"You know there's more to it than that! What will she do when I'm gone? When 'you' are gone? You're not infallible, especially now that—"
There was a loud sigh. Some crying and the distinct rustling of fabric. I retreated to clutch the bedposts. My head bowed, my feet purpling gray, as they always were when the waves of dizziness were at their strongest.
No matter what my mother said, no matter how much I wanted her to see me and not just my weaknesses, she wouldn't take fencing from me. I'd heard it all before. How a girl didn't need to learn the proper way to hold the grip of a sword, didn't need to learn the angle at which her arm should tuck into her side as she prepared for the onslaught of her opponent's attack. Girls did not need to know these things—especially not sick girls.
Until tonight, Papa's response had always been a shake of his head. That wasn't who I was, he explained. "She is Tania," he liked to say. It irked my mother to no end. "She is Tania."
Tania, the daughter who should have been a son, the daughter who should have carried on her father's legacy. But no one would want a sick girl for his bride. Even if she was a Musketeer's daughter.
Six Months Later
"See her, resting against the wall? Comme une invalide, non?"
I lifted my chin, palm against the stone storefront. The girls had been visible from far away, their dresses blotches of color against the cobbled street. I fought against the heat rising in my cheeks, fought against the anger and ripening embarrassment, and smiled a sickly sweet smile. "Geri! What a pleasant surprise."
Three or four girls I'd known as a child broke off from the group, left Marguerite and the rest behind. I knew their type. Uncomfortable, but only up to a point. Not enough to step in.
Marguerite's eyes flashed briefly, something pained and fragile in the irises. I was the one who'd given her the nickname. Back when we ruled over fields of sunflowers, ran through the outskirts of town, accidentally braided each other's hair into knots so fierce that our mothers had to cut them out...But the look was gone with a curl of her lip—she'd learned that from the other villagers. There was a proper way to examine pauvre Tania. A proper way to tilt your head and let your gaze travel down the bridge of your nose.
"We've been over this. I prefer my true name, Marguerite. Geri is the name of a child." She sniffed, smoothed her skirt's pleats, then, scowling, picked an imaginary piece of dirt off the green fabric. She must have bought the gown on her sixteenth birthday, during her visit to Paris, the trip she'd crowed about in the village square. It was too fine to have come from Lupiac.
We used to celebrate birthdays together. Ours were a mere few days apart. One year our families traveled to a lake and we stood on the freckled sand and felt the cold water nipping at our ankles and looked out at the incredible vastness of it all, this wide world we were growing into. But that ended four years ago when everything changed. At twelve, Marguerite let me go, because someone who was forced to spend all her time in the shade, someone who was forced to shadow her anxious mother...well, that someone wasn't much fun at all. Papa had wanted to pay Marguerite's parents a visit, tell them what he thought of their daughter's betrayal. But my mother insisted he'd only make things worse. What could he say, what could he do, that my body wouldn't disavow time and time again?
My thoughts came sharper, harder. I grasped at them like broken threads. Marguerite's figure blurred. I clenched my toes together, a trick I'd learned by chance to help combat the dizziness and clear my vision. "As engaging as this conversation is, I must be going," I said.
She clucked her tongue. "Busy? You?" She glanced at my basket full of purpling wildflowers. "Pretty. Such a shame you have no one to give them to."
"Not like she ever will," another girl added. "She doesn't even 'talk' to any boys, let alone know one who'd want to 'marry' her."
I sucked in a pained breath, pressed the basket closer to conceal it; the wicker scratched at my dress. I wasn't alone. I had Papa. Maman.
But I had no biting retort. Feelings were difficult to hide, especially when it came to emotions so close to my skin. To my body and how it failed me. To the prospect of life extending after my parents were gone, life without acceptance of who I was, life without anyone who cared for me not despite the dizziness, not because of the dizziness, but just cared, fully. Was it really too much to hope for someone who looked at me and saw me, and me alone?
Marguerite smirked. "I'm off to my fitting. What a scandal it would be to wear gowns from last season's trip to Paris!" There was a hint of something in the last sentence, as if she was aware of the ridiculousness of the words, of the sentiment. Or maybe I imagined it because I so desperately wanted it to be true.