Today’s Friday Flash Fics picture made me go in a spec-fic direction that I’d considered once or twice before, but apparently needed an image to work with to ground a character. She became Claire, and the story unfolded from her.
La Dame Rouge de France Triomphante
Le Musée de l’Unicité lay tucked within sight of the triple-peaked hill of Mt Royal, but left much to be desired from the outside. This was a conscious choice, of course, design as function. Few even realized they’d passed the building when they had done so every day of their adult lives on their way to and from the various businesses of one of the more important capital cities in the provinces that made up New France.
The windows were tall and narrow, and the glass old enough to cast everything inside in a permanent shade, impermeable even during the brightest days.
From the inside, the view was kinder, but the situation no less dire to the five who lived among the treasures of the Musée.
Claire woke to the sound of the Kauai O’o birds singing in the arboretum, as she did most mornings, and lay as still as she could for as long as she could, listening. It wasn’t a pretense she could manage for long. The lights in the room brightened slowly, shifting through patterns of deep reds to oranges to yellows—a false sunrise for a woman who hadn’t stood beneath the sun’s rays since…
Claire forced herself not to consider the mathematics, and rose, stretching. People would be watching—people were always watching—and she knew even the slightest facial expression might reveal more than she wished.
Her salle de bains was as richly decorated as her living space, and though the actual shower and toilet offered a hint of privacy, she knew from experience both areas were strictly timed, so she relieved herself and then stepped into the shower, slipping the nightgown from her shoulders and sliding it into the small slot where it would be taken away. Did they launder the nightdresses daily, or did they simply replace them?
In darker moments, part of her wondered if they were sold. It was the sort of thing le Musée would do to raise funds, she imagined.
She showered, luxuriating in the hot water and gleaning every possible moment of joy she could manage from this short time, and all too soon the pressure pulsed to let her know she had but a minute left. She rinsed off, dried herself with the towel hung on the rack inside the stall—it too went into the small slot thereafter—then pulled on the underclothes and robe she pulled from the opposing slot.
Styling her hair, applying her make-up, and dressing were habits of managing her time, as was the slow walk to the closet. It wasn’t as though she had choices inside. It was always the same for Claire. The red dress over the white frilled shirt, the red chapeau with the beadwork and lace, and the red gloves. It had been the height of fashion where and when Claire had been discovered to possess that most important quality of le Musée, and it was, she supposed, her uniform.
She eyed the bookcase once she was dressed, considering if she might have time for a few pages more from one of the books she’d brought up from the library—one of the few true pleasures of her life in le Musée was the library—but a glance at the grandfather clock disabused her of the notion. She moved to the heavy oak door of her living space, resting a single gloved hand on the doorknob, and waited.
The click of timed lock happened the moment the clock began to strike seven, and Claire, la Dame Rouge de France Triomphante, was released to have breakfast with the others.
“Good morning,” Abanoub said, nodding as Claire sat. He was always the most polite and deferential to her, but then, he had been the second brought to le Musée, and she and he had learned much of their circumstances together. Samuel merely offered her a tight smile, Zhou Li Xiu’s gaze remained fixed on her plate, and Amar had yet to arrive.
“Good morning, everyone,” Claire said, when Amar stepped through the door a moment later. He apologized for being last to the table—as he always did—and then sat in his position.
The sense of the air changing was the only clue they’d been isolated. There was nothing to see, of course, since anything that might lower the quality of the viewing would never do for le Musée’s clientele, but Claire knew the field was in place on an instinctual level, much the way the O’o birds knew to sing at dawn even when the sun wasn’t visible in a cold and cloudy Quebec sky. She was just as caged this very moment, though her bars were invisible and made of walls of hardened air around her chair and portion of the table.
She buttered a scone, and poured herself a cup of tea.
“You slept well?” Amar said to her. The lilt of his accent—Greek—had been such a pleasure to discover when she’d first met him. His clothes, too, seemed so very different to her. He’d been the third, after Abanoub, and it had been the three of them together for a long time before Zhou Li Xiu and Samuel’s arrival. She’d wondered if the two men would be the last two faces she’d ever see in the flesh.
Now she wondered if that count would remain at four.
“I did,” she said. “And you? Are you to delight us with another dream?”
Amar laughed, his handsome face filling with delight. “Unfortunately no dream last night that I can recall. It seems the latest book doesn’t inspire much of dreams. At least, not like its predecessor did.”
“I’m enjoying it,” she said. “On your recommendation, though I’ll admit the science leaves me most mystified.”
“I’ll try it next, then?” Zhou Li Xiu said, breaking her usual quiet.
“Of course,” Claire said. “I’ll let you know when I’ve finished.”
“What book are you reading now?” Abanoub asked. His taameya was half gone. He always ate so quickly.
“It is another discourse on physics,” Amar said. “But it’s by no means as entertainingly written as the last.”
“I think I preferred it when we were reading capers,” Samuel said, raising his coffee. “But I’ll not break the rules of our little book club because you’ve all decided to make me feel intellectually inferior.”
They shared a merry toast to that, and the conversation shifted to poetry and music for the rest of the meal.
It was, as always, a successful breakfast. It cheered Claire to no end when she saw the same pleased looks in the eyes of the others as they said their farewells until lunch, and went their separate ways. Claire’s schedule had her in the arboretum for the morning, so she slipped back to her chambers first, and found the book in question.
She liked the author quite a bit. Whoever this Stephen Hawking was, in whatever world he came from, he truly had a gift for explaining what should really be unexplainable, and Amar’s bookmarks—little braided strings he wove himself—were a delight to uncover among the pages.
