.”


“What do you think now?” 


There’s that chuckle again, and then he’s back to his old self, taking her hand in his, running his thumb along her palm despite the ink. “I don’t know yet.”


Then, he looks at her again, his smile turning slightly bitter as he clasps her hands once more before releasing them. “Good night, Margrid Arnaud.”


It isn’t until he’s left that she remembers the word that Agnés taught her so many years ago, blood still pounding in her ears.


Unctuous, that’s it.

Chapter Text

She still doesn’t like him, despite their previous...thing. 


There aren’t really any words she has for it. “Moonlit chess games with the boss?” It’s not like she’s really been in this situation before. Hell, she’s never even had a steady job before. Either way, it’s not that it changes anything. 


Louis-Philippe Joseph d’Orléans is an aristocrat, the same as any other. There might be a few good moments in there, he’s helping them at the moment, he can be...nice, but she doesn’t like him, and she’s never going to trust him. Trusting him means giving him the power to hurt her, and she’s learned from her mother’s lessons. She hasn’t trusted anyone since her convent school days, she’s never gotten hurt by them letting her down. Especially not an aristocrat. Especially not an aristocratic man


That doesn’t stop her from noticing when he doesn’t come in, though. 


At first, she doesn’t even notice that’s he’s not there . It just feels different in the printing shop. It’s like there’s an empty space where there should be a flurry of energy. The workers talk among themselves, filling the air with filthy stories, details of family life (that might as well be people from the moon telling about their day to day lives, as far as she can understand it), swapping wineskins back and forth as the air fills with the usual clammer of the place, but there’s something gone


It isn’t until she steps forward and expects to find his hand on her shoulder or upper back that she realizes that he’s gone. No sauntering down the spiral staircase like he owns the place - Shit, like he owns the world, no familiar pressure on her arm, no disconcertingly cheerful voice asking her about how well she did (which rankles at her in the mornings, when she wonders how he’s able to find the energy ), nothing. It’s just a printing shop with people shuffling around in it. 


It’s the first time in a long time that she’s found herself missing anyone, and she doesn’t know what to do with it.


“So, the Boss gone?” It’s strange, how hard it is to appear normal. It shouldn’t be important. Orléans is gone, it’s not a surprise. Shouldn’t be, at any rate. 


From where he’s reclining in the corner, Hébert shuts his journal with a loud “thump,” gesturing at her with his pen as if it was a finger, splattering ink across the floor. 


“Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans’ too high and mighty to stay with us all the time. He’s probably at the theatre with one of his drabs or hunting. I’ve heard Grace Elliot’s the flavor of the day. Brought her all the way from London. I suppose he’s a lover of all things English, huh? Personally, I don’t see the thing; it’s all the same regardless of where it comes from. Anyway, he’s making us do all the heavy work while he comes in to take the credit. But, that’s an aristocrat for you. They oil the wheel, we make it turn.” 


Fucking nobles .  


Really, he’s doing her a favor. She doesn’t have to put up with him. She doesn’t know why she’s mad. She doesn’t want him there, she doesn’t like him . He can spend all the time he wants with Grace...whoever she is that he wants. 


He stands up and walks over to her. “So, how’d you do today?” 


She turns her head away, not meeting his eyes. She doesn’t know why, it’s not like she has anything to hide . But there’s something uncomfortable about the whole thing, about eye contact, always has been, and she just wants to get this over with as soon as possible. “I did well. Sold out all the pamphlets. You can see for yourself.” 


She flips open her knapsack, showing the empty space for a moment before closing it again. 


He moves closer, not touching her, not really even getting in her way, but...too close. “Ah, good work! I was right to get you for the job!” 


A hint of irritation courses through her. She knows it’s good work, and it isn’t like he’d had anything to do with the final say in her getting the job. He’d told her it was available, and then it’d just been her, Orléans, and a negotiating table. Whatever came after that had all been her.


She pushes him away. Arm distance or more, that’s the boundary. Arm distance or more. “I got it on my own.”  


“Hey, hey, no need to be a bitch about it. You wouldn’t have known about the job if it wasn’t for me.”  


“You don’t get too close, I won’t push you away, we’re square.”


“One day,” Hébert says, waving his finger in front of her, too close to her face for comfort. “You’ll be more grateful for me.” 


She rolls her eyes as she walks away. “That day’s still a long way off, Hébert.”                                                                              


The next day, as soon as she walks through the door, there’s the hand at her shoulder again, and she really, really struggles not to smile, even as Orléans flexes his hand out experimentally, unnoticeable by anyone except the two of them when she leans into him. 


It’s just nice to have everything back to normal. That’s all there is to it. There’s the printing shop, there’s the squeaky door, there’s Orléans greeting her at the door, and because he’s part of that normalcy, she doesn’t shove his hand off immediately. Simple. 


“Ah, Margrid! Hébert!”

“Boss,” she says, his arm still around her.    


“Did you enjoy yourself?” Hébert said.

“You would not believe it. The Montgolfier brothers allowed me to take part in a certain experiment with one of their paper balloons, this one oblong, similar in form to a cigar, launched from my chateau at St. Cloud. We’d scarcely fired it up before it began to ascend at a pace that not even they had anticipated, the chill of the air battering us. There we all were, a thousand feet in the air, and then…” 


She’s not sure how much of the story she listens to, realistically. She’s interested in this kind of thing, against her own better judgement, and so she tries to listen in, even if Orléans is more interested in the danger and the curiosity of it rather than facts and figures and calculations. For him, this is an adventure, one more thing to liven things up when a fancy ball won’t do it and his cousin won’t let him go to England. The science, the knowledge they could gain from it it’s a second thought. (It’s funny, the ones who want to learn can’t afford it and the ones who can afford it don’t want to learn.) 


More than that, though, she focuses on the enthusiasm in his voice, the thrill of the air still lingering there as he dramatically recounts when he had to tear a hole in the balloon with his walking stick while a bitter tempest battered them. 


No way she’d do it herself; she has enough risk on a day to day basis without tornadoes in the air and plummeting to almost certain doom but…


Just for a little while…

He could almost make her forget that . She’s still not sure if she wants to be in the clouds and gripping onto the sides of some huge thing being held up by paper, but she has to admit, he makes it sound very, very tempting, practicality and self preservation aside. (As much as they can be for her when she’s adhered to them for the last decade and a half just as diligently as she once had with her school books.) 


More than any of that, though, she focuses on his hand still against her back, warm and present, anchoring her to the reality that he’s back , and against her own will, there’s a certain contentment in that. 


“How did you do?” He asks when he’s done. (She’s fairly certain he spent more time talking about it than the 45 minutes he spent up in the air, but it’s hard to keep track of the time and, despite it being very, very Orléans , she’s not sure that she cares, the eye roll that it earns from her being less pointed than it would normally be.)

“Sold out all the pamphlets yesterday and all but two today.” 


“You’re doing good work, I’m impressed.”

She shrugs. “The people are curious. I simply know how to get it to them.”


Hébert splutters, and Orléans goes over to him to look at any new poems he’s come up with in the last couple of days, and Margrid finds herself smiling (only a little) at him stooped over near Hébert, mind fully engrossed in something else as they debate what can best be rhymed with "Cuckold."


He’s back on the ground, where her mind’s firmly positioned him, he’s there, and the little bit of normality she’s snatched for herself’s back. 


After all, if he’d died up in the air, who was going to keep paying her?