So many of the books in their shared library had those strings now. Their book club—something she knew le Musée had capitalized upon among the clientele—was the thing she treasured most.
The O’o birds began to sing, and Claire opened her book to read. She found a string, and smiled. Six knots, three braids, three knots, two braids… the pattern of the string placeholder was, as always, beautiful.
Her eyes returned to the page.
At dinner, once Amar’s customary apology had been accepted by all graciously, Claire asked them all how their days had been, and Zhou Li Xiu described the painting she’d been working on, while Samuel tried to explain something musical he called “Acid Jazz” to little success. Abanoub had exercised—none of them particularly enjoyed having their turn in the gymnasium except Samuel, but Abanoub at least put a kind spin on it when he spoke of his time there when it was his turn—and Amar espoused on the joys of returning correspondence for le Musée’s clientele.
“I think my French is almost passable,” he said, which drew a round of laughter, since Amar’s French was anything but. The letters he wrote would be properly translated, of course, though they’d be no less an item of collection for their terrible grammar and bare level of comprehensibility.
Claire shifted in her chair, raised a hand to wipe her eye from the tears her laughter had birthed, and knocked her dessert fork to the floor.
“Oh, je m’excuse,” she said, sliding from her chair to crouch carefully down, napkin in hand. She picked up the fork, regained her seat, and took a moment to wipe the tines on her napkin before flicking the napkin loose again and covering her lap with it once more.
She saw Amar regarding her, and dipped her chin, allowing a faint blush to spread across her cheeks. The clientele would love that moment between them.
Her eyes still downcast, she looked to where she had knelt on the floor. The air where it met the wood flickered. It was barely noticeable, but it was there. Grains of salt, spilled from her napkin, skittered along the ground, charged by the curtain of hard air around her, as though animate in and of themselves.
Claire raised her gaze and smiled at Amar.
He raised his glass, and the table toasted.
Claire, la Dame Rouge de France Triomphante, rested her head on her pillow and closed her eyes. She missed her home. From what she’d seen, this place, this Montreal, was in some ways similar, but she knew it was not hers. No, Claire remembered her world. The accents, the scents, the flags—most especially the flags—and her dim view through the narrow windows of Le Musée had shown her flags that would never have flown in her world.
This place may have had a New France, but from the little she’d gleaned during her turns in the correspondence rooms answering highly redacted letters from clientele, this New France was but one of three countries on the continent. The other two did not bend the knee to France—something she could barely have imagined when she’d first arrived at Le Musée. La France était le monde, le monde était la France.
But not this world.
Her arrival. Eyes closed, breathing as evenly as she could, Claire allowed herself the briefest moment of incandescent rage. One moment she’d been walking in the market, the next she’d been here, doubled over, barely able to breathe, gasping and faint. There had been two men in the strange glass and mirrored room with her. They’d given her a glass of water, soothed her until she could breathe, and then helped her to an overstuffed chair. Their clothing and accents were odd to her ears—French, yes, but with a patois she couldn’t quite place.
“Where am I?” She was afraid. “Who are you?”
“In all the worlds,” they told her. “In every world there is, there is but one Claire Beaulieu.”
“You are unique,” one of the men had declared.
“You are a treasure,” the other agreed.
She didn’t understand then. Certainly not the notion of quantum refraction, or of piercing realities and plucking things that belonged to whole other worlds and bringing them over to this one. But she did grow to understand what they meant by uniqueness. In every world, in every history, in every way all the ways and all the times that possibly were unfolded? There was only one path that created her. The Claire Beaulieu who lived in one of the worlds where France ruled the globe existed only in her particular world. There was no other version of her, no Claire Beaulieu who had two daughters instead of two sons, say, or who was a doctor instead of a teacher. There was only her.
Unique. A treasure.
And treasures like her were to be kept in Le Musée de l’Unicité.
Eyes closed, breathing evenly, she worked the problem. How does an artifact liberate itself?
It begins with salt, of all things.
It is hard not to smile, but Claire has practice in schooling her features. She has been her for two years now, after all. She has learned the games le Musée is willing—and unwilling—to play. She must appear content, but curious. The combination is a fine line to walk.
Abanoub was a scientist on his world. His arrival was their first real chance, but even so, the knowledge Abanoub brought was nothing like the knowledge used to bring them here. Claire was willing to learn whatever she might need to learn, but how, when they didn’t even know the right questions to pose?
The library, of course. Not that they knew what they should possibly search for, but it was a place to begin. After all, the books in Le Musée de L’Unicité were the rarest of all. Books written by the most brilliant writers in all the worlds, copies that existed in a handful of realities at best, or in some truly valuable cases only one.
It was Samuel who suggested they start a book club, and it took two of his choices—what Claire had considered silly fictions at first—to realize the theme presented in both narratives was one of escape. And Zhou Li Xiu’s paintings, brilliant abstracts divided into fields of colour and form one might never consider anything but beautiful if one didn’t have the right key. Keys Amar, a mathematician, braided in string and left in the books they all passed to each other.
They gave each other lessons in language, shared amusement at each other’s mistranslations of Greek or Mandarin, English or French, and took note of the “wrong” words in the right patterns. They discuss their “dreams.” They speak inside speech. They shared books with surprising knowledge about particles, then mentioned foods they enjoyed, and took turns gazing at Zhou Li Xiu’s latest painting, where—if you knew how to look and where to look—it was clear that something as small as crystals of salt were passing through a painted curtain.
Salt. Salt could confound the fields that kept them on their schedules, kept them in their chairs for meals, kept them in their rooms at night.
It was only the first obstacle. It was barely even a first step.
But that night, eyes closed, Claire allowed the barest smile to touch her lips, and slept and dreamed of France